Book Review: Michael Klare’s “The Race for What’s Left”

The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources

by Michael T. Klare
Metropolitan Books, 2012, 306 pages

When I mentioned to a friend that I was reviewing Michael Klare’s new book, his response, which I found surprising, was: “What’s Klare got to say that Richard Heinberg didn’t say a long time ago?”

Actually, I wasn’t really that surprised. The idea of “peak oil,” the field wherein Heinberg made his name, has largely passed – at least within greenie circles –  into a larger and more metaphorical notion of “peak everything.”  Moreover, “peak everything” has itself become a kind of common sense, and thus (like all common sense) a bit of a danger.  An opportunity, if nothing else, for unfocused, slack thinking.

So, does Klare bring anything new to the table? The answer, I’m afraid, is “yes and no.”

Klare, like Heinberg, is a “peak everything” guy.  He’s talking about the whole range of fossil fuels — gas, oil, and coal, in both conventional and unconventional forms.  And he’s talking lumber; and foods of all sorts; and iron, copper, tin and the other standard metals; and specialty metals like tantalum and platinum; and “rare earths” like neodymium and lanthanum (think “Prius”); and nuclear fuels like uranium; and just about everything else.

Klare, a professor at Hampshire College and the defense correspondent for The Nation, thinks the 21st Century will be defined by difficult, expensive, strategically fraught efforts to extract resources from deep, distant, and heavily-contested areas.  He thinks the age of gushers and other easy “strikes” is over; that, these days, ocean drilling likely means ultra-deepwater wells that are better compared to space exploration than old-style wells; that mining likely means pits so enormous that they effectively destroy the lands and communities that are unlucky enough to host them.  Most importantly, he thinks that, in all the scrum and scramble of the race for what’s left, he hears the drums of war.

Klare’s theses, in a nutshell: “Whereas previous centuries generally witnessed conflict between just a few dominant powers, today many more countries are industrialized or on the path to industrialization—so the number of major contenders for resources is greater than ever before. …. At the same time, many existing sources of supply are in decline while few new reservoirs are waiting on the horizon. With more nations in the resource race and fewer prizes to be divided among them, the competition is heating up and governments are being pressed to assume a more active role.”

I don’t claim to be a close student of the “peaker” literature, but I’m pretty sure there’s something new here — the sense of a dangerous game in which planetary corporations merge with mercantilist governments (and often their militaries) to form terrifying new kinds of resource cartels.  The fossil fuel cartel is, of course, the great example and the defining case – and a very bad sign. Klare, in other words, isn’t just worried about resource depletion and climate catastrophe; he worries as well that the unforgiving dynamics of a new resource race will overcome all other, more benign, possibilities.  He’s worried, in particular, that as shortages increase and prices rise, the elites and the decision makers will tolerate anything to keep the inputs flowing, especially if they can externalize the pain to others.  Which of course they usually can.

But sometimes, perhaps, Klare overstates the case just a wee bit.  For example, and as he himself notes, the U.S. Energy Information Agency predicted in 2005 that US production of liquid fossil fuels would decline from 9.1 to 8.8 million barrels per day by 2025, but now predicts that US production will climb to 12.1 million barrels, even as rising prices drive a slowdown in demand.  This is a case where a predicted peak simply hasn’t come, and it’s an important case to get exactly right.  As the carbon bubble analysis makes very painfully clear, we won’t run out of fossil fuels until long after we destroy the stability of the climate system within which our civilization evolved.  We won’t even get close.  Nor is this the only issue.  Another is Klare’s prediction of an inescapable shortage of rare earths, and his clear suggestion that it would be a near-fatal problem for high-tech green technologies.  This line of analysis has been criticized, by even The Worldwatch Institute, as a step too far on several fronts.   It particular, it may well be an unwarranted extrapolation of short-sighted corporate strategies that allowed China to temporarily corner the global market.  Bad management, not global resource exhaustion.

The real point, and here Klare is clearly correct, is that he’s trying to shift the focus from “peak everything” to “extreme everything.”  It’s a real and significant difference, in part because it underscores the excesses of the old-school peakers, who really did put the emphasis on “running out.”  Everyone’s more sophisticated these days, but still the point should be stated bluntly.  In particular, we can’t look to shortages to help us break the fossil lock-in.  In fact, the “peak everything” reframe almost implies that we won’t run out at all, that there will be plenty of oil and gas and raw materials, and for a long time—provided only that we’re willing to pay any price, and bear any burden, and in particular that we’re willing to acquiesce in the destruction of our lands and waters.  Or at least other people’s.  And as for near-term critical shortages of key metals, I remain unconvinced.

Does this mean that I pose as an “optimist,” as against Klare the pessimist?  Not at all.  At this point, honest optimism would require the belief that we can act rationally.  Pessimism, on the other hand, requires only that we continue to act as short-sighted creatures of neo-liberal plutocracy.  Which is to say that the general trend of Klare’s analysis is probably going to be right, if, that is, we don’t immediately focus all our powers on efficiency and renewables.  Which we could do, and Klare mentions the possibility, though he obviously doesn’t think we’re going to pull it off.

So, sure, we’re heading for a wall, and the depletion of fossil fuels and industrial metals, Klare’s principle topic, is a big part of the tale.  But step back for a moment, take the time to Google “planetary boundaries” and then follow out the links.  You’ll see that the limits that most concern the biogeochemists are not the limits of drilling and mining (what we used to call “non-renewable resources”) but rather the limits that are tied to overall system dynamics – the carbon and nitrogen cycles, biodiversity loss, and so on.   Part of the story here is “peak soil,” which Klare takes on, sort of, though here his pessimism really does begins to grate.  The fact is that we could grow plenty of food for all, just as we could take on the limits of “biocapacity,” but to do so, we would have to learn to cooperate, and to adapt, and – the real wrinkle – to share.  Klare obviously doesn’t think we will, and of course his case is a strong one.

So, like I said, yes and no.