This is the second in a series of four posts recapping Imagining the Unimaginable: Ending Genocide in the 21st Century, a symposium held this morning at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. The event featured a keynote address by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, two panels, and a presentation of the results of a poll on public perceptions of mass atrocity prevention. This post summarizes the first panel, Over the Horizon: Global Trends Affecting Genocide.
The first panel, moderated by Washington Post reporter Dana Priest, was framed as a discussion of global trends that will likely be relevant to future incidences of mass atrocities. The discussion quickly coalesced around two specific trends: innovations in information technology on the (broadly) positive side, and resource scarcity on the negative side. Christopher Kojm, Chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council, largely reiterated Secretary Clinton’s points about potential contributions of modern information technology to atrocity prevention strategies. Kojm confirmed that the U.S. government views user-generated content as a potent tool: it can serve both as an early warning mechanism and as a source of situational awareness in areas where intelligence-gathering capacity is limited. He did acknowledge several ethical difficulties raised by the role of such technology in atrocity situations–most obviously, the challenge of verification, and the possibility of retaliation against vulnerable individuals who upload evidence of ongoing atrocities–but he generally shared Secretary Clinton’s optimism.
Peter Schwartz, Senior Vice President for Global Government Relations and Strategic Planning for Salesforce.com, was even more upbeat: he argued that “radical transparency almost always favors the individual,” and that the devolution of information technology from large centralized systems into easily-accessible individual platforms is a very positive development from this perspective.
On the resource question, Kojm stated that he views “the nexus of food, water, and energy” as the key risk factor in determining the prevalence of mass atrocities over the medium to long term. Specifically, he highlighted the instability and governance gaps that tend to arise in areas where resource stress is combined with continued population growth. Dr. Timothy Snyder, a historian at Yale University and the author of Bloodlands, took this point further in discussing his research on the long-term causes of the Holocaust. He argued persuasively that the Nazi regime’s expansionary and ultimately genocidal policies were to a large extent a response to “ecological panic,” specifically a fear of food shortages.
Looking to the future, he noted that the world may be approaching a new era of ecological panic, as climate change stresses food and freshwater supplies, and population and economic growth generates soaring demand for nonrenewable energy sources. Needless to say, the implications of this trend from an atrocity prevention perspective are quite dire. The upside of this argument is that technological progress, insofar as it mitigates resource shortages, may play a large and unacknowledged role in preventing mass violence; Snyder attributed the stability of postwar Europe to increases in food productivity, in light of which such panic-driven violence once again became “unthinkable.” Of course, “ecological panic” alone did not drive the Holocaust; Snyder readily acknowledged that other, more obvious factors such as the collapse of the rule of law also contributed to the outbreak of genocide. Consequently, he did not deny the importance of the policies that are most commonly cited by atrocity prevention advocates, such as state-building. However, he emphasized that the relevance of global resource and environmental policy to a long-term conflict and atrocity prevention agenda should not be understated.