Activists from Environmental Greenpeace perform during talks on climate change in Cancun, Mexico. (Reuters/Henry Romero)
Brace yourself. You may not be able to tell yet, but according to global experts and the US intelligence community, the earth is already shifting under you. Whether you know it or not, you’re on a new planet, a resource-shock world of a sort humanity has never before experienced.
Two nightmare scenarios—a global scarcity of vital resources and the onset of extreme climate change—are already beginning to converge and in the coming decades are likely to produce a tidal wave of unrest, rebellion, competition and conflict. Just what this tsunami of disaster will look like may, as yet, be hard to discern, but experts warn of “water wars” over contested river systems, global food riots sparked by soaring prices for life’s basics, mass migrations of climate refugees (with resulting anti-migrant violence) and the breakdown of social order or the collapse of states. At first, such mayhem is likely to arise largely in Africa, Central Asia and other areas of the underdeveloped South, but in time, all regions of the planet will be affected.
To appreciate the power of this encroaching catastrophe, it’s necessary to examine each of the forces that are combining to produce this future cataclysm.
Resource Shortages and Resource Wars
Start with one simple given: the prospect of future scarcities of vital natural resources, including energy, water, land, food and critical minerals. This in itself would guarantee social unrest, geopolitical friction and war.
It is important to note that absolute scarcity doesn’t have to be on the horizon in any given resource category for this scenario to kick in. A lack of adequate supplies to meet the needs of a growing, ever more urbanized and industrialized global population is enough. Given the wave of extinctions that scientists are recording, some resources—particular species of fish, animals and trees, for example—will become less abundant in the decades to come, and may even disappear altogether. But key materials for modern civilization like oil, uranium and copper will simply prove harder and more costly to acquire, leading to supply bottlenecks and periodic shortages.
Oil—the single most important commodity in the international economy—provides an apt example. Although global oil supplies may actually grow in the coming decades, many experts doubt that they can be expanded sufficiently to meet the needs of a rising global middle class that is, for instance, expected to buy millions of new cars in the near future. In its 2011 World Energy Outlook, the International Energy Agency claimed that an anticipated global oil demand of 104 million barrels per day in 2035 will be satisfied. This, the report suggested, would be thanks in large part to additional supplies of “unconventional oil” (Canadian tar sands, shale oil and so on), as well as 55 million barrels of new oil from fields “yet to be found” and “yet to be developed.”