Many fear that the world is quickly using up the vast but finite amount of fossil fuels. Some fear we may have already peaked in fossil fuel extraction and production. So much of the world relies on oil, for example, that if there has been a peak, or if a peak is imminent, or even if a peak is some way off, it is surely environmentally, geopolitically and economically sensible to be efficient in use and invest in alternatives.
Some may argue (ideologically) that markets will solve this problem. However, markets are good for making profit and allocating resources efficiently for that purpose, but that does not always mean that is good for the environment or for society or for other societies in other parts of the world. Furthermore, in reality markets are not perfect, so even if the theory holds, reality sees a mixture of politics, power play and corruption—even in the most advanced countries.
Reliance on foreign sources of energy and geopolitics
There has certainly been a recognition in recent months and years that energy security is a concern. Even US president George Bush admitted during his 2006 State of the Union speech that, Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. And here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology.
Ignoring for the moment the irony that a major (though not only) reason that those parts of the world are unstable is because of US foreign policy there, there have been signs—for many years—that some major companies and industries, have been considering alternatives.
The other concern is that whether this drive or need for competitiveness will contribute to more intense rivalry between powerful nations as witnessed at the end of the 1800s and the early 1900s, or whether this time we will learn from history’s lessons. So far, there is little to indicate that we have evolved into peaceful enough societies to not repeat those past disasters as growing inequality, extremism, power, drive for growth and profit, and our collective short memories all interplay. After all, the 20th century has been described as the century of war, not peace. At the beginning of the 21st century, the leaders of two countries that hold themselves as high examples of peaceful members of the international community decided to invade Iraq, without global approval or legal justification.
Some foreign policy decisions in past years are coming back to haunt advanced nations. For example, in order to destabilize the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the United States successfully encouraged, trained and sustained Islamic extremism and terrorism so that a relentless, religiously-driven resistance could counter the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
However, the kind of extremists that the US helped create included Osama Bin Laden. With these extremists returning back after defeating the Soviet Union, various events since have seen Islamic extremists resort to terrorist acts, alarmed at the military presence of the US in their holiest lands, the influences of western culture which they fear is against Islam, and so on.
As more and more developing countries industrialize, they will naturally want more energy to quench the growth thirst. This will see more involvement in international affairs, and indeed China and India are increasingly active in many regions around the world. Geopolitical issues, new and old, will therefore arise. For example, the Cold War years witnessed both the West and Soviet Union readily support puppet governments, even overthrowing fledgling democracies, in favor of dictatorships, if needed. This was often justified to the home population as being for the national interest. (Note, the US and other western countries also supported Saddam Hussein when he was committing some of his worst crimes against humanity.)
Legitimate stability and supply issues are also of concern. For example, places like Nigeria, Iraq, Iran, etc. all produce oil but present problems of varying degree for oil consuming nations, as concerns range from stable supply, to stable government. Others, such as Venezuela, threaten to use oil and its related profits to develop their own country and region even more.
The future could also see continued conflicts for resources. Thus fossil fuel dependency and wasteful use of resources will worsen climate change which already threatens to endanger many of the world’s ecosystems, raise sea levels, and affect food production possibly leading to resource-scarcity driven instability and conflict.
However, as China and India also grow rapidly there is a fear that these countries’ demands for energy and resources will very quickly see the world’s natural resources stripped away even more quickly given their large population sizes. Some fear that already we are close to, or are already exceeding, the planet’s ability to replenish itself at a quick enough rate.
Some policies and suggestions therefore point fingers at China and India, that they must address issues such as population growth and be subject to emission reduction targets like the industrialized countries, etc. (And also watch for more defensive reaction from industrialized countries, for example, raising often legitimate issues—though often by vested interests—such as as human rights, corruption, threats of jobs, and so on.)
On the other hand, most developing countries (including China and India) counter that they have a right to development, and they have not been the ones wastefully pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for as many decades. (This principle was also agreed to by the rich countries, including the US, for example, when discussing the Kyoto protocol to tackle global warming, accepting common but differentiated responsibilities. Developing countries also promised to pursue a path of development that was less wasteful and inefficient as the already-industrialized nations’, one that would be more sustainable.)
Another issue is whether it is population growth or economic choices (patterns of consumption, production, etc.) that drive resource depletion and energy needs. The former implies countries like China and India are major causes of problems, and the latter implies that economic policies, perhaps even fundamental economic ideologies may be major problems. Indeed, many have calculated that depending on how resources are consumed, the number of people the planet can sustain varies significantly.
A population-related argument serves rich country interest by focusing blame or concern of global problems at the developing countries. Arguing that by noting the right to development may appear to defend bad policies that are not sustainable for the environment. Clearly this is not a black and white issue, yet, rarely is the enormous waste of resources in our economic system, even in many industrialized markets, ever discussed.
It is common to hear of concerns about the thirst for energy, the growing number of cars, etc. in China, India and other rapidly developing countries. The concerns are indeed genuine, but rarely are changes to energy usage/efficiently, fuel consumption, or driving habits in the industrialized countries discussed, for it threatens our way of life even though that currently (and historically) has caused far more harm to the planet both relative to population size and in absolute terms. Instead, it is easier to blame nations such as China and India that have followed practices ironically encouraged by the industrialized nations.
It would make strategic and environmental sense to pour more resources into the research and development of alternatives to fossil fuels. Fossil fuel-dependent industries cry foul of such suggestions, but governments poured billions into fossil fuel development (before privatizing those industries). Perhaps in a similar way, given those industries are now mature, they do not need such support, but other industries in renewable and alternatives could be created.
The higher prices at petrol pumps in recent months may be a blessing in disguise if it makes consumers also think more about energy conservation and alternatives, for the market may respond to that.
Those favoring a strict neoliberal economic ideology will argue that the state should not interfere in markets, yet history shows that the market has hardly ever functioned without the state, and indeed the state has often been the major reason a market has even appeared. For democratic countries, governments subsidizing renewable and alternatives could reflect the desires of many of that nation’s constituents. If fossil fuel companies fear competition, they should (and many are) become more active in this area, but not stifle important and urgent debate and research.
Many people have recently asked me to write about this topic, and unfortunately lack of spare time has prevented me from writing about this sooner. At the same time, the above is woefully short as there is much more that can be written. However, related issues—including many issues touched upon above—have been discussed on this site for some time, so until I get some time to write about this important topic in more depth, please see the following pages and sections:
Added a small note about renewable energy as a reasonable percent of global energy sources, and a new section on nuclear option especially in wake of the Japan disaster
March 6, 2011
Added a section on the political implications of alternative energy solutions that could be generated directly by people rather than governments and industry
December 11, 2010
Added section and video on oil’s relationship to globalization
August 8, 2010
Added small note that solar power is getting to be cheaper than nuclear power
November 20, 2009
Added an additional video about Bolivia’s lithium reserves
May 4, 2009
Added a section on Bolivia’s concern about exploitation for its large lithium reserves
October 3, 2007
Added a short video clip from Hermann Scheer who argues that the reason why many still think renewable energy cannot replace fossil and nuclear power is because those working in these industries have made efforts to propagate the notion.
February 1, 2007
Added a bit about a possible new geopolitical cold war based on energy security of current and emerging powers
December 17, 2006
Small update on the increasing interest in nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuel-based energy
Alternatives for broken links
Sometimes links to other sites may break beyond my control. Where possible, alternative links are provided to backups or reposted versions here.