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A strategic discussion

Technological cycles and natural resources

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Technological innovation has a profound impact on the dynamics of world capitalism and its organization and accumulation. This is expressed in the need for businesses to generate innovation as the only guarantee of their survival, by destroying old systems and creating new ones. The process of “creative destruction”, outlined by Joseph Schumpeter in order to explain this dynamic, is defined as the capacity for industrial transformation that “   incessantly revolutionizes economic structures from within, incessantly destroying the old and creating the new.” (1).   This phenomenon represents the fundamental impulse that keeps the system going, generating the need for new consumer goods, new methods of production or transportation, new markets and new forms of industrial organization created by capitalist enterprises. Competition for new merchandise, new techniques, new sources of inputs, new kinds of organization, all determine the decisive superiority with respect to the costs or the quality of production. This not only impacts the profit margins of existing enterprises, but their very capacity to continue to exist.
This succession of technological transformations affects the economic system as a whole and determines economic cycles (see the study of Nicolai Kondratiev on long waves) as part of a series of interconnected innovations that constitute – each one of them – an industrial revolution. Still, strictly, these transformations are not permanent, but discreet phenomena separated by periods of relative calm, even though as part of a continuous process. An industrial revolution is always in process, or the absorption of the results of a revolution, both of which form part of an economic cycle.
These dynamics involve two key implications for analysis:
1. When we are dealing with a process whose elements demand considerable time to appear in their true form and with definitive effects, it makes no sense to study them in the short term. This requires a long period of time, that is to say, an economic cycle or a succession of economic cycles.
2. Being an organic process, any analysis of isolated parts may illuminate some details of the system, but will not lead to viable general conclusions.
A cyclical analysis of the economy, in addition to contributing more rigorous instruments for the understanding of the essence of these economic processes, opens the way to a prospective analysis and a greater capacity to foresee and to anticipate the behaviour involved in cycles of technological innovation and of the world economy as a complex system.
The impact on Latin America
To analyze the consequences of the wave of technological innovation in Latin America, the Argentine scientist Amilcar Herrera (2) examines the impact of the Kondratiev cycle that began with the end of the 1930s depression and reached its apex at the end of the 1960s. This was a period of “modernization” of the region and in general of the so-called Third World, corresponding to the introduction of a wave of innovations associated with this cycle, fundamentally involving the expansion of multinational corporations.
The strategy of the multinational corporations in introducing these technologies in the Third World was associated with the objective of the expansion of the world market and the introduction of a new international division of labour. This offered important advantages: firstly, since it was a simple process, consisting in a mechanical introduction of a conception originating in the developed countries, and secondly, it seemed to ensure economic growth without essential changes in the predominant social and economic structures of the region.
Thus the model of industrialization, widely applied in the region, was undertaken fundamentally to serve the needs of the bourgeoisie and the middle classes, with the same patterns of consumption as found in the central countries. At the end of this period, that is to say in the early 1980s, the rest of the population in the countries of the region remained in the same or in a worse situation than in the past, with the exception of the Southern Cone countries. The innovation associated with the previous long cycle did not improve the distribution of wealth, as had happened in the central countries. In consequence, while the central countries entered a post-industrial era, Latin America underwent the impact of the new wave of technological innovation without having obtained the benefits of the previous cycle.
According to Amilcar Herrera, the failure of Latin America to benefit from the previous Kondratiev cycle is due to the fact that the hegemonic social forces were incapable of acting, or acted in bad faith, in implementing the necessary social and institutional changes. The strategy for confronting a new cycle implies the introduction of a set of radical transformations in existing social and institutional structures. A technological paradigm is not a closed system whose evolution is univocally determined. On the contrary, it represents a nucleus of knowledge and basic technological elements that offer a great variety of possible trajectories whose orientation is in great measure determined by the social and political context. This makes for a decision-making capacity in technological areas considered critical for socio-economic development.
This analysis indicates that the ability to take advantage of these circles of technological innovation in Latin America depends on the development of a strategy to orient political and institutional changes that allow for decision-making in technological areas that are deemed critical. The failure of the region in taking advantage of the previous wave resulted from the incapacity of hegemonic social forces to introduce a required set of radical changes in the social-institutional structures. This “incapacity” undoubtedly is related to the fact that the interests of the dominant classes in the region were historically tied to the interests of the hegemonic powers.  Latin American dependent capitalism is founded on the colonial spirit of its ruling classes, which to a large extent gave up on the bid to forge their own national development.
An analysis of the impact of the new technological cycle begun in the 1980s, in Latin America, gives us a clearer view of the impact of scientific and technological challenges in the region, framed in strategic development projects that incorporate the interests of the majorities and of the new emerging social and political actors. Assuredly, in this context, new visions for development would emerge and new ways to achieve them.
The present Latin American situation poses enormous challenges for the region. One of the most important of these involves the need to develop strategic thinking in order to recuperate economic and scientific management of Latin American natural resources. The debates taking place under the auspices of UNASUR, whose General Secretariat is committed to furthering and deepening an agenda on these strategic themes, are an important step in this direction.
Sovereignty over these natural resources involves confronting a coordinated policy of domination and appropriation of these resources that strongly characterizes the strategy of the hegemonic countries, expressed at the economic, political and military level. The central elements of US strategic thought in science provides a clear picture of the geopolitical interests of that country in the region. The Plan for Science for the decade 2007 to 2017 is developed in the document “Facing Tomorrow’s Challenges: Science in the Decade 2007-2017”, prepared by the US Geological Service, part of the US Department of the Interior. This document establishes the strategic direction of scientific development, and the policies of investment and research in technological innovation and the training of scientists; it also steers State planning and monitoring at a variety of organizational levels. It is a plan for science designed to link scientific research and scientific-technological policies with the strategic interests of the United States. In this way, scientific development finds its place in policy development, organically linked to general strategic objectives of the country, in order to attend to vital needs and what is understood by “national security”, as clearly expressed in its principal formulations (3).
The central objective of scientific strategy is access to and management of strategic natural resources to ensure the “supply of the nation.” Nevertheless, the data show that these “supplies”, in all cases, are essentially to be found outside the continental and overseas territory of the United States. What is at stake is the long-term domination over natural resources on a global level. To better understand this dynamic it is useful to look at the central elements of this plan:
  1. Understanding Ecosystems and Predicting Ecosystem Change: Ensuring the Nation’s Economic and Environmental Future
  2. Climate Variability and Change: Clarifying the Record and Assessing Consequences
  3. Energy and Minerals for America’s Future: Providing a Scientific Foundation for Resource Security, Environmental Health, Economic Vitality, and Land Management
  4. A National Hazards, Risk, and Resilience Assessment Program: Ensuring the Long-Term Health and Wealth of the Nation
  5. The Role of Environment and Wildlife in Human Health: A System that Identifies Environmental Risk to Public Health in America
  6. A Water Census of the United States: Quantifying, Forecasting, and Securing Freshwater for America’s Future (4)
It is clear that the strategic interests of the United States are fundamentally directed toward energy, mineral and water resources, as explicitly noted in the document under consideration. In addition, a priority is given to the understanding of ecosystems and biodiversity as a basis for “ensuring the nation’s economic and environmental future”, something that is directly tied to access to regions with a high concentration of biodiversity, since these represent the basis for much of the advanced scientific development that humanity is producing at the present time, in areas of biotechnology and genetics.
With respect to mineral and energy resources, the plan establishes as a priority their access and supply in order to “sustain the economy” of the United States. The document recognizes that “The Nation faces increasing demand for energy and mineral resources, a growing dependence on resources imported from other countries, increasing pressure to consider alternative sources” through technological innovation.
That is to say, the political, economic and military strategy of that country in our region is developed in the framework of a policy of appropriation and control of natural resources that are considered vital and whose supply has the capacity to impact “national security.” It therefore also means the capacity to engage the whole State apparatus in order to guarantee this.
Technological cycles and strategic minerals
There is no doubt that a study of the patterns of consumption of strategic minerals in the context of each technological cycle in relation to economic and industrial cycles will enable us to undertake a more exhaustive evaluation of the tendencies involved in the world demand for minerals. The importance of this prospective analysis for the elaboration of strategic thought and economic and scientific-technological policies is fundamental for an efficient management of these natural resources.
A more systematic analysis of the cycles of minerals with respect to cycles of technological innovation will make it possible to develop theoretical and methodological tools oriented to a consideration of minerals and natural resources not only as commodities, which represents one of the more serious processes of financialization of nature, but as resources that can form the fundamental basis of integral development of peoples and nations.
The emergence of new powers in the world creates a profoundly complex scenario involving the redefinition of hegemonies. One of the principal threats to the appropriation of natural resources and the hegemonic project of the United States in the region is the growing capacity of Latin American governments to recuperate their sovereignty over their natural resources, strategic minerals, oil and gas, reserves of fresh water, biodiversity, jungles and forests. This sovereignty assumes greater depth when it is separated into political and economic sovereignty and involves visions of the future and our own models of development, based on the retrieval of historical and civilizational legacies.
Scientific and technological development demands the intervention of the State as the administrator of this process, since the demands of investment, mobilization of resources and political and institutional transformations involved exceed the administrative capacity of any private company. The expansion of multinational, transnational and global enterprises is leading to growing imbalances that are disrupting the world economy. Capitalism, which is capable of producing enormous forces for creation and innovation, must dramatically destroy what it produces and the natural basis of this production in order to guarantee the process of accumulation. This creates for us another dilemma: the need to consider the cycles of scientific and technological innovation and economic cycles with respect to the use, transformation, appropriation and consumption of natural resources. The way in which this relation unfolds represents a strategic issue for human planetary civilization and for the nations that compose it.
We are faced with a confrontation between two models of development, one based on the sustainable use of natural resources directed to attend to the needs of the majority of social actors, and the other based on the violent and militarized expropriation of these resources.
(Translated for ALAI by Jordan Bishop)
– Monica Bruckmann is a sociologist and doctor in political science; professor in the Universidad Federal de Rio de Janeiro and advisor to the General Secretariat of UNASUR. 
[1] See: SCHUMPETER, Joseph A. Capitalismo, socialismo y democracia. Madrid: Aguilar, 1968.
[2] See: HERRERA, Amílcar. “A nova onda tecnológica e os países em desenvolvimento, problemas e opções.”   In: Revista Política e Administração (FESP), vol. 1, n°3, octubre - diciembre de 1985, Río de Janeiro.
[3] For more information see: BRUCKMANN, Monica. Recursos Naturales y la Geopolítica de la integración Sudamericana.Perúmundo: Lima, 2012.
[4] Facing Tomorrow’s Challenges: U.S. Geological Survey Science in the Decade 2007 – 2017, USGS.
* This text is part of the magazine América Latina en Movimiento, Nº. 493 (March 2014) titled "Ciencia, tecnología e innovación en la integración suramericana"  (Science, technology and innovation in South American integration) - http://alainet.org/publica/493.phtml