How do Conflicts Resemble Wildfires ad Volcanoes?

How do Conflicts resemble Wildfires and Volcanoes?

By Khalid M. Abdillahi

A wildfire is an excellent example of a chemical chain reaction, to which there is a handy model often used to understand combustion, known as “the fire triangle”. Three core elements react with each other to perpetuate fire until one or more of them is fully consumed or removed from the reaction process. These elements are; Fuel, Oxygen, And heat.

The fuel exists naturally as a burnable substance, which is wood in this case. For wood to burn, friction between separate parts of wood (or external source of heat) is necessary, but only when a particular amount of oxygen (16% or higher) is present in the surrounding air. The amount of heat necessary to raise the temperature of a unit of wood to the ignition point is usually taken to be 300°C (572°F). That means the combustion of wood isn’t possible until the oxygen levels are high enough (16%) and friction (or heat) is high enough for the ignition to happen, similarily to Conflict. Johan Galtung, a pioneer in Peace & conflict studies, developed a useful model called the “Conflict Triangle”, which perfectly resembles this fire triangle model.

On the other hand, the conflict triangle resembles a volcano in the sense that the constant clashing and moving of tectonic plates on earth’s crust resembles the contextual contradictions or clash of interests in the conflict context. Additonally, the buildup of pressure on the edges of stuck tectonic plates resembles the buildup of antagonistic attitudes in the conflict context, while finally, the sudden sliding of one tectonic plate over the other, releasing the pent-up pressure in the form of seismic waves and volcanic eruptions resembles the violence (personal or social) in the conflict context. Here the earthquakes or seismic waves resemble social/structural violence while the volcanic eruption resembles direct personal violence.

Galtung’s conflict triangle consists of the following fundamental elements; a contradictory Context, an antagonistic Attitude, and a violent Behavior. We can explain the analogy between the fire triangle and the conflict triangle in the following way;

  1. Just like the fuel element of the fire triangle, a mere contradiction in the context of conflict is naturally and inevitably susceptible to be a fuel for antagonism and violence but doesn’t cause it, in the same sense that the mere existence of wood (fuel) doesn’t necessarily cause combustion.

  2. Just like how oxygen levels below 10% cannot catalyze nor sustain combustion, conflict cannot become loaded or charged without elevated levels of antagonistic attitudes.

  3. Finally, just like how a particular level of friction between separate parts of wood (or an external source of heat) is necessary to ignite the self-sustaining chain reaction of combustion in the forest (wildfire), polarization of destructive attitudes and violent behavior (whether personal or social) ignites a chain reaction of self-sustaining and destructive conflicts. Here personal violence between individuals resembles the friction between separate parts of wood, and social violence in the conflict context resembles an external source of heat in the wildfire context.

The general consensus among contemporary conflict experts and theorists today is that “conflict” in its most fundamental and primal stage, is inevitable, benign, and even creative. Deutsch Morton, an American social psychologist and researcher in conflict resolution, was the first to pioneer this viewpoint in the 1970s as he articulated this argument in his book “The resolution of conflict: Constructive and destructive processes”. Another pioneer in the field of Conflict Studies, Johan Galtung, established in his 1996 book “Peace by peaceful means: Peace and conflict, development and civilization”, that the primal stage of conflict which is the mere contradiction of the primary goals (needs, wants, values, and or beliefs) of different actors doesn’t necessarily cause violence. In the social context, Ramsbotham, Oliver, Hugh Miall, and Tom Woodhouse, discussed and elaborated the aforementioned line of reasoning about the benign conflicts in their seminal work titled “Contemporary Conflict Resolution: The Prevention, Management, and Transformation of Deadly Conflicts”. They contended that primary conflict is;

“… is an intrinsic and inevitable aspect of social change. It is an expression of the heterogeneity of interests, values, and beliefs that arise as new formations generated by social change come up against inherited constraints.”

This is exactly the crossroad where primary conflict can be transformed constructively towards tolerance and creative problem solving or transformed destructively towards intolerance and violence. If conflict actors choose the destructive path, they start to internalize the conflict and develop antagonistic emotional, cognitive, and conative attitudes against each other. This includes harmful stereotypes, hate, fear, condescending, envy, jealousy, conspiracy theories, malicious ideologies, othering, and contempt. This can play out both in personal and social contexts. Finally, it erupts into a volcanic eruption of personal violence or deadly seismic shock waves of institutionalized social violence. However, if the conflict actors choose the constructive path, they can transform their inconsistencies into an opportunity for creative problem solving, a compromise, or other win/win solutions.

In conclusion, a wildfire, a volcanic eruption, and an earthquake are not necessarily caused by the mere existence of forests and tectonic plates, in the same sense that antagonism and violence are not necessarily the result of our inconsistencies. Antagonistic attitudes and violence are the results of an unenlightened choice, by irrational conflict actors. It is a shared responsibility to enlighten the world with knowledge.