Water, land, energy and raw materials are the basic necessities for the physical survival of any group of human beings. Yet, even the most basic analysis of our current situation reveals that access to these resources is controlled at every stage - from extraction and capture right through to consumption – by corporations whose main motivation is not equal or just distribution, sustainable maintenance of the resource or limited harm in its extraction, but the maximisation of profits.
This contradiction has the effect of depriving the poorest sections of society of access to essential resources. For example, a sixth of the world's population lacks access to clean water, a fact which is not simply caused by increasing scarcity, but by privatisation and the prohibitive costs which accompany it. In the case of energy, fuel poverty is experienced in the global north as well as the global south – in Scotland one in four households are estimated to suffer from fuel poverty, as energy costs are too high compared to income. This is despite the fact the most oil and gas extracted in Britain is from the North Sea. Justice – social, economic and ecological – is not a criterion built into profit maximisation, which means that destructive resource extraction and utilisation is often pursued with little regard for the immediate impacts, such as on the environment and health, for communities living next door to projects like mines and power stations. In the case of fossil fuels and deforestation, the 'non-immediate' consequence of climate chaos, which should disqualify the use of these resources, remains largely ignored by big fossil fuel corporations, and those responsible for large-scale deforestation. Such a situation forces us to challenge one of the basic premises of present-day capitalism, namely that the rule of profit making corporations provides the most effective means of organising society and satisfying the needs of the majority.
Broadly speaking we can distinguish two different types of resources which are managed and controlled quite differently by corporations. Firstly, 'low intensity' resources such as land and water, where wealth lies in controlling vast supplies and profiting from local dependencies. Secondly, 'high intensity' resources such as minerals, metals, coal, oil and gas which involve huge deposits of wealth concentrated in smaller areas, usually captured to be exported to specialist markets and industry in rich countries.
The relation of corporations to the states which effectively claim ownership over any resources that fall within their sovereign territory is highly problematic. National governments are increasingly handing over more and more of their resources to private business interests, with the effect of raising prices for consumers and decreasing revenues returned to the national budget. With privatisation, states diminish their power to legislate on immediate issues surrounding resource control and distribution, and on the longer-term climate impacts of burning fossil fuels. Avenues for people to influence decision-making are further shut down by privatisation. Almost invariably governments will favour corporate actors over communities in disputes over land and resources, particularly when those communities consist of marginalised working people or indigenous groups with little engagement in, or who are actively excluded from, mainstream politics. All too often, the concepts of development and modernisation are invoked to justify the displacement or disruption of communities who oppose the profit-making opportunities beneath them. Yet whilst the politico-entrepreneurial discourse paints this opposition to 'progress' as unrealistic or unsustainable, the insatiable demand for resources that characterises such 'progress' is itself based on the incredulous premise that there exist limitless deposits of natural wealth, and infinite ecological capacity to absorb the effects of their exploitation. Capitalism demands a belief in the possibility of infinite growth, and thus infinite exploitation of natural resources, on a finite planet.
The collusion between corporations and states to control resources is often based on mutual interests, both on a grand scale (geopolitical strategies and corporate growth) and in a more immediate sense (corruption and personal business interests). Perhaps the best example of the state-corporate nexus in recent years is the war in Iraq, which amalgamated a constellation of interests both grand and immediate. Discourses around 'energy security' were key in shaping UK and US foreign policy that lead to the invasion, but they implied not only securing the resources needed by citizens of the 'coalition', but also securing the monopoly of British and North American corporations over oil wealth. Furthermore, key politicians in the US administration that initiated the Iraq war also stood to make huge direct profits from ownership in companies that were given contracts to rebuild and manage resource projects there. All too often states mask political actions in corporate activities, whilst the rapacious drive for profits that characterises corporations are cloaked by political exigencies. When it comes to natural resources, the interests of states and their corporations are inextricably bound.
At the international level, the resource monopoly is perpetuated through major financial institutions, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and at the national level by government departments such as the UK's Department For International Development (DFID) , which use their immense financial muscle to extort economically weak, debt-burdened states, imposing 'structural adjustment plans', forced privatisation programmes and conversion to export agriculture. These imperatives destroy sustainable lifestyles and independent economies, weakening often already vulnerable economies by allowing foreign multinationals to extract value from the management of local resources. Haiti's move towards a dependency on food imports despite an incredibly rich agricultural terrain is one example of this trend, which combined with the expansion of the highly exploitative 'free-trade zone' sweat shops and a decline in real wages is exacerbating deprivation in the western hemisphere's poorest nation.
These global institutions also directly inject capital into large scale resource capture projects. Whilst such programmes are usually dressed up in the rhetoric of 'development', many case studies show debt increasing proportionally to extraction levels. Thus, internationally, corporate control is the cause of what has been called the 'resource curse', a scenario whereby countries endowed with some of the largest reserves of valuable resources (oil, gas, gold, diamonds, etc) are simultaneously subject to the severest poverty and exploitation as wealthy nations and their corporations collude to extract natural wealth at minuscule premiums.
The development banks also hold great power within decision making over which resources to develop. The World Bank continues to pump significantly more finance into fossil fuels and large-scale renewable projects, including those focused on providing energy for the global north, than it does small-scale renewable energy projects focused on improving sustainable energy access for the poorest. Since 2007, the World Bank has provided $6.5 billion for coal, including a $3.75 billion loan to South African energy utility Eskom, most of which will finance a new coal plant in South Africa. Finally, lest poor nations should try to stem the flow of capital or resources to the rich world, these institutions also maintain an international legal framework to enforce and defend the rights of corporations. The use of rights tribunals, production sharing agreements (PSA's), copyright and patent laws limit governments from exercising authority over transnational business. Through these structures, corporations can defend their profits against social and political turmoil, often safe in the knowledge that whether their project is successful or not they'll be guaranteed a bottom line of revenue. The legal enforcement of ownership is a key aspect of corporate imperialism, rendering all resources the 'property' of a determinate legal person and therefore allowing them to be bought and sold rather than just used. Such an approach is at odds with the concept of the 'commons', fundamental for many indigenous communities who do not hold a legal perspective regarding the ownership of resources, but instead use and maintain their resources in a sustainable manner so that they are able to survive. Yet the corporation as an institution cannot function without enclosures, and thus seeks to determine ownership over common resources wherever it operates, viewing 'common' resources as merely 'not owned' or 'not yet property'. As Helena Paul describes:
The oil industry is the lifeblood for the development paradigm that we are living with at the moment, which is based on a kind of linear science which just doesn’t bear any resemblance to nature, to how nature operates. It is based on asset-stripping, it’s based on converting natural capital to financial capital, which doesn’t really exist. You are converting something real to something unreal.
Aid, commerce and diplomacy aside, it is impossible to ignore the relation between armed conflict and the struggle for resources. Many of the long term conflicts in so called 'underdeveloped' yet resource rich areas arise from struggles over controlling the wealth embedded in the land, such as coltan and diamonds in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), or oil on the border between the DRC and Uganda. The role of transnational business in fuelling these conflicts is beyond doubt. Oppressive regimes in the so called 'developing world' are supported, through financial aid, lobbying and corruption by powerful corporations whose interests those regimes secure in turn. Many governments also turn a blind eye to the violations of paramilitary and security forces employed or funded by corporations to protect their operations, for example by BP in Colombia, in whose name a whole host of human rights abuses have been exacted on their workers and the communities affected by their operations. Simultaneously coalitions of wealthy countries use military aid, intervention and outright invasions to secure their resource interests and capture new resource rich territories, something we have seen so brutally in Iraq. The British government is mandated to use it's military might to defend the interests of British companies worldwide.
This global framework is tantamount to colonialism, and indeed many of the currently powerful corporations and institutions have their ancestry in colonial operations. The racism inherent in the plunder of majority world resources by rich world corporations is based on the assumption that rich nations have a right to use the worlds resources and that poor citizens of the global south are lucky to receive crumbs from the table of the wealthy. Such a view is the premise of imperialism and operates in tandem with the more general premise of capitalism, namely that resources can be owned by a minority, used to generate profit and still provide for the majority. This schema is enacted in the so-called 'developed' and 'underdeveloped' world alike, by those at the top, to the detriment of those at the bottom. Thus, effectively states, corporations and international institutions can be understood as complementary structures used by global elites to control resources and the wealth they produce, and 'externalise' the environmental and human rights costs of their doing so onto the poorest. The aim of this section is to document, explain and analyse these structures in order that they be resisted.
 Terry Lynn Karl (1997) The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro-States, University of California Press.