Justice and Natural Resources

By Chris Armstrong, Professor of Political Theory at the University of Southampton.


Struggles over precious resources such as oil, water, and land are increasingly evident in the contemporary world. States, indigenous groups, and corporations vie to control access to those resources, and the benefits they provide. As the controversy over the Dakota pipeline in the US illustrates, those conflicts can be intense. Moreover, whereas international law provides states with an extensive set of rights over domestic resources, these conflicts are rapidly spilling over into new arenas, such as the deep oceans and the Polar icecaps. Engineers and scientists are hard at work developing the technology which would be needed to access mineral deposits, or valuable forms of biodiversity, in these otherwise inhospitable regions.

Humanity will therefore face crucial decisions, in coming decades, about how these precious resources should be governed, and how the benefits and burdens they generate should be shared. This is a question political theorists have argued about for centuries. Should our ‘appropriation’ of the world’s resources be relatively unconstrained, so that they can be gobbled up on a first-come-first-served basis? Or should appropriation be constrained in light of the claims we all have on these precious resources, which none of us, after all, played any hand in creating? Should the world’s resources be seen as a treasury for the alleviation of global poverty or inequality?

Questions of natural resource justice, then, are crucially important. Our answers to those questions will resonate with some of the most significant controversies within political theory today: what are the demands of global justice? How can we fairly share the costs of dealing with climate change, or threats to biodiversity? What, if anything, justifies the territorial rights of states, including the right to ‘freely dispose’ of the natural resources within each state’s territory?

Justice and Natural Resources is the first book-length treatment of these issues, and provides a systematic theory of natural resource justice. It argues that we should use the benefits and burdens flowing from these resources to promote greater equality across the world, and share governance over many important resources. It also illustrates the implications of this theory for a series of pressing real-world issues, including the scope of state resource rights, the claims of indigenous communities, rights over ocean resources, the burdens of conservation, and the challenges of climate change and transnational resource governance.

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