The Deadly Scramble for the World's Last Resources

You've heard of 'peak oil'? Welcome to 'peak everything'

the race for what's left
Metropolitan Books
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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 supply.

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 resources.

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 minerals.

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 efficiency.

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.