GEOG 430
Human Use of the Environment

Week 7 Reading


Huber MT (2011) Enforcing scarcity: oil, violence, and the making of the market. Ann Assoc Am Geogr 101(4):816–826.

Is the scarcity of oil a geological fact? Does resource scarcity result in ‘resource wars’? These are the two main questions Huber examines in his 2011 article. Predictions of the scarcity of key resources, especially oil, make headlines every now and then. The idea of “peak oil”, wherein the global oil production will reach a peak and then decline, are especially popular. This scarcity of natural resources is seen by many as the reason for wars and violence. Indeed, as Huber suggests, many assume that securing oil reserves was one of the motivations for the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. 

However, geographers have shown that scarcity is socially produced. This is not to deny that resources are finite, but to say that what is understood as scarcity (i.e. not enough resources available for current consumption) is socially produced. Historically, for the global petroleum industry the problem has never been scarcity, but overproduction; this can be seen in the multiple efforts by the OPEC to coordinate production as well as in the volatility of global oil prices. Thus, oil producers use institutional arrangements to try and create a level of scarcity that will result in prices that would allow for profits but not deter consumption. Thus, oil scarcity is “actively managed” (p. 819). 

Huber then goes on to examine the role of violence in this process. Through his study the enforcement of martial laws in response to overproduction in the oilfields of Texas and Oklahoma in the 1930s, he argues that violence is necessary to enforce scarcity. Thus, rather than resulting from scarcity, violence is used to produce and enforce scarcity. To Huber, “in capitalism, commodity relations presuppose the social production of scarcity” (p. 823). Violence, thus, is necessary for the functioning of capitalism as it enforces scarcity, which in turn is necessary for stabilizing commodity production and prices and making profit.

While reading this article, reflect on which resources or commodities you think are scarce and why, particularly on how these commodities are produced, made available to you and how they are consumed.  

Baka, J. (2016). Making space for energy: Wasteland development, enclosures, and energy dispossessions. Antipode doi: 10.1111/anti.12219.

In this article, Baka draws attention to the geographies of ‘renewable’ energy sources, in this particular case, the cultivation of Jatropha for the production of biodiesel in India. She shows that the cultivation of Jatropha is the latest iteration of the Government of India’s efforts to develop “wastelands”. Underpinning these efforts is the narrative of “wasteland” which are seen as “underperforming common lands with the potential to be improved and provide a societal benefit if enclosed” (p. 980). 

The narrative of wasteland has a long history in India, with new programs implemented depending on the changing ideas of “improvement” of the government. In this case, the fuelwood species of Prosopis, was planted under an earlier Social Forestry program to provide fuelwood for local consumption as well as take pressure off production forests. This cultivation was later termed “backward” when the new policy decided to replace it with Jatropha for the production of biofuel. The introduction of Prosopis, however, had yielded some benefits, since it had given landless households access to free fuelwood and its invasive quality required constant tending which had generated considerable employment. The replacement of Prosopis with Jatropha would erase these benefits through, what Baka terms, “energy dispossessions” wherein the introduction of new kind of energy erases certain existing energy economies as well as associated livelihoods. 

“Yet, wasteland development has failed to achieve its goals necessitating further rounds of wasteland development” (p. 983). This narrative of wasteland persists, Baka argues, to obscure the underlying tension between the government’s vision of development (and its attempts to partner with private industry for wasteland development) and the practices of the local people. Thus, Baka concludes, the category of “wasteland” will not go away since it is needed by the government to carry out “improvements”.

While reading this article, reflect on how biofuels and renewables change the land-use patterns of the sites where they are promoted. Consider how categories such as “wastelands” come to be constructed and then persist despite evidence against their underlying logic.