Thursday, September 6, 2012

On Sale While Supplies Last

“The Race for What’s Left – the Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources,” by Michael T Klare, 2012

Klare is a well-known authority on oil depletion, attempting to replace conventional pro-corporate oil historians like Daniel Yergin, author of “The Prize.”  This book extends the analysis of peak oil to other resources - including minerals and food – or ‘peak soil,” but fails to include water.  (See reviews of “Blue Covenant,” on water and "The Party's Over" on peak oil, below) In a sense, every single mile of the earth is up for bulldozing or drilling.  Locally, rumor has it that the site of the Minnesota Renaissance Festival in Shakopee has been bid on to provide sand for fracking.  Permits have just been approved by our “Democratic” governor in Minnesota to dig up parts of the Mesabi Range looking for that tiny half-a-percent of useful nickel and other metal in the ore, which will leave behind lakes of sulphuric sludge.  Klare is also someone who is cognizant of global warming, which brackets this discussion. 

Klare, however, is not an eco-socialist, hence cannot identify the struggle for profits under capitalism as a key culprit.  His view is that it is ‘bad’ industrialism, a ‘bad’ industrialism absent any social content, as an abstract ‘fact,’ a supra-class entity, a product perhaps of just ‘bad’ thinking.  Like most people immersed in neo-liberal economic thinking, he is leery of government control of oil exploration and recovery, as if private versions, while also suspect, are merely equivalent.  In the final page he advocates ‘a complete transformation of industrial society, with all finite resources systematically replaced by renewable alternatives.”   What this might mean on a social level is left to the imagination.  But it seems to means replacing ‘black’ capitalism by a ‘green’ capitalism.  If it doesn’t happen, he predicts widespread war, starvation and environmental catastrophes.

In the process Klare’s analysis shatters the notion that we are living in a ‘post-industrial society’ dominated by paper-shufflers and ‘service providers.’ That fantasy is shown to be the lie that it always was, a lie designed to hide the blue-collar working class and the very material roots of society.  One of his key observations is that one of the ‘feedback loops’ of the melting Arctic is that the melt increases the possibility of deep water oil and gas production in the Arctic, which will then result in more melting.  And on and on. The extractive humans are one of the feedback loops. 

Klare’s book is for the most part a factual history of the last attempts to wring the earth of its remaining wealth.  The first section concentrates on common energy sources.  It locates every single project across the globe seeking oil and gas out of any source; seeking minerals of every kind from copper to lithium, and attempting to buy cheap, arable land to grow food.  He points out that energy is what runs industrialism, and oil and natural gas are past peak in all of the major fields of the world.  The only remaining significant sources for regular oil and natural gas are in deep offshore areas – the Gulf of Mexico, off Brazil, Africa, in Asian seas and in the Arctic Ocean. These areas are beset by political and environmental problems that make them somewhat less easy to exploit than sinking a pipe in a Texas prairie or a Saudi sand dune.   The Deepwater Horizon disaster was only the latest example of what oil drilling in deep water can do.  Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed 113 oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico and damaged another 32.  A huge storm off Newfoundland in 1981 sank the massive 15,000 ton ‘Ocean Ranger’ oil platform, drowning 62 workers.  Ownership of various ocean areas in the Arctic, off China and even in the Falklands are claimed by a number of nations who refuse to compromise on boundary lines, which could result in more resource wars.  However, in one typical omission, Klare never mentions the Iraq wars once.

Klare then studies every replacement technology for ‘easy’ oil & natural gas – tar sands, shale gas, extra-heavy oil, oil shale, coal-bed methane gas, coal oil – you name it.  These technologies are popular across the political spectrum.  The Harper government has pulled Canada out of the Kyoto Treaty because of the Athabasca tar sands projects in northern Alberta.  The Obama administration lauded shale gas in 2010, in spite of the dangers to water and soil through fracking.  The Obama administration reopened off-shore drilling in the Gulf, but also off Florida and in the Arctic, both advocated by Republicans.  (Drill, baby, drill.) Venezuela is also investigating the exploitation of its ‘heavy oil’ deposits in the Carabobo area, hoping to get 60% of the profits.  Chinese companies are buying into these technologies all over the world, including the Alberta tar sands. (See review of “Tar Sands – Dirty Oil & the Future of a Continent,” reviewed below.)

Thirdly, regarding minerals, Klare’s story takes you to various formerly invisible parts of the globe, mostly in Africa, where rare and heavy metals used in high-tech, large deposits of copper, bauxite (for aluminum), uranium and iron ore are hidden underground.  The most surprising is Afghanistan.  It is not oil Afghanistan has, but vast deposits of minerals – ‘the world’s largest deposit of copper;’ ‘the largest unexploited iron ore deposit in Asia;” and ‘promising deposits of bauxite, gold, lead, tungsten and zinc, niobium, lithium and other rare earths.”  Klare estimates the minerals to be worth more than $1 trillion.  Now you know why we have occupied this country for 11 years. 

Greenland, Mongolia, Niger, Gabon, the Congo, Guinea, Kazakhstan and Bolivia are all sites of new mining endeavors for minerals, especially rare earths – those used for military, airplane and high tech gadgets, along with the batteries in Toyota Priuses. Here, Klare gets cranky about Bolivia’s Evo Morales, instead quoting corporate opponents of Morales.  Morales wants to not only exploit the lithium-rich brine under the massive Salar de Uyuni salt flat, but also build a facility to make lithium batteries and perhaps even electric cars.  While Klare moans about the ‘resource curse,’ when a country wants to do something about it by not being just a raw materials exporter, he blanches.   The most notorious source of rare earths are the ‘conflict metals’ mined by hand coming out of the Kivu regions in eastern Republic of the Congo, where militias have turned the local populations into virtual slaves so that more throw-away cell phones can be manufactured. 

Last but not least is food, and the land to grow it.  Saudi Arabia and other Gulf emirates were the first to realize they could not rely on the ‘market’ to provide all the food their growing populations need.  As a result, they have bought large tracts in Ethiopia and Sudan to grow rice, vegetables and raise cattle.  Both countries land is for sale to the highest bidder – even at the expense of the nomadic peoples who live there.  The Chinese have now begun to buy vast tracts of various African countries, and many African farmers are being displaced by these projects.    Even India is joining in. It shouldn’t be hard to imagine what will happen in Africa when Africans are dying of hunger, while food in privately-owned massive protected plots is being shipped to Ridyah.  Anyone?  Anyone?  Bueller?  

Oddly enough, some of the best and deepest black organic soil and also cheapest land in the world, which fell into decay after the 10- year economic collapse starting in 1990, is in Russia and the Ukraine.  Once the large collectives were abandoned, and the land parceled off into tiny 10-acre plots to the farm workers, these plots could not be maintained due to their small sizes, and the land was abandoned.  Now large-scale capitalist agriculture is coming to take their place. And I don't doubt the Russians will be as dubious as the Africans about having their food flown to India or China or the U.S.

In the way this book is written it sometimes actually makes you admire the heroes of capitalist avarice for their technological and financial derring-do, their foresight, their adventurous spirit, in going to the ends of the earth to wring ever last bit of market value out of the old girl.  And indeed, humans are quite amazing sometimes.  After all, a Russian diving sub put a Russian flag at the bottom of the sea below the North Pole.  Beat that.

Klare has many gaps in this book, and they weaken his argument.  Recycling is never mentioned, except obliquely.  It stands to reason that if, for instance, iron ore is in short supply, the existing steel and iron in the world becomes minable.  Indeed, steel recycling is a big business, even in the States.  He brings up the issue of the rare metals in catalytic converters.  If this is true, would not every car, and every catalytic converter, become a ‘minable’ object?  People have been known to steal them off regular cars for the money.  Klare, in his discussion of food and soil, doesn’t mention the shortage of phosphates, which are essential to non-organic, mass-produced fertilizer.  Phosphorus is predicted to run out in 50 years.  There have also been problems with shortages of cement – which is made out of limestone, clay & gypsum – due to the massive building projects all over the world.  Gypsum is not a common compound.  Nor does Klare mention capitalist commodity speculators in his discussion of high commodity prices in the last few years.  Some estimates of the gasoline price run-ups allocate 30% of the hike to speculation, if not more.  Essential commodities should not be subject to market forces – in fact, 70-85% of commodities trading is not done for any other purpose than speculation. 

Lastly, it is not just the environment or ‘indigenous peoples’ or polar bears that are endangered by these practices.  The workers who have to dig up the soil in polluted pits or dangerous underground mines, exist in frozen, brutal conditions on cold and dangerous drilling platforms, or slave away under the sun wading in water to grow rice for Saudi billionaires are also a target of ‘peak commodities.’  They, in essence, will be the ones to decide who actually benefits from these techniques – the world citizen, or the world billionaire. 

And I bought it at May Day Books excellent used section!
Red Frog, September 6, 2012

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