The imperialist scramble for resources

The Race for What’s Left

MICHAEL KLARE has established himself as the primary analyst of the growing interimperial conflict over raw materials in the world capitalist system. He first laid out his argument in Resource Wars and further developed it in Blood and Oil and Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet. In his latest book, The Race for What’s Left, he contends that resource competition has reached a new stage that threatens our world with increasing war and environmental catastrophe.

Klare argues this new stage has been triggered by the rise of new economic powers like China and India. They have increased the global demand for resources at the very same time that existing and accessible reserves have hit their peak of production and begun to decline. To secure new sources, the various capitalist powers have been compelled to recognize the end of “easy extraction” and develop new methods of “extreme extraction.”

They are developing new technologies like fracking to exploit previously inaccessible reserves, opening up regions made available by global warming like the Artic, and dramatically expanding their exploitation of underdeveloped countries, especially in Africa. Klare shows that “extreme extraction” is not only being pursued to secure new oil and natural gas reserves but a whole range of commodities from metals to minerals and even food.

He documents this mad scramble for each commodity and its disastrous impact on the environment and people. He catalogues the insane push to exploit offshore oil and natural gas reserves from the Gulf of Mexico to the Artic, coastal Brazil, and the East and South China Seas. The dangerous conditions and pressure to quickly extract the hydrocarbons guarantees ever more disasters like the Deep Water Horizon spill in the Gulf.

Similarly, he details the reckless development of tar sands oil and fracking for natural gas and their devastating environmental impact. He describes how open pit mining for tar sands oil has turned parts of Canada’s Athabasca region “into a blackened moonscape, with enormous man-made craters sitting alongside vast piles of discarded rocks and pools of poisonous wastewater.” He demonstrates how fracking produces waste filled with carcinogens that has found “its way into rivers like the Monongahela and the Susquehanna, which provide the drinking water for millions of people in Baltimore, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh.” This relentless pursuit of hydrocarbons, in addition, exacerbates global warming.

Klare illustrates how the same dynamic of increasing demand and declining output of traditional reserves has impacted the mining industry, driving it to open up whole new regions, especially in various African countries, but also Afghanistan, Mongolia, and the northern reaches of Canada. In opening up these new reserves, the various imperial powers and their corporations have bullied local states, driven indigenous people from their land, and ignored environmental restrictions in the process.

He also contends that increased demand for food has compelled nation states to plunder weaker states, again especially in Africa, for food production. As Klare writes, “Underlying all of these land-buying sprees—or ‘land grabs,’ as critics often call them—is the conviction that arable land is becoming a premium commodity, just like oil, gas, copper, platinum, and other materials.”

Each capitalist power is in a mad rush to establish their rights to new territories like the Artic as well as underdeveloped countries. They are pursuing this through state-owned industries or through close collaboration with private capital. As a result, the economic scramble for resources is bringing nation states into increasing conflict with each other throughout the world.

China, Japan, and various Asia Pacific nations are squabbling over ownership of islands in the South and East China Seas to secure drilling rights for oil and natural gas reserves. The United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, and Denmark are battling to secure rights to exploit the Arctic. In Africa, the US and its allies like France are in a fierce struggle with China to secure rights to exploit the continent’s resources.

Klare presents a terrifying picture of an anarchic system of states and corporations in a mad race to fulfill the ever-growing demand for resources. Yet while his empirical account is invaluable, Klehr’s theoretical framework is flawed. At the most superficial level, his attempt to combine very different resources into one paradigm of depletion and extreme extraction is unconvincing. For example, food production does not fit into his framework well. The international agricultural industry produces more than enough food for the world’s population. Any shortages have other causes than some Malthusian nightmare of “peak food.” These causes are things like capitalist speculation in food that raises prices out of the reach of hungry consumers and the diversion of food production into biofuels like ethanol that lower food stocks and similarly drive up prices.

At a deeper level, Klare has no underlying theory of the specificity of capitalism as a mode of production. As a result, he leans on various incompatible and in the end inaccurate explanations for the systemic patterns of depletion and extreme extraction. Thus, at various points he blames “age-old” patterns of human society, human civilization itself, industrialism, increased population, or high living standards.

Each of these explanations is wrong. As Chris Williams and a host of Marxists like John Bellamy Foster, Fred Magdoff, and Paul Burkett have demonstrated, capitalism is actually to blame for both environmental devastation and the tendency toward war. It compels corporations to exploit workers and the natural world to ensure profitable growth. To guarantee that their corporations remain dominant, capitalist states are forced into interimperial conflict with one another over everything from markets to politics and resources.

Lacking this anticapitalist framework, Klare presents false solutions. To his credit, he provides ample evidence throughout that the Obama administration is no friend of the environmental movement. But he never draws the conclusion that the Democrats, as a capitalist party, are actually part of the problem.

His positive solutions are either utopian or foster illusions in the system that is the source of the problem. At a recent forum on his book in Burlington, Vermont, when asked by activists what they should do about the dire situation we’re in, he advocated implementing models of sustainable development in cities and on campuses.

While no one should sneer at any attempt to redress the environmental catastrophe we are headed for, no one should be under any illusion that such islands of sustainability will solve what is a systemic, global problem. At the same time, Klare does sense the futility of such utopianism and so claims to have found a logic within capitalism that will mitigate the environmental crisis and tendency toward war in the system. He thus ends his book by proclaiming that he has detected an alternative to the “race for what’s left” in a supposed “race to adapt” in which capitalists and their states are investing in profitable alternatives to fossil fuels in things like green technologies.

But Klare’s own arguments undermine his misplaced hope in this “race to adapt.” The very country that has most led the investment in renewables—China—is also the most aggressive in the resource wars. In reality, capitalists and their states have simply sunk too much of their investment in the hydrocarbon economy to turn away from it.

While The Race for What’s Left suffers from theoretical weakness and consequently false solutions, it is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the environmental crisis and growing tendency toward resource wars. But to grasp the underlying reasons for these phenomena, it must be read alongside the analysis of today’s Marxists and ecosocialists who put the dynamics of capitalist accumulation at the heart of the ecological crisis and the international competition over land and resources.