The Race For What’s Left

the raceThe title of the book perfectly describes the author Michael T. Klare’s main narrative. The book’s purpose is to describe how the world’s last easily accessible resources are being depleted, while the demand for them is larger than ever, and how this is driving companies and governments to develop and discover new deposits of everything from oil and minerals to farmland, which in turn is opening up new frontiers and conflicts.

During the years after World War II the global economy boomed, leading to a steadily growing demand for natural resources. This demand was mostly met with then newly discovered, easily accessible and processed mammoth deposits of oil, gas and minerals located close to the surface. But since that time almost no new deposits like this, easily accessible and processed, have been found, and following the turn of the century the old ones have shown a decline in production that indicates that they have reached their peak production. This is true everywhere, from the oil fields of Saudi Arabia to the copper mines of Chile. This has brought both multinational companies and states into a desperate race for the world’s last natural resources, what’s left. This sort of race is nothing new, but this time it is different than before. First of all there are no new convenient and abundant lands left, as every place has already been settled and exploited. Meanwhile, there has never been such a massive demand for everything, from oil to copper to foodstuff, as the economic and industrial development in Asia and other parts of the developing world have sky-rocketed in just a decade.

This means that the race for what’s left is forcing the world’s suppliers to find, to explore, and then through technical development to open up new frontiers; frontiers that are often characterized by either hostile climates or conflicts. An example of this is the opening up of the Arctic by climate change. This has made the exploitation of new enormous deposits of oil and minerals, earlier trapped beneath thick ice, possible, albeit it is still extremely dangerous and complicated. Another example is the South China Sea, where new techniques for deep and ultra-deep oil and gas drilling has opened up the possibility to extract billions if not trillions dollars of worth of oil and gas. Others more unknown and unexplored frontiers, like the land grabs of untouched fertile land in Africa, the hunt for rare minerals, or the newly discovered copper deposits in Afghanistan, are also brought up. Despite the risks and challenges that these new borderlands possess, the shortage of resources elsewhere makes it impossible to avoid them. As they are then bought up, and they become essential to the survival of big private companies and states, and increasingly important to satisfy the world’s resource needs, the territorial conflicts over them become more infested every day.

In the Arctic all countries are scrambling to prove that its landmasses are part of their continental shelf, while establishing military power to back these claims; in the South China Sea several countries, of which China is the most prominent one, are trying to realize their overlapping territorial claims by establishing military bases on small islands. Also in the resource rich areas where there are no direct territorial disputes but large corporate and government interests conflicts are bound to develop. The arrival on the arena of new big players, especially the Chinese government and Chinese companies, are posing a serious threat to the earlier practically unchallenged Western multinationals and their respective governments. As the Chinese global influence and need for resources increases, their firms all the more often gets in direct dirty competition with their Western counterparts for extraction contracts, a competition that is going to ‘make’ or ‘break’ superpowers. The displacement of indigenous people from their resource rich lands is amongst other topics already causing a lot of tension, and that certainly will lead to future conflicts.

However, not all of these new resource frontiers are to find in far-away countries and areas. Some have opened up also in North America, with newly developed and unconventional extraction methods. Illustrations of these schemes are the extracting of oil out of tar sand in Canada, or the conversion of coal into liquid fuels in the US. Although these new methods are not as likely to result in conflict as the extraction in external areas, they integrate all the other crony aspects of the race for what’s left. For one thing they are extremely costly and complicated. But most importantly they pose an enormous threat to the global climate through the enormous carbon dioxide emissions that they result in; and they take a heavy toll on the local environments and eco-systems when the not easily managed chemical waste from the extraction processes more than often leaks into nature.

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The book’s strength is that it does not shine away from describing this phenomenon for what is: a final race led by the greedy corporate and government vultures to secure their own survival and to cash in on the world’s increasing desperation, while taking no consideration to any value other than that of money. One of the most striking examples of this is the private and government firms that buy up enormous areas, some as large as countries, of fertile and cheap farmland in Africa. The governments are doing this to avoid food shortages and the political unrest connected to them, while the private firms are acting in the anticipation that future food shortages will lead to a dramatic increase in the value of farmland. In the processes hundreds of poor farmers are being displaced from these supposedly uninhabited areas, their livelihoods taken away from them. A total lack of any thoughtfulness for the environment is another reacquiring theme amongst the racers for what is left.

The book could have been even better if the author had presented more facts about the world’s resource depletion, to underline his main narrative. But at least this is proven by the enormous efforts that go into finding new ways of quenching the world’s thirst for hydrocarbons and other resources. It would also have been interesting if there had been a discussion about how the balance of power on the international arena is going to be affected by facts such as that many of these new resource frontiers are located in developing nations, while the technical expertise from industrial nations is needed to extract them. The topic of the rapid reduction of the world’s freshwater reserves could also have fit perfectly in this book, but still is barely mentioned. But even if these subjects are not written about in detail, the book still invites you to explore them for yourself. Klare does not dive deep into one or two phenomena connected to the resource depletion of the 21st century, but instead gives you a sweeping although thorough look on everything from the hunt for rare metals to the building of mammoth armoured oil platforms designated for the Arctic.

Despite the dark prospects of conflicts and depletion that are foretold in the book, Klare ends it with an encouraging solution to the problem: the race to adapt. This is a race not for natural resources but one to develop new green, sustainable and effective technology and energy solutions to make us less dependent on non-renewable resources like oil and coal, and to enable us to use other resources more effective. This race has already started and is definitely going to be just as important as the race for what is left. Probably even more important, since it in the long term will determine who is able to do without the dwindling and evermore unreliable supplies of non-renewables, and who is not. The book was written just three years ago, in 2012; but in view of the ever developing dynamics of the areas explored, the OPEC oil price war as one example, it might actually soon be time to revise it. As a conclusion the book is a comprehensive, informative and well written account of the conflicts, challenges, and solutions of today and tomorrow connected to natural resources and development.

Melker Akerlind is a Swedish student and member of the Swedish Social Democrats, currently studying sociology at the High School of Fredrika Bremer.

@MelkerSAL

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