The Race for What’s Left

WHAT LINKS EXPLORATION in the depths of the Arctic winter with the tensions that fueled the Arab Spring? Deep-sea drilling off the coast of Florida with forest clearing in the heart of the Amazon? The mining of the Gobi with political intrigue in Gabon?

According to this wide-ranging, fascinating, and alarming book, it is the rush by governments and multinationals to secure what remains of the world’s dwindling resources—a scramble that is driving up commodity prices, raising the risk of conflicts, and creating a new set of political and business rivalries.

The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources is a tale of what happens when frontiers become fringes, or as the author, Michael T. Klare, puts it, when the world enters “an era of pervasive, unprecedented resource scarcity.”

A journalist, academic, and prolific author, Klare has spent at least a decade considering this question. In this latest book, he takes his thesis literally to the ends of the earth: the polar extremes, oceanic troughs, and tar sands where commodity extractors are now chasing down “unconventional supplies” of the oil, gas, rare earths, and other minerals needed to maintain economic business as usual.

In the first chapter, Klare reviews the intensifying contest for the Arctic, where Russia, the U.S., Canada, and others have made claims to territory thought to contain a fifth of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas reserves. In lucid prose, he then takes the reader along, chapter by chapter and country by country, describing the resources that are left, the technological processes used to exploit them, and the likely geostrategic and environmental consequences.

As is somewhat inevitable for a work covering such a broad geographic range, the book tends to rely heavily on news articles, which means that a little of the content feels distant or dated (Japan already has a new prime minister). But that does not undermine the overall message, which is both ultramodern and classical.

Much of the “race” that Klare describes is reminiscent of the “Great Game” played by the British and Russian empires of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to control central Asia. Now, however, the contest is on a planetary scale, over many more fields, with many more competitors. On the ground are big energy, mining, and agricultural companies from the developed world as well as new corporate giants from the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, and China.

Unlike in most contests, the outcome is not a clear-cut triumph of winners over losers. Too much is damaged along the way for that to be the case, particularly with regard to the environment, as Klare spells out in passages on the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, climate change, and the implications of producing oil from Canada’s tar sands or Venezuela’s Orinoco Belt. Running down ecological capital also undercuts technological advantages, as, for example, when a shortage in rare earth minerals threatens to limit the adoption of renewable energy technologies. It can also result in a deterioration of cross-border relations, the book notes, as rising concerns over resource scarcity add to tensions in the South China Sea, Middle East, Falklands, and Arctic, or in domestic unrest over rising food prices, which were a factor in the Arab Spring. Klare foresees that these conflicts will get worse as the contest enters an end stage.

Persisting with the race for what’s left will probably result, Klare predicts, in “war, widespread starvation, or a massive environmental catastrophe” with the first crisis likely to hit in agriculture, where the looming shortage of tillable land and the growing demand for food will usher in an era of “Peak Soil.” “Perhaps the fiercest resource struggle in the coming decades will involve food and the land it is grown on,” he writes.

But such scenarios are not inevitable. The book ends on a positive, polemical note as Klare calls for an alternative “race to adapt,” mainly through the substitution of finite resources with renewables. In this regard, he is particularly upbeat about the momentum in China. Having covered that beat for several years, I think he is right to recognize that Beijing has moved farther and faster in that direction than most countries, but overoptimistic about the potential impact on an economy that is still primarily driven by coal. More broadly, I would have liked him to give more consideration to demand-side solutions that address the fundamental problem of overconsumption by a growing proportion of the world’s population.

I read this book in Brazil in June while covering the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. The contrast between the grim analysis provided in these pages and the weak outcome agreed on by state negotiators was jarring. When every nation has recognized for the first time that “unsustainable patterns of consumption” are a major problem, the solution should be greater international cooperation to conserve. Instead, as this book reminds us in compelling detail, our species seems focused more on a nationalist competition to consume.