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The Race for What’s Left

Posted on Jun 5, 2013

“The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources”
A book by Michael T. Klare

There’s an AT&T commercial that’s been running on TV recently. A guy in a suit sits on a schoolroom floor, surrounded by a circle of preschool-aged kids. He poses a question: “Who thinks more is better than less?” A lisping little girl answers, in a cute and incoherent way, then wraps up her ramble with: “We want more, we want more; like, you really like it, we want more.” The deadpan man nods, “I follow you … ” and the screen cuts to an animated graphic with voice-over: “It’s not complicated—more is better, and AT&T has the largest 4G network.”

The setting alone stands as a marvel of irony, but the “more is better” message of the ad sums up the mantra of almost every corporation selling any commodity today. Kids don’t necessarily learn that in school; they absorb it as a cultural truism well before they get to kindergarten. Because of that, partly, things on our planet are going to get ugly.

To see long excerpts from “The Race for What’s Left” at Google Books, click here.

Michael T. Klare’s vastly researched, minutely detailed book “The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources,” now out in paperback, can be read as a direct rebuke to the “we want more, we want more” world. The author, a professor of peace and world security studies at the Five College Consortium in Massachusetts and a contributor to The Nation and TomDispatch, has long written about potential conflict resulting from humans claiming rights to and using too much of what comes from the earth. His latest is something of a sister volume—with different angles and emphases—to his “Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet” (2005) and “Resource Wars” (2002.)

In “The Race for What’s Left,” he continues his exploration of the high stakes at play when the demand for resources is bottomless. Powerful nations are on collision courses marked by differing claims of ownership; economically weak countries have little chance of prevailing in contests of greed over need. In addition to those conflicts are the disasters that climate change will foist on large swaths of people, causing millions to become refugees.

The case Klare makes is dire but simple: There are no longer any essential resources for economic expansion or survival that are abundant, accessible and safe to obtain. The natural assets that form the core of 21st century life include oil, gas, precious metals, rare earth minerals, land and water—although water is covered here primarily in connection to the use or extraction of other resources, like fracking gas from shale rock. Geological stores will increasingly be the trump cards in international relations—more than ideology and religion, which have been at the core of most tension and conflicts for decades. Belief and politics will diminish in importance as the demand and need for food, energy and the elements that keep economic production humming increase.

There are only so many ways to state the essential problem as it exists from region to region. So Klare presents the current facts of each diminishing resource and its possessor country or corporation—what and where these materials are, how each lies behind a race that has already begun, and the disputes waiting to explode in violence. Klare avoids the use of the word “war” for much of this book, but the use of military force is where at least some clashes are heading.

The author is methodical and clear, if sometimes repetitive, in his reporting of supporting data, and he weaves in anecdotal, humanizing evidence at regular intervals. Many details are culled from the findings of a tangle of NGOs and think tanks that are identified—after the first introduction—by clusters of initials (IEA, DESA, IFPRI and so on). Klare’s massive research deserves high praise, but making one’s way through page after page of dense details is akin to eating too many meals stripped of fat and flavor, too close together. Yes, we need to know this stuff, just as we need dietary fiber, but too much at once is tough to digest.

The scope and depth of Klare’s investigation is remarkable, however.  From Alaska to Antarctica, Bolivia to the Philippines, Guinea to Madagascar, all around and in between, Klare has dug deeply to unfold resource realities in familiar and far off places, some of which are so daunting that no one would go, were it not for the stuff beneath the surface. (Norlisk, Siberia, home of platinum group metals, anyone? “The snow is black, the air tastes of sulfur, and the life expectancy for factory workers is 10 years below the Russian average,” according to the Blackstone Group report Klare cites.)

In his description of offshore oil extraction, Klare notes that ultra deepwater oil exploration and drilling, at depths of more than 1 mile, far surpass in danger and difficulty the sea work that has been practiced for more than 50 years. Further, the expense and hazard level at such depths are comparable to space missions. A 1996 Shell oil platform called “Mars” cost three times the NASA Mars Pathfinder mission, according to the U.S. commission investigating the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Despite that tragedy, the major oil and gas corporations remain little fazed by impediments to profit. There are familiar names like Tony Hayward of BP/Deepwater Horizon infamy, but as the accounts of hubris begin to read like satire, it’s apparent that although the names of these captains of industry differ, the risk allowance remains essentially the same. Almost no warning is worth consideration; it’s as if the CEOs have divined that they are protected by superhero powers. Meanwhile, workers die, ecosystems are ravaged, fines mount, the future darkens. And “Onward!” is the cry.

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