It would make a crackerjack James Bond premise: One nation has obtained a virtual monopoly on scarce resources without which the world economy would come to a grinding halt. This totalitarian state, of course, will use this leverage to advance its own nefarious interests. Is it Saudi Arabia and oil or Russia and natural gas? Nope. It’s China and “rare earth elements,” an assortment of obscure materials such as cerium, europium, and neodymium. Every Toyota Prius motor requires two pounds of neodymium, but in 2010 China stopped exporting this array of industrial ingredients to Japan.
World leaders were suitably aghast. Such materials are critical to the production of many high-tech products, from mobile phones, computers and batteries to solar panels; and China produces 95 percent or more of the global supply. An irony about these elements that are so important to emerging green technologies is that their production is exceedingly hazardous to the environment because they have to be extracted, using acids, from composite ores.
This nonfiction drama is but one example of an intensifying, across-the-board scarcity of the raw materials that make modern civilization hum, according to Michael T. Klare in his latest book: The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources. Oil and natural gas lead the parade, followed by copper, zinc, nickel, titanium, and just about any useful item you care to name. There’s less of it, what’s left is harder to get, and nations will be tempted to get their “fair share” by any means necessary. Klare writes that “the era of readily accessible oil and gas has come to an end: from now on, vital energy supplies will have to be drawn from remote and forbidding locations, at a cost far exceeding anything experienced in the past. The world is entering an era of pervasive, unprecedented resource scarcity.”
It is hard to argue with that assessment. Klare sites statistics that indicate our exploitation of earth has only just begun. From 1950 to 2011, the global Gross Domestic Product shot up 600 percent, and will continue to rise in the decades to come as countries like China and India seek to join the party. Despite baby steps in the direction of renewable energy and efficiencies, GDP growth will be underwritten largely by fossil fuels. The US Department of Energy predicts that the world’s consumption of liquid fuels will rise 31 percent between 2008 and 2035, while natural gas usage will jump 52 percent.
Compounding this procurement challenge is the fact that the days of “easy oil” are over. New supplies must come from new places, as many historically prolific fields have begun their inevitable declines. For example, what used to coming bubbling out of the ground in safe accessible places like Texas must be found today more than a mile below the waves of the Gulf of Mexico – and five miles deeper still into the seabed. The 2010 blowout of the BP Deepwater Horizon well dramatized the hazards of “extreme oil.” Such a spill in the Arctic, where drilling is also underway, would be exponentially harder to contain. The environmental consequences of capturing hydrocarbons on land from tar sands, shale, and through hydrofracking also are far greater than those from conventional drilling techniques.
In another irony, global warming is making the Arctic more attractive and accessible as a place to extract oil and gas, the very fuels that the vast majority of scientists believe are the primary cause of rising temperatures. Klare opens his book with a Russian submarine placing a flag on the Arctic seabed to stake its claim in a chilly competition whose other entrants are the United States, Canada, Norway, and Denmark.
As with fossil fuels, other commodities like iron ore are getting scarcer and harder to mine, and nations and corporations are venturing into more remote, pristine, and dangerous places. A new “scramble” is even underway in Africa to procure farmland by countries that depend on imported food to feed their people. Saudi Arabia and South Korea, among others, are buying up huge chunks of arable land from financially strapped African nations to keep their larders stocked. Indigenous peoples – with a moral and cultural if not a strictly legal claim to the land – are often being disposed in the process. Even where the land sales are completely kosher, Klare points out: “it is doubtful that people in Ethiopia and elsewhere will allow the bounty of their fields to keep being shipped to other countries when their own children are starving.”
Klare, who is the defense correspondent for The Nation and a professor at Hampshire College, has written a first-rate, well-researched wake-up call. He can wax repetitive, as if the reader is one of his least attentive students, and his prescription as to how we can avoid the worst consequences of all of the above via a “Race to Adapt” is a bit cursory. But he has identified the problem in vivid detail: as Willie Nelson once averred, “Turn out the lights, the party’s over.”
David Holahan is a regular contributor to the Monitor's Books section.