Books: Winner and losers

In Winner Take All, Dambisa Moyo claims to redefine the debate about global resource consumption and China’s role. But there is less to this book than meets the eye, says Isabel Hilton.

Winner Take All: China’s race for resources and what it means for us. 
Dambisa Moyo
Allen Lane 257pp hardback £20.00

The are many sound reasons for the world’s governments to pursue a more sustainable model of production and consumption than has been the norm for the last three hundred years: climate change, bio-diversity loss and environmental degradation lead my personal list, with the increasing stress on the world’s finite resources close behind.

In her new book, Winner Take All, China’s race for resources and what it means for us, the Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo argues that China is pursuing the acquisition of the world’s resources in a manner that will lead inevitably to conflict with other nations whose interests are threatened.  

Moyo is not the first economist to predict a global commodity crisis and its attendant doom.  From Malthus on down, there have been warnings that the world cannot take the weight of human demands upon it and, though none of the predictions have played out exactly as their authors believed, all have a measure of truth on their side. The trends are clear: there are too many people, consuming too much for the long term health of the world’s resources and the humans who depend on them.

The difficulty with scenarios such as those in Moyo’s book, is that the devil is in the detail. Predicting particular scarcities is notoriously difficult and Moyo’s rather breathless narrative is not strong either on nuance or comprehensive vision.  It assumes, for instance, that China’s future trajectory will closely follow the last three decades, just at the moment that the Chinese government is attempting a transition to a different economic model, with all the uncertainties that creates.

Moyo does not discuss the impact of new technologies on future consumption, or stop to ask what room there is for improvement in the way China uses resources.  And by focusing so narrowly on China’s needs and strategies, Moyo leaves out of account both the other emerging economies and their demand for resources, and the continuing extravagance of the richer parts of the world who will certainly have to adjust to increasing scarcity and a long term rise in prices. 

Despite the book’s title, this is not an informed account of China: in a bizarre passage on water, for instance, Moyo explains that the Three Gorges Dam is too far from Shanghai for its reservoir to be useful, as though the dam’s primary purpose was to boost Shanghai’s water supplies. Moyo criticizes those whom she characterizes as “China-bashers”, but her own argument – that China’s relentless pursuit of resources will lead to war – is an example of scapegoating. Instead of blaming China for destabilising an unsustainable global system, it might be more helpful to point out that all nations are failing to behave, in the words of the Brundtland Report in 1987, in a way that  “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” 

Her remedy is that the world needs to talk about resource scarcity. Ironically, the book was published just as the Rio+20 conference closed.  The event was evidence both that the world has been talking about this for decades, and that it has failed, so far, to get to any point that resembles action.  The future of the world’s resources is certainly worth talking about. Unfortunately this book does not contribute greatly to the conversation.

Isabel Hilton is a London-based international journalist and broadcaster. She is also the editor of chinadialogue.