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The Race for What's Left

An Interview with Michael Klare

by KEN KLIPPENSTEIN

Michael T. Klare is the author of the book, The Race for What’s Left (2012), in which he discusses the fight over the planet’s increasingly scarce resources. He is a frequent contributor to TomDispatch.com, whose columns can be found here.

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Ken Klippenstein: Which of Africa’s resources might explain the Africa push (i.e., the French invasion of Mali, the U.S. drone campaigns throughout Africa, etc.)?

Michael T. Klare: The most important resources for the U.S. in Africa are in Nigeria; that’s where the highest concentration of oilfields are. There is also a high concentration in Angola. This is where the U.S is most concerned, whereas the greatest threat right now is in the areas of the Sahara, especially the Sahel region of the Sahara, and in North Africa. But the U.S. is worried about instability in general that might spread to the oil producing areas of Nigeria and Angola.

KK: Has the Arab Spring inhibited the West’s access to African resources?

MK: Not so much. The biggest immediate threat to resources was the revolt in Libya, because Libya was a significant oil-producing country. When the revolt broke out against Gaddafi, this resulted in a reduction in the global supply of oil. At that time, the U.S. and its allies did release oil from their strategic petroleum reserves to counter that. So it was clearly seen as a threat to the global oil supply.

On a larger scale, people in Washington worry about instability from the Arab Spring spreading to more critical countries like Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. If something like the Arab Spring were to take place there, that would have profound implications for the global supply of oil, and people are very worried about it. For example, the U.S. did not support the Arab Spring in Bahrain, even though from all outward appearances it was no different there than in Tunisia and Libya and Egypt. But in Bahrain the U.S. turned a blind eye to what was going on when the government cracked down on the pro-democracy movement; and that, I believe, was because the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet is located in Bahrain, and the Fifth Fleet is responsible for maintaining their freedom of oil movement from the Persian Gulf to the U.S. and the rest of the world.4c37d4d0e02a1353fdd9342207524ab466365362

KK: In your book, The Race for What’s Left, you quote Eurozone magazine as saying that “farmland is the new gold”; moreover, you’ve argued that the 2012 drought “will boost food prices domestically and abroad.” What kind of conflict will ensue over the food that’s left?

MK: The kinds of conflicts that are occurring right now are between the indigenous peoples who occupy these areas, who typically do not own formal title to the land. These are usually pastoralists—that is to say, herders. They are nomadic. They may have lived in these areas for many centuries, but they don’t own a deed to the land because that’s not part of their traditional practice. Their association with the land is spiritual and by historic occupation. But the governments involved (I’m talking about places like Sudan and Ethiopia in particular), the governments don’t recognize them as having formal title to the land, and therefore they call it “virgin land”—open to exploitation—and they’re selling it off to foreign companies, from Saudi Arabia, from the United Arab Emirates, from India, from elsewhere. They’re allowing companies from these foreign countries to set up plantations to produce food for export to their own homeland, and bringing in the police or the army or private guards to drive off the pastoralists, who view it as their own land. In many cases they’re being driven off and they’re fighting back. So you have land wars, not unlike what happened in the American west when farmers came in with their cattle, fenced it off, and the indigenous population made up of Native Americans fought back.

KK: India relies on industrial agriculture to feed its population of roughly 1 billion. Since industrial agriculture requires such large amounts of petrochemicals for things like fertilizer, how do you anticipate India will grapple with the increasing scarcity of petroleum?

MK: India’s already struggling because it relies on petroleum not only for fertilizer, but also to pump water from underground aquifers. Many parts of Northwest India, for example, have only intermittent rainfall. They have long dry seasons with no water. Their only water supply is in underground wells, and you need petroleum to power the pumps to bring up the water. You have a dual problem here. One is over-pumping of underground aquifers, which has been going on for a very long time, causing the water table to fall, so you have to drill deeper, meaning you need more oil, the price of which is rising. This means it’s harder and harder for poor farmers to water their crops and many of them are going broke. You’re having high levels of suicides among rural farmers in Northwest India, which has been attributed to this very fact.

KK: Have the farmers in this region been organizing in response to this problem?

MK: I think the suicide is evidence of widespread despair. I think this is an indication of what’s going to happen with climate change in India. India is expected to suffer very heavily from climate change because of reduced precipitation in many areas; and with insufficient rainfall, a lot of the cropland that India relies on is going to hard hit. On top of that, the glacial melt from the Himalayas is slowly going to disappear, so the rivers on which the country depends—the Indus and the Ganges—are going to see less and less current, less and less waterflow in the dry season, and that will be devastating for Indian and Pakistani agriculture.

KK: Do you think industrial agriculture is impractical because of the amount of petrochemicals required?

MK: I think that’s a difficult question to answer because we probably couldn’t feed the world’s population at the size it is today. However, looking into the future, the kind of industrial agriculture we practice is unsustainable because it depends so much on the use of fossil fuels for producing artificial fertilizer, for pesticides and herbicides and for mechanization. That’s unsustainable.

KK: As resources become more scarce and the process of extracting them more precarious, can we expect more catastrophes like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill?

MK: Yes, I do expect we’re going to have more catastrophes all the time, because we’re going into increasingly harsh environmental conditions to extract energy. For example, Shell has been trying for years now to drill in the waters off of Alaska, and they keep having mishaps. As a result they’ve had to postpone year after year. Last summer they weren’t able to drill because of a series of mishaps; now they have to have their equipment rebuilt. They’re not going to drill this summer. There were no disasters only because their equipment got damaged before they could drill. But this tells us that operating in the Arctic is going to be extremely hazardous and the likelihood of catastrophes is very high.

KK: How will the increasing scarcity of rare earths impact the manufacturing of high-tech goods?

MK: Rare earths are not rare in their existence on the planet—they’re widespread—but they don’t exist in high concentrations anywhere. It’s very hard to find them in big enough concentration to make them commercially viable to develop. Even there, it’s very difficult to extract rare earths from other rocks and other minerals with which they are associated—typically radioactive materials, as it turns out. So you have to use acid and arsenic to strip them away from other minerals, and usually you’re left with large amounts of very toxic wastewater when you’re done, and other toxic materials.

The U.S. used to produce a lot of rare earths, but it stopped doing so in the 1990s because of the environmental risks. China took over production. Now China has like 95% of rare earths production. It’s possible to replace China, but only if you’re willing to overlook very, very severe environmental dangers. Few countries are willing to do that today. So we’re kind of in a bind, because rare earths are necessary for many high-tech electronic applications, among other things.

KK: What can the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) tell us about the future of resource exchange? How will it differ from the kinds of trade agreements that preceded it?

MK: I think that it is devised by the Obama administration as a way of linking the other Asian economies into a U.S.-centric economic network, and diminishing China’s role in Asian economic trade. It would make it advantageous for countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, Japan, Thailand, and so on, to trade with the U.S. because there would be lower tariffs and things like that.

KK: This is focused a lot on the East Asian “Tigers”, I’m assuming?

MK: Yes, a lot. I think it’s a response to the fact that over the last 10 years, a lot of countries that used to have the U.S. as their lead trading partner (not only the “Tigers”, but countries like Australia, S. Korea, Taiwan) and, as such, meant that their foreign policy reflected the wishes of the U.S. But in the last 10 years, China has become their lead trading partner, and to some degree, that’s meant a reduction of U.S. influence on the region.

Under the Pacific Pivot, announced by Obama two years ago, the goal is to try to reassert U.S. primacy in the Pacific and to dilute China’s influence in this area. So I think the TPP is part of that effort to restore U.S. dominance and diminish Chinese influence in the region.

KK: For the first time in about 500 years, South America has broken free of imperial rule. How much do you think this newfound independence is attributable to its favorable trade relations with the global South?

MK: I certainly think it’s the case that South America has acquired greater autonomy in world affairs as a result of its greater economic vibrancy, and greater South-South trade. Also there’s the rise of Brazil as an economic powerhouse with an independent foreign policy; the role of Lula, Brazil’s former president; and the role of Hugo Chavez, while he was alive, in asserting a greater autonomy of South America. All of these things work together.

KK: Which countries does South America rely most heavily on for trade, since it can’t trade with the U.S. and much of the West?

MK: China has now become the leading trading partner for many of these countries.

KK: Would you characterize that as a new non-aligned movement?

MK: That’s an interesting thought. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a new non-aligned movement, but you do have something else. You have something called the BRICS: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, trying to create a new center of gravity in the world, to counter the influence of the Western center of gravity—the Euro-Atlantic center of gravity, the traditional West.

Ken Klippenstein lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where he co-edits the left issues website, whiterosereader.org White Rose Reader is searching for submissions from new contributors