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Book Review

The Race for What's Left

Louise Rubacky
Reviewer
Louise Rubacky is an writer, producer, editor, and filmmaker. She has edited for directors Jean-Jacques Annaud (Wings of Courage), Francis Coppola (Godfather III), George Lucas (The Young Indiana Jones…
Louise Rubacky

“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.Indeed, dearth of wisdom is the principal problem that the world is up against: Over and over the author admits that bottom line economics has won — or is likely to win — over good sense and foresight when it comes to coping with the limits of growth. (This volume doesn’t cover the dedicated efforts of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earth Justice and similar groups to preserve precious resources and wild places, without which there would be far fewer to write about at this moment in history.) However inspirational it may sound, living for the moment is the opposite of rationality, a non-plan that seems to guide global businesses.

Yet, or perhaps because of that, just 25 pages in the last chapter are all that the author devotes to adaptation and survival. That effort in the U.S. is flagging, and China, which has put real muscle behind clean technology, is highly dependent on imports to keep up with its development. And rare earth minerals like gallium, lithium and indium, necessary for some clean tech solutions, are destined to become conflict minerals as their demand exceeds supply. Geography, environmental restrictions and difficult access will keep prices high for the foreseeable future. Klare pops his green balloons even as he floats them.

China is already trapped in a loop of need and feed. While embracing technology that will use fewer resources, its markets can grow the Chinese economy; people want more, and use more. And although China’s explosive growth slowed a bit during the recession, the pace so far has created massive environmental problems with water and air quality, and it has overtaken the U.S. to win first place in carbon emissions — a losing lead if there ever was one.

Klare’s body of work suggests he’s on a mission to awaken everyone to the reality that contentious geopolitical zones are mounting because natural assets are shrinking. There’s more than enough here to alarm anyone who is interested, as I am, but a key question arises: how to draw more of the public’s attention to works like “The Race for What’s Left”? The limits of language in relaying the contents illustrate the academic’s challenge — reporting encyclopedic information while infusing the subject with freshness. The essential knowledge within its covers demands a delivery system that is both more appealing and palatable.

Material like this would reach more people — and be better absorbed — if it were offered in a newspaper or TV series, using video, animation and graphics that can visually highlight the human dimension of the problems, and make vivid their magnitude. Also, video installments would be retrievable online, where so many interact with information today. “Fantasy!” may be the reply of those familiar with obstacles to production in our ad driven, media consolidated world. But PBS, CNN and Discovery still produce relevant special reports, and online outlets are growing. And while the expense of location shooting cannot be dismissed, tools like Google Earth provide impressive imagery. (In 2006, activist Rebecca Moore used Google Earth presentations at community meetings to show residents of California’s Los Gatos Creek Canyon how planned logging would adversely affect them. The visuals galvanized the group, which previously had been presented with a misleading map by the logging firm, and the residents won their fight to keep the loggers out.)

One of the challenges of our time is to make critical information attractive in a world that has devolved into a 24/7 advertisement, telling us we need more stuff. Awareness and knowledge are now commodities on which our collective survival may depend, because we are engaged in an elaborate game of musical chairs, or as Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute calls it, another huge Ponzi scheme. Many will lose before the music stops, and some, especially those with penthouse views, will likely catch on too late for their kids and grandkids to thrive, regardless of their material and monetary inheritances.

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