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close this bookUnited Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 12, Number 1, 1989 (UNU, 1989, 12 pages)
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentSustaining the Earth
View the documentAnticipating global trends: Aspects of UNU work for the period 1990-1995
View the document'An uncontrolled global experiment...'
View the document'A little breathing space': Report from the Budapest
View the documentEnergy savings: Sooner much better than later
View the document'The rich get richer...'
View the documentOld wine in new bottles?
View the documentTectonics of the desert cities
View the documentMan in the mangroves
View the documentDiverting the Nile
View the documentLosing the soils of Africa
View the documentIn fairness to the future

Old wine in new bottles?

By James N. Rosenau

As if problems with traditional resources - those lying on or under the Earth which have been used by humankind for centuries - were not vexing enough, 20th-century technology has delivered a whole range of new natural resource questions. They are defined here by James N. Rosenau as issues that have been raised by the use of modern science and technology to locate new resources in previously unexplored or unclaimed reaches of the universe. Such uses include probes into the depths of space or the sea, or new radio and TV frequencies. Dr. Rosenau, Director of the Institute for Transnational Studies at the University of Southern California, suggests that this has brought on structural changes in which the basic problem is not the new resources themselves, but the old institutions we have to deal with them. Dr. Rosenau's presentation was made as part of a UNU effort to assess legal aspects of human impacts on the environment in a symposium at The Hague Peace Court on "The Settlement of Disputes on the New Natural Resources." The volume reporting the proceedings, from which this excerpt is drawn, was published jointly for the Hague Academy of International Law and the UNU by Martinus Nijhoff of The Hague, Boston and London. - Editor

It is conceivable that the increasing interdependence of world affairs has altered the ways in which all issues on the global agenda are processed, with the result that what appears unique to new natural resources issues is no more than a structural alteration at a more encompassing level. Conceivably, in other words, what appears to be new wine in old bottles is actually old wine in new bottles.

There are a number of good reasons to conclude that the global system has undergone major structural alterations in the last two decades - as a consequence of technological innovations that have lessened the geographical and social distances separating people and nations. Today, more than ever, the course of events and the routines of life in any part of the world are shaped by - and thus partly dependent on - decisions made and forces at work in other parts of the world.

This greater interdependence, combined with declines in such basic resources as water, forests and energy, has helped foster a surge of ethnic, racial, linguistic and other forms of consciousness at subnational levels - what I call, "subgroupism." This, in turn, has reduced the capacity of national governments to govern effectively. More accurately, heightened subgroupism and increased dependence on decisions and forces abroad have together limited the scope within which governmental authority can, on its own, bring about the realization of policy goals.

With the advent of greatly intensified global interdependence, a variety of new socio-economic issues have emerged - from terrorism to currency crises, from energy shortages to refugee flows, from inflation to agricultural imbalances - in which forces beyond the authority of national governments have greatly narrowed their control over when and how they become involved in the course of events.

Increasing Complexity in Management

It follows that the changing structures of the global system have significantly increased the complexity of the process through which the issues on its agenda are managed. In the traditional areas they continue to be processed through such longstanding mechanisms as diplomatic negotiation, government-to-government interaction, and balance-of-power politics. In the interdependence areas, on the other hand, the old structures have been supplemented by new mechanisms that allow for the participation of non-governmental, intergovernmental and supranational actors through a diverse set of formal and ad hoc institutional arrangements - such as summit conferences, specialized United Nations conferences, and OPEC-like organizations. In short, the global system's wine cellar now contains both old wine in old bottles and new wine in new bottles.

Virtually by definition, the issues raised by new resources - like the potentials of the seabed or outer space - are interdependence issues. Every one of the new resources is located in heretofore unexplored and/or unclaimed dimensions of the universe, dimensions that either span national boundaries or that lie wholly outside national jurisdictions. Indeed, the fit between the global distribution of these new resources and the existing state structure of the global system is not even close. Being elsewhere than on or under land, the new resources are ubiquitous and encompass whole regions and continents through processes of nature over which national-states have never exercised control. Moreover, not only do these processes unfold in non-land realms, but the resources are also fluid rather than fixed in geographic space, moving like (and sometimes with) the winds across and around national boundaries as well as spanning them.


A growing concern is how much sewage the ocean can absorb without damage to undersea life and to humans who consume its resources.

Evolving Structures Unlike Traditional Type

To be sure, myriad are the proposals in which responsibility for the development and management of the new resources be placed under national jurisdictions - either on behalf of the global commons or to enhance national interests - but even if such proposals were to be translated into political realities, the resulting structures would still be quite unlike the traditional type. For responsibility to the global commons would inevitably operate as a limitation upon national jurisdictions, just as such jurisdictions asserted on behalf of national interests would surely be constrained by the fact that the resources extend across State boundaries and thereby negate any legal claims or historical precedents that might be cited.

Thus it is hardly surprising that the seabed, outer space, climate and other non-land regimes have evolved in such a way that national governments, supranational organizations and subnational actors have been thrown together in a variety of fora and through a variety of processes to cope with the problems posed by the growing competition for the new resources. The new resources cannot be utilized, in other words, without many diverse actors being affected.

Conversely, no single State can fully determine the outcomes that follow from utilization. And thus it may even be that wholly unforeseen organizational structures lie ahead as means of managing new resource issues. The agreement between New York State in the United States and the Government of Quebec in Canada to combat acid rain, for example, may well be a harbinger of how new transnational structures that do not adhere to conventional diplomatic forms will evolve to cope with the ubiquity and fluidity of the new resources.

Uniqueness of New Resource Issues

There are several important ways in which controversies precipitated by use of the new natural resources differ from other global agenda items. To cite them briefly:

· First and foremost perhaps, the new resources give rise mainly to distributive rather than redistributive issues, a distinction that sets them apart from most interdependence issues. The latter foster conflict, because they involve redistribution of a finite pie, with the result that the deprived want a larger share of it, while the privileged wish to preserve or enhance their share.

· Second, the new resource issues are, as yet much less infused with symbolic content than the traditional ones. Their focus is on the allocation, utilization and management of very concrete phenomena - they are less subject to considerations of status, hierarchy, and the multitude of other intangible symbols that attach to the products of human relationships.

· Third, none of the new natural resource issues embrace large constituencies. Potentially, to be sure, issues of the seabed, outer space, radio frequencies and the like have relevance for humankind - but for the time being this relevance is largely circuitous and indirect. In short, the politics of new resources is unlikely to be sustained by the hue and cry of mass publics - or burdened or facilitated by their mobilization and intervention.

· Fourth, the new resource issues are not likely to be marked by dramatic climaxes - these issues evolve in small increments and almost never command the headlines of the world's media. The onset of problems derived from new natural resources is likely to be detected only by specialists, whose salience and clout in the political arenas is quite limited.

· Finally, the issues associated with new natural resources are highly technical and not readily assimilated by simple and overarching value systems. Perhaps no issue-area on the global agenda relies more heavily on scientific proof than does that involving controversies over the new natural resources.

Consider, for example, the growing issue of how much sewage the ocean can absorb without damage to undersea life and to humans who consume its resources.

This is not a question around which politicians can mobilize followers and debate on the basis of symbolic values or appeals to unqualified loyalties. Rather, to achieve agreement compliance, and/or active support, the facts must be offered, their derivation legitimated, and their application delineated. Changes in the amounts of silver, chromium, DDT, and other harmful compounds in ocean waters off metropolitan shores have to be clearly demonstrated and the ways in which the changes were measured have to be persuasive if those who contest such issues are to progress toward their goals.

To be sure, facts never speak for themselves. They can only be developed in the context of some kind of value system and, obviously, different value systems can lead to different conclusions as to what the scientifically-derived facts mean. It matters, for instance, whether one believes research on sewage systems should be oriented toward uncovering how humans can least disturb ocean habitats or toward how much disruption the ocean can accommodate.

Increasing Scarcities = More Politicization

A crucial dynamic of new resource issues is that all of these unique dimensions interact so as to reinforce each other and thus add further to the uniqueness of the issue-area. The fact that such issues do not, as yet, embrace mass constituencies, for example, seems both to contribute to and stem from the fact that they also do not get framed in terms of grand symbols. There are a number of good reasons to anticipate that even as they mature and become more permanent fixtures on the global agenda, new resource issues will continue to be distinguishable from all the others that command attention on the world stage.

In all likelihood, the advent of increasing scarcities and a growing awareness of them will foster an increasing politicization of these new resource issues. With respect to radio frequencies, for example, there is already evidence of such politicization as the Third World, having begun to recognize that its interests are being compromised by the increasing congestion of the radio spectrum and the geosynchronous orbit, have drawn telecommunication issues into the larger North-South dialogue.