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Geopolitical implications of “Peak Everything”

US military vehiclesFrom Solutions Journal, January 2012. Also published in the 20th Anniversary edition of Richard Heinberg's Musletter.

From competition among hunter-gatherers for wild game to imperialist wars over precious minerals, resource wars have been fought throughout history; today, however, the competition appears set to enter a new—and perhaps unprecedented—phase. As natural resources deplete, and as the Earth’s climate becomes less stable, the world’s nations will likely compete ever more desperately for access to fossil fuels, minerals, agricultural land, and water.

Nations need increasing amounts of energy and raw materials to produce economic growth, but the costs of supplying new increments of energy and materials are burgeoning. In many cases, lower-quality resources with high extraction costs are all that remain. Securing access to these resources often requires military expenditures as well. Meanwhile the struggle for the control of resources is re-aligning political power balances throughout the world.

This game of resource “musical chairs” could well bring about conflict and privation on a scale never seen before in world history. Only a decisive policy shift toward resource conservation, climate change mitigation, and economic cooperation seems likely to produce a different outcome.

The United States—the world’s current economic and military superpower— entered the industrial era with a nearly unparalleled endowment of natural resources that included an abundance not only of forests, water, topsoil, and minerals, but also of oil, coal, and natural gas. Like all other nations, the U.S. has approached resource extraction using the low-hanging fruit principle. Today its giant onshore reservoirs of conventional oil are largely depleted, and the nation’s total oil production is down by over 40 percent from its peak in 1970—despite huge discoveries in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. Its total coal resources are vast, but rates of extraction probably cannot be increased significantly and will likely begin to decline within the next decade or two. Unconventional hydrocarbon resources (such as natural gas liberated by the hydrofracking of shale deposits) are beginning to be commercialized, but come with high investment costs and worrisome environmental risks. U.S. extraction rates for many minerals have been declining for years or decades, and currently the nation imports 93 percent of its antimony, 100 percent of its bauxite (for aluminum), 31 percent of its copper, 99 percent of its gallium, 100 percent of its indium, over half its lithium, and 100 percent of its rare earth minerals.[1]

America has much to lose from any substantial reshuffling of global alliances and resource flows. The nation’s leaders continue to play the game of geopolitics by 20th century rules: they are still obsessed with the Carter Doctrine and focused on petroleum as the world’s foremost resource prize (a situation largely necessitated by the country’s continuing overwhelming dependence on oil imports, due in turn to a series of short-sighted political decisions stretching back at least to the 1970s). The ongoing war in Afghanistan exemplifies U.S. inertia: most geostrategic experts agree that there is little to be gained from the conflict, but withdrawal of forces is politically unfeasible.

The United States maintains a globe-spanning network of over 750 military bases[2] that formerly represented tokens of security to regimes throughout the world—but that now increasingly provoke resentment among the locals. This enormous military machine requires a vast supply system originating with American weapons manufacturers that in turn depend on a prodigious and ever-expanding torrent of funds from the Treasury. Indeed, the nation’s yawning budget deficit largely stems from its trillion-dollar-per-year, first-priority commitment to maintain its military-industrial complex.

The U.S. currently engages in “special operations” in 120 countries[3], using elite commando units skilled in assassination, counterterrorist raids, foreign troop training, and intelligence gathering. These teams can be deployed to support U.S. geopolitical interests in a variety of ways, including influencing elections or supporting factions within revolutions. The U.S. also maintains the world’s most lavishly funded ($80 billion in 2010) intelligence bureaus, the CIA and NSA, which conduct electronic and human information gathering activities in virtually every country on the planet.[4]

Yet despite America’s gargantuan expenditures on intelligence gathering and high-tech weaponry, and its globe-spanning ability to project power and to influence events, its armed forces appear to be stretched to their limits having continuously fielded around 200,000 troops and even larger numbers of support personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past decade, where supply chains are both vulnerable and expensive to maintain.

In short, the United States remains an enormously powerful nation militarily, with thousands of nuclear weapons in addition to its unparalleled conventional forces, yet it suffers from declining strategic flexibility. The nation still retains an abundance of natural resources, but its consumption rates of many of those resources have grown to nearly insatiable levels, necessitating growing flows of resource imports from other nations. Meanwhile, its ability to pay for those imports is increasingly in question as its domestic economy shrinks due to financial system volatility, government spending cutbacks, high unemployment, an aging workforce, and shrinking average household net worth. For all of these reasons, the U.S. is widely characterized as “an empire in decline.”

The Global Geopolitical Resource Landscape

China is the rising power of the 21st century, according to many geopolitical pundits, with a surging military and plentiful cash with which to buy access to resources (oil, coal, minerals, and farmland) around the planet. Yet while it is building an imperial-class navy that could eventually threaten America’s, Beijing suffers from domestic political and economic weaknesses that could make its turn at the center of the world stage a brief one. These include limits to available coal resources, a domestic real estate bubble, weakness in its banking sector, falling demand for Chinese exports in the U.S. and Europe, and widespread local political corruption.

Even as countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua reject American foreign policy, the U.S. continues to exert enormous influence on resource-rich Latin America via North American-based corporations, which in some cases wield overwhelming influence over entire national economies. However, China is now actively contracting for access to energy and mineral resources throughout this region, which is resulting in a gradual shift in economic spheres of interest.

Africa is a site of fast-growing U.S. investment in oil and other mineral extraction projects (as evidenced by the establishment in 2009 of Africom, a military strategic command center on par with Centcom, Eucom, Northcom, Pacom, and Southcom), but the continent also a target of Chinese (and European) resource acquisition efforts. Proxy conflicts there between and among these powers may intensify in the years ahead—in most instances, to the sad detriment of African peoples.[5]

The US still maintains a dominant position in the Middle East, but the region is is characterized by extreme economic inequality, high population growth rates, political instability, and the need for importation of non-energy resources (including food and water). The revolutions and protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen in early 2011 can be interpreted as showing the inability of young, growing, and largely unemployed populations to tolerate sharply rising food, water, and energy prices in the context of autocratic political regimes.[6] As economic conditions worsen, many more countries—including democratic nations outside the Middle East, the U.S included—could become destabilized in much the same way.

America’s best shot at expanding its oil interests lie in the deep oceans and the Arctic.[7]However, both military maneuvering and engineering-mining efforts will see diminishing returns as costs rise and payoffs diminish.

Climate change is likely to exacerbate geopolitical rivalry with China, although it's important to recognize that climate risks will not be evenly apportioned. Unstable states will become more unstable, poor nations poorer. Many of the areas of greatest geopolitical risk are also most at risk for impacts from climate change. Equatorial regions are most likely to suffer from extreme drought and occasional catastrophic flooding, while some northern temperate regions may see some transitory benefit from warming—though unpredictable weather will plague nearly every region. With the melting of Arctic ice, new mineral and energy resources in the northernmost portions of the planet will become accessible, as will new trade routes; this may lead to a “Cold Rush” of economic and military exploitation and open a new theater for international conflict.[8]

Which raises the question: Can such consequences be averted, and how? The answer may hinge on whether, and in what ways, humanity chooses to compete or cooperate in response.

Competition versus cooperation

Jintao and Obama at APECThe world’s governments engage continually in both cooperative and competitive behavior, though sometimes extremes of these tendencies come to the fore—with all-out conflict exemplifying unbridled competition. Geopolitics typically involves both cooperative and competitive strategies, with its long-term goal centering on the furtherance of national interest (including increased control of territory and access to resources). Recent decades have generally seen increasing international cooperation, showing up in the expansion of trade, the proliferation of treaties and conventions, and the development of international institutions for justice and conflict resolution. The UN, WTO, World Bank, International Criminal Court, as well as regional economic (e.g., Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO) and military (e.g., NATO) cooperation groups exemplify this trend. While some of these efforts appear to be geopolitically motivated, others seem to be genuine attempts to reduce both international tensions and global environmental problems while advancing human rights.

This trend toward increasing international cooperation could see a reversal in coming years and decades. As noted above, history is replete with instances of resource scarcity fomenting conflict.[9] In such cases, competitive advantage typically resides either with nations that have domestic resources and the ability to defend them; or with nations that develop a vigorous, flexible, and motivated military force able to take advantage of other nations’ weaknesses in order to seize control of their resources.

In addition to international conflict, a failure of human cooperation in the face of resource scarcity may also manifest as increasing conflict within nations. Since 1945, three-quarters of all wars have occurred within nations rather than between them, with most occurring in the world’s poorest countries.[10] About as many people may have died as a result of civil strife since 1980 as were killed in the First World War. Civil conflicts devastate poor nations by destroying essential infrastructure, driving human and capital flight, diverting scarce financial resources toward military spending, undermining social trust, aggravating existing food shortages, and spreading disease.

If the path toward increasing competition leads to both internal and external conflict, then the result—for winners and losers alike, in a “full” world seeing rapid resource depletion—will most probably be economic and ecological ruin accompanied by political chaos.

Yet this is not the only outcome available to world leaders and civil society. A cooperative strategy is at least theoretically feasible—and its foundations already exist in institutions and practices developed during recent decades.

The world has seen successful efforts to rein in commercial whaling, to ban the use of CFCs, and to respond to natural disasters. If we are to avert deadly resource competition in the future, further agreements on climate change mitigation and non-renewable resource conservation will be needed, along with cooperative efforts to stabilize population and engineer a comprehensive global energy transition. Some of these agreements are already under discussion.

For many years, the UN has led cooperative scientific efforts to understand climate change (via the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC) and governmental efforts to combat it (via the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC). In international meetings beginning with the Kyoto Climate Change Conference of 1997, nations have discussed politically acceptable ways to cap global carbon emissions.

A potential international mechanism for conserving non-renewable resources is outlined in the present author’s book The Oil Depletion Protocol. An agreement along these lines would require nations each year to reduce oil production and imports by the annual global depletion rate (about 2.5 percent).[11] Cooperatively capping and diminishing both petroleum production and consumption in this way would reduce oil price volatility, promote energy conservation and conversion to alternative energy sources, and head off geopolitical struggle over dwindling petroleum supplies. Such a plan would likely work best in combination with national quota rationing programs for individuals and businesses; if annually shrinking quotas were tradable, energy misers would benefit financially while energy gluttons would have to pay extra.[12] The Oil Depletion Protocol has been endorsed by several city councils in the U.S. and by the Portuguese Parliament. Similar protocols could be applied to other internationally traded non-renewable resources.

The protocol in itself is not likely to be enough. Measures are also needed to limit population growth, and to convert existing infrastructure to a low carbon future, especially in developing countries, where efforts can be made to bypass fossil fuel-dependent transport and food system altogether.

All of the required effort need not come from governments. Grassroots conservation and cooperation efforts have already sprung up in the form of groups like Transition Initiatives, which have sprung up in hundreds of towns and cities around the world. Transition Initiatives got their start in 2005 in Britain through the work of a Permaculture teacher named Rob Hopkins. In his Transition Companion, Hopkins tells how he came up with the strategy, and sets forth a range of useful guidelines for groups.[13] Nearly all of Rob’s prose is saturated with irrepressible optimism:

Transition Initiatives are not the only response to peak oil and climate change; any coherent national response will also need government and business responses at all levels. However, unless we can create this sense of anticipation, elation and a collective call to adventure on a wider scale, any government responses will be doomed to failure, or will need to battle proactively against the will of the people. . . . Rebuilding local agriculture and food production, localizing energy production, rethinking healthcare, rediscovering local building materials in the context of zero energy building, rethinking how we manage waste, all build resilience and offer the potential of an extraordinary renaissance—economic, cultural and spiritual.[14]

Taken together, current cooperative efforts toward resource conservation, climate mitigation, and population stabilization are woefully insufficient—as exemplified by failed climate talks, continued global population growth, and ever-heightening international competition for access to dwindling fossil fuels supplies. There are plenty of justifications for pessimism: after all, won’t the first nations to engage in resource conservation lose economic advantage to those that engage in conquest and consumption maximization? Wouldn’t even one major national holdout undermine a worldwide cooperative effort at climate protection?

Dramatically expanding international and domestic cooperation at this worrisome moment in history may seem like a tall order. The only advantage to doing so is that it is the only path going forward that doesn’t end in a global tragedy in which the fate of the “winners” is hardly preferable to that of the “losers.”

Richard Heinberg is a Senior Fellow-in-Residence of Post Carbon Institute and a member of the Editorial Board of Solutions. He is the author of ten books including The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality. Portions of this article are adapted from The End of Growth.


[1] U.S. Geological Survey, 2011, “Mineral commodity summaries 2011: U.S. Geological Survey,” 198 p.

[2] Department of Defense, “Base Structure Report Fiscal Year 2010 Baseline (A Summary of DoD’s Real Property Inventory),”  206p.

[3] Tara McKelvey, “The Age of Special Warfare: An in-depth look at U.S. special operations around the world” (copyright 2010-2011).

[4] Nick Turse, August 3,2011 (6:21 PM), “Tomgram: Nick Turse, Uncovering the Military’s Secret Military,”,.

[5] Michael Klare, Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy (New York: Henry Holt, 2008), chapter 6.

[6] Vicken Cheterian, “The Arab Crisis: Food, Energy, Water, Justice,” Energy Bulletin, Posted January 26, 2011

[7] Brice Pedroletti, “China Seeks to Mine Deep Sea Riches,” The Guardian, December 7, 2010.

[8] Naval Postgraduate School, “Arctic Doom, Arctic Boom,” publication announcement for the second volume in the Arctic Security Project.

[9] Philippe Le Billon, "The Political Ecology of War: Natural Resources and Armed Conflicts." Political Geography 20 (2001), 561–584

[10] Colin H. Kahl, States, Scarcity, and Civil Strife in the Developing World (Princeton University Press, 2006), accessed online August 8, 2011.

[11] Richard Heinberg, The Oil Depletion Protocol: A Plan to Avert Oil Wars, Terrorism and Economic Collapse (Canada: New Society Publishers, 2006).

[12] A proposal for tradable energy was proposed in the UK by the late economist David Fleming, and has drawn significant interest from government. See TEQs.

[13] Rob Hopkins, Transition Companion (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2011).

[14] Hopkins, Transition Handbook, (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2008), p.15.

Image credits: US military vehicles - Morning Calm News/flickr; Arctic map - BBC

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