Guest blog from Michael Klare, author of The Race for What’s Left, about the desperate measures companies take to reach natural resources. Listen to his Greenpeace Radio interview and join us to save the Arctic from several of these desperate companies.
I am Michael Klare, a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author of several books on the intersection of environmental and security issues, including, most recently, The Race for What’s Left.
For the past 15 years I’ve been studying the global struggle over vital resources – oil, land, water, minerals, timber, and so on – and watched as giant multinational corporations and supportive governments have dug deeper into the Earth in their hunt for new sources of supply. This has, of course, been going on for a very long time: humans have always exploited the Earth’s natural resources for their own purposes, and when they’ve exhausted any particular habitat, they’ve moved on to others and begun the process all over again. But what I see happening today represents a new stage in human history. Most of the planet’s easily-accessed resource deposits have now been depleted or are already in production, and all that remains are the hard-to-get deposits – those deep underground, far offshore, in the Far North, or in countries at war. To exploit these remaining deposits, the resource firms will have to employ greater force – both to extract materials from the Earth and to subdue the indigenous peoples and others who stand in their way. The implications are obvious: Any effort to sustain our current industrial lifestyle with existing materials will result in substantially increased environmental damage and political violence.
This is the fundamental calculus that underlies the oil companies’ current assault on the Arctic. The Arctic is not a place you would chose to drill in if you had any choice in the matter: the weather is hellish, ice floes pose an ever-present threat to drilling equipment, supplies and personnel have to be flown in from distant locales, and any accident can easily prove catastrophic. Until now, the energy firms have largely avoided the region for these and other good reasons. But now they’re invading the Arctic with a vengeance. Why? It’s not, as some have suggested, because global warming has suddenly made it easy to operate in the Arctic – the challenges are as great as ever. Rather, it’s because these companies are running out of places to drill south of the Arctic Circle and see no alternative but to move north of it if they are to remain in business. This is an act of desperation, not of sudden opportunity.
But by choosing to operate in the Arctic, the oil companies face much greater risks than they do elsewhere. Drilling is only possible in summer months, when the Arctic ice pack retreats – but floating ice still poses a threat to drilling equipment much of the time. Even in summer, equipment can freeze up, increasing the risks of a malfunction. And any oil spill, however provoked, would be truly catastrophic, as the region’s flora and fauna are already highly stressed and so more vulnerable to toxic chemical effects than their brethren further south, and because it would be much harder to mount a rescue operation here than in places like the Gulf of Mexico, where numerous boats and crews are available to help contain the damage (as occurred after the Deepwater Horizon disaster).
The desperate pursuit of the world’s last resources is also behind the recent flare-up of tensions in the East and South China Sea, involving China, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. In the East China Sea, China and Japan are squabbling over a small cluster of islands known as the Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese; in the South China Sea, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines are fighting over two other island clusters, the Paracels and Spratlys. Although nationalism and political opportunism play a role in these disputes – all parties involved view the islands as symbols of historic enmities and/or contemporary regional rivalries – resource predation is also a key factor. All of these islands are believed to sit athwart large undersea reserves of oil and natural gas, and whichever country wins control of the islands will also get to control the underground resources – hence, no side appears willing to compromise, and all seem willing to employ military force to assert their rights. Even the United States has become involved, as the ultimate protector of Japan and the Philippines.
As I argue in The Race for What’s Left, world affairs will increasingly be shaped by this competitive struggle to gain control over and exploit the world’s last resources. We see this in the growing competition between the United States and China to exploit the energy and mineral resources of Africa, in Russia’s drive to exert control over the natural gas output of Central Asia, and in the corporate assault on Mongolia’s mineral riches. Wherever you look, these efforts are almost certain to entail severe environmental hazards along with threats to the traditional lifestyles of indigenous peoples. At worst, they will produce increased tension and hostility among the major consuming countries, leading to a new Cold War atmosphere.
The extractive industries say that they can conduct their operations in a socially responsible manner, minimizing the risk to the environment and the peoples whose lands they occupy. This may be their genuine intent, but the physical circumstances – increasingly aggressive extractive operations in environmentally fragile areas – make this almost impossible to achieve. Only by minimizing our dependence on non-renewable materials and converting our economies to reliance on alternative, renewable materials can these dangers be eliminated.