20 November 2007

Cowboys, Astronauts and Natural Resources

Alejandro Nadal

From 1965 till his death in 1993, the economist Kenneth Boulding kept repeating his message with an effective metaphor: there two types of economies, that of the cowboy style and that of the astronaut type. The first is based on the idea that the natural resource base is so extensive as to be practically unlimited. The cowboy of the plains can hunt, drill mines, dig wells and churn the soil for whatever he wishes to sow. The spread of resources is so great that the environmental impact of his activities passes unnoticed. The key words in the vocabulary of the cowboy are spread and growth.

The economy of the astronaut is different. Travelling in a small space capsule, his spread of resources is limited and each activity leaves an important ecological footprint at every step. Even exhaling can poison his restricted atmosphere if not filtered. The astronaut has to be very careful; travelling in a closed system he has to look for “zero waste” and recycle everything he can. The touchstone in the vocabulary of the capsule is the word metabolism.

Boulding’s central message concluded convincingly: we should see the Planet Earth as a type of space capsule in which humanity is the astronaut. It is necessary to rethink the logic of economic growth in this closed system and develop instruments that let us convert the world economy in a type of self-regulated metabolism. It has to start with the careful and rational use of natural resources.

But if we want to revisit Boulding’s metaphor, we have to imagine that in the space capsule there are at least two astronauts. Unfortunately, both are looking to fight for the resources on the craft. In the solitude of space, their conflict has degenerated into a series of wars, latent and open, that threatens to destroy the spacecraft in which they are travelling. The curse of the natural resources has caught up with them.

Access to the natural resources is marked by ethnic conflicts, corruption, strategic competition and wars, civil and international. The case of the conflict diamonds is one example among many. Minerals, coltan, wood, petroleum and natural gas are only some of the resources at the heart of these conflicts. But where does the curse come from?

Studies sponsored by the World Bank on the relation between natural resources and conflicts concentrate on the relation between these resources and ethnic disputes, dictatorships, corruption and trafficking of arms. For this, the predominant references in these studies are to civil wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

These reports try to analyse how the generous spread of minerals, wood or petroleum provoke greed and drive conflicts. The typical cycle is simple: a dictator uses natural resources to create a repressive apparatus and to maintain himself in power. The rebel groups look to do the same. The end result of death and environmental destruction are terrible and costly for all, including the international community, which ends up intervening to help the refugees and the displaced.

Natural resources are at the heart of the World Bank studies because an army needs money. Conflicting groups see in the natural resources the platform to obtain financial resources to buy arms and pay the wages of the soldiers. Independent of the motives of the rebellion, the rebel organisation has to behave like a commercial organisation. And for the World Bank, the problem then is that that there are companies and banks willing to resell these resources in the international market. The corruption of multinational firms is truly allied to these conflicts.

But the narrative of this vision is very myopic. The true link between natural resource and conflicts lies somewhere else. Of course, corruption and ethnic conflicts play a sinister part in conflicts over natural resources but perhaps they are not the most important ingredients.

Anonymous economic forces (the market and inter-capitalist competition) generate growing pressure at the world’s natural resources. The neo-colonial model is no different from the neo-liberal model in this sense: both promote the export of natural resources towards the industrialised countries and the strategic competition among these powers make use of everything, even promoting civil wars or invading a country alleging it has weapons of mass destruction. That line of thought brings into question the world economic model; for this, the World Bank prefers to blame the corrupt government of these poor countries.

Corrupt leaders or anonymous economic forces, what is certain is that the astronauts of the spacecraft Planet Earth have chosen war to access natural resources. Heady with having discovered the dark side of the Moon, we have not stretched out to look at the dark side of natural resources.

Published in La Jornada, Mexico City, on March 14, 2007 Link:

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