Energy, a Destabilizing Factor

Adriana Castagoli
Historian and economist; columnist for “Il Sole 24 Ore”.

Helen Thompson
Disorder. Hard Times in the 21st Century
Oxford University Press, 2022

Disorder, divided up in three topical historical accounts (geopolitical sphere, world economy and western democracies), retraces the history of the rivalry between the three current world powers, first of all the United States and Russia, all along the 20th century and the Cold War, up to the winter of 2019-2020, when the prospects of growth deteriorated in almost every country, China included. The world seemed to be at a turning point, and investors, under the pressure of the effects of climate change, started to abandon en masse the American and European oil companies and to invest in the green energy.

Much has been written on the last decade. Nationalism and populism, the great crisis of 2007-2008, and the decline of the liberal international order have been indicated as crucial and contextual factors of today’s instability. Helen Thompson, professor of political economy at Cambridge, believes that it is to the structural changes in the balance between the big fossil-fuel producers that the world destabilization is to be ascribed. More precisely, it was the boom of the American shale, both gas and oil, propelled by the strength of the US financial power, that created the conditions for Washington to launch its challenge to the oil powers, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Both the strength points and the weakness points of the USA were to upset the Middle East and Europe, the most vulnerable areas, exposed to the contrary winds from the East and the Middle East.

When energy is the material base on which civilizations depend, the importance of the changes regarding its generation becomes evident. So far, economic development took place using ever increasing amounts of energy. Not even the hope in a different and sustainable energy future has reduced the relevant role of oil and gas. “At least at the moment, the attempt at an energy revolution depends entirely on the energy provisions of the fossil fuels it intends to replace, as well as on potentially scarce raw materials like the rare-earth metals”.

Thompson shows how renewable energy actually increased the overall consumption of energy, rather than just replace that of fossil fuels. From 1995 – year of the first UN Summit on climate – the primary consumption of coal increased by more than two-thirds, that of oil by more than one-third, and that of gas by more than four-fifths.

At the center of the present offer of sustainable energy there is an attempt at changing the long-time relation between fossil energy and economic development, adopting new cutting-edge technologies. Such structural transformation exposes politics to some risks, both at the international and the domestic levels, because it is the venue of last resort of the current collective conflicts, material and cultural. Both the biosphere and the use of energy impose limitations, although human beings must try to overcome them. There are limits also for democracies as for any body in the political realm. The present decade could appear impossible to understand if the role of green energy is not taken into account.

In order to contain specific situations that the energy revolution will generate and make worse, governments shall decide which concomitant risks have to be taken in relation to different temporal scales. Such decisions, the author anticipates, will imply geopolitical conflicts also in the territory where the critical resources are located. In western democracies, politicians shall make “appealing” to the citizens the probable sacrifices that will be requested. How the democracies can be sustained when the foreseeable conflicts on climate change and on energy consumption will destabilize them, will become the key political question of the next years.

Even if at the level of energy geo-economy Disorder offers elements of judgment and knowledge, at the level of historical and political analysis it is less effective. Inter alia, Thompson takes for granted a concept like Eurasia that she uses in many passages with implications that go beyond the mere geographical expression. Sentences like “As Eurasia takes an overt post-imperial economic form, the effects of a development in any part of the world’s one supercontinent reverberate across it” certainly leave the reader baffled. Is the Russia that invaded Ukraine post-imperial? The point is that Eurasia, beside being a geographic expression, is a controversial category with clear geopolitical, cultural and ethnical implications, which are referred to in the first place in the imperial vision of autocrats, although quite different from each other, like Putin and Erdogan.

It is well-known that the philosopher Aleksandr Dugin has theorized the new imperial future of Russia exactly adapting the concept of Eurasia to his current presumed opposers, Europe and the world under the leadership of the USA. His neo-Eurasianism is not anti-imperial, but the contrary: Russia has always been an Empire and, according to his hopes, in the next phase of “global fighting” may become a “worldwide Empire”.

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