The retreating Arctic ice shelf is putting a smaller and much ignored part of the planet into the global spotlight. Ground zero for global resource scrambles in the Arctic right now is Greenland. Nominally a Danish “protectorate” (code speak for Copenhagen owns all your shit), the US has been floating the idea of “independence” for that Euro-centric island. This would be handy for US oil and mining corporations to skirt pesky European environmental laws that say you have to clean up the mess after you’re done strip mining. Preliminary reports from the soggy permafrost in Greenland reveal uranium, diamonds, gold and rare earth metals packed under the retreating glaciers and those rare earths are in high demand too since 90% of existing supply comes from a single mine in China. Those rare earths get crammed into plasma TVs and iPads and the Chinese have been restricting exports, which are subtle opening salvos in the proxy resource wars that will dominate the 21st century.
The Greenlanders recently retracted laws governing the digging up of radioactive elements on their soil and decided spilling gamma waves into igloos for cash was a deal they could live with. This has attracted the usual swarm of sleazy corporations looking for mining rights. Fun thing is, these corps represent US, Russian and Chinese mining interests with a host of smaller countries like Canada, Australia, Norway and Finland looking for a piece of the action too. Everyone wants access to the last non-raped piece of real estate on the planet. Sure, the polar bears won’t like it but let’s face it; polar bears are assholes anyway and will have to make do with zoo swimming pools.
Will there be shooting over these resources anytime soon?
Climate change still has some work to do to melt away those last bits of polar habitat that’ll make the region viable for free-for-all energy and commodity extraction. But if we fast-forward to say 2020, shit starts to get interesting. By then, it’ll have fully sunken in to us dumb upright apes that economic growth on a planet is finite and tied to energy supply. Nobody’s going to be particularly happy about this. Especially in rich countries where we will get to learn the hard way that the plastic bottle that contains the Coca Cola is actually worth more in real terms than the shitty sugar water inside. When that truth comes down the pipe, along with $200-a-barrel oil, food price increases and shittier lives, it’s going to be somebody’s fault. In Western countries, that’ll probably mean the Chinese and Russians.
That’s where the seeds of future resource wars will get sown.
Wars always start with angry people. People who get angry blowing their paychecks on fuel and food and not having enough left over for a new plasma screen. This has been going on ever since some hunter-gatherer tribe killed the last mammoth in the valley and pissed off all the other tribes who also needed new fur coats too. Truth is, despite the dystopian sci-fi consumertopia we’re all living in today, not too much has changed. We’ve got satellites and iPhones but we’re still dumb upright apes when it comes to killing people who try to take our shit. Killing each other for resources is a proven strategy and civilization is just a thin veneer pasted on top of four million years of naked raw survival. When lower living standards peel that veneer away, shit will get interesting fast. And by interesting I mean war. Thing is, future resource wars are going to go global fast because every tribe is going to want a piece of the last mammoth left in the valley.
Will the Arctic be worth fighting over?
The Russians have already started beefing up their Northern Fleet and, I shit you not, have begun building a prototype floating nuclear power station to power undersea drilling. That’s sure to make environmentalists shit bricks. The Norwegians just inked a deal with the US for 52 new F-35 multi role stealth fighters which is a $10.5 billion order and gigantic when you consider Norway’s tiny population. It reeks of a ballsy ambition to stake a claim for some Polar resources but then that’s typical of the Nordics. If the shooting ever starts they’ll be looking at a Finn-style rerun of the Winter War in 1939 when the tiny Finns bloodied the Red Army’s nose.
The Canadians too are gearing up for some possible pew-pew.
In October, the Canadian Navy announced a $25 billion order for 23 new combat vessels of various types aimed at patrolling the Northwest passage, shipping lanes in the Canadian Arctic that are opening up to maritime trade again due to melting ice. Canada has been running Arctic military exercises every year since 2006 (Operation Nanook) designed to warn the Russkis to keep their filthy titanium flags off Canada’s sea floor.
The US of course is well positioned to defend any Arctic claim. In addition to a defence budget larger than the next ten countries combined, the US has 50 nuclear attack subs that have been lurking under the Arctic ice for decades and it’s hard to see them being overwhelmed in any future resource war.
But here’s where we come to the fun part.
In an increasingly nuclear-armed world, are limited resource wars even possible without escalating to full on WWIII take-us-back-to-the-Stone Age action? That sure is an interesting question for the 21st century and the fun thing about nukes themselves. They’re really only useful when they never get used. In fact, nukes are the greatest peace keeping weapons ever invented.
Power since WWII has been primarily economic and “soft”. Having aircraft carriers and stealth bombers is useful but not game-winning when you consider that once a nuclear power starts losing a conventional war it’s time to press the big red button of win and sort out WWIV with sticks and stones. Nukes were the Mutually Assured Destruction glue that kept the Cold War from ever turning into a shooting contest. The US and Russia fought through proxies and kept warfare on the down low. But will this paradigm endure once oil production peaks and prices increase to the point where the era of cheap energy ends?
Right now nukes mean there can be no winner and that has made leaders realize that it is better to trade than conquer. Global communication means there are no ideological divisions right now; every nation is a money grabbing capitalist pig and that works pretty well for everything but the planet. As planet conditions change and make human populations more costly to sustain, it sure raises some interesting questions.
Do we get to stage where desperation creeps in?
Sometime later this century, a major power may have to make a move on some energy, water, or sea lane because failing to do so would result in a collapse of the state anyway; so war and nuke escalation events further down the road aren’t of primary concern.
That right there is a pretty scary recipe for the future. In fact, it’s so scary I think I’ll go sign some useless petitions and take a bong hit.