THE TROUBLE WITH most analyses of resource scarcity -- and particularly those from the Left -- is that they are apocalyptic, monochromatic and vulgarly determinist. Things, like oil and copper and water, are seen as automatically and inexorably shaping the future. The great virture of Richard Barnet's important new book, The Lean Years, is that it avoids these simplifications and makes a powerful argument for new departures that confront the complexities. I stress this up front because the unwary reader, noting the subtitle "Politics in the Age of Scarcity" might think that he or she is in for another ecological horror tale as scary, and convincing, as those movies in which magnified cockroaches star as city-eating monsters. And that is not the case at all.
Are there "enough resources? It depends on political choices, not on the quality of minerals and ores. Barnet writes, "Theoretically, there are ample resources in the world to support a decent life for the predicted global population of the year 2000, but not to support lopsided opulence or continued ecological plunder." Oil companies manipulate a gult in ways that will lead to scarcity; copper companies persuade Washington to stockpile their product as a "strategic" resource because it has become dangerously abundant and cheap. The majesty of the American government is put in the service of oil-dominated consortia in the Law of the Seas negotiation -- and, I would add, in the current U.N. discussions on the ownership of space.
Is the problem with minerals, as is so often assumed, that the United States consumes too many of them? Not quite, Barnet argues. We now consume 27 percent of the world's output -- but in 1940, we accounted for 42 percent. That is not because of American parsimony but because the industrialization of the world has lead to increased competition and higher prices. It is that price increase which defines the crisis, even as we are forced to lower-grade, more expensive ores and are finally beginning to internalize some of the environmental costs of extraction which used to be "free" (socially paid for by vulnerable groups and individuals).
Given this rich, complex definition of the problem, Barnet sees institutional political changes, not technological breakthroughs or new mines and wells, as the key to the solution. Autocratic corporations, often with government aid, have planned the allocation of world resources on a profit calculus which regularly yields antisocial results. Shell, Arco and Exxon are already positioned to take over the solar energy industry -- they own the major companies now in existence -- when it is finally taken with the seriousness it deserves. So Barnet argues for government small intervention to shape markets, encourage small entrepreneurial innovation and to create a TVA-type corporation which would, among many other things, break the monopoly of "facts" and "statistics" now enjoyed by that independent research center, the oil industry.
I agree with each one of these proposals; I disagree with the framework in which Barnet puts them. He calls for a "mixed economy" in which private corporate power and government initistive would coexist. Fine. Something like this is clearly the only realistic possibility in the foreseeable future. But who will be on top and who on the bottom? Will the government continue to serve the corporation, as has been the normal pattern up until now, or can corporations be required to follow social priorities? An equilibrium between these two forces is impossible over any long period of time. Either one continues the current trend toward a corporate-dominated state capitalism or else there is a move toward a new, and democratic, economy planned from the bottom up. That the latter alternative is not, in this appalling year, an immediate option does not change the fact that it is a long-run necessity.
One of the reasons why Barnet to draw this conclusion is that he applies the term "socialist" to existing communist societies. Once that is done it is easy to show that the bureaucratic ruling class in those countries is about as rapacious in its treatment of resources and the environment as the state capitalists here. In addition, Barnet reads Marx in much the same way, seeing him as a productivity fanatic and forgetting that he had defined the "kingdom of freedom" as beginning with leisure time. I do not raise these matters out of a sectarian bookishness. This confusion obscures a basic -- third -- option for organiziang the world's resources. The European socialists, for instance, are more and more turning toward decentralist and ecological models of socialism.
I do not want to conclude on these criticism. My strictures apply to that long run in which, as Keynes said, we are all dead and they bear on the long run in which we now live. They do not in any way invalidate the richness of Barnet's analysis or the immediate relevance of the reforms he urges. I particularly like the factual epiphanies which abound in this book -- Gulf Oil conspiring against the CIA in Angola, the Soviets providing chrome for American weapon system, and so on. And most important of all, Barnet includes a fifth resource along with oil, minerals, food and water -- human skill.
That is a crucial dimension in the here and now. If the problems of American society are acute, there is also the world-wide challenge of putting millions of people to work. Under those circumstances, the planned scarcity of the global factory is all the more intolerable. The basic issue, Barnet rightly argues, is not determined by material resources but by the human, institutional way in which they are used -- and carefully not used when that will fetch a higher price. In another context, Leszek Kolakowkso said that there is no well so deep that humans looking into it do not see their own faces at the bottom. In the cases of oil and water and copper and grain, the problem is also human not material, a fact which Barnet brilliantly documents.