CONTROVERSIAL: Dambisa Moyo’s  work has drawn some heavy fire. Picture: HELEN JONES PHOTOGRAPHY
CONTROVERSIAL: Dambisa Moyo’s work has drawn some heavy fire. Picture: HELEN JONES PHOTOGRAPHY

IF THE apocalypse was to arrive tomorrow, one of the four horsemen bearing down on the world might just turn out to be Zambian economist and scenario analyst Dambisa Moyo.

She’ll alight from her fire-snorting stallion, make a perfect landing in high heels and haute couture and, once she’s whipped off her helmet, she’ll use her sword to stab her point home saying: "I told you so."

But the world-renowned author on matters of global import wouldn’t come right out and say it — that resource scarcity will rout us all.

An astute thinker, however subjective and idealistic, she uses facts and figures to embolden her books — from her controversial 2009 debut, Dead Aid, to How The West Was Lost (2011) and, now, Winner Take All: The Race for the World’s Resources, released this year — an acute assessment of macroeconomic demand outstripping global supply. It’s an alarming read, of China’s rush for energy, water, minerals and arable land, all in a desperate but determined attempt to sate the unstinting needs of its population of 1.3-billion and counting.

A compact and compelling book, Winner Take All has an over-the-top urgency about it that’s best absorbed in small takes. Yet you can’t resist its currency for too long. It draws you in and fills you with fear at the prospect of peril that, ironically enough, could follow in the wake of global progress.

Moyo essentially says there is way too little to go around and that unless we radically reassess our dependency on certain resources, and in particular how China’s resource avarice fuels emerging economies, we’re done for. Moyo, though, doesn’t like to think of herself as alarmist, despite the fact that she’s widely denounced for "media hype", particularly after Dead Aid’s release. Her extensive argument on why aid to Africa has done very little, if anything, and why it should be cancelled, drew a wide audience, instantly turned her into a lectern celebrity for high-profile economic conferences and catapulted the book onto the New York Times bestseller list.

It was also widely panned. In the Dutch evening paper, NRC Handelsblad, Mark Schenkel wrote that experts tore the book apart "for its juggled statistics" and "one-sided interpretations". Tom Dietz of the Institute for Development Issues at the University of Amsterdam even got personal: "She’s cute, glamorous and well-spoken. This works well in an entertainment-driven society."

It’s thus unsurprising that barely had Winner Take All hit the New York Times bestseller list than it came in for the same sort of flak. Writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Fenby, himself an author on matters Chinese, says Moyo "fails to provide the essential domestic component" in that country’s domestic demand for resources, and that a "fuller assessment" is required to properly contextualise the Asian Tiger’s economic position in the world. But Fenby also praises Winner Take All for its "intimidating array of evidence", which is one way of looking at this fact-packed, overloaded book.

The evidence, exhaustively accumulated over three years, certainly speaks for itself. Moyo’s research took her from Canada to Russia and China, of course, and involved interviews with about 80 commodities traders and policy makers.

To give the book historical context, she reached as far back as 1798, to economic theorist Thomas Malthus and his Essay on the Principle of Population. With that as a basic template for her arguments, Moyo sets out to paint a disturbing picture of how China is bloating itself amid short-sighted inaction from governments all too happy to suckle their economies on the Tiger’s teat. Whether it is from a ground-level point of view, describing how every raw mineral you can think of goes into manufacturing a car — and that we can ill-afford the ever-growing demand for cars; or from a bird’s-eye view, when she recounts how China is rerouting entire rivers such as the Brahmaputra to counter its severe fresh-water shortage — Moyo makes you pay attention.

The world’s failure to pay enough serious attention to Chinese companies, such as Chinalco, buying up entire mountains in countries such as Peru, is what irks her the most.

"I was astonished to see how systematic and deliberate the Chinese campaign has been, and it just seemed odd to me that, in spite of the scarcity of resources, the rest of the world is not focusing on this problem in the same systematic way."

In typical fashion, she trots out some figures: "We’ll have 9-billion people in the world by 2050, with 3-billion new people in the emerging classes by 2020 and an additional 3% moving into urban areas; all of them big demand factors, yet we’re not talking about it. We talk about banking regulations from a global perspective and we talk about the Copenhagen Consensus" — the United Nation’s talks about developing green economies.

Don’t get Moyo wrong, though. She’s not against enviro-friendly indabas such as the recent Rio+20 conference, where Copenhagen Consensus delegates continued to talk about sustainable development. She just finds it a bit of a ho-hum thumb-rolling affair.

"I’ve spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley talking to a lot of people about where the resource solutions might be coming from, and the feeling is that a lot of the solutions, like shale gas and nuclear energy, are either not palatable from an environmental or political lobbying point of view or are unlikely to be transformative on the scale we want. It’s not that I think solar power and so forth is rubbish, but given the challenges … it doesn’t give me much comfort".

In addition to the spectre of severe resource scarcity, Moyo also warns of the effect China’s economic slowdown can have on emerging markets: "African governments and other mineral-rich countries like Russia and Brazil, countries that are overreliant on Chinese investment, mustn’t just think it’s business as usual. Export markets have been decimated (by the recession)."

Previously accused of not coming up with viable alternatives, Moyo recommends that governments do some navel-gazing: "China should ask itself whether it’s possible for its citizens to live at the standard of your average westerner with three cars, plasma TVs and a smartphone for everyone, without some destruction in the world. I don’t think so. Either the Chinese government spends every ounce of its know-how to satisfy that demand or it comes up with a new model for its people to live by."

In that sense, Africa is by default in a fortuitous position, Moyo argues. "(Africa) is delinked from the rest of the world. We have a billion people on this continent, 15% of the world’s population, yet we sit at less than 2% of world trade, despite the fact that we have the most tillable land in the world. That’s an abomination."

Could Africa rise to the challenge of feeding the world? We may not have a choice. Ending Winner Take All, Moyo writes: "We find ourselves on earth at a unique time with the … challenge of managing and navigating the headwinds of commodity shortages that the world faces over the next two decades." It’s a do-or-die situation, and if we allow one winner to grab commodities unabated, we will all lose.