Book Review: On the Causes of War by Michael Andregg

On the causes of war

by Michael Andregg

Ground Zero Minnesota

PO Box 13127

Minneapolis, MN 55414


287 pages, $15 paperback


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Nearly 20 years ago, Michael Andregg gave up a career as a research geneticist to find the causes of war. In 1982, he founded Ground Zero Minnesota, a non-profit organization that produces educational materials on peace issues for schools and civic groups.

Recently, Andregg published the results of his quest to learn why humans periodically slaughter one another on a mass scale. In his extensive research, he interviewed over 1,000 people – generals, scholars, and peace activists – who offered a wide and divergent set of reasons for war. While economic competition was the most frequently cited cause, Andregg notes that nearly everyone seemed to have a pet theory: “Whatever wars are caused by, it is almost always something seen in other people rather than in oneself.”

The real causes of war, Andregg concluded, are much more complicated than most of his interviewees intimated. Andregg believes that the ultimate causes of war are embedded in human nature itself; therefore, the possible triggering mechanisms are many and varied. More than half of his book is an exploration of 20 specific proximate causes of war and how they work. These include: the competition for resources and power, population pressure, authoritarian law and militant religion, corruption of governance, nationalism, “forces of evil,” and spies, cults, and secret power systems.

With regard to each of these proximate causes, Andregg attempts to calculate its effect on the probability of war by using a predictive instrument called the “Three Green Lights” model. According to Andregg, organized, state-sponsored killing requires (1) decisions by leaders of a government; (2) support from a population; and (3) physical means for killing (i.e. weapons). If these three “green lights” are not reciprocated in the targeted nation or group, the result is genocide. If they are reciprocated, the result is war. The presence or degree of contributing proximate causes affects the likelihood of the three “green lights.”

When Andregg applies this predictive model to the current world situation, the result is unsettling, if unsurprising. By quantifying what he can (i.e. population levels and growth rates), and also including important elements which cannot be quantified (i.e. government corruption), he plots a war probability curve that peaks during the years 2000 and 2001.

A significant factor in determining this peak is the millennialism that will “focus hatreds and craziness around the year 2000.” Regardless of whether one takes apocalyptic millennialist visions seriously, the fact is that many people do, and anticipation of war seems to increase its likelihood. Other current factors include: population growth, increasing wealth inequalities in and between nations, lack of effective international conflict resolution, ethnic rivalries, and the developing global ecological crisis.

Thankfully, the author's purpose is not merely to frighten readers; the point of unraveling the causes of war is to find ways to avoid war. At the end of every chapter that discusses a specific proximate cause, Andregg includes a list of solutions. For example, in the chapter on competition for resources and inequalities of wealth, he recommends reducing population growth, establishing limits on socially acceptable levels of wealth within nations, reducing materialism and increasing spirituality, and recognizing that war over resources is ultimately destructive of resources.

Elsewhere in the book, Andregg notes that “Society must come to grips with the reality that if it does not take care of everyone, those discarded will destroy it. At the same time, tyranny must be avoided. ... The concept of taking care of everyone scares the hell out of wealthy people. ... The concept of everyone pulling their share of the load scares even poor people, who feel they have little to share. Solve this problem wisely, and we can still inherit a heaven on Earth. ... Fail to solve this problem, and nature will exert its force.”

There is far more important information in Andregg's book than I can summarize. Still, it is possible to convey his essential message quite briefly: “War is not inevitable. Human conflicts are inevitable, but war is not. War is a social institution. Institutions have been created by people; therefore, they can be changed.”

Reviewed by Richard Heinberg. Richard Heinberg is the author of A New Covenant with Nature and creator of the Museletter, from which this review was excerpted. Web site:

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