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The Race for What's Left: The Global Scramble for the World's Last Resources, by Michael Klare

October 28, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper |


From a reader:

In his latest book, author Michael Klare draws a shocking and unsparing picture of the relentless rush to grab up the world's key, diminishing resources on the part of powerful countries and huge corporations. Klare shows how the last 60 years have seen the insatiable gobbling up of resources. He details how the world's formerly immense sources of easily accessible and cheap oil and gas are in decline. But it's not just oil and gas. Key minerals and rare elements upon which the vast expansion of production and military power rely are also being depleted. Klare predicts many of these key resources could completely disappear. The response of the world's powers and global capitalist corporations is to step up a mad "race for what's left."

Klare starts his book in the Arctic. Here, Russian explorers plant their nation's flag on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean seabed, claiming it as their own. It's not just Russia. All the countries bordering the Arctic—the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Russia—are trying to lay claim, even twisting facts to argue the continental shelves of their countries extend into key reaches of the Arctic. At stake are an estimated 20% of the earth's remaining reserves of oil and gas, only now made more accessible to grab and burn because burning of fossil fuels has already warmed the earth and melted Arctic ice to the lowest levels in recorded history!

Klare quotes U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, commander of the European Command: "It's no coincidence that our strategic interest in the Arctic warms with its climate. For now the disputes in the north have been dealt with peacefully, but climate change could alter the equilibrium over the coming years...."

Klare shows how the decline in the world's largest oil and gas fields has set off a worldwide race to find and exploit fossil fuels that are harder to reach and extract. From the deep offshore waters of Brazil and the Gulf of Mexico to vast stretches of the Arctic, from coastal waters off western Africa to the former republics of the Soviet Union, from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to throughout the U.S., new technologies with huge environmental risks are being experimented with and used to exploit new "tough" reserves of oil, coal, and gas. Much of these reserves are miles under the earth in deep offshore waters, embedded in rock that was formerly inaccessible and too expensive to drill out, or in forms much harder and more costly to extract and process.

Getting to these reserves and getting them out requires much more environmentally destructive and risky techniques: heating solid oil to make it liquid, using explosives and immense amounts of water laced with carcinogenic solvents to break them free from rock to drill out, drilling in deep ocean waters where icebergs abound, or miles under the earth where spills like the BP spill in the Gulf could easily take place and be even more difficult or impossible to clean up. The world's powers and all of the international energy companies rooted in these countries are engaged in a ruthless struggle that, no matter how costly and complicated, they consider "essential... to maintain the pace of production in the face of declining output elsewhere."

This same race is occurring to find new sources of key and rare minerals that are essential to the production of everything from steel, to cell phones and computers, to high-tech weapons. In Gabon, a land of beautiful rain forests, unspoiled preserves of endangered jungle wildlife and pristine rivers, "now roads are being slashed through the jungle and preliminary work has begun on establishing open-pit mines in areas currently occupied by wild animals and scattered local tribes." All for iron ore—the rights to which Chinese state enterprises are competing with mining companies from other countries. In Afghanistan, the U.S Geological Survey has conducted "the most comprehensive geologic survey" of the country ever conducted, finding huge deposits of valuable minerals. New finds like this are setting off intense competition and maneuvering among many countries and firms to grab up these new deposits.

Klare portrays how the global food crisis, the growth of human population, and the threat of more crisis as climate change advances, have set off an international land grab. Rich countries and investors buy up or lease immense tracts of land in poor and oppressed countries to grow food to be directly exported back to the rich countries, or as "investments." Big capitalist corporations, banks and countries are betting on the food crisis to get worse as climate change advances, as soils erode, as drought spreads and land turns to desert, to seize on this crisis as an opportunity for profit-making and power by control of huge quantities of land in countries where people are already starving.

Throughout the book, Klare paints a picture of a relentless and ruthless competition by the big powers for strategic interests, along with the giant corporations connected to them—whether state run or private. He says this race for "tougher" energy and minerals will "set the stage for ferocious competition between major corporations and for perilous wrangling among rival nation-states." Those that get these resources will flourish and those that don't will perish or decline. Klare predicts, "The competition among the various powers, therefore, will be ruthless, unrelenting and severe. Every key player in the race for what's left will do whatever it can to advance its own position, while striving without mercy to eliminate or subdue all the others."

While Klare insightfully and powerfully demonstrates this ruthless drive, he stops short of getting to the real root of the problem—the imperatives of a whole capitalist-imperialist system. (I recommend the special Revolution issue on the environmental emergency, available at, as well as Raymond Lotta's "Four Points for Bill McKibben.") Instead of recognizing the essential relations of domination of capitalist-imperialist countries over oppressed nations, he sees the problem in extracting resources as a "resource curse," where poor countries get screwed by corruption and lack of proper use of the wealth generated by selling off resources. He holds out hope for a "race to adapt" to win out over 'the race for what's left" (which he does correctly see as leading to catastrophe, impending war, and even more devastating environmental damage). He still falsely hopes for the most "enlightened" of these vultures to wake up to the reality of where this road is leading and move away from the insatiable gobbling up of resources to a more sustainable, efficient, and renewable approach. These are big and urgent questions around which there needs to be a lot of debate and wrangling.

But people should check out Klare's book. It is an important contribution to a deeper understanding of what's actually going on with the environmental emergency, with valuable insights to learn from.


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