The Limits of Limits

The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources
By Michael T. Klare
Metropolitan Books, 2012 306 page

In Review

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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?”

Heinberg popularized the idea of “peak oil” with his 2003 book, The Party’s Over, and he has since built a name for himself, at least within greenie circles, by promoting a larger and more metaphorical notion of “peak everything.”

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

Klare 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 uranium; and just about everything else.

Klare, a professor at Hampshire College, and defense correspondent for The Nation, thinks the twenty-first 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: “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’m no close student of “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 the great example, the defining case, and a very bad sign. Klare, in other words, isn’t just worried about resource depletion and climate catastrophe; he thinks that the unforgiving dynamics of a new resource race will overcome all other, more benign, possibilities.

Klare provides an important analysis of the resource conflicts that, like it or not, are going to define much of our common future. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s been 40 years since the publication of The Limits to Growth, and it, too, argued that “non-renewable resources” would prove the weak link. And as Klare himself notes, last decade’s predictions that the US production of fossil fuels would decline have been superseded by new predictions that oil and gas production will sharply climb, even as rising prices drive a slowdown in demand.

So what’s Klare on about? The answer is that he’s trying to shift the focus from “peak everything” to “extreme everything.” It’s a real difference, because it almost implies that we won’t run out at all, not if we’re willing to pay any price, and bear any burden. And this includes acquiescing to the destruction of our lands, our waters, and our climate.

That’s Klare’s story of non-renewables, and it’s probably right, if 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 rise to the occasion.

As for the larger problem, Google “planetary boundaries.” You’ll see that the limits that most concern the bio-geochemists are not the limits of drilling and mining, 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 begins to grate. Fact is, we could grow enough food, just as we could take on the limits of “biocapacity,” but to do so, we would have to learn to cooperate, and to share. Klare obviously doesn’t think we will, and of course his case is a strong one.

A warning? Sure, but also, perhaps, a self-fulfilling pessimism.

Like I said, “yes and no.”

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