The Deadly Scramble for the World's Last Resources
Source Dave Anderson
Date 12/03/25/02:05
The Deadly Scramble for the World's Last Resources
By Julian Brookes

FOR BETTER OR worse, a lot of the things we humans like about the way
we live now – from electric lighting and indoor plumbing to global
travel, advanced medicine, flat-screen TVs, and iPhones – depend on
our ability to suck, scrape and blast stuff out of the earth. And not
just obvious stuff, like oil, coal, and natural gas; modern life, with
all its wonders and comforts, is brought to you by a huge array of
natural resources, from metals like copper (used in electrical wiring)
and iron ore (steel), to minerals like lithium (batteries) and
tantalum (cell phones), to so-called "rare earth elements" (lasers,
fiber optics, hybrid car engines, iPads and more). Some are more
important than others, of course, but if even a few of them were to
run out, we'd be in bad shape.

Well, here's the thing: These critical resources are running out.
Virtually all of them.

The world is hurtling towards what author Michael Klare calls "a
crisis of resource depletion." In a new book, Klare drops the stunning
news that the earth's easily accessible supplies of oil, coal, gas,
metals, minerals, rare earths and even water and food are disappearing
fast, plunging governments and corporations into a balls-to-the-wall
"race for what's left." And what's left is, above all, hard to get at
– it's under the Arctic ice, deep below the ocean floor, in tar sands
and shale, and in war zones, like Afghanistan and the Democratic
Republic of the Congo. Getting at it is becoming more and more
dangerous, both environmentally – we can expect to see more Gulf-style
disasters as companies breach the "final frontiers" of resource
extraction – and politically, as countries clash more and more over
who gets what.

Holy crap, right? But there's a (somewhat) hopeful part: For some of
these resources, there are substitutes (say, renewables in place of
oil), and if we pick up the pace in developing them, we won't have to
plunder the planet quite so much; in other cases, we'll just need to
learn to do more with less (conservation, efficiency). The essential
thing, says Klare, whose new book is called The Race for What's Left,
is to start figuring this stuff out right now.

Rolling Stone recently got Michael Klare on the phone to talk about
"peak everything," the mad scramble for the world's last resources,
and our stark choice of futures.

You say we’re facing a "crisis of resource depletion." Are we there
yet? Are these must-have resources already disappearing?

They’re not disappearing, but many of them are facing rapid decline
and depletion. Virtually all of the easily accessible resources are
now gone, so were going to need to replace them with new sources of

How can you be sure we’re at "the final frontiers," as you put it, of
resource extraction?

When you look at what’s being developed today, whether it’s the deep
oceans or the Arctic or shale gas and shale oil, you’re seeing levels
of investment costs and danger that are unprecedented, and levels of
environmental risks that are unlike anything we’ve seen before. You
wouldn’t go to these lengths if easier resources were available.

If I read you right, conflict is pretty much inevitable as countries
compete to scoop up as much of what's left as they can. Is this
already happening?

There’ve been some testy moments. Russia and Norway have had some
naval show of force up in the Bering Sea, but they’ve resolved that
for the time being. The East China Sea and the South China Sea, where
you have disputed off shore oil and gas fields, are exceedingly tense;
we’ve seen naval clashes between Japan and China and between China and
Vietnam and the Philippines. And now President Obama has said that the
U.S. is going to become more deeply involved in those areas.

And things could get pretty hairy up in the Arctic.

The Arctic has been totally neglected up until now, but it’s seen as
the most promising future source of oil and natural gas, so suddenly
it has become valuable real estate. Suddenly, national boundaries that
nobody cared about before are becoming very important. Ironically,
this is partly because the ice sheet is shrinking thanks to climate
change, and so you can drill more of the year. Russia claims almost
half of the entire Arctic region as its national territory and is
seeking to dominate as much of the region as possible. Russian
President Vladimir Putin has said he’s going to build up Russia’s
military capabilities in the Arctic in years ahead to protect it
against anybody else coming in there. But other countries also have
claims in the area: Norway, Canada, and Greenland, which is ultimately
controlled by Denmark and the United states, so you could have a very
intense geopolitical competition for control over these future

And why are the environmental risks so much greater with these
harder-to-get resources?

When you look at what’s being developed today, whether it’s the deep
oceans or the Arctic or shale gas and shale oil, you’re seeing levels
of costs and danger and environmental risks that are unlike anything
we’ve seen before. You see it with hydraulic fracturing – “fracking” –
which produces a huge volume of toxic waste water, close to heavily
populated areas of the Northeast. Or offshore drilling. The BP
Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico showed what can
happen. Off the coast of Greenland they’re beginning to drill for oil
– which is only possible because the ice sheet is shrinking -- but
this in turn will increase the risk of environmental damages to the
shoreline of Greenland, which is very fragile and is home to a lot of
endangered species.

And it goes without saying that as these resources become scarcer,
they’ll get more and more expensive.

Right. Take Canadian tar sand. It takes a tremendous amount of energy
to get it out of the ground and to convert it into liquid, so it’s
only profitable when oil is over $80-$90 a barrel in some cases. In
the future, when the easily developed tar sands are depleted, Arctic
oil will be even more costly to produce. So we’re entering a period of
increasingly high-priced oil.

How does food figure in this story?

Food production requires a lot of energy – plus a lot of fertilizer
and herbicides and pesticides, all of which are derived from oil and
natural gas. It requires a lot of irrigated water. Those things are
becoming more and more scarce and costly, and it’s unclear that the
world can continue to provide increased food supplies for people. And
certainly poor farmers can’t afford all of these inputs, so it’s only
these highly financed operations from the rich countries, these
pockets of wealth of food production.

One of the things you write about is the phenomenon of “land grabs,”
where rich and developing countries are buying up huge swathes of land
in poor ones, especially in Africa. What’s that all about?

Right. China, India, South Korea and oil producers like Saudi Arabia
and United Arab Emirates are among the countries buying large tracts
of farmland in Africa – not to feed the African population, but to
produce food to airlifting back to the home country. They’re afraid
they won’t have enough food to feed their population in the future.
This is another example of the race for resources in a world where
people are fearful there won’t be enough to go around.

What about rare earths?

Rare earths are a group of about 17 elements. They’ve become important
because they play a very useful role in green technology, like
high-speed magnets for motors in the Prius and other hybrid cars, and
in the turbines for windmills, and in solar panels. The problem is,
rare earths are not found in concentrated amounts anywhere on the
planet. There’s a huge demand and a very limited supply, and mining
them is very hard and very environmentally hazardous, because it takes
a lot of acids and other solvents to leech them out from other

The United States once produced a lot of rare earths in California, on
the Nevada border, but because of the environmental hazards, that
operation was shut down in the 1990’s, and since then China has been
the leading producer of rare earths. And they’ve used them to put
economic and political pressure on their clients, like Japan.

It’s a little ironic that green technology depends on materials that
environmentally hazardous to produce…

Right. Hybrid cars, for instance, are full of rare earths. That
suggests we may have to be thinking even more radically in the search
for solutions.

So…what to do?

We humans have always behaved as if new sources of energy will come
along to replace the ones we use up, so we don’t have to think about
conservation or efficiency or alternatives, but we are at the end of
that process, we can’t think that way anymore, because there aren’t
new abundant pools of energy that are affordable.

Can we replace everything we use now with something else?

It’s not at all clear that we can. We have to think about reusing
things much more, holding onto things longer and using them more
efficiently; rebuilding our cities, our towns, our landscape to be
much more energy efficient and resource efficient. So the innovative
research and technologies of the future will really be about

What timeframe are we talking about?

The high point of the crisis is still some years away, but I would say
that we have to start now if we’re going to avoid really desperate
conditions in 10, 20, 30 years, when many of the materials we rely on
will become much more scarce. We’re going to have more conflict, more
crisis, more poisonous relations with countries like China because of
the competition between us. But I also fear we’re going to have more
bad environmental crises occurring -- more Deepwater Horizon-like
events that will remind us of the perils of relying on these extreme
forms of energy and other minerals. That’s what’s in store for us if
we don’t begin to change our behavior today.

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