From competition among hunter-gatherers for wild game to imperialist wars over precious minerals, resource wars have been fought throughout history; today, however, the competition appears set to enter a new—and perhaps unprecedented—phase. As natural resources deplete, and as the earth’s climate becomes less stable, the world’s nations will likely compete ever more desperately for access to fossil fuels, minerals, agricultural land, and water.
Nations need increasing amounts of energy and materials to produce economic growth, but the costs of supplying new increments of energy and materials are burgeoning. In many cases, lower-quality resources with high extraction costs are all that remain. Securing access to these resources often requires military expenditures as well. Meanwhile the struggle for the control of resources is realigning political power balances throughout the world.
This game of resource “musical chairs” could well bring about conflict and privation on a scale never seen before in world history. Only a decisive policy shift toward resource conservation, climate change mitigation, and economic cooperation seems likely to produce a different outcome.
America’s Resource Geopolitics
The United States—the world’s current economic and military superpower—entered the industrial era with a nearly unparalleled endowment of natural resources that included an abundance not only of forests, water, topsoil, and minerals but also of oil, coal, and natural gas. Like all other nations, the United States has approached its processes of resource extraction using the low-hanging-fruit principle. Today its giant onshore reservoirs of conventional oil are nearly depleted, and the nation’s total oil production is down by over 40 percent from its peak in 1970—despite huge discoveries in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. The country’s total coal resources are vast, but rates of extraction probably cannot be increased significantly and will likely begin to decline within the next decade or two. Unconventional hydrocarbon resources (such as natural gas liberated by the hydrofracking of shale deposits) are beginning to be commercialized, but they come with high investment costs and worrisome environmental risks. U.S. extraction rates for many minerals have been declining for years or decades, and currently the nation imports 93 percent of its antimony, 100 percent of its bauxite (for aluminum), 31 percent of its copper, 99 percent of its gallium, 100 percent of its indium, over half its lithium, and 100 percent of its rare earth minerals.1
America has much to lose from any substantial reshuffling of global alliances and resource flows. The nation’s leaders continue to play the game of geopolitics by twentieth-century rules: they are still obsessed with the Carter Doctrine and focused on petroleum as the world’s foremost resource prize (a situation largely necessitated by the country’s continuing overwhelming dependence on oil imports, due in turn to a series of short-sighted political decisions stretching back at least to the 1970s). The ongoing war in Afghanistan exemplifies U.S. inertia: most geostrategic experts agree that there is little to be gained from the conflict, but withdrawal of forces is politically unfeasible.
The United States maintains a globe-spanning network of over 750 military bases2 that formerly represented tokens of security to regimes throughout the world—but that now increasingly provoke resentment among the locals. This enormous military machine requires a vast supply system originating with American weapons manufacturers that in turn depend on a prodigious and ever-expanding torrent of funds from the U.S. Treasury. Indeed, the nation’s yawning budget deficit largely stems from its trillion-dollar-per-year, first-priority commitment to maintain its military-industrial complex.
The United States currently engages in “special operations” in 120 countries,3 using elite commando units skilled in assassination, counterterrorist raids, foreign troop training, and intelligence gathering. These teams can be deployed to support U.S. geopolitical interests in a variety of ways, including influencing elections or supporting factions within revolutions. The United States also maintains the world’s most lavishly funded ($80 billion in 2010) intelligence bureaus, the CIA and NSA, which conduct electronic and human information-gathering activities in virtually every country on the planet.4 Yet despite America’s gargantuan expenditures on intelligence gathering and high-tech weaponry, and its globe-spanning ability to project power and to influence events, its armed forces appear to be stretched to their limits, fielding around 200,000 troops and even larger numbers of support personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, where supply chains are both vulnerable and expensive to maintain.
In short, the United States remains an enormously powerful nation militarily, with thousands of nuclear weapons in addition to its unparalleled conventional forces, yet it suffers from declining strategic flexibility. The nation still retains an abundance of natural resources, but consumption rates of many of those resources have grown to nearly insatiable levels, necessitating growing flows of resource imports from other nations. Meanwhile, the United States’ ability to pay for those imports is increasingly in question as its domestic economy shrinks due to government spending cutbacks, high unemployment, an aging workforce, and shrinking average household net worth. For all of these reasons, the United States is widely characterized as “an empire in decline.”
The Global Geopolitical Resource Landscape
China is the rising power of the twenty-first century, according to many geopolitical pundits, with a surging military and plentiful cash with which to buy access to resources (oil, coal, minerals, and farmland) around the planet. Yet while it is building an imperial-class navy that could eventually threaten America’s, China suffers from domestic political and economic weaknesses that could make its turn at the center of the world stage a brief one. These include limits to available coal resources, a domestic real estate bubble, weakness in its banking sector, falling demand for Chinese exports in the United States, and widespread local political corruption.
Even as countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua reject American foreign policy, the United States continues to exert enormous influence on resource-rich Latin America via North American–based corporations, which in some cases wield overwhelming influence over entire national economies. However, China is now actively contracting for access to energy and mineral resources throughout Latin America, which is resulting in a gradual shift in economic spheres of interest.
Africa is a site of fast-growing U.S. investment in oil and other mineral extraction projects (as evidenced by the establishment in 2009 of Africom, a military strategic command center on par with Centcom, Eucom, Northcom, Pacom, and Southcom), but the continent is also a target of Chinese (and European) resource acquisition efforts. Proxy conflicts in Africa between and among world powers may intensify in the years ahead—in most instances, to the sad detriment of African peoples.5
The United States still maintains a dominant position in the Middle East, but the region is characterized by extreme economic inequality, high population growth rates, political instability, and the need for importation of nonenergy resources (including food and water). The revolutions and protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen in early 2011 can be interpreted as showing the inability of young, growing, and largely unemployed populations to tolerate sharply rising food, water, and energy prices in the context of autocratic political regimes.6 As economic conditions worsen, many more countries—including democratic nations outside the Middle East—could become destabilized in much the same way.
America’s best shot at expanding its oil interests is in places like the deep oceans and the Arctic.7 However, both military maneuvering and engineering-mining efforts will see diminishing returns as costs rise and payoffs diminish.
Climate change is likely to exacerbate geopolitical rivalry with China, although it is important to recognize that climate risks will not be evenly apportioned. Unstable states will become more unstable, poor nations poorer. Many of the areas of greatest geopolitical risk are also most at risk for impacts from climate change. Equatorial regions are most likely to suffer from extreme drought and occasional catastrophic flooding, while some northern temperate regions may see some transitory benefit from warming—though unpredictable weather will plague nearly every region. With the melting of Arctic ice, new mineral and energy resources in the northernmost portions of the planet will become accessible, as will new trade routes; this may lead to a “Cold Rush” of economic and military exploitation and open a new theater for international conflict.8
Which raises the question: Can such consequences be averted, and how? The answer may hinge on whether, and in what ways, humanity chooses to compete or cooperate in response.
Competition Versus Cooperation
The world’s governments engage continually in both cooperative and competitive behavior, though sometimes extremes of these tendencies come to the fore—with open conflict exemplifying unbridled competition. Geopolitics typically involves both cooperative and competitive strategies, with the long-term goal centered on furthering national interest (including increased control of territory and access to resources). Recent decades have generally seen increasing international cooperation, revealed in the expansion of trade, the proliferation of treaties and conventions, and the development of international laws and international institutions for justice and conflict resolution. The United Nations, World Trade Organization, World Bank, International Criminal Court, as well as regional economic (e.g., Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO) and military (e.g., NATO) cooperation groups exemplify this trend. While some of these efforts appear to be geopolitically motivated, others seem to be genuine attempts to reduce both international tensions and global environmental problems while advancing human rights.
This trend toward increasing international cooperation could see a reversal in coming years and decades. As noted above, history is replete with instances of resource scarcity fomenting conflict.9 In such cases, competitive advantage typically resides either with nations that have domestic resources and the ability to defend them or with nations that develop a vigorous, flexible, and motivated military force able to take advantage of other nations’ weaknesses in order to seize control of their resources.
In addition to international conflict, a failure of human cooperation in the face of resource scarcity may also manifest as increasing conflict within nations. Since 1945, three-quarters of all wars have occurred within nations rather than between them, with most occurring in the world’s poorest countries.10 About as many people may have died as a result of civil strife since 1980 as were killed in World War I. Civil conflicts devastate poor nations by destroying essential infrastructure, driving human and capital flight, diverting scarce financial resources toward military spending, undermining social trust, aggravating existing food shortages, and spreading disease.
If the path toward increasing competition leads to both internal and external conflict, then the result—for winners and losers alike, in a “full” world seeing rapid resource depletion—will most probably be economic and ecological ruin accompanied by political chaos.
Yet this is not the only outcome available to world leaders and civil society. A cooperative strategy is at least theoretically feasible—and its foundations already exist in institutions and practices developed during recent decades.
The world has seen successful efforts to rein in commercial whaling, to ban the use of CFCs, and to respond to natural disasters. If we are to avert deadly resource competition in the future, further agreements on climate change mitigation and nonrenewable resource conservation will be needed, along with cooperative efforts to stabilize population and to engineer a comprehensive global energy transition. Some of these agreements are already under discussion.
For many years, the United Nations has led cooperative scientific efforts to understand climate change (via the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and governmental efforts to combat it (via the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change). In international meetings, beginning with the Kyoto Climate Change Conference of 1997, nations have discussed politically acceptable ways to cap global carbon emissions.
I outline a potential international mechanism for conserving nonrenewable resources in The Oil Depletion Protocol; an agreement along these lines would require nations to reduce oil production and imports by the annual global depletion rate (about 2.5 percent).11 This would reduce oil price volatility, promote energy conservation and conversion to alternative energy sources, and head off geopolitical struggle over dwindling petroleum supplies. The protocol has been endorsed by several city councils in the United States and by the Portuguese Parliament. Similar protocols could be applied to other internationally traded nonrenewable resources.
The oil-depletion protocol in itself is not likely to be enough. There must also be measures in place to limit population growth and to convert existing infrastructure to a low-carbon future, especially in developing countries, where efforts can be made to bypass fossil fuel–dependent transportation and food systems altogether.
All of the required effort need not come from governments. Grassroots conservation and cooperation efforts have already sprung up in hundreds of towns and cities around the world, in the form of groups like the Transition Network. The Transition Network got its start in 2005 in Britain through the work of a permaculture teacher named Rob Hopkins. In his Transition Handbook, Hopkins tells how he came up with the strategy, and he sets forth a range of useful guidelines for groups. Nearly all of Hopkins’s prose is saturated with irrepressible optimism:
Transition Initiatives are not the only response to peak oil and climate change; any coherent national response will also need government and business responses at all levels. However, unless we can create this sense of anticipation, elation and a collective call to adventure on a wider scale, any government responses will be doomed to failure, or will need to battle proactively against the will of the people. … Rebuilding local agriculture and food production, localizing energy production, rethinking healthcare, rediscovering local building materials in the context of zero energy building, rethinking how we manage waste, all build resilience and offer the potential of an extraordinary renaissance—economic, cultural and spiritual.12
Taken together, current cooperative efforts toward resource conservation, climate mitigation, and population stabilization are woefully insufficient—as exemplified by failed climate talks, continued global population growth, and ever-heightening international competition for access to dwindling fossil fuel supplies. There are plenty of justifications for pessimism: after all, won’t the first nations to engage in resource conservation lose economic advantage to those that engage in conquest and consumption maximization? Wouldn’t even one major national holdout undermine a worldwide cooperative effort at climate protection?
Dramatically expanding our international and domestic cooperative efforts at this worrisome moment in history may seem like a tall order. The only advantage to doing so is that it is the only path going forward that does not end in a global tragedy in which the fate of the “winners” is hardly preferable to that of the “losers.”