Monday, April 25, 2005

It's the Resources, Stupid!

As one of the more memorable phrases to emerge from American politics in the last 15 years or so, James Carville's "It's the economy, stupid!" was not merely a snappy rejoinder to the question "what is the campaign about?" It was a reminder that, no matter what other issues might be in play, those who chose to ignore the significance of economic concerns could ever come to understand the modern political landscape. Other issues might exist, but they only come to prominence once people have achieved a sense of economic security. While certain issues (such as national security) might temporarily distract us, our focus inevitably returns to our pocketbooks. It is the Rosetta Stone of the American political scene.

However, once we expand our focus beyond our domestic political microcosm, there is another universal rule that we should begin to acknowledge. Political movements may rise and fall in accordance with the economic successes that they provide, but these movements are just one element within the larger cosmos of society itself. Once our analysis begins to operate at that level, the significance of economic oscillation is suddenly dwarfed. Instead, a separate, yet related, factor emerges as the preeminent determinant of success or failure. In a word: resources.

The question of rising and failing civilizations is one that I approached with a certain naïveté until very recently. The wealth and power of Western Civilization was something that I accepted uncritically, rarely stopping to wonder how it had come to pass. In moments where I did consider possible explanations, I was largely drawn to the theory of Western cultural exceptionalism. This was never a theory that I bother to flesh out in its entirety, but there was something satisfying about it at first glance. Western culture had given us individualism, the Enlightenment, and the Puritan work ethic, all of which combined might have given Western society a competitive advantage over other civilizations.

However, I experienced a radical paradigm shift after reading Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies (a shift that was further cemented after completing Diamond's follow-up effort, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed). Rather than attempting to answer the question by studying the cultural philosophies of modern-day civilizations, Diamond's examination began literally at the dawn of human society. By doing so, he was able to develop an incredibly persuasive theory that largely explains the current state of human affairs here on planet Earth. And, yes, it's largely about the resources.

These days we all have a basic understanding about society's need for certain resources. This awareness is brought into sharp relief with every visit to our local filling station. But many of us, myself included, often fail to realize the full scope all of our society's resource requirements. Some are acquired so cheaply and easily that they can hardly be considered resources at all. Moreover, the facility of this resource acquisition often disguises the fact that these resources are not distributed equally across the globe. Again, everyone knows that petroleum resources are concentrated in a few select locations. But how many of us have really considered the distribution of highly productive agricultural land.

Of course, modern technology and globalization have served to obscure these uneven distributions. However, if you are examining the human societies of our distant ancestors, the importance of resource access is brought into focus. Suddenly, the resources in question become far more foundational in nature. As it turns out, the availability of high protein grains and the presence of domesticable large animals played a critical role in the evolution of early human cultures. But, due to the fact that these resources were not available to humans in all locations, those that did have them enjoyed a competitive advantage over those that did not.

And so, resource distribution played a critical role in establishing the modern hierarchy of civilizations. But, the initial presence of resources is only half of the story. As we are well aware, certain resources are nonrenewable, such as petroleum and hard rock minerals. Others are renewable, but the rate of renewal is slow and is potentially exceeded by the extraction rate. Finally, the "renew-ability" of many resources is determined by nonstatic factors, such as climate. Therefore, resource availability determines not merely the rise of certain civilizations, but frequently their fall as well.

The importance of resource access to a functioning society cannot be overstated, yet is frequently overlooked. What I wrote about the opium problem in Afghanistan a couple of weeks ago, this was the issue that I felt was missing from the debate. We have a tendency to assume, usually unconsciously, that the poverty of Third World nations is the result of local mismanagement. The unstated belief is that, with the appropriate application of technology, ingenuity, and effort, these problems would evaporate. Maybe they can't make it work, we think, but surely we could. But this is no less than pure arrogance on our part. Our technology might improve crop yields, but it could never level the playing field between nations rich and poor in resources. It is a fantasy to believe otherwise.

As we move into the 21st century, we will begin to confront the resource question more directly for the simple reason that many of them will be exhausted soon. As always, we are cognizant of this fact with respect to petroleum. However, the same can be said for topsoil, water, forests, ocean and freshwater fisheries, to name just a few. Moreover, as the climate changes, so will the distribution of these renewable resources be changed. Regions that currently enjoy high levels of agricultural productivity may suddenly discover themselves to be unable to feed even themselves. In short, we face a looming crisis whose consequences will be both dramatic and widespread. This isn't just some fantasy of the environmental extremists; it's very real.

I suspect that within the next few decades, we will look back upon this time as a period when public policy was driven by our obsession with short-term economic ebb and flow, while we ignored the long-term ramifications of our shortsightedness. We will wish that we had considered how these policies affected our resource management when it was still relatively painless to do so. We will be bitterly amused as we study those political careers that turned on a small hike in inflation or unemployment. We will be looking back from a very different world then the one we currently occupy. It will be a world of conflict driven by the shortages that are only now emerging and we will long for our current era of plenty. During that time, there will be a political consultant who will hang a sign above his desk in order to keep his campaign on message, and that sign will say "It's the resources, stupid!"
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