The Race for What’s Left

by LAWRENCE S. WITTNER

Is it possible to cope with the immense dangers posed by the rapid consumption of the world’s resources? In The Race for What’s Left, Michael Klare claims that it is — but only through a significant change in behavior.

Klare is the author of fourteen books, the most recent of which focus on resources and international conflict. He is also the defense correspondent for The Nation and the director of the Five College Program in Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.

In The Race for What’s Left — a book displaying his stunning knowledge of drilling and mining techniques, obscure minerals, geology, and remote regions of the world — Klare argues that “the world is entering an era of pervasive, unprecedented resource scarcity.” Both government and corporate officials “recognize that existing reserves are being depleted at a terrifying pace and will be largely exhausted in the not-too-distant future.” In their view, “the only way for countries to ensure an adequate supply of these materials, and thereby keep their economies humming, is to acquire new, undeveloped reservoirs in those few locations that have not already been completely drained. This has produced a global drive to find and exploit the world’s final resource reserves” — not only energy and mineral resources, but arable land. Thus, a great scramble by private corporations and government entities is now underway to own or control resources in the Arctic, in northern Siberia, in the deep waters of the Atlantic, in remote regions of Africa, and in other previously inaccessible, largely undeveloped regions of the world.

Of course, there has long been a competition for resources among nations. But, as Klare shows, the current struggle is becoming fiercer. “Whereas previous centuries generally witnessed conflict between just a few dominant powers,” he notes, “today many more countries are industrialized or on the path to industrialization — so the number of major contenders for resources is greater than ever before.” Moreover, “these new challengers also often harbor large and growing populations, whose desire for consumer goods of all sorts cannot be long denied. At the same time, many existing sources of supply are in decline while few new reservoirs are waiting on the horizon.” Consequently, “with more nations in the resource race and fewer prizes to be divided among them, the competition is heating up and governments are being pressed to assume a more active role.”

A skeptic might ask: What is wrong with this competition? The obvious answer, implicitly accepted by corporate and government officials alike, is that there are not enough resources to go around. In this situation, prices will rise and the living standards of many people throughout the world will fall. In the midst of growing scarcity, some will emerge winners and others losers, with the poorest among them starving and dying.

But, as Klare demonstrates, there are other great drawbacks, as well. One is that corporations and governments, in their determination to reach previously inaccessible resources, are employing extractive technologies that are destroying the environment. BP’s deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, corporate hydrofracking in the northeast United States, and the massive Canadian tar sands operation are three well-known examples of this phenomenon. Also, the rising consumption of fossil fuels will accelerate climate change.

Furthermore, wealthy investors, hedge funds, and a growing number of governments (including those of Saudi Arabia, other Persian Gulf nations, China, India, and South Korea) are busy buying up farmland in other nations — in 2009 alone, an estimated 110 million acres, an area the size of Sweden. According to Susan Payne’s Emergent fund, “Africa is the final frontier,” with land that is “very, very inexpensive.” Thus, Emergent promises to achieve a very high rate of return on such agricultural investment — exceeding 25 percent a year. The return to African peasants, forced off their ancestral lands to make way for overseas agribusiness and profits, will almost certainly be much less.

Of course, intensive resource extraction will also lead to foreign support for exploitative, dictatorial regimes, as it has in many African nations. Certainly, the average citizens of these countries have experienced little benefit from their resource wealth. Klare observes: “Ever since the early Cold War period, when Niger was still under French rule, uranium extraction has been a significant industry in the country, but it has mostly enriched only a few well-connected government officials and the companies that own the mines. Few of Niger’s sixteen million people have ever seen any benefits from the mining, and two-thirds of them still live on less than $1 per day, making Niger one of the poorest nations on earth.”

Finally, the scramble for global resources provides the potential for heightened military conflict. Klare remarks: “In all probability, countries with major resource deposits will receive more weapons, military training, technical assistance, and intelligence support from states that wish to curry favor or establish closer ties. At the same time, combat forces will be deployed abroad to defend friendly regimes and protect key ports, pipelines, refineries, and other critical installations.” Amid competing resource claims, the Arctic, Africa, and the East and South China Seas have recently experienced new tensions and military buildups.

Fortunately, as Klare points out, there is an alternative to the “race for what’s left” — a “race to adapt.” This would entail a contest among the “major political and corporate powers … to become among the first to adopt new materials, methods, and devices that will free the world from its dependence on finite resource supplies.” It would “reward the governments, companies, and communities that take the lead in developing efficient, environmentally friendly industrial processes and transportation systems.” Replacing “finite natural resources with renewables” and focusing “on increasing efficiency” would not only allow the global economy “to escape from the trap of diminishing resource supplies,” but would “allow many nations to free themselves from military pacts and other diplomatic arrangements currently employed to cement ties with foreign resource providers.”

Although Klare does not suggest running this “race to adapt” as a cooperative one, it could proceed much like the women’s races of some years ago, when participants joined hands while crossing the finish line. Wouldn’t it be a grand moment in human history if people of every nation collaborated in facing the challenge of dwindling resources that confronts us all? But, whether cooperatively or competitively, we must begin adapting to the limits of our resources, and Michael Klare’s outstanding book — exhaustively-researched, beautifully-written, and convincingly-argued — helps move this vital project forward.

Lawrence S. Wittner is professor of history emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is “Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual” (University of Tennessee Press).

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