22 January 2013

Of Resources and the Origins of War

If, in response to the emerging detail on the horrors of the attack on the Algerian gas-plant, you have found yourself asking ‘What on earth were they doing in the desert?’ you would probably have moved rapidly on to realising that they were guaranteeing the lifestyle to which you, and I, have become accustomed. The idea of raiding the globe for resources, and using the necessary amount of violence to ensure access, has been a commonplace to the powerful nations of the world. It is this commonplace that the idea of a bioregional economy seeks to challenge.

We need to understand our economy as a post-colonial economy and, since Britain could be argued to have invented the most successful method of colonial exploitation, it is my view that we have a particular responsibility for identifying and challenging this view of how we undertake the provisioning of our most basic resources: energy and food. The curious informal partnership between the British state and the East India and other trading companies enabled the massive expansion of markets for our goods and source of the resources we need to make them and to feed our expanding lifestyles.

Once we had found a method for controlling global trade and profiting from it, the pressure to produce goods and services within our own territory waned. In fact, British economists specifically argued that such a strategy was misguided, partly as a result of their own experience but, perhaps more importantly, to persuade other nations to join a trading system within which Britain was already dominant. The spread of the market model, as an economic reality and a mythological force, was essential to the extension of the Great Powers of 18th and 19th century Europe. Adam Smith provided the myth of ‘the bartering savage’ while Galton provided the parallel myth of the racial superiority of the caucasian and ‘Ricardo had erected it into an axiom that the most fertile land was settled first’ (Polanyi, 1944: 192), suggesting that what was taken from the indigenous peoples of colonised lands could have been only marginal lands. John Locke  gave the  jusification for enclosing land, writing that putting a fence around land and improving it through agriculture gave settlers a right to own the land.

Between them these mental constructs provided intellectual cover for the adventures of the far from noble savages who travelled the world seeking fame, resources and profit from the late 15th century onwards.  This caused a fundamental change in our attitude to geopolitics: the central role of foreign policy was now ensuring access to resources rather than protecting the nation’s borders. As Polanyi has it, ‘no people could forget that unless they owned their food and raw material sources themselves or were certain of military access to them, neither sound currency nor unassailable credit would rescue them from helplessness’ (Polanyi, 1944: 199).

This domination, based around an extending empire backed up by financial and military power has made it seem entirely natural to us that the resources of the world can belong to us in exchange for money. It is not surprising, however, that those who live in those lands that are now occupied by massive extraction plants and suffer the consequent pollution do not see things this way. Years ago now I wrote an article called ‘Fascism or Bioregionalism’ but it might have rather been called ‘Colonialism or Bioregionalism’. My commitment to a bioregional future is based around the need to reduce carbon emissions and build stronger, more resilient communities. But there is also a commitment derived from the Quaker peace testimony that requires us to seek out the origin of all wars. In today’s world it is the global supply chains that impose our greed on the land of others that are the greatest source of conflicts present and future.

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