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No Blood for Phlebotinum

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"When goods do not cross borders, soldiers will."
Frederic Bastiat

Nearly every conflict in human history has been over a resource of some kind. Land, water, food, oil, mineral rights, timber, livestock, labor... something other than national pride or honor and glory is usually lurking around as subtext whenever man kills man on the field of battle.

The local Unobtainium, Green Rocks, Spice of Life, Minovsky Particles, Vespene Gas or Imported Alien Phlebotinum are all naturally rare and valuable, so much that everybody wants to get their hands on it. Quite naturally, this can lead to world- or galaxy-wide wars over the damn stuff. Caught up in the middle are the usual tragic bystanders, for whom your magical miracle substances are Worthless Yellow Rocks. Things will get interesting if the resource in question turns out to be Aesoptinium that decides it doesn't want people fighting over it and sets up a No MacGuffin, No Winner scenario.

Compare and contrast Fantastic Nuke, when the phlebotinum creates a situation of Mutually Assured Destruction.



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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Code Geass, Japan was conquered by its former ally Britannia partially because it was the main source of Sakuradite (pink nuclear fuel) located in Mount Fuji. Then Lelouch detonates the mountain.
    • The even more critical phlebotinum are the thought elevators; a set of cyberspace portal nodes that can be used to access a digital afterlife linked to the central AI that governs Earth. Only the immediate Britannian royal family and their trusted lackeys know the true value of these stone doors and how they can be used to utterly mind-control humanity. Japan has two of these for some reason.
  • Darker than Black had Heaven's War, a Mêlée à Trois in the backstory where pretty much everyone was trying to get control of Heaven's Gate in Brazil. It only ended when most of South America got wiped off the map.
    • The main plot is about the government intentionally destroying the main phlebotinum with war, by creating shell corporations that hire Contractors into proxy wars with the covert goal of sending them to mutually kill each other until the stragglers can be mopped up by government cleanup crews.
  • Shortly before the events of the main series, the world of Mobile Suit Gundam 00 was subject to the "solar power wars". When advanced solar technologies were discovered, the value of petroleum plummeted, leading to a number of Middle Eastern countries continually splitting apart into new ones. To harness the technology, countries needed to build space elevators, and this lead to blocs of nations forming who jealously guarded their elevators and were constantly at the brink of war with the other blocs.

  • The whole point of James Cameron's Avatar. It is even called Unobtanium.
  • The Cloverfield Paradox. Germany and Russia are on the verge of war in a Post-Peak Oil world (using up whatever fuel they have left, it's pointed out). The protagonists are working on a project for unlimited energy that they hope will avert this; but they instead end up in an alternate reality where a European war has been waging for over a year with no end in sight.
  • Alien weaponry in District 9 can only be used by the aliens themselves, so while all the human groups are stockpiling BFGs, this only serves to prevent the aliens using them. And then one day a gullible inspector finds a very painful way to use it - he gets gradually transformed into one of the aliens. Cue transition from documentary to action flick.
  • Played for Laughs in Water (1985), about a Caribbean island that strikes mineral water, causing the intervention of various outside governments trying to seize control of it. As an American executive points out: you don't have to refine water, just slap a fancy label on a bottle and you can sell it for a higher price than oil.
  • The Central Theme of the Mad Max series; before the Apocalypse, wars were waged mainly for control of petroleum supplies. Afterwards, "Only those mobile enough to scavenge, brutal enough to pillage would survive. The gangs took over the highways, ready to wage war for a tank of juice." And after the Oil wars came the Water wars, and after the water wars came the Blood (slave) wars, etc.
    • George Miller was actually inspired to start the series by the 1973 oil crisis;
      I remember it really stuck in my mind, in a very peaceful city like Melbourne, our southern capital, or some city, it took ten days after a severe oil shortage for the first shot to be fired. And I thought, what if it went on? That was one of the things when we did the first Mad Max.
  • The Wild Geese. The plot involves mercenaries rescuing an African politician, who is presented as one of the few who isn't as corrupt as those he's replacing. However this has nothing to do with replacing a brutal dictator with a Reasonable Authority Figure, it's about UK plc losing the copper concessions in that country. When the dictator renegotiates more favorable terms, the mercenaries and the politician are abandoned to their fate.
  • In Ad Astra, the now-colonized Moon has no borders, but rather than leading to a spirit of international cooperation the surface has become a No Man's Land with countries seeking control of the Moon's resources giving safe haven to privateers who take hostages and launch random attacks. The protagonist has to be escorted to his launch site by US soldiers, and even then their convoy of Moon buggies is attacked by an armed group driving unmarked buggies.
  • In the 1982 satire Wrong is Right, Middle Eastern terrorist Rafeeq seizes power in the oil-rich country of Hagreb after the CIA assassinates the previous ruler because he'd purchased a couple of Weapons of Mass Destruction for Rafeeq to use against Israel and the United States. Rafeeq tries to use his control of the oil to force the resignation of the US president who authorized the assassination, but goes too far when he threatens to nuke New York. Fortunately the nukes are discovered before they detonate (on top of the World Trade Center, no less) and the US invades Hagreb in retaliation, conveniently solving the energy crisis by seizing the oil wells. The Reveal is that Rafeeq still has the nukes and the threat was a CIA hoax to justify the invasion. The movie became Harsher in Hindsight after the events of 9/11.

  • Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: A major plot point — magic needs to be anchored in silver, and Britain, as the 19th-century setting's major colonial empire, is bent on securing new silver sources, like the vast reserves in China. Even if that means instigating a war under false pretenses.
  • Dune had its Spice, a resource so vital that whoever owns Arrakis, the only planet that produces it, will have huge power over other planets. Several novels have story arcs where someone attempts (unsuccessfully) to break the Arrakis monopoly on spice by transplanting a Sand Worm to another planet, creating a spice substitute, etc.
    • There is eventually a successful attempt not at breaking the monopoly, but at devaluing Spice. One of the reasons it is so important is that it is essential for FTL navigation. Eventually one faction manages to develop an alternative navigation method.
    • There is also eventually artificial spice as well.
  • Another Frank Herbert story The Dragon In The Sea (AKA Under Pressure) has a future in which oil is so scarce that submarines are sent into foreign territory to secretly mine undersea sources of oil. Even though it's only a Space Cold War above the surface, Hot Sub-on-Sub Action ensues under the water.
  • In Janice Hardy's The Healing Wars series, pynvium is a metal that can absorb pain. Its mines are already important enough to fight over, but the plot really kicks in when the healers run out of it.
  • The war driving the plot of The Flight Engineer started when the Mollies cut off all exports of anti-hydrogennote  to the Commonwealth. Their intent was to cause the Commonwealth to collapse (due to religious objections to their way of life) since the Welters can't trade between planets without A-H. The Commonwealth was forced to make war on the Mollies for their very survival.
  • The Tomorrow War trilogy by Alexander Zorich, after a few preludes and interludes, is centered on the war between United Nations (Earth and affiliated planets) and Concordia (ones returned to Zoroastrianism and churning out clones for colonization and military purpose) fought mostly over a planet owned by the latter power, which is rich with naturally occurring jump fuel mined much more cheaply than synthesis of the same.
  • The Way of Kings, first book in The Stormlight Archive, has traces of this. For the past six years, the war between the human kingdom of Alethkar and the Humanoid Aliens known as Parshendi has been a stalemate, for after the Parshendi assassinated King Gavilar of Alethkar — on the very night they signed a treaty of alliance with him — they fled to the Shattered Plains. While the human armies would be at too great a disadvantage if they attempted to attack the Parshendi redoubt at the center of the Plains, both the Parshendi and the humans need the gemhearts grown within the chasmfiends that live at the Plains' outer edges to fuel the Magitek that feeds their armies. Thus, the humans have been fighting the Parshendi in a war of attrition over the gemhearts for the past six years, and are steadily winning. In a flashback in a later novel, a pre-Character Development Dalinar describes the ultimate cause of all wars as "Hey, those guys have stuff. Why don't we have that stuff? So we beat them up and take their stuff."
  • Lampshaded in Perfect State, where Kai realizes that a valley which contains valuable Unobtanium exists for no other purpose than to be something for him and two other Liveborn to fight over.
  • A number of plots in The Four Horsemen Universe deal with battles over mines for rare resources, from uranium and other radioactives, to red diamonds (used to back the value of the Union's currency), to fluorine-11 (an unobtainium used in fusion reactors).
  • A non-lethal version in Kiln People which takes place in a future where people can copy their consciousness into a disposable body for any dangerous task. Wars are still fought, but as a Blood Sport where no-one dies. However there are actual stakes; when it looks like a country is going to lose one of these wargames, it's mentioned that they'll be rationing their water next year. Presumably without the need for Patriotic Fervor or a Pretext for War to justify killing and dying, there's less embarrassment about this trope.
  • Limbo by Bernard Wolfe. After World War Three, a worldwide culture evolves where men willingly have their limbs amputated and replace them with nuclear-powered prosthesis, a case of literal disarmament. The idea is to prevent another war, but unfortunately the prosthetics require a rare metal. Mutual suspicion on both sides that their adversary is seeking to gain control of hidden sources of this metal leads to a Cold War and eventually open warfare.
  • This trope is combined with Time Travel in Der letzte Tag der Schöpfung (The Last Day of Creation) by Wolfgang Jeschke. After discovering that time travel is possible, the US government decides to mine oil from the Middle East five million years ago. Unfortunately the Arab countries catch wind of this and send their own troops back into the past to stop them. The video game Original War is loosely based on it.
  • Star Wars Legends:
    • Shatterpoint: The Summertime War on Haruun Kal is driven by a colonial-style conflict between the indigenous Korunnai, who herd "grassers" through the jungle and gradually destroy it, and the Balawai, offworld settlers who harvest valuable plant products from the jungle for export. The novel is a Whole-Plot Reference to Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.
    • X-Wing Series:
      • The Bacta War: Bacta is a panacea that is essential throughout much of the galaxy, but especially now given an ongoing biological weapon epidemic on Coruscant. Imperial Intelligence Director Ysanne Isard has seized control of the planet Thyferra, the only source of bacta, and Rogue Squadron literally goes rogue and mounts a guerrilla war to capture it.
      • Starfighters of Adumar: Adumar is an attractive prize to both the New Republic and the Imperial Remnant on account of its massive arms industry for internal wars: Wedge has constantly tried to get production of proton torpedoes and concussion missiles increased,note  and if either side gets Adumar, all they really have to do is convert existing missile factories (significantly cheaper than building new ones).
  • Causes humanity's extinction in a short story by Philip K. Dick where humanity goes to wars over various resources it needs for the futuristic tech. Repeatedly.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Star Trek:
    • The Klingons and Federation sometimes fight over sources of dilithium crystals (e.g. the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Elaan of Troyius"). In Star Trek IV, Scotty and Spock invent a way to "recycle" it with particles stolen from "nuclear wessels", thus making it less rare by the Next Generation era.
    • Star Trek: Voyager:
      • In one episode, a planet is raided for deuterium. The writers didn't do their research... although given the existence of things like the Oklo natural nuclear reactors in Gabon, who's to say that there isn't some way the planet could produce and/or receive abnormally large amounts of heavy hydrogen? Though the technology to convert protium (the most common hydrogen isotope and thus the most common substance in the universe) into deuterium is well-established in the Star Trek verse, so the ship running critically low on deuterium in the first place would require epic-level incompetence. Perhaps the writers meant dilithium (the Applied Phlebotinum that makes warp drive possible) and just used the wrong word.
      • Somewhat bizarrely, the Kazon, an oxygen-breathing species traveling in hydrogen-powered ships, will kill, steal, or trade hostages for water. When he first arrives on the ship, Neelix seems similarly surprised by Alpha Quadrant water technology. This is mainly because the Kazon are Too Dumb to Live. The Borg refuse to assimilate them because of that. They're the only known species that the Borg have deemed to have absolutely nothing worthwhile to add to the Collective. All of their ships are stolen from another species who had once enslaved them, and centuries later the Kazon have made absolutely no improvements in their technology.
    • In the first Star Trek Shatnerverse novel, Chekov and Uhura are engaged in an undercover operation and pretend to deal with a shady Klingon. He offers dilithium as payment. Chekov brushes him off, saying it is nearly worthless now, ever since the whole "nuclear wessels" discovery (i.e. ships can run forever on a single set of dilithium crystals without needing to replace them).
    • Star Trek: Discovery revives this trope when a galaxy-wide dilithium shortage leads to the collapse of interstellar society in Season 3.
  • A classic Doctor Who had one of these, in the episode "The Caves of Androzani". It was over spectrox, "the most valuable substance in the universe." We even discover the Corrupt Corporate Executive who sells spectrox is secretly supplying weapons to the other side to prolong the war and keep the price up.
  • Treadstone. The plot involves Manchurian Agents being activated from the supposedly defunct Treadstone and Blackfriar programs, not for The War on Terror but to assist American corporations with black ops.
    "The world is getting smaller. Populations are skyrocketing and natural resources are in play. South America, the Arctic...these places are ground zero and we're helping to clear the path for America. This is about survival."


    Tabletop Games 
  • The flammable substance promethium is critical to the war machines of at least three factions in Warhammer 40,000: the Orks, the Imperium, and Chaos. Expect frequent conflicts over promethium mines and refineries, since the Imperium is the only group that bothers to build them instead of just stealing the stuff from everyone else. One such conflict can be found in the novel Caves of Ice, which has the 597th Valhallan deployed to fend off an Ork attack.
  • Space 1889 liftwood is by far the most important resource on Mars, giving air supremacy to the party that can deny it to his opponent. It is by far the most important reason humans are on Mars and also a driving force behind the intra-Martian conflicts. This is somewhat subverted in that no state can really directly control this resource since it grows on high mountains controlled by the bestial High Martians. The main book also states that the Bhutan spice is controlled by Boreo-Syrtian league that trades exclusively with the British. Maintaining this monopoly is an important aim for the British, apparently even making the normally very anti-slavery British of late 19th century overlook the fact that it is exclusively grown by slaves.
  • Magic: The Gathering has the world of New Capenna, where by far the most valuable resource is a substance called Halo. In addition to re-energizing the consumer and healing their wounds, it also gives you a nice buzz. All five Mafia families constantly fight each other over the dwindling supplies of it. Halo is made of the bodies of angels, who sacrificed themselves to produce the Halo to help the mortals of the realm fight off an Phyrexian invasion.

  • The whole BIONICLE story has its roots in the Core War, a massive world war over Energized Protodermis that emerged from the core of the planet, the unstable nature of which ended up splitting Spherus Magna into three. It is quite likely that the Energized Protodermis Entity planned it all along.
  • Often the main thing fought for by the Autobots and Decepticons in Transformers. Be it energon, Planet Keys, or Allspark fragments. Transformers: Armada had Mini-Cons, which were sentient phlebotinum. Bonus points for the transformers literally having phlebotinum (the aforementioned energon) for blood. Unicron exploited this trope, creating the Mini-Cons specifically to give the Autobots and Decepticons something to fight over so he could feed on the raw hatred and aggression.
    • Transformers: Energon focuses entirely on fighting over and using the titular Green Rocks.
    • Beast Wars had this in the first season, where the Maximals and Predacons fought over a planet rich in raw energon. Of course, by season 2 they found plenty of other things to keep fighting over.

    Video Games 
  • Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon: A substance known as "Coral" is both an extremely volatile fuel and a mind-affecting drug used on enhanced humans, and mined on Rubicon III, with several megacorporations warring over it. Coral turns out to be a sapient species of Starfish Aliens, and the player can choose to destroy it, wipe out the warring corporations, or, in the New Game Plus ending, merge with the Coral.
  • The Command & Conquer: Tiberian Series revolves around an alien crystal that's extremely rich in resources, leading to several Tiberium Wars fueled by or fought over the stuff. Of course, it is the fight against tiberium that's the real danger...
  • Humans fought a really big war over Imulsion in the Back Story to Gears of War, before the scary underground alien invasion.
  • "Ragnite" was one of the reasons behind the war in Valkyria Chronicles, with the player's small neutral country caught right in the middle due to its large natural deposits of it.
  • Tarydium in the Unreal series.
  • "Nectar" in Haze. Not in any way a stand-in for a certain other resource found in South America.
  • Practically inevitable in the later installments of Civilization if you want your faction to prosper, unless you get really lucky with city placement or allies. If you do not have era-appropriate strategic resources, expect to be invaded by other civilizations who do and consider you easy pickings. If you have era-appropriate strategic resources, expect to be invaded by other civilizations who do not have it and desperately want it. Either way, wars are almost certainly going to be fought over it.
  • Final Fantasy VII features the miracle substance Mako. Generated from the essences of creatures long-since dead and pumped from the ground, it has allowed the company controlling it to control world politics, and its overuse creates serious consequences for the planet... similar to a certain black substance that the people of Earth have been using for several decades with similar results. This certain black substance is later treated as a viable alternative to mako in Advent Children.
    • There's a bit in Shinra's headquarters where they have a set of advertisements for the line of cars that they make (represented during the opening FMV). The video clearly shows the engines of said cars using Mako in a way that is analogous to the use of the... distillates of the aforementioned black substance. (And "The Aforementioned Black Substance" would make a great band name.)
  • The Fallout series' backstory mentions conflicts over the world's dwindling oil reserves between the 2050s and '70s. The European Coalition invaded the Middle East once oil prices rose too high, though these Resource Wars ended suddenly once the last of the petroleum in the region was tapped out. Similarly, the USA annexed Canada to loot water, oil, timber and other resources for its war effort, and Canadian protesters were repressed violently. With Alaska containing the last oil on the whole planet, China invaded America in a conflict that led to a global nuclear war, hence the game's post-apocalyptic setting.
    • By the time the Resource Wars kicked off, the U.S was transfering to a nuclear-powered society rather than an oil-powered one... which didn't help matters at all, as uranium just became another resource to fight over, becoming fuel for the conflict itself just like oil had been. It might have helped if they'd started earlier, but as the saying goes, too little, too late.
    • The main conflict in Fallout: New Vegas is over Hoover Dam, a significant source of electric power in the region. In addition, Father Elijah is willing to spend any amount of blood (except his own) to get his hands on the phlebotinum found in Dead Money. He likewise sacrificed nearly all of his Brotherhood soldiers trying to hold Helios One (a solar power plant that also contains a sun-powered Kill Sat) against the NCR until the remainder decided the current plan was suicide and retreated against his orders.
  • E2 energy from Another Century's Episode and A.C.E 2
  • Singularity had the E99 found in Katorga-12. Since it was in the USSR's back yard, they learned to harvest its potential and promptly take over the world.
  • Battle Zone 1998 has the Cold War secretly go hot between the USA and USSR over the alien biometal, which was first discovered in a series of meteorite impacts over the Bering Strait, and was quickly used to create highly advanced hovering tanks and mobile factories in the space of seconds. The two armies jump from planet to planet in the Solar System in order to find more of the stuff and analyze the Cthonian ruins dotting the other planets.
  • The intro movie for Warzone 2100 mentions "wars over cans of dog food" in the years following the nuclear apocalypse.
  • Many of the conflicts in the Far Cry series are fueled by valuable black market products: mutants, blood diamonds, slaves, and LOTS of drugs.
  • Tooth and Tail is about a world of omnivorous talking animals who all want to eat meat during a Swine crisis, and have decided to kill and eat each other instead of eating salad for three months straight. Eventually, the Swine reveal they planned their crisis to overthrow their carnivore masters, and conquer the world by pitting and manipulating the other factions into literally eating each other, and mop up the survivors with a Zerg Rush of pigs with pistols.
  • Combined with Time Travel in Original War, with the US and the Soviet Union sending soldiers back in time to mine a rare mineral that's been all mined out in the present day, and stop the other side from doing so.
  • Knights of the Old Republic: The planet Manaan has a monopoly on the panacea kolto, which is mined from its oceans: the native Selkath are Fish People and only built a single City on the Water to trade with offworlders, which they would be perfectly happy to blow up and sink if either the Republic or the Sith Empire openly violates their neutrality. As a consequence, the Republic and the Sith Empire mount a Secret War over the planet instead. Background material states that bacta eventually outcompeted kolto, and the Sith conquered Manaan and enslaved the Selkath.

    Web Comics 
  • Unsounded: Rare, mostly non-renewable "First Materials" are the only substances that can be manufactured into enchanted items, and they have limited recyclability. As global supplies dwindle, the industrialist Jab Beadman is prepared to go to any lengths to securing untapped deposits, including assassinating a member of the royal family and aggravating a war.

    Web Original 
  • Invoked in the thread, Zhirinovsky's Russian Empire. The Union of Independent States purposely rattles the energy market with fear and panic- all to jack up the price of oil, its only valuable commodity. They even help fund a takeover and shutdown of a Dubai desalination plant, and in the process bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the brink of war. Though gradually the international community grows desensitized to Russian saber-rattling, and energy prices begin to fall in the early 2000s.
  • Life SMP: Given that the world is only 700 by 700 blocks big, there's bound to be conflicts over resources.
    • In Season 1, 3rd Life, see Scar and Grian's attempt to create a monopoly over dark oak trees and sand, the server conflict earlier on over villagers, and people begging for and stealing cows.
    • In Season 2, Last Life, there's shortages of sugarcane (used in the server-specific TNT recipe) and villagers (as there was no village, making the only way to get them by curing zombie villagers).
    • In Season 3, Double Life, the sugarcane shortage continues when Grian starts to hoard the server's supply, and when that fails by Day 3, there's a shortage of sand because there isn't a desert on the server and Grian ends up hoarding most of the server supply of that too.
    • In Season 4, Limited Life, the very mechanism of the season enforces life-time as the primary, non-renewable resource everyone is fighting over — everyone has 24 real-life hours to live in-game; killing someone of a higher colour grade (Yellows killing Greens and Reds killing anyone) or as the Boogeyman gives time back (30 minutes and an hour, respectively), and dying means losing an hour (or two if killed by the Boogeyman). The hunts which the Yellow and Red Names go on to get some extra life-time back result in tremendous amounts of bloodshed, and serves as the overall motive for any non-environmental deaths across the season. As the season inches toward a close, many players even want to become the Boogeyman just so they can get their hands on more life-time for themselves.
  • Lifesteal SMP: The main source of conflict comes from being able to steal each other's hearts by killing them, making them the most valuable resource in the series, as losing all of one's hearts results in the player being banned from the server.
  • SMPLive: In the "TekkitLive" spinoff server, all players want to get their hands on valuable resources and aren't afraid to get their hands dirty. One of the first conflicts on the server takes place when Sneeg and Poke need oil, and decide to try and steal some from Schlatt & Co.

    Western Animation 
  • Satirized in Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century. The supply of Illudium Phosdex (the shaving cream atom) has become dangerously low. Rather than developing renewable sources of depilatories (or switching to electric razors), our Idiot Hero and his Eager Young Space Cadet are sent to claim the Planet X (the only known natural source) only to end up destroying the entire planet in a pointless conflict with Marvin the Martian (also there for the same purpose). Dodgers does technically gain a Pyrrhic Victory, kicking Marvin off the tiny "Far Side" Island that is all that remains of Planet X by the end, with the Cadet hanging from a plant root underneath.
    Cadet: Eh, w-w-who cares?

Alternative Title(s): Phlebotinum War, Resource War