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The Coming Conflicts Over Resource Depletion

— May 23, 2022

People are already choosing sides for the coming conflicts over resources that could be shared more equitably if people were wiser, less profligate, and not so frightened of each other.

We live in interesting times, don’t we? So many of the cans our ancestors kicked down the road are able to go no further, and the chickens are coming home to roost. Seemingly all at once, we’re facing a multi-predicament pile-up: supply chains coming undone in the wake of a global pandemic (which, itself, was exacerbated by political divisiveness, cutbacks in funding for emergency preparedness, and people encroaching too far into the natural world), increasing effects of climate change, drawdown of natural resources, pollution, debt, rising energy costs and long-simmering social issues are turning our world into a powder keg. Seeds of the coming conflicts are visible as society cracks and fissures, with people taking sides, jockeying for position in order to prevail as violence predictably erupts when there’s no longer enough to go around at the current rate of use.

Let’s look at two recent examples.

The American southwest is in a long-term drought, climate change is making it worse, and there’s a serious lack of water. It’s questionable how long people will even be able to live there in the coming decades. As it is, water districts in southern California are urging residents to cut back. However, when the Las Vergines Municipal Water District held a virtual town hall meeting announcing new restrictions limiting water use to about 80 gallons a day (and one day of outdoor watering) in this incredibly wealthy enclave, residents were worried about exemptions for their koi ponds.

While the statewide average water use in California is 91 gallons a day, residents of Las Vergines average 193 gallons each day, filling up those precious ponds, washing cars, topping off their pools and watering lawns that may have cost thousands of dollars to install in what is, quite naturally, a desert. Meanwhile, in California’s central valley, wells are running dry and people have no water coming out of their taps at all. Not for drinking, not for washing.

In the coming conflicts over water use in the thirsty desert, make no mistake: as a whole, the very wealthiest will pull out all the stops to make sure their fancy goldfish get to drink before poor humans do. Will they feel bad about it, or simply assume it’s their due, especially if they are affluent enough to shrug off any fines or penalties associated with wasting an abundance of water as others go without? What will they do when they eventually realize that no amount of money can conjure water that doesn’t exist?

It’s one thing to be rich and, somehow, still not allowed to fill your swimming pool, but when the effects of our converging problems are felt across the board (and more heavily on the least able to afford it), the coming conflicts can and will turn deadly. Consider the recent mass shooting in the Tops grocery store in Buffalo, NY. However copypasta the shooter’s posted screed was, one thing is clear. He was motivated by the right wing’s pet “Great Replacement Theory.”

If you’re not familiar with this theory (more of a hypothesis, really) and don’t regularly tune in to hear Tucker Carlson use it to warm up the MAGA base, it goes like this: Democrats are importing “chain migrants” (presumably from “shithole countries”) to be more compliant voters who will line up even more willingly than the authoritarian conservatives, and who will outbreed “legacy Americans” (meaning, of course, white people) in order to stay in power. Good patriots, then, are obligated to support certain conservative policies (like rolling back Roe v Wade, for example, to increase the domestic supply of white babies) and, perhaps, even instigate a race war, to preserve the pale hegemony. Or so it goes.

Mainstream news sites have been falling all over themselves to debunk the replacement hypothesis, and rightly so. However, what they largely fail to address is how plausible it all sounds to a great many Americans, who know something is wrong, they’re not doing as well as they or their parents used to, they’re stressed out and living paycheck to paycheck. It’s not hard to notice that American demographics really are shifting (with 4 in 10 identifying as a race other than white on the 2020 census) and that previously disempowered groups such as women, LGBT+, and BIPOC Americans are increasingly getting a seat at the table. That it correlates so neatly with resource depletion and the precarious existence of working people seals the deal. “Be careful, mate,” as the cartoon says. “That foreigner wants your cookie!”

Diverse hands support each other.
Public domain image courtesy of CC0

An idea doesn’t have to be factually true for people to believe it. If enough people base their identity on this “replacement theory,” the coming conflicts will divide us by race as well as by wealth. It’s likely that have-not Americans jockeying for positions relatively higher than the people around them (let the Devil take the hindmost!) and bonding with whichever social identity “team” they think is likeliest to have their backs, actual truth will matter less than security and their ability to access resources.

One final thought. In the game of resource depletion musical chairs, the coming conflicts are a collective choice, not the only option. While much of the wealth of the top tier of Americans is on paper, some, like land, is not. Spreading the less ephemeral wealth more equitably would ensure more resources to go around, especially if we re-orient our way of life towards making it easier to use them wisely. So, too, would the realization that the world is, indeed, changing, and that we’re all in this together: all races, all identities, all beliefs. We all need water, we all want to be safe. We have more in common than we think. We just need to act like it, and fight what divides and impoverishes us rather than fighting each other over the scraps.

Related: Carrying Capacity Still Matters Today


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