Land and Resource Scarcity: Capitalism, struggle and well-being in a world without fossil fuels

October 15, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedLand and resource scarcity: Capitalism, struggle and well-being in a world without fossil fuels
Edited by Andreas Exner, Peter Fleissner, Lukas Kranzl and Werner Zittel
Routledge. New York, 2013.

This is a book that seems to be created above all for people who are active in social movements, but who are also uneasy about the current global crisis. The first noteworthy element of the text is that, unlike in the majority of books where each chapter is written by different people, in this case the editing process has allowed the chapters to be interwoven without repeating ideas, and the result is a coherent block with clear ideas that are developed throughout the book.

A second virtue of the book is that it broadens the reader’s perspective and tries to provide a complex view of reality. Sociological, economic, environmental, energetic and psychological aspects are dealt with in an intertwined way. Only analyses of this type will lead to finding satisfactory solutions to the crisis of civilization in which we find ourselves.

The main thesis of the book is that, in the context of the growing difficulty in accessing fossil fuels and the different strategic resources, the control of land is going to become a basic strategic element. After extensively justifying this statement, the book launches a series of reflections about possible strategies to be utilized by social movements from the perspective of de-growth solidarity. These strategies need to transcend capitalism, as it is not able to provide fair solutions and, even less so, in a world where the available resources are increasingly scarce.

In the first chapter (“Exiting the multiple crises through ‘green’ growth?”), the authors describe the current crisis as multiple, interweaving its economic, environmental and political parts. In this description, special attention is paid to the importance of energy and the spatial dimension in capitalism, showing how the end to the energy crisis cannot occur within the framework of capitalism, but rather under other paradigms. “The end of the black epoch” provides a detailed description of the peak of petroleum, gas and carbon extraction. It also distinguishes between the energetic qualities of different types of liquid (for example, between the agro-fuels and conventional petroleum) and solid (different types of carbon) fossil fuels. The chapter describes the parts of the planet where these resources are and will be more abundant and, therefore, have and will have a more central geostrategic importance. In contrast, other zones, such as Europe, will find it much more difficult to access energy.

The next chapter (“The stuff of the green revolution”) deals with industrial agriculture’s dependence on synthetic fertilizers and, specifically, the key importance of the phosphorous peak. Moreover, it also highlights the inevitable reduction in agro-industrial production as a result of the petroleum peak.

The fourth chapter in the book, “Mining between comeback and dead end”, provides an historical approach to mining. It shows how mining has been related to the patriarchal system, slavery, capitalism and war. In addition, it examines the environmental impacts of mining and, following along the lines of the two previous chapters, the peak of various basic minerals, such as copper, and mining’s current dependence on petroleum. This means that renewable energy development will have serious problems related to the availability of basic metals in the future, especially in spaces like Europe.

Finally, the chapter reviews how social struggles are managing to interfere with some mining projects. Once the environmental context and its socioeconomic implications have been described, the book argues that land control is going to acquire greater centrality (Land and the centrality of biomass). As in the previous chapter, this one begins with a historical tour of the use of the biomass and the social conflicts over the control of land, highlighting the importance of land grabs in the birth of capitalism. In this tour, the authors point out how the beginning of the massive use of fossil fuels marked an inflection point in the social and economic conception of the land and the biomass, which moved to second place. However, with the arrival of the fossil fuel peak, the importance of land control again took a key position, something that is reflected in the increase in fighting over it.

This last point is the main theme of the next chapter (“The new land grab at the frontiers of the fossil energy regime”). Here there is an interweaving of the food model in crisis mentioned earlier, the dynamics and investment needs of global capitalism, and the petroleum peak, to justify a new cycle of land grabs, above all in places like Africa, carried out by big capital with the support of the World Bank. The chapter shows some specific cases in sub-Saharan Africa related both to land grabs and social struggles toward redistribution.

The seventh chapter (“Possible futures among dictatorship, chaos, and living well”) opens the door to what could be considered the third part of the book, which offers a prognosis for the future and, above all, strategic reflections for emancipatory social movements. This chapter argues that the future is not written, and that, although the scenario described up to this point may not seem very hopeful, it ultimately depends on the evolution of social resistance, just like in the past. To do this political fiction exercise, various possible scenarios are explored, and three specific countries are analysed (Japan, North Korea and Cuba). These three countries have experienced situations of energy resource scarcity, but with quite different outcomes. The main thesis defended in the text is that the more important solidarity is in the society and the more common goods continue to exist, the easier it will be to achieve an emancipatory end to the energy crisis, and vice versa.

“De-growth solidarity: the great transformation of the twenty-first century” starts with a summary of the interrelation between the land, resources, capitalism (and its intrinsic need for growth), and social struggles that have been traced throughout the book. From this point on, it reflects on how to advance toward de-growth solidarity in a world with increasingly limited energy resources. De-growth solidarity is characterised by a solidarity economy in common goods that allow reciprocity. The core point of this transition lies in how to organise cooperative relationships at different levels that can provide the basis for reflections.

Finally, ”A strategy of double power: the state and global regulation” is based on an analysis of the role of the State in the social organisation and in capitalism. It goes on to contemplate the possible development of the State in a transition based on de-growth solidarity. On one hand, the State can serve to promote policies from above, while at the same time organising the society to create a self-organisation that will gradually dissolve the State. This proposal specifically deals with resource management at a global level.

This final third of the book is the part that is most open to debate. The first part provides current and well-chosen data to describe the present-day global crisis, but for those who have already read about this topic, it may not provide anything qualitatively new. The second part reflects a main element of the framework for the future (quickly becoming the present): land. But the strategic discussion is what social movements need to examine in greater depth. In this regard, the text offers relevant contributions, although it is necessary to look at them more closely. It is also necessary to analyse in more detail some of the implications of the fossil fuel peak, such as relocating the economy and societies, something the book only touches on tangentially.

Finally, in addition to discussing possible strategies, it is also useful to imagine the possible scenarios in some detail. What will the human masses be like? In what way will States be transformed? How will the social subjectivities change? What will the economy be like? What will the dominant emotions be in the social body? What type of international relations will dominate? How will the relationships of domination evolve? This exercise is useful, as it provides the strategic discussion with a possible context in which to move. It is not dealt with in the book because it goes beyond the authors’ objectives, but the text provides the necessary theoretical and empirical tools, which is another of its virtues.

Luis González Reyes

Luis González Reyes is the author of In the Spiral of Energy with R. Fernández Durán and a member of  ecologistas en acción.

Tags: capitalism, energy depletion, land grabs, mining, policy, social movements