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IT SEEMS reasonable to ask whether a resource-acquisition strategy based on global cooperation rather than recurring conflict might not prove more effective in guaranteeing access to critical supplies over the long run. Such a strategy would call for the equitable distribution of the world's existing resource stockpiles in times of acute scarcity, as well as an accelerated, global program of research on alternative energy sources and industrial processes. Coordinated international efforts would be inaugurated to conserve scarce commodities and employ material- saving technologies.
The key to making this strategy work effectively would be the establishment of robust international institutions that could address major resource problems while retaining the confidence of global leaders and the public. Such institutions would be needed to produce an accurate inventory of the world's supplies of critical commodities and to develop mechanisms for the global allocation of these materials in times of extreme scarcity or emergency. The scientific and technical expertise of participating nations could be pooled in the search for new materials and production techniques. In return for their support of these efforts, member states would be assured of emergency deliveries of vital materials and would be guaranteed access to any new technologies generated by the common research effort.
In the energy area, for example, a global authority could be formed to coordinate the world's search for alternative fuels and to allocate existing supplies in the event of crisis. The foundation for such an institution already exists with the International Energy Agency (IEA). Established in response to the 1974 Arab oil embargo, the IEA was intended to arrange for and supervise the sharing of oil by the Western countries in times of emergency. An expanded version of the IEA, incorporating all regions, could bring suppliers and recipients together to find ways to alleviate future shortages.
A similar body is needed to protect the world's water resources. Although it may prove impractical to move large quantities of fresh water from one region to another it is possible to imagine a global water authority that could assist countries facing acute shortages. This authority could also help arrange for the equitable distribution of water among states dependent on a shared river or aquifer system and could lead the search for more economical methods of converting salt water into fresh water, or for irrigating crops with less water wastage.
We undeniably possess the ingenuity and capacity to develop such institutions. Existing organizations, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations Development Programme, and the World Health Organization, have demonstrated, over a considerable span of time, the capacity to address complex international problems in an effective and impartial fashion. As the world becomes more complex and interdependent, there is every reason to believe that new resource agencies could make a substantial contribution to reducing the likelihood of armed conflict.
New international procedures are also needed to reduce the incidence of fighting over gems and timber. Some progress has already been achieved in this area through the marking of diamonds and logs to indicate that they originated in conflict-free areas. Canadian diamond mines, for example, engrave a microscopic polar bear or maple leaf on their stones, so as to distinguish them from gems originating elsewhere. Similarly, the De Beers diamond-trading firm has adopted measures to exclude stones coming from Angola and Sierra Leone in its inventories. Many timber companies, moreover, have agreed to certify that the logs they sell were not acquired from indigenous lands without the permission of local communities. Once a comprehensive system of such controls is put in place, it should be possible to curtail the trade in illicit resources and thus limit the duration and severity of resource wars.
No one can guarantee that such a strategy will work in all situations, or that it will eliminate every cause of conflict. Any worldwide system of cooperation will attract some spoilers and cheats. The point is not to ask whether such a system can be made entirely foolproof but whether, even with its problems, it would prove more effective over the long run than the current system, which relies on the use of force to resolve resource disputes.
Seen from this perspective, a strategy based on cooperation has many distinct advantages. While the use of force by a particular state may result in the temporary alleviation of a resource shortage, it will only provoke resentments on the losing side, leading to further outbreaks of violence in the future. Furthermore, the daunting task of moving large amounts of oil or water from one region to another cannot be performed effectively in an environment of recurring violence - the risk of sabotage, accident, spills, and breakdowns is simply too great. And the use of force will consume resources that can more profitably be used for the public good.
By contrast, the repudiation of violence in favour of cooperative solutions is more likely to avert painful shortages. Cooperative solutions are also likely to prove more durable. By building trust in this manner, moreover, the partners to a cooperative scheme will be better positioned to cope with an emergency. The avoidance of military operations would also permit increased investment in new materials and technologies.
As we move deeper into the twenty-first century, the global human community faces a momentous choice: we can either proceed down the path of intensified resource competition, which will lead to recurring outbreaks of conflict throughout the world, or we can choose to manage global resource stockpiles in a cooperative fashion. Selecting the latter path will not prove easy: many states and private interests will resist the establishment of a system that gives international agencies a degree of control over the allocation of valuable materials in times of scarcity. But we must ask: Would it not be better to share resources equitably in times of need? Is it not in our long-term interest to make every effort to avert future shortages through collaborative research and action?
Natural resources are the building blocks of civilization and an essential requirement of daily existence. The inhabitants of planet Earth have been blessed with a vast supply of most basic materials. But we are placing increased pressure on these supplies, and in some cases we face, in our lifetimes, or those of our children, the prospect of severe resource depletion. If we rely on warfare to settle disputes over raw materials, the human toll will be great. To avoid this fate, and to ensure an adequate supply of essential materials, we must work now to establish a global system of resource conservation and collaboration.
Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict Michael T. Klare. Metropolitan Books.