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The Race For What’s Left: The Global Scramble For The World’s Last Resources

March 2, 2013

Race For What's Left

1.

Such is the title of Michael T. Klare’s latest book, one which for better or worse, my students at the University of Denver have no choice but to read. They have been submitting questions to me about it these past weeks, intelligent ones. Mostly they can’t seem to `get it’ why the United States and other `core’ countries are not seriously investing in alternative energies, or why the environmental and human consequences of some of the world’s biggest mining and petro-chemical projects are not taken more seriously especially when the start up costs for these projects are enormous and that it will take a decade to build the infra-structure necessary to make such projects viable – that is, if that is even possible.

Several friends are not impressed with the book.

They think that it  doesn’t cover new ground and that it overstates its case that the world is running short of, or out of petro-chemicals and strategic minerals. In some cases these friends, for various reasons, have learned about the book’s content from other sources so for them it’s not original.

Others believe that Klare overstates his case. Perhaps some experts are aware of the book’s content, but I doubt that this is true for `the general public’ for which this book is a most valuable contribution to our understanding of global processes, not just about mining in naturally or politically dangerous places or the alliances made between large scale global mining giants like Rio Tinto, Anglo-American Mining, the Chinese National Machinery and Equipment Import and Export Corporation (CMEC) and different African dictators.

As for Klare overstating the case of a world where global demand for resources cannot keep with supply, I am startled that anyone – other than an oil company, mining executive or the politicians they have bought and paid for – would make such a case. The whole logic of the book is that the pressure for depleted resources is forcing nations and energy/mining companies `over the edge’ – to more and more out of the way places in search of oil, metals, natural gas.

It is not clear where the tipping point might be when finding fresh sources of supply will not be an option any more’. But be it in energy (oil, natural gas, uranium for nuclear), in common,but needed metals like iron and copper and in less common but strategically important minerals that supply is not keeping up with global demand. Global demand is exploding, and supply is stagnant. Even where there are new big discoveries (like iron in Guinea, lithium in Afghanistan and China [Tibet]), that can ease the supply problem, what are we really talking about – a delay of five years? ten? twenty? – not much if one looks at the bigger picture. Or take the case of coal, the global supply of which is not so tight. But coal fired plants pollute and produce their fair share of greenhouse gasses. Despite the coal energy’s insistence to the contrary there is not such thing as clean coal. 

So the point is we, the world, are in a tightening crisis – the rich countries want to hold on to what they have and the emerging countries, like the BRIC, want their share of economic progress so long denied to them. Can the world’s resources be rationally shared? Up until now, this is doubtful. Can we move towards serious attention to alternative energies?will there ever be a source of cheap energy (The sun?) that all of humanity can share, thus making `development’ more of a possibility? Well there is a lot of talk, but not much action on that front from the places that matter: governments and mega-corporate energy and mining entities. It seems that only global public pressure pushes governments and corporations even think about being responsive.

Klare has always been careful about making dire predictions and doesn’t, not in this book or his previous works. He just puts out the facts that the Norwegians are now mining north of the Arctic Circle, that mining companies are probing Greenland, Ontario north of the Arctic Circle, and fighting over claims to the North Pole, that the Chinese and just about everyone else are willing to invest some $4.5 billion in a railroad from the Guinean interior to the Atlantic coast to exploit the country’s iron resources, that the French are building a third uranium mining plant smack in the middle of the Sahara, etc, etc.

To add to that, in a previous book, Resource WarsKlare does something that few others have done so well. He analyses the Cheney Energy Report, formally called The Report of the National National Energy Policy Group, May 2001. While most of the attention of that report focused on the unsuccessful struggle to get Cheney to release  notes of his meetings with energy and mining executives, Klare analyzes the recommendations of the report, recommendations which were adapted not only by the Bush Administration, but by Democrats and Republicans alike. The United States has today a bipartisan energy policy that is one of the anchors of U.S. foreign economic and security policy. It explains why the United States permits virtually unregulated fracking for natural gas, offshore drilling for oil. It explains, at least in part, the U.S.-led wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, the new wave of unbridled French militarism in Libya and Mali.

In fact, contrary to those who criticize `The Race for What’s Left’, I find it a most valuable contribution, and I am not surprised, as Klare’s work – essentially on the politics of energy, the likelihood of `resource wars’ – has always been carefully documented, argued and well written. He breaks through all the claptrap about foreign policy being driven by `democracy’ and `development’ projects and gets to the core of things, and as such, does a service to the field of often ignored field of political economy. And I’m in good company defending the book. Environmentalist Bill Mckibbon puts it succinctly:

As Michael Klare makes clear in this powerful book, the heads of our corporate empires have decided to rip apart the planet in one last burst of profiteering.

2.

Getting right to the point, my students have noticed something else: how much energy, money, intellectual talent is going into the mad race for resources, it has reached something of stampede proportions, and how little energy, money and intellectual talent goes into alternative energy possibilities, the rhetoric aside.  In the end, it’s not complicated, the scramble is about greed and short term thinking, ie, that dangerous logic which begins with `let the future be damned’, let future generations solve their own problems. Greed and immediate gratification are alive and well. The connection that we all share with each other and with all living things is mauled, either dead or in a state of cryonic suspension.

It is not just a global race for oil and natural gas that is underway but also for the remaining global mineral wealth. This includes rare substances – the so-called rare earth elements – but also commonly used minerals – iron, copper, the supply for which is diminishing as the global demand continually increases. And it is an unregulated global race for what’s left. At this point, `the race’ has not led to global conflagration  but it could do so easily as the different core countries line up to extract needed minerals from the Arctic, from the African heartland. Besides, if the United States and China are not presently duking it out over African copper,  oil and uranium, that doesn’t mean that `resource wars’ have not already taken place. Indeed many of the recent wars have an economic component hidden behind some generally flaky rationale. Examples abound:

AbuGhraibAbuse

Abu Ghraib – Where American troops and private security fim employees systematically tortured and humiliated Iraqis…while the mainstream media repeated that `it wasn’t about oil’. But it was.

Let’s start with Iraq. When the U.S. led 2003 invasion of that country began the public was told that it was about `weapons of mass destruction’ , Saddam Hussein’s (non-existent) links with Al Qaeda. Some of the more hysterical media reports spoke of Iraqi`threats’ to New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and in a oblique reference to `Red Dawn’ even little Denver! Those who carried signs saying `No Blood For Oil’ were publicly chastised for suggesting that American soldiers were dying by the thousands and Iraqis by the hundreds of thousands to make the world safe for Exxon-Mobil. Privatizing the Iraqi oil industry – actually the entire economy – certainly was one of the main goals. So, it was about oil.

Then there is Afghanistan. The United States has been in there, in what is clearly a losing effort despite attempts to put some kind of positive gloss on it, for more than a decade now, longer than the Iraq war actually. A few years into that invasion, supposedly to rid the country of Al Qaeda, the news started leaking about `pipeline politics’, that Afghanistan could be a natural gas pipeline from Central Asia to the Pakistani coast. In the midst of the fighting, long after Al Qaeda had been essentially kicked out of Afghanistan, the New York Times in a front page article happened to mention that that the US Geological Survey estimates that there is `a trillion dollars’ of mineral wealth in the country, that includes possibly the world’s largest untapped deposit of copper at Aynak in Logar Province, and `the largest untapped iron ore deposit in Asia at Hajigak. Add to that `promising’ deposits of gold, lead, tungsten and zinc along with rare earth elements and niobium.

ImourarenNow there is Mali/Niger. In one of the more disingenuous political statements of recent times, French President Hollande insisted that France had sent troops to Mali out of the goodness of its heart. Please! French geologists had surveyed northern Mali in the 1950s suggesting potential large deposits of oil, uranium and gold. The French mining giant Avena 90% owned by the French government has just opened its third and largest mine in neighboring Niger at a site called Imouraren that is about to go on line. The Imouraren mine is described as the largest uranium mine in Africa and the second largest in the world. French fear that the turbulence in Northern Mali could spill over into neighboring Niger with the three uranium mines not far from the Malian border was a critical factor in the French military offensive.

There is much more to this story, much of it from Klare’s book, some of gleaned from other sources. One could go on….and I will, in other entries to follow on this subject, but not tonight.

____________

Links:

Demand For Resources Drives African Rail Boom

Fukushima: Radioactive Cesium Contamination of Japan’s Food Chain

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