Consumption Has Finally Caught Up With Us
Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, foreign policy analysts have struggled to find a term to characterize the epoch we now inhabit. Although the "Post-Cold War Era" has been the reigning expression, this label now sounds dated and no longer does justice to the particular characteristics of the current period. Others have spoken of the "Post-9/11 Era," as if the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were defining moments for the entire world. But this image no longer possesses the power it once wielded -- even in the United States.
I propose instead another term that better captures the defining characteristics of the current period: the Post-Abundance Era.
If there is one thing that most inhabitants of the late 20th century shared in common, it was a perception of rising global abundance in virtually all fields: energy, food, housing, consumer goods, fashion, mass culture, and so on. Yes, there were pockets of poverty in many areas, but most people in most places around the world were seeing a rise in their personal income and an increase in the number of things in their possession, along with the supply of energy with which to move or power their many personal goods.
At least some strata of the global population will continue to experience an increase in personal wealth in the 21st century, but the sense of abundance that characterized the late 20th century is likely to evaporate for the great majority of us. One day affordable luxuries like overseas vacations and meals out will become unattainable, and even basic necessities like energy, electricity, water, and food are likely to become less plentiful and more expensive. This global austerity will produce great hardship for the poor and will force even lower-middle class families to choose between long car trips, restaurant meals, air-conditioning in summer, and high thermostats in winter.
Less Supply, More Demand
Lying behind this historic shift in global fortunes is a fundamental reversal in the balance between resource supply and demand. For most of the 20th century, global stockpiles of vital materials like oil, natural gas, coal, and basic minerals expanded as giant multinational corporations (MNCs) poured billions of dollars into exploring every corner of the Earth in the drive to locate and exploit valuable deposits of extractible materials. This permitted consumers around the world to increase their consumption of virtually everything, safe in the knowledge that even more of these commodities would be available next year and the year after that, and so on infinitely into the future.
But this condition no longer prevails. Many of the world's most promising sources of supply have been located and exploited, and all of the additional billions spent by MNCs on exploration and discovery are producing increasingly meager results. Ever since the 1960s, the most fruitful decade in the worldwide discovery of new oilfields, there has been a steady decline in the identification of new deposits, according to a recent study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Even more worrisome, the rate of oil field discovery fell below the rate of global petroleum consumption in the 1980s, and since then has fallen to approximately half the rate of consumption. This means we are increasingly relying on deposits found in previous decades to slake our insatiable thirst for petroleum -- a pattern that cannot continue for much longer before we will begin to experience an irreversible and traumatic decline in the global supply of oil.
The same is true of other vital resources, including natural gas, uranium, copper, and many minerals. There may be adequate stocks of these materials on global markets today, but the MNCs are not finding enough new deposits of these commodities to replace what we're consuming. So future shortages are inevitable.
Water is somewhat different, in that we receive a fresh supply of it each year through evaporation from the oceans and precipitation on land -- but even this precious resource will become scarcer in the years ahead due to population growth, urbanization, industrialization, the over-exploitation of underground aquifers, and global warming (through persistent drought and the accelerated evaporation of rivers and lakes).
This contraction in the global supply of vital resources will affect our lives in myriad ways. On a personal level, it will force us to consume less -- for example, by buying smaller, more fuel-efficient cars and smaller, more energy-efficient homes. We will have to make other accommodations as well: fewer long-distance trips to the seaside or distant amusement parks; fewer long-distance airplane rides; lowered thermostats in winter; and so on. These cutbacks will be minor inconveniences for some, but significant hardships for others -- especially the poor, the elderly, and others on a fixed income. Farmers will have a particularly hard time, as the cost of virtually everything associated with modern, mechanized agriculture -- diesel fuel, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, food supplements -- will become far more expensive.
Less Stuff, More Conflict
At the national level, we can expect a significant change in foreign policy. As supplies of energy and other basic necessities become scarce, senior officials will come under enormous pressure to "solve" the problem by any means necessary, including the use of military force.
In the case of energy, this could lead to future wars over oil. Even if oil were not the only motive for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the United States has long sought to maintain a dominant position in the oil-rich Persian Gulf area and a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq will facilitate American efforts to seize the oil of Iran and neighboring countries if a decision were ever made to do so. The Department of Defense is also beefing up its capacity to "project" military power into the oil-producing areas of Africa and the Caspian Sea basin. No one in official circles will admit that "guarding foreign oil fields" is the ultimate objective of Pentagon war plans, but it is becoming increasingly evident that the American military is being reconfigured to accomplish exactly this task.
Nor is the United States alone in thinking along these lines. China also seeks to enhance its capacity to project power into foreign oil-producing areas. And Russia, with a surplus of energy, seeks to exploit its advantageous position in order to extract concessions from less privileged nations.
Future shortages of water are also likely to prove a source of international friction and conflict. Egypt, which relies on the Nile River for virtually all of its water, has threatened to attack Sudan and Ethiopia if they proceed with plans to dam the Nile and divert some of its waters into irrigation schemes desperately needed to feed their rapidly growing populations. Israel has also threatened to go to war with neighboring Arab states if they move ahead with plans to dam the Yarmuk River (one of the tributaries of the Jordan) or otherwise jeopardize Israel's already over-stretched water supply. Such threats -- and possibly actual outbreaks of conflict -- are likely to become more common as the demand for water rises and global supplies dwindle.
The Gestalt of Austerity
The end of abundance is not the same thing as outright scarcity. Some commodities, like oil, may become truly scarce in later decades of the 21st century, but they will not disappear altogether. Those with means will still be able to purchase gasoline and air conditioning and other soon-to-be luxury items. But the end of abundance will create a new international environment -- a new gestalt, if you will -- in which expectations are lowered and struggles over what remains become fiercer and more violent.
Ideological, political, and ethnic differences will have their place in this new environment, but increasingly these will be infused with or subordinated to resource pressures. The growing edginess evident in Sino-American relations, for example, can be traced at least in part to a perception that the United States and China are becoming bitter competitors in the global hunt for new sources of petroleum. Likewise, the growing frostiness in U.S.-Russian relations can be attributed in part to Moscow's heavy-handed use of its natural gas monopoly to browbeat neighboring countries like Ukraine and Georgia. This is exactly how we would expect international affairs to evolve in a Post-Abundance Era.
Prediction is always risky, and it is entirely possible that some unanticipated event on the scale of 9/11 or World War II will come along and redefine the current epoch. But such a calamity aside, the end of global abundance and the resulting scramble for resources is likely to prove the most conspicuous feature of the emerging international landscape.