Date of Graduation


Document Type


Degree Type



Eberly College of Arts and Sciences


Geology and Geography

Committee Chair

Brent McCusker

Committee Co-Chair

Eungul Lee

Committee Member

Robert Maxon

Committee Member

Thomas Smucker

Committee Member

Bradley Wilson


This study examines how individuals and groups respond to prevailing politico-economic and biophysical changes and how the adjustments they make influence and are influenced by their social relations and material condition in spatial and temporal terms. This dissertation comprises of three parts: The first part is a critique of the climate-conflict relationship debate and the problems associated with studies pushing for a causal relationship between climate variables and conflict. I argue that scholars lack of attention on varying institutional capacities and the focus solely on environmental factors as trigger mechanisms for conflict leads to misleading arguments about conflict distribution and frequency which may ultimately hinder the understanding of why conflicts occur, are exacerbated or resolved, recur or not. I find that as scholars focus on climatic variables in pursuit of narrow causations, they ignore known weaknesses in both theory and methodology. In addition, shifting from a human vulnerability approach to a human security one in climate conflict studies advances a functionalist conservative discourses that pay the most attention to securing the states of the global north and global capital circulation rather than helping vulnerable groups deal with risk and the impacts of climate change. The second part of the dissertation examines how social relations around land allocation and tenure in Africa have changed over time and how the existence of a dual system of tenure in many African countries produces a third system of informal land transfers. I argue that these often-unregulated informal transfers may help circumvent protections provided within law and policy. I find that, in Kenya as in many other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, the existence of many plots of land held as freehold without title coupled with an expensive and deeply bureaucratic process of titling produces and maintains unregulated land transfers that often cement inequalities that are addressed in formal policy and law. The third part of this dissertation utilizes the concept of "ecological gradient" to examine the social benefit of material relations for different livelihood groups living along the Mt Kilimanjaro altitudinal gradient. I find evidence of increased diversification and interdependence between the different livelihoods that occupy the ecological zones along the gradient. Consequently, livelihood groups living within the various ecological gradients along the mountain gradient adjust to changing biophysical and politico-economic factors by extracting social benefits from increased contact with each other.