Justice and Natural Resources: An Egalitarian Theory, by Chris Armstrong

| December 7, 2018
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Justice and Natural Resources: An Egalitarian Theory, Chris Armstrong (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 304 pp., $81 cloth, $79.99 eBook.

In his latest book, Chris Armstrong defends a straightforward and highly plausible thesis: that the benefits and burdens associated with natural resources should be distributed so as to reduce global inequality. In ten incisive and sensible chapters, Armstrong develops and defends this “equalizing” approach, displaying the kinds of insights that have made his contributions essential to ongoing debates about global distributive justice.

In clearing the ground for his theory, Armstrong makes two key points about the role and value of natural resources in a theory of justice. First, he argues that egalitarians should not try to equalize natural resources. Instead, Armstrong insists that natural resources are one, but only one, of a variety of different “fuels” for human welfare, and what matters for justice is that each person’s total package of such instrumental fuels be as equal as possible. This positions Armstrong against both those who altogether reject egalitarian distributive principles for natural resources (right-libertarians and John Rawls) and those who think egalitarianism requires principles specifically for the just distribution of natural resources (left-libertarians and Rawlsians such as Charles Beitz). Second, Armstrong casts doubt on the “resource curse” hypothesis. Though many have argued that natural resources fuel disadvantage rather than advantage, Armstrong shows this hypothesis to be at least dubious if not wholly unsupported. Together, these two key theses imply that natural resources are goods, but not the only goods that egalitarians should care about.

The core problem with the idea of distributing natural resources is that they are typically not merely located within sovereign states (in that respect they are no different from bank accounts) but they materially constitute the states they are in. Until extracted or captured, they are only notionally distinct from the earth, air, or water from which they are drawn. Thus, a key to Armstrong’s theory is how to disaggregate the various “incidents of ownership” of such resources. Rejecting the doctrine of permanent sovereignty over natural resources, he argues that states should by and large be able to regulate access to resources and determine whether and how they are exploited, but should not have exclusive control over the income that such exploitation generates. Rather, resource income should be redistributed through transnational institutions, so as to equalize as far as possible individuals’ access to well-being.

Although rejecting permanent sovereignty enables Armstrong to defend an egalitarian theory, it also raises the specter of neocolonialism, since the doctrine of permanent sovereignty is associated with decolonization. Armstrong heads off this problem in two ways. First, he accommodates limited and overridable special rights to sustained access to particular resources when such attachments are essential to the life plans of individuals, thus allowing for some level of location-based ownership. For example, he writes that the Saami people’s access to and control over a sustainable reindeer population in Scandinavia should be respected. Second, he defends the New International Economic Order (NIEO), an almost-forgotten postcolonial initiative to wrest some degree of control over the terms of trade back to developing states and away from the avaricious erstwhile colonial powers.

Armstrong’s anti-colonialism contributes to his rejection of the accountability-based arguments of Thomas Pogge and Leif Wenar, who propose preventing dictators from plundering their peoples’ wealth and selling it to wealthy overseas consumers. Armstrong recognizes the anti-colonial core of these proposals. Yet he argues that popular sovereignty over resources, taken on its own, gives up on the second core element of the NIEO, namely, broader global institutional reforms without which enhanced accountability and transparency can end up further entrenching conditions in the Global South. Nor does he think Wenar’s and Pogge’s less-ambitious proposals are ultimately more feasible than an egalitarian approach.

Although Armstrong works within and speaks the language of the liberal tradition of analytic political philosophy, he shows that these methods are far less limited than their critics seem to think—and their proponents typically realize. Particularly important in this regard are his attention to and sympathy for not only the NIEO but also the Global South critique of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

That said, Armstrong’s approach seems less “an egalitarian theory” of natural resource justice than a sketch of an egalitarian attitude or orientation. There is no single account of justice in the distribution of natural resources. Rather, guided by egalitarianism, Armstrong offers an intuitionistic take according to which some principles seem stronger, others weaker, as he tries to reach sensible answers on a wide range of questions. Although this sort of normative intuitionism backed by careful attention to facts is arguably preferable to a highly deductive treatment that fails to make contact with the real world, one drawback of such intuitionism is that Armstrong seems to provide more a set of important questions and normative concerns than a full account of their solutions.

It may be folly to try to do otherwise. Even so, the intuitionistic approach seems at points to interfere with threading the needles that Armstrong hopes to thread. For instance, his version of egalitarianism requires equality of access to wellbeing. This currency is supposed to track a middle ground between luck egalitarianism and welfarism. Armstrong thus ultimately holds people responsible for (some of) their own failures to achieve levels of welfare for which they have, in his view, sufficient fuel (p. 83). Combined with his limited accommodation for location-based attachments, there is a risk that any deviation from the most efficient exploitation of any resource will be read as a voluntary choice of reduced wellbeing, counting against a person’s or a people’s capacity to claim other goods in compensation.

Similarly, Armstrong’s definition of natural resources—“raw materials available from the natural world, which are (therefore) not produced by humans but which are nevertheless useful to them” (p. 11)—seems to enshrine an instrumental relationship to the natural world, inasmuch as there is no limit on what might count as a “raw material.” My raw materials might be your sacred space, but my seeing them as useful will suddenly bring them under Armstrong’s equalizing distribution scheme. Combined with the disaggregation of resource rights, his account thus seems to favor the exploitation of “natural resources” wherever they may be, irrespective of attachments.

Justice and Natural Resources is an impressive contribution to, and extension of, an important debate. Though open to the objections I have suggested, its plain language and consistent egalitarianism make it arguably the most valuable liberal-cosmopolitan approach that has yet been produced. Its recommendations for concrete reforms of what remains a neocolonial system merit serious attention and advocacy.

—Avery Kolers

Avery Kolers is professor of philosophy at the University of Louisville. He is the author of Land, Conflict, and Justice: A Political Theory of Territory (2009) and A Moral Theory of Solidarity (2016).

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Category: Book Review, Global Justice, Issue 32.4

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