The Thrill, the Horror, the Mystery of Resource Scarcity

I’ve been watching a lot of James Bond lately, as one does, and I was struck the other day by a marked shift between two different films; Goldfinger (1964) and Quantum of Solace (2008). Both films revolve around master villains who are attempting to gain control of a key resource for economic gain and political control, and these villains will stop at nothing to do so. They also have immense networks of power and the ability to tap into vast resources through criminal cartels, government connections, and more.

Auric Goldfinger is, as he himself tells viewers, obsessed with gold. Dominic Green, on the other hand, is obsessed with a lot of things, but he’s particularly interested in controlling supplies of water. Both villains want it all; they want a complete lockdown on the availability so they can control prices and who has access. In both cases, the level of control they can achieve is terrifying, and of critical concern to the government, which recognises that they have the capacity to bring down world powers with the flick of a wrist. Here’s where James Bond enters to save the day to take down the villains.

There’s been a growing turn in recent years to show resource-based conflicts as a driver behind horrors, thrillers, and mysteries, reflecting a growing sense of unease in the general population about natural resources and who has control of them. It’s particularly visible in the Bond franchise simply because it’s gone on for so long—from gold to oil to water, it’s followed the pulse of what people are worried about, and raised the spectre of fear.

Speculative fiction, too, has been going this way for some time; water is key to a number of recent science fiction novels exploring futuristic resources, as are things like genetic control of the food supply, access to usable soil, and clean air. People are thinking about the resources they take for granted and how much longer they will be so readily and casually available even as the real-world net tightens. The global supply of water is increasingly privatised, controlled by a shrinking number of people, and access to potable water is still not guaranteed in many regions of the world. While Dominic Green may be a fiction, Quantum of Solace was based on very real things, right down to tactics like snapping up seemingly useless land to get a monpoly on water rights.

Fiction has always explored what people are afraid of, from nuclear winter to aliens, but the amount of political commentary embedded into some of these works is considerable. It’s hard to read books like The Windup Girl, for example, without thinking about growing concerns in biotechnology. The things that characters are grappling with are slowly starting to become their own reality as companies snap up patents on the food supply, control who can grow what and where, modify seed strains in the way most likely to yield profits, even if that doesn’t necessarily help farmers or the general public.

This is kind of the point of such fiction, to create both a compelling story and a warning, but there’s something that feels more stark and immediate to me in this iteration. Perhaps people felt the same way about nuclear winter and Russian invasion fiction during the Cold War, when these things seemed like very real threats, but this issue goes a step further: Resource monopolies are already happening, and some of them are being spearheaded by firms that claim to be environmentally responsible and concerned about preserving the Earth for future generations.

Some of the horror depicted in resource scarcity fiction, in other words, is already here. It’s all around readers and viewers, in the things they eat, the company they send their water payments to, where they buy household goods. And some of these works are not shy about clearly outlining this for any readers with lingering confusions or uncertainty; while they cannot name companies outright for fear of libel, they can hint, and draw clear parallels that lead inevitably in only one direction. Reading The Windup Girl, Monsanto winds throughout its pages, even if the company is never explicitly named, and it comes up in conversations about the text, something which I’m sure Bacigalupi intended.

There is a sense of fatalism to many of these texts, showing the inevitable consequences of the system we are living in now. They remind us of the cost of not resisting, the dangers of refusing to take action until it is too late, as our lead characters are persecuted in their attempt to create a safer and more just world. When corporate control of resources is virtually total, it’s extremely hard to fight back, and people can pay a high price for doing so.

We may not have reached that point yet, but we appear to be rapidly hurtling towards it. Rather than being dismissed as ‘genre fiction’ that wouldn’t be of interest to any but the most dedicated, this new crop of environmental texts should be taken as a cautionary tale, and perhaps a user’s guide: Here is how not to do it, and this is why you should fight back before it’s too late. James Bond may be able to defeat Dominic Green, but Bond is a man of mythical status, with resources at his disposal that don’t even exist in the real world. We need something more, quickly, and that something may be our ability to unite in a group rather than to attempt to defeat the system alone.