What resource politics means now

by Lyla Mehta, Institute of Development Studies / ESRC STEPS Centre

The politics of sustainability and resources are high on the global agenda.  Last month, the UN agreed 17 new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and in just over a month’s time the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) takes place in Paris, based on the consensus that tackling climate change is only possible if the SDGs are met and poverty reduction and gender equality are realised.

Apart from these global policy arenas, scientific and popular debates have raised concern about humanity’s survival on the planet, the importance to understand and not overshoot planetary boundaries, and the dangers of a new proposed geological age, the Anthropocene.

It is interesting, though, that most of these debates are taking place at a global or even planetary level. What’s almost forgotten is how important socio-political factors, geopolitics and history and culture are in people’s relationships with the environment.

At the STEPS Resource Politics conference last month, Rohan D’Souza expressed concern that history had been written out of current debates of the Anthropocene and planetary boundaries. Unlike some current debates, historical accounts have painstakingly recorded the role of agency and structural factors in environmental change, from local to global scales.

As Michael J. Watts argued, current debates frame the Anthropocene as something we have to ‘adapt to’ with ‘resilience’. In the process, both adaptation and resilience are treated as apolitical – when in fact both terms connect to questions of decision-making and power. Other big concepts need unpacking too. As Melissa Leach pointed out, the buzz around the planetary boundaries debate lacks a critical examination of the politics of knowledge regarding how the boundaries have been conceptualised and what these planetary-scale debates obscure and fail to address.

Unhelpful scare stories now abound about resource scarcity, security and overpopulation. Johan Rockström’s presentation at the conference linked the war in Syria to climate change and droughts. But, as he acknowledged in the discussion afterwards, in isolation this viewpoint (which is by no means marginal) neglects the geopolitical, ethnic and historical roots of the civil war in Syria. It contributes to the ‘militarization’ of the environment and dehumanises the victims of conflict, as convincingly argued by Betsy Hartmann.

Generalised scare stories of scarcity also lead to an erasure of other important factors: local and regional dynamics, social difference, and the role of capital accumulation in increasing processes of dispossession, inequality and unsustainablity. This is why there are now calls for replacing the term Anthropocene with ‘Capitalocene’ (Jason Moore) or the ‘Great Accumulation’.

The new politics of scarcity

The panel that I convened on the New Politics of Scarcity picked up on these themes. There is a flurry of global reports on resources – reports which are replete with concerns for resource scarcity. Reports on large-scale investments in land and agriculture in Africa draw on powerful and problematic imagery of global scarcity and local abundance, but usually avoid looking at the political dimensions of scarcity. Unlike 20 years ago, the new players concerned about scarcity are global corporations and even the World Economic Forum, which has massive convening power and the clout to shape global opinion and debates.

Since the 2008 World Economic Forum pushed key players to be concerned about water, food and energy security and their interlinkages, the nexus and green economy have become strong policy metaphors to address the ‘world in crises’. The nexus has also brought in new players such as global corporations, who are now taking a keen interest in addressing water, climate change and energy risks. Driven by narratives of scarcity and uncertainty, the language of nexus is increasingly framed in the language of security.

Usually this securitization does very little to enhance local people’s wellbeing and rights; instead it allows new actors to increase the insecurities of poor and marginalised people.   Neo-Malthusian debates are also on the rise and invariably overpopulation continues to be blamed for all our woes.

As Betsy Hartmann put it: “mix privatization, financialization, militarization and 1% wealth concentration; squeeze the poor and put social welfare programme on ice. Then blame your hangover on overpopulation!” Nick Hilyard asked why elites and ‘polite society’ all around the world continue to be so successful in justifying land grabs, austerity, displacement and so on. Can an alternative social order so successfully dismantled under neoliberalism be recreated and invigorated to create new forms of solidarities, connections and friendships in the universal struggle against resource capture and the dispossession of lives and livelihoods?

What does resource politics mean now?

I hope that the conference created spaces to energise academics, activists and scholar activists to begin to create such connections and solidarities. I believe it also re-affirmed the need for a new resource politics.

Resource politics in 2015 means ‘de-militarising’ our imaginations of the environment and recovering the politics of the locality and the social and political dimensions of scarcity.

It means resisting ‘think global, act global’ kinds of thinking, as well as utilitarian and instrumental views of resources. It means resisting the erasure of time and place in the making and unmaking of resources. It means reasserting their relational and intrinsic attributes, and questioning conventional notions of borders, boundaries, limits and scarcity which often justify the grabbing and re-appropriation of resources.

Resource politics means localizing what we mean by resource justice to look at local subjectivities, framings and links with changing relationships between communities, states and markets across time and space and how these lead to the (re) allocation of resources.

It is also about bringing in emotions and affective behaviour, re-connecting with living selves and beings, and forging new solidarities and friendships.

It means being aware of the orderings of power in institutional arrangements and development processes.

Finally, thinking about resource politics means asking tough questions about the commodification and financialisation of nature, and capitalist accumulation, because these are usually the problem – and rarely the solution – in dealing with limited resources.


Lyla Mehta is the convenor of the Resource Politics research theme at IDS and a member of the ESRC STEPS Centre.

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