Monday, November 14, 2011

Cosmopolitanism and Bioregionalism: Reflection on Contemporary Conflict Resolution

Hugh Miall, Oliver Ramsbotham, and Tom Woodhouse have produced a remarkable and thorough resource for reflective practitioners. Contemporary Conflict Resolution is an ambitious attempt to explore the history, practices, and critiques of the field. I felt compelled to read beyond the assigned chapters because of the multiplicity of important topics. Indeed, the volume is so broad and expansive that the task of reflecting on it is extremely daunting. Too many possible trails diverge in this dense wood.

Cosmopolitan conflict resolution is the central theme of the massive book (Ramsbotham, 2011, p. 265), the deepest level of which is conflict transformation (ibid, pp. 31-32). This well-articulated approach is based on cooperation (ibid, p. 20). However, the current global economic and political structures engender extreme competition, centralization, and stratification. Interestingly, the authors adamantly praise the United Nations as the pinnacle of cosmopolitan conflict resolution (ibid, pp. 273-4), which depends on the aforementioned structures (ibid, p. 272). The authors defend the United Nations from detractors throughout the book (ibid, p. 291), which is indeed admirable and appropriate at times. But they do so by propagating global citizenship in a world community (ibid, p. 396). This appears reasonable, but becomes problematic when cosmopolitanism remains comfortable with mere reform of the state system (ibid, p. 399).

Reform is certainly not a four-letter word, and is absolutely necessary at times, but many historians claim that state-making has served, not to protect people from violence as Hobbes would contend (ibid, pp. 95-96), but to organize for the purpose of war (Alexis-Baker, 2011). Rather than paving the way for the world community, nation-states disintegrated communities (ibid). Indeed, European peasants staged major rebellions, causing some of the most tumultuous periods in European history (Ramsbotham, 2011, p. 275), during the infancy of the nation-state when leaders introduced uniform language and currency over huge territories (Alexis-Baker, 2011).

The Occupy Wall Street movement is resisting similar trends within liberal democracy, in effect agreeing with the authors’ critique of the internal democratic peace theory (Ramsbotham, 2011, p. 280). Liberal democracies bifurcated the political and economic systems, in which the supposed equality of the former actually supports structural inequality in the latter (Myers, 1994, p. 294). Many Americans, even poor Americans, seem to have accepted this division and forfeited economic or political transformation because Horatio Algers’ bootstrap tales are still so prevalent.

The authors of this textbook have internalized another tale which believes that international law and human rights can be normalized in a convergence of state interests that will ultimately transform the current systems (Ramsbotham, 2011, p. 280). This strikes me as “an admittedly overoptimistic ‘long history of the state’ in terms of the development of international norms” (ibid, p. 275) and an extremely positivist view of historical progress (ibid, p. 267, 269), a view which has caused inestimable violence to the indigenous people of the West, to non-Westerners, and to women of all races (Caputo, 2006, p. 38). The UN did not prevent the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor have they ever effectively constrained Israel, who easily ignores UN resolutions without any fear of repercussion. Israel is an example of a rejection of the liberal cosmopolitan values and principles which the authors religiously endorse (ibid, p. 411), but the authors main example of rejection is Wahhabist Muslims who cannot accept liberal democracy because majority opinion might outvote the will of Allah (ibid, p. 411). The authors fear this rejection of cosmopolitanism, but is it fundamentally different from Israel’s stance or even from American conscientious objectors? Even if the majority votes for war, which they do through tax dollars and presidential votes, conscientious objectors reject majority opinion within a liberal democracy. The authors’ viewpoint thus orients them back to military force in order to impose liberal democratic cosmopolitan values (ibid, p. 327), even though just war criteria have never prevented any war. Is the role of the peacebuilder ultimately to control the flow of history? Could there be a difference between controlling and leavening?

Liberal human rights and international law are incredibly important references and tools, but they often seem shallow when compared to deep cultural reservoirs of human folly and wisdom (discussed in chapter fifteen). Certainly these reservoirs can be dangerous because of their endless interpretability. However, this is no less the case for the text of human rights, whose staunchest advocates think such rights are universal. But nothing cultural is really universal, which is why people spend so much time arguing for human rights, or rather evangelizing for them. I am not necessarily against ‘evangelism’ for justice and peacemaking, but I tend to think that interpretability is what gives texts their life, and I tend to think that universality emerges from the plurality of particularity, not from an indistinct uniformity. Part of the irony is that many peacebuilders insist on abstract formulations like “the family of nations” or “the world community” (ibid, p. 266, 396) and then also posit human rights as the basis for all relationships. But healthy families and communities are not centered on rights; they are centered on responsibility to other members. In a way, solely rights-based approaches can devalue communal interdependence by operating on individualistic assumptions: instead of active and responsible participation, we get de-personalized laws of non-infringement. Some have argued that such laws were actually designed to dismantle social groups into more manageable individuals (Alexis-Baker, 2011). Again, I am certainly not rejecting the significant tool of human rights, and they may be transitionally necessary in a world of global economics and nation-states. But I am suggesting that they may not be all-sufficient. In the end, stories are all we have.

No system will ever be perfect, but are we able to even imagine alternatives such as bioregionalism? Bioregionalism is a political, economic, and cultural way of life defined by ecological boundaries such as watersheds and soil types, rather than arbitrary state lines. We are members of specific communities within specific ecosystems, not of some amorphous world community. However, these specific communities are irrevocably connected to other specific communities and require participation and cooperation and therefore preventing devolution into tiny isolate enclaves. Bioregionalism thus takes very seriously “post-structural concerns for local participation and human diversity” (Ramsbotham, 2011, p. 267).

What might a cosmopolitan bioregionalism look like? The textbook authors are rightly committed to pluralism (ibid, p. 396-399), but for some reason think that global governance can deliver locally defined welfare for the most marginalized (ibid, p. 397). While perhaps possible, the authors don’t adequately explain how global governance, presumably under UN administration, would prevent homogenization and “top-down forces of militarist, market-driven, materialist globalization” (ibid, p. 398). The earth itself is capable of cultivating pluralism, witnessed in natural biodiversity, but it is also able to limit and ground it (Myers, 1994, p. 364). Theoretically, placing economics under the control of bioregional knowledge would foster cooperation because everyone would be dependent on resource stewardship of that place; however, abolishing centralized authority (whether the nation-state government or the UN), does not automatically instigate inter-regional warfare over territory. The textbook authors note that real commons did not predominantly end in tragedy because people mostly cooperated by regulating competition and restricting freedom (Ramsbotham, 2011, pp. 294-295). Bioregional governance requires a networked confederation of local groups to plan, cooperate, trade, mediate, and share knowledge (Myers, 1994, p. 366).

Bioregionalism is one imaginable alternative that can even be planted within the shell of existing structures. The chapter on environmental conflict resolution (Ramsbotham, 2011, pp. 293-304) introduces extremely important issues such as climate change, peak oil, resource competition, and the survival of the marginalized (ibid, p. 293). The authors relate important examples such as a Californian water conflict (ibid, p. 295), but they would have benefited significantly from discussing the potential of permaculture as a form of peacebuilding. Rooted in ecological science and systems theory (Holmgren, 2004, p. 4) as well as community research, religious traditions, and native cultures of place (ibid, p. 6), permaculture is a form of land and cultural design and management that stems from three interrelated ethical maxims: “Care for the earth (husband soil, forests and water)”; “Care for people (look after self, kin and community)”; and “Fair share (set limits to consumption and reproduction, and redistribute surplus)” (ibid, p. 6). Furthermore, the word permaculture not only means permanent and sustainable agriculture but also permanent and sustainable culture (ibid, p. 1). A brief example is Bustan Qaraaqa, a community permaculture farm located in Beit Sahour, a village close to Bethlehem, Palestine. The farm addresses food insecurity and environmental degradation that result from infrastructural instability and a military occupation. Through education and demonstration, the farm models cheap and easy ways to live sustainably and produce food such as water conservation, aquaponics systems, tree planting, and will soon include waste management and fish farming.

On a final note, the authors could have strengthened their helpful survey (Ramsbotham, 2011, p. 294) by mentioning Cuba. The Caribbean country plummeted into economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union (Rosset & Bourque, 2005, p. 363). Fossil fuel availability drastically decreased, as well as food imports which dropped by more than fifty percent; Cuban agriculture lost seventy percent of available fertilizers and pesticides (ibid, p. 364). Daily caloric intake in the early 1990s dropped by thirty percent from the 1980s (ibid, p. 364). Remarkably, Cuba survived and thrived in the aftermath of their initial catastrophe by employing alternative technologies, returning to animal instead of mechanical traction, remembering older techniques (such as intercropping, crop rotations, and composting), and supplementing limited synthetic fertilizers with agroecological practices such as biopesticides and biofertilizers, natural enemies, earthworms, green manures and cover crops, and integration of grazing animals (ibid, p. 364).

The government simultaneously converted almost all state farms into worker-owned cooperatives, acknowledging that farm managers’ must be “intimately familiar with the ecological heterogeneity” of the land (ibid, p. 365). Individual farms (ibid, p. 364) and these worker-owned cooperatives represent a fascinating synthesis of capitalism and socialism. Urban farming played a central role in overcoming food insecurity (ibid, pp. 365-366), flipping conventional wisdom on its back by proving that small countries can feed themselves, even without copious synthetic fertilizers and corporate-scale farms (ibid, p. 366). Cuban practices such as agroecology, fair prices, land redistribution, local production, and urban farming are very applicable elsewhere (ibid, p. 367). Cuba emerges as a key example of an alternative paradigm that addresses extreme environmental and social challenges (Ramsbotham, 2011, p. 293) and is a paradigm, along with bioregionalism, that has definite resonances with the important insights of cosmopolitan conflict resolution (ibid, p. 32).


Alexis-Baker, A. (2011). The myth of state as savior and elections as a confession of faith. Retrieved November 9, 2011, from Jesus Radicals.

Caputo, J. (2006). Philosophy and theology. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Holmgren, D. (2004). Essence of permaculture. Retrieved June 30, 2011, from Holmgren
Design Services Website:

Myers. C. (1994). Who will roll away the stone?: Discipleship queries for first world christians. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

Ramsbotham, O., Woodhouse, T., and Miall, H. (2011). Contemporary conflict resolution (3rd ed.). Malden: Polity Press.

Rosset, P, & Bourque, M. (2005). Lessons of Cuban resistance. In J. Pretty (ed.), The Earthscan reader in sustainable agriculture (pp. 362-367). Sterling: Earthscan.


  1. The Baker stuff looks like its drawing from the well of Cavanaugh's "Killing for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation-State is not the keeper of the common good." A solid essay.

    On a more basic note: this essay, however erudite, makes me want to just go do my woodworking in my basement, leaving academia on the shelf for some indefinite period. No offense; that observation probably reveals more my own weak chops in this area of study, than some kind of inherent problem with the field.

  2. Oh, and I've been hearing from some other sources too that Cuba should be touted as our necessary post-oil poster child. They're probably all right as rain.

  3. Well, Chris dropping Cavanaugh and that essay in particular is enough to want an introduction. How 'bout it, Jon? (Chris, I'm writing a review of Cavanaugh's latest for the Conrad Grebel Review, due out sometime next year. Plus, Cavanaugh's Myth of Religious Violence was a watershed book for my studies when I first read it in 2010 and then again earlier this year...)

  4. Okay, now that I've actually read the post, a substantive response (which you've already seen over e-mail, Jon...):

    After graduation in the spring, if I end up doing pastoral ministry back home in Iowa, it will be in rural congregations that are grappling with the death of the family farm and small farm town at the hands of corporate farming and rapid (sub)ubranization.

    So bioregionalism and radical ecclesia (a la Hauerwas & Coles) become fascinating possibilities to me for doing community peacebuilding as a form of congregational life in rural Iowa.

    Brethren congregations in the Midwest (even the early 20th century) used to be pastored by families who knew how to farm, and so land was often a part of compensation for the family. It was called "the church farm." My home congregation just sold off their "church farm" land after it had gone unused for decades. Perhaps, though, the practice could be revived and recontextualized along the lines you outline here.

    Thanks for the post, Jon!