Benno Hansen, a colleague here at Newsvine, has written an important book, Ecowar: Natural Resources And Conflict, on a topic more people should pay attention to, namely the impact natural resources have on conflicts throughout the world.
This is a fascinating thought-provoking book which I encourage you to read. It comes from some of his prior writings at his blog, EcoWar.
Benno agreed to let me interview him by email and the following is the result. You can purchase his book at various online bookstores as well as many real world, physical, in your neighborhood bookstores. Simply look up its ISBN (9788771143973). You can find links to places where you can buy the book here.
Benno will come by and respond to comments you post in response to this interview.
How did the idea for this book develop?
The idea for the book was that the scope and completeness of the blog had grown to a proportion where not editing it in book format would be wasting some of its potential. Also, it was something I felt like trying to do. The idea for working with the subject, blog and book, as told in the introduction of the book is 100% true. The community garden I visited is called "Gule Reer".
How has it been received?
The book has been well received by long time topic followers, contacts and certain of the few publishers I contacted. But as soon as someone as a publisher turn it down they also cut off supporting it completely. Attaining some critical mass of hype is difficult without the old media business model doing its job on automatic. No copies have been sold by themselves by simply standing on shelves in stores. But it's there, it's available, it's of a certain level of quality. So I am sufficiently satisfied with the process, the things I have learned, etc. It's not a commercial success, really, but on the other hand, the publisher isn't sending me any bills.
How would you describe what this book is about to those unfamiliar with your past writings including your blog?
There is a trend of perpetual resource conflict underlying so many of the other issues that are discussed in politics year in year out. This conflict is intensifying as demand grows while reserves and deposits are mindlessly exploited and dwindle away. Even if this certainly is not the only guiding principle of geopolitics, it is important enough for someone who has studied the subject to felt compelled to self-publish his study.
Why did you write this blog and, later, this book?
Along with a couple of class mates from the agricultural university I had visited a permaculture community garden. As we were driving back to the city - trunk loaded with fresh vegetables - our host started discussing the feasibility of their setup. Is it sustainable to grow your own food on lots outside the city then transporting produce by car? As part of this discussion, he mentioned their calculations accounted for gasoline prices four or five times higher than they were at the time. Since then the prices have "only" doubled but his point was that the free market is incapable of justly valuing finite natural resources. The conversation drifted around this topic and he said "all wars are fought over natural resources." I smiled at it but at the same time it made a lot of sense. Probably a lot of people feel like I did at the time. It's both "funny" - as in naively simplistic - and more or less true at the same time. To some people it's just a statement of the obvious while to others it's a Communist conspiracy theory.
What do you want people to take away from this book?
Concussions. I want to punch people in their faces.
There are two types of people: People with box shaped heads and people with pyramid shaped heads. The box-heads can only understand square facts, pyramid-heads can only understand triangle facts. But all sorts of facts exist. Natural resource conflicts is a topic of differently shaped facts. The book is a catalogue of facts of all sorts of shapes. A reader should be able to find plenty to agree with easily but not without being annoyed or provoked by other parts. Hopefully some will question the shape of their head, so to speak.
I guess another way to look at it is I stick my neck out on behalf of everyone. That all wars are fought over natural resources is actually not so uncommon a thought. But it is one that many find embarrassing to embrace. Not only is it naively simplistic and conspiracy theory-like but it also questions the basis of a lot of the political discussion that is taking place elsewhere, war for democracy being just the most obvious.
Could you explain what the book interludes are about and how you chose to include the ones that you did?
The interludes came to me almost by themselves. I discarded few ideas and rewrote little. On the other hand they were birthed on paper in little chunks with arrows and bubbles connecting and organizing the parts. When I wrote, I wrote in concentration and very slowly. I don't write a lot of fiction and I haven't really ever shown any to anyone before.
Fictionalization is one of the tools of popularization. And my incredibly stiff theoretical and factual chapters badly need popularization. So, I ended up separating them by "interludes" of weird little stories. I had a lot of ideas about how to do this but I didn't stick to them very strictly. For example, I imagined each interlude connecting the factual chapters immediately before and after them. And by connection I mean in both chronological order and type of analysis. For example, in Interlude B we move from distant historical past and imagined causes to present and reality as the soldier wakes up from his dream of Crusades and kings to the daily reality of guarding fuel trucks. Interlude C was simply better told as a story because the truth has been hidden from us. I wrote Interlude E right after returning from a trip to rural Kenya.
What lesson do you hope readers will take away from this book?
Like I said, I want to punch people, not lecture them. No really... If I should choose and pick one lesson above them all it would be that despite technological progress and advanced social structures and abstract social order, some resources that we are provided by the planet simply will not last forever. If there is one can of tuna left in the world a trillion dollars will not buy another. Tuna is reality, money is imagination. For this reason natural resources drive currents in human history, present politics and future trends in a fundamental way and are a much stronger force than, for example, financial theory is.
Money is a human concept used to illustrate the combined and relative values our natural resources have, the products we produce from them have and the trust we have in each other to provide us with goods and services in exchange for it. Unfortunately, a moral philosophy inspired by the assumed benefits of unregulated markets has infused our political system to a bursting point. Most main stream politicians are obsessed with economic growth, yet ignorant or naively defiant of physical and ecological boundaries. Does it make sense if perpetually rising housing prices in Western metropolises end up enriching certain individuals to the point of them being able to buy entire developing nations? If bubbles doesn't burst, we will end up with enough money to buy several planets - planets that doesn't exist (or at least isn't available to us). Yet we tend to vote for the politician with the most naive promise (oh, and ask yourself which is more naive: blind faith in perpetual growth or strategic public spending? I'm not out here arguing against the latter, mind you). In a way, the "green economy" debate at the recent Rio+20 summit was where the divide between finance and ecology is defined. There are many objections to the ways in which people are trying to make ends meet and perspectives agree. Capitalism cannot sufficiently account for the future and is by its nature inciting exploitation ("future costs are always negligible in eternal times of growth"?). Capitalism is devoid of any moral constraints. Capitalist promises of future improvements by privatization almost always come with callous disregard of short term suffering ("feeding poor with rising prices"?). Et cetera.
However, I avoid discussions of economy or religion in the book. Whenever anyone does discuss such themes immediately accusations of Communism and blasphemy are thrown. Ecowar is simply a collection of solid proof of the importance of natural resources. I know it's heresy to point at flaws in, for example, free market belief. So I'd prefer if people looked at the evidence themselves, then drew their own conclusions. Just stop denying reality, please.
What do you do when you're not writing or blogging? What kind of work do you do and what are some of your hobbies?
As for hobbies, I recently tried shooting clay targets with a shotgun for the first time in my life. I hit 15 of the 19 "pigeons." The instructor was stunned and I thought it was great fun. So I'm planning on trying it again some time soon. I'm somewhat serious about amateur photography and am all-round interested in "geek" stuff - Linux, blogging, science fiction paperbacks, comics. I read a good share of popular science books too. I guess that's how I keep the more academic part of my professional life alive - because my current job is as an office assistant and computer guy in the patent department of a multinational corporation. July 2010 I wrote an article about the UN Millennium Development Goal number 8 which was partly inspired by my job, which may or may not make sense.
Can you talk about the role of climate change in these conflicts that you write about?
It can be hard to see and hard to understand. Just like I don't explicitly claim all wars are fought over natural resources, but instead suggest natural resource scarcity and abundance influence human affairs, wars included, below the surface of public debate, climate change is a complex of trends influencing the natural resource situation. So, it's quite indirect and subtle. At least on the time scale we're used to discuss things. Seeing things in frames of half centuries then actually it's quite strong.
You mention in passing the problem of bottled water namely all the chemicals used to make those bottles? This is a topic that will probably interest our readers since many probably drink bottled water. Are you suggesting people not buy bottled water?
In short: Yes, I suggest people stop buying bottled water. I never buy bottled water myself. But in this I know I'm fortunate living in Denmark where we still have abundant clean ground water (no thanks to the Danish farmers and certain corrupt landfill managers). Obviously, in some circumstances people have to drink bottled water or water delivered by truck.
But the bottled water industry is an icon of what is wrong with society. We pollute and waste our nearby resources, then have to bring in some clean substitutes. In the process we stop caring about polluting our immediate surroundings and we pollute the common total ecosystem even more because now we have to produce the bottles and transport the product too. It's the incarnation of our idiocy. Of course, natural tap water will never be commercially successful because it has NO LOGO ;-)
You seem to have done quite a bit of research for this book - how did you go about undertaking this research and organize your thoughts for this book?
Blogging organized my thoughts. Google News Alerts and a bulging Google Reader helped me find the links that Diigo.com remembered for me and Amazon delivered the paperbacks. Also, I keep my university textbooks around
What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching and writing?
This is incredibly hard to answer.
But perhaps I was a bit surprised to find my mind increasingly militarized. Despite a handful of anti-war sentiments spread throughout the book (right?) force is simply a necessary tool when acting in some really badly scripted large scale zombie movie. We affluent Westerners are not quite the surviving band of heroes barricaded in a mall surviving on the last cans of conserved food while the rest of the world has disintegrated in violence. But...
Also, there is the possibility of guarding natural resources with lethal force. Today, the Dominican Republic is green and kind of alright while Haiti is a mudslide of anarchy - in part because the former dictator punished illegal logging with death. Leaders of and around the world could find themselves in situations demanding military intervention soon enough. I hope to see forests, ocean fish stocks, mountain rivers and endangered species protected by armed guards. I fear we are already seeing perpetual, low intensity, global counter insurgency where more often than not the criminals and rebels are - at least in part - driven to violence by resource scarcity and inequality.
Let's end on a positive note: What is the most encouraging thing you learned while researching and writing this book?
The UN have experts working on how to help natural resource based economies rebound from conflict and scarcity. It could make a lot of difference.
And that The Clash of Civilizations as imagined by as imagined by conspiracy theorist followers of author Samuel P. Huntington is indeed mostly imagination and "surface politics", not "substance politics".
It is my hypothesis that we fight wars for other reasons than we are led to believe or even lied to about. Right-wing, Christian and Huntington- inspired people are telling us there is a third world war going on with radical Islam on one side and Democracy on the other. To some extent there is, to some extent what is going on is just another entirely avoidable self fulfilling prophesy and to some extent there isn't at all. At the substance of geopolitical conflict - I claim - is natural resources.