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Global scarcity: Scramble for dwindling natural resources

National security expert Michael Klare believes the struggle for the world’s resources will be one of the defining political and environmental realities of the 21st century. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he discusses the threat this scramble poses to the natural world and what can be done to sustainably meet the resource challenge.

Michael Klare, a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, devotes much of his time these days to thinking about the intensifying competition for increasingly scarce natural resources. His most recent book, The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources, describes how the world economy has entered a period of what he calls “tough” extraction for energy, minerals, and other commodities, meaning that the easy-to-get resources have been exploited and a rapidly growing population is now turning to resources in the planet’s most remote regions — the Arctic, the deep ocean, and war zones like Afghanistan. The exploitation of “tough” resources, such as “fracking” for natural gas in underground shale formations, carries with it far greater environmental risk, Klare says.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Diane Toomey, Klare discussed China’s surging appetite for resources, the growing potential for political and military conflict as commodities become more scarce, and the disturbing trend of the planet’s agricultural land being bought by companies and governments seeking to ensure that their people will have enough food in the future. The way to reduce resource conflicts, says Klare, is to find substitute materials and to significantly boost efficiency in a host of realms, most notably energy. Hope for the future, he says, lies with innovative entrepreneurs and, especially, the young. “They all want to be involved in developing solutions,” said Klare, “and they have a lot of optimism and enthusiasm for this.”

Yale Environment 360: You make the point that when it comes to the age-old competition for raw materials, we’re in an unprecedented age. How so?

Michael Klare: I do believe that’s the case. Humans have been struggling to gain control of vital resources since the beginning of time, but I think we’re in a new era because we’re running out of places to go. Humans have constantly moved to new areas, to new continents, when they’ve run out of things in their home territory. But there aren’t any more new continents to go to. We’re going now to the last places left on earth that haven’t been exploited: the Arctic, the deep oceans, the inner jungles in Africa, Afghanistan. There are very few places left that haven’t been fully tapped, so this is humanity’s last chance to exploit the earth, and after this there’s nowhere else to go.

e360: Natural resource extraction has never been a pretty business when it comes to the environment, but you write that now that the era of easy oil, easy gas, easy minerals and other resources is basically over, and what’s left is in deep water, remote or inhospitable climates, or in geological formations that require extraordinary means to get at. So paint me a picture of what extracting these tough resources looks like.

Klare: We’re really going to be using very aggressive means of extraction, so the environmental consequences are going to be proportionally greater. For example, to get oil and natural gas out of shale rock, you can’t just drill and expect it to come out. It doesn’t work that way. You have to smash the rock, you have to produce fractures in the rock, and we use a very aggressive technology to do that — hydraulic fracturing — and the water is brought under tremendous pressure and it’s laced with toxic chemicals, and when the water is extracted from these wells it can’t be put back into the environment without risk of poisoning water supplies. So there’s a tremendous problem of storage, of toxic water supplies, and we really haven’t solved that problem.

And that’s just one example. Drilling in the Arctic presents a tremendous problem because the Arctic, by its very nature, is at the edge of survival and all the species there are living at the edge of survival, so any oil spill could push them over the edge into extinction. So [oil companies] must have on hand all kinds of extra capacity to deal with the possibility of spills, and that’s much more difficult to engineer than in the Gulf of Mexico, where there are tens of thousands of boats that you could hire on short notice to bring out skimmers and booms to contain a spill. There’s nothing like that in the Arctic. Moreover, if this were to happen in winter, there would be no way to move equipment up there to build a relief drill. Remember, it was a relief drill that closed the Deepwater Horizon spill, but you can’t do that in the middle of winter when the Arctic [Ocean] is covered with ice.

e360: Yet despite all that, there’s profits to be made.

Klare: There’s profits to be made, and this is particularly important to recognize — that this is attractive to the private international oil companies, like Shell, BP, and Exxon Mobil that are going into the Arctic, because they’ve been pushed out of the Middle East, Venezuela, and Russia by state-owned companies. So there are very few places where they can go and control the whole process of production, from beginning to end, and the Arctic is one of those few areas.

There’s more to it than just that. We’re really at a turning point and I think most people in this country and around the world understand that before too long we’re going to have to transition to other types of energy if we’re to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change. But the big oil companies, they only know one business, which is producing oil and natural gas and selling it in their service stations. And so they’re determined to maintain their business model as long as possible and they’re resisting the transition to alternative fuels.

e360: North America has more than its share of so-called tough oil and gas. That includes the Alberta tar sands and the shale gas fields in the U.S. that are being fracked. As energy extraction heats up in North America, you’ve written that the U.S. is in danger of becoming “a third-world petro state.” What do you mean by that?

Klare: Consider what [happened] in the 1960s and 1970s when U.S. and European oil companies moved into countries like Nigeria and Angola. You had very low government oversight of oil company operations, little or no environmental protection, a lot of corruption, so it was easy to expatriate your profits. You didn’t have to worry about labor regulations or labor unions. But now those places in the so-called Third World are becoming much tougher. They’re either nationalizing their resources or enforcing their environmental regulations or labor laws. So it’s not as profitable as it once was.

Meanwhile, in the United States, there are these formations that were once inaccessible, shale rock in particular. But to gain access to these resources in the United States and Canada it will be necessary to roll back a lot of the environmental protections and the labor and tax laws that were imposed over the past 50 years. So the oil companies and the gas companies really want to turn this country back to what it was before environmentalism became an issue, and make it more like the way the Third World was in the 1950s and 60s, with very lax environmental oversight and labor concerns, so that they can use the very aggressive, environmentally hazardous techniques to extract oil and gas from these tough formations.

e360: What developments can you point to that indicate that the U.S. is on the road to this?

Klare: For example, when the Bush Administration was in office, and Congress was under control of Republicans, the 2005 Energy Policy Act exempted hydrofracking from the Clean Water Act so that oil and gas companies could use hydrofracking with toxic chemicals and were not covered by the protections that all other kinds of industrial activities in the United States are subject to.

e360: Talk about the China-African connection and how it fits into the race for what’s left.

Klare: China now is the fastest-growing world economy and it’s very manufacturing-oriented, and China is also building cities and infrastructure very rapidly. All of this is incredibly resource-intensive. They need everything: oil, natural gas, iron, copper, more exotic things for the electronics that they build, like chromium, lithium, and palladium. And eventually food, because they’re unable to produce all the food they need for their population. So one of the major tasks of the Chinese leadership is to scour the world for all the resources that they need to keep the Chinese economic machine growing, and this will only become a bigger problem the further you look into the future.

To give one example, until relatively recently, 1993, China was self-sufficient in oil production and was until very recently self-sufficient in coal. But now China has to import half of its petroleum and that will increase to three-quarters. It’s now importing coal. Now, Africa is one of those areas that the Chinese leadership sees as a prime source of raw materials, and they think they have an advantage there, because of the historic animosity of the former colonies towards the West. They come in and say, “We’re going to do things differently. We’re not going to plunder your resources the way the imperialists did. We’re going to do this in a more cooperative fashion, so turn to us, let us develop your resources, and we’ll help develop your country.” And they’re making a tremendous pitch to extract all of Africa’s resources.

e360: And that promise to be the kinder, gentler extractor? What’s your take on that?

Klare: Opinions are divided on how realistic this promise that China is making of offering development to Africa is. To what degree is this really just the icing on the cake, when really they are no different from the European imperial powers in their drive to plunder Africa for their own benefit? They are building railroads and roads. But are the roads and railroads merely to facilitate the shipment of the iron ore and the copper ore to the coast to be put on ships to be carried to China? That’s the way it looks to me, more and more. Moreover, typically the Chinese say, “Well, we will build all of these facilities, new ports and railroads.” But typically they insist that Chinese state-owned companies build the railroads, ports, and airports. They bring in Chinese workers who live in self-contained compounds. They don’t offer jobs to local people, and so they’re creating a lot of resentment to China, just as there was once towards western imperialist exporters.

e360: Minerals, including lithium and platinum, get a lot of attention in your book. These are minerals with industrial, military, and commercial applications. It seems that the difference between easy access minerals and tough access minerals is not the extraction method but the degree of remoteness, military conflict, and regime volatility that companies have to contend with.

Klare: Well, yes, it’s a combination of all of those. The good, easy mining ores are largely gone now. So you have two choices. You can use more aggressive means to exploit the same old mines — tearing mountains apart they way they do in Chile and Indonesia for copper, where the mines are so vast you could see them from space, and you’re getting less and less desirable ores and so you have to treat them more with arsenic and other poisons. The consequences to the environment are therefore greater. So that’s one option. The other options are to go to the Arctic, and they are talking about producing some of these minerals in Greenland. For the first time, they’re moving into Nunavut, the native lands in Canada, far above the Arctic Circle, to get iron ore.

And the other possibility is to go to places you stayed away from because they were dangerous, like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or now Afghanistan. Many people believe that Afghanistan has a tremendous treasure trove of valuable minerals: copper, iron, lithium, rare earths, and if you’re prepared to bring in an army to protect them, there’s a lot of minerals there.

e360: And then there are the rare earth elements, with names that are difficult to pronounce, like scandium and promethium. Our cell phones and laptops are chock full of some of these substances and demand is expected to skyrocket over the next few years. But right now, China is just about the only country producing them. Is that going to change, and if so, what are the environmental implications?

Klare: Well, the thing about rare earths that I learned is that they’re not exactly rare as a percent of the earth’s crust, but they’re not found in concentrated nodes. They tend to be found with a lot of other things, including typically radioactive materials. So you have to separate them from other minerals you don’t want. China has taken over production of most of the rare earths. They have the concentrations and they are willing to overlook the environmental consequences. A lot of this is in inner Mongolia, and they are trying to promote economic development there. And from what I understand, it’s resulted in terrible environmental devastation of the surrounding agricultural areas that have been poisoned with the tailings from this rare earth production. But it was not because they had more of the minerals, but because they were willing to overlook the environmental hazards involved. Now they’re tightening up on their controls, and so the supply has gotten tighter.

e360: It seems that one could argue that it’s not the running out of resources that we have to fear, but rather the environmental cost of obtaining them.

Klare: There are several things happening all at once. There is the future point down the road where things really will be very scarce, and then civilization as we know it will collapse, unless between now and then we develop new ways of living. I’m talking about something that could happen in 2050 or farther down the pike. Oil will run out. But between now and then, we will have other problems. The price of things will rise and that will create everyday hardship in people’s lives and we’re seeing that today. But we’ll also see conflict arising in this race for what’s left. We’re already seeing signs of that in many places, for example, in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, as China and its neighbors are increasingly using military force to exert their claims over undersea reserves of oil and natural gas. So there will be many consequences to this final stage in humanity’s struggle to gain control over vital resources.

e360: There’s a relatively new phenomenon in which countries, mainly in the Persian Gulf, are buying up farmland in poor countries to grow crops for consumption at home. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has been buying up land in Sudan and Ethiopia. How have we come to a point where farmland has become a global commodity?

Klare: You know, I can’t help but think that there’s something very cynical and ugly about all of this, but a lot of the people who are in this business, they talk about Malthus, future population growth, starvation, climate change, all of these things making food the most precious commodity of the future — that whoever possesses land to grow food will be the rich people of the future. That’s the pitch that they make to investors, and it is based on the notion that people will be starving and desperate for food. Now, there are a second group of investors, those from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and so on, who say that we will not be able to feed our future population, and so therefore we will buy farmland in foreign countries to grow food exclusively for our own population, irrespective of the needs of the people who live in the food-growing areas. They’ll have to fend for themselves, but we’ll provide for our own people. And this, too, derives from very nightmarish scenarios of what we’ll see in the future.

e360: You say that to head off the global nightmare for the race for what’s left that we’ll need to engage in a race to adapt, and that includes finding substitute materials, improving efficiency. When I read this part of your book, I was rather surprised at its optimistic tone. You say you see signs that we’re already in the race to adapt. Talk to me about that.

Klare: Being around students, they think they know the bad news already and they’re determined to do something about it. They want to be in the solutions business. I think this is a universal phenomenon around the world because I have students in my classes from virtually every continent now, and they all want to be involved in developing solutions, and they have a lot of optimism and enthusiasm for this. So it’s partly that energy that I’m feeling from my students and young people about the possibilities of positive change. And then I see that there are entrepreneurs who are coming up with very creative solutions to the problems I describe, who are creating the alternative modes of producing energy and using materials more efficiently. And I think that with time they will gain momentum.

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