Massive geopolitical shifts seldom announce themselves with a bang. They tend instead to creep up slowly, until it’s hard to be sure exactly when they began. I remember going to buy some steel about six years ago, and being staggered by the price. “Ah,” the man in the hardware store explained, “it’s the Chinese, you see. They’re buying up so much steel, the price has gone through the roof.” The last time I visited my brother, all the lead had been stripped from his garden shed – the second theft in two months – thanks to rocketing lead prices. And it must have been around the time of the Iraq war that I recall first hearing someone say the next big war would be fought over water. At the time the prediction had sounded far-fetched; these days, it’s a commonplace.
These sort of random, disconnected events look neither random nor disconnected once you read Dambisa Moyo‘s account of what’s happening to the world’s commodities. In 1950 the world’s population stood at 2.5 billion; by last year it had reached 7 billion, and is projected to hit 10 billion by 2050. With almost all the population growth occurring in the emerging economies, by 2030 some 2 billion people will have joined the global middle classes. “Put another way,” Moyo writes, “in less than 20 years we will witness the creation of a middle class of roughly the same size as the current total population of Africa, North America and Europe.” Naturally, they will want mobile phones, fridges, cars and washing machines; 2,000 new cars already join Beijing’s streets every day. In 2010 China had 40 cities with populations of more than a million; by 2020 it plans to have added another 225. The implications for the world’s commodity resources are stark and sobering: global demand for food and water is expected to increase by 50% and 30% respectively by 2030, the pressure on copper, lead, zinc and corn is already becoming unsustainable, and no one has a clue where the energy we’ll need is going to come from.
If Moyo’s calculations are correct, we are in big trouble – which makes the central premise of her book, Winner Takes All, all the more arresting. Governments across the world, she writes, have singularly failed to grasp what’s coming – with one sensational exception. “Simply put, the Chinese are on a global shopping spree.” State-sponsored Chinese corporations are busy buying up commodities across Africa, North America, the Middle East, South America – anywhere they can – in a concerted strategy to seize control of resources before the rest of the world wakes up to the looming crisis. They’re striking deals with what she calls the “axis of the unloved” – developing countries rich in commodities but poor in political and economic capital – in return for much needed investment, employment and infrastructure. Extravagant shoppers, the Chinese are happy to pay over the odds, treating their trading partners not as poverty-ridden charity cases nor political pariahs but valued commercial equals. But when the resources begin to run dry, the consequences will be catastrophic. Already, since 1990 at least 18 violent conflicts worldwide have been triggered by competition for resources. If nothing is done now, warns Moyo, commodity wars on a terrifying scale are all but inevitable.
Read More: Guardian