Members of Occupy Wall Street celebrate after learning that they can stay on Zuccotti Park in New York Photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
In The Energy of Nations: Risk Blindness and the Road to Renaissance, Dr Jeremy Leggett – a former oil geologist and government adviser on renewable energy – warns of the risk of an imminent global oil crash as early as next year, and no later than 2020.
In my first post on Leggett’s new book, I focused on his analysis of our “risk blindness.” But despite his trenchant and uncompromising stance on the potentially catastrophic consequences of business as usual, Leggett is no doomer.
Indeed, straddling the interface of a wide range of disciplines and professions – from geological science to financial market analysis, from environmental activism to world-class energy entrepreneurship – Leggett is uniquely positioned to tell the inside story not just of the scale of the risks, but also the scale of the opportunities ahead.
Language here is critical. By focusing throughout on risks and opportunities, Leggett avoids the mistakes of those who offer fixed forecasts of almost unavoidable extinction, instead setting out an analysis of global trends and what’s driving them. The result is not yet another bleak prediction of inevitable collapse, but on the contrary, an ultimately forward-looking manual of how we might avoid compulsively tripping ourselves up, with a view to climb to a point where we can walk unassisted and lightly upon the earth.
Can we prevent the coming global oil crash? Rather than naval-gazing over this question, Leggett jumps straight to the point. What we face now is an escalating clash between two opposing paradigms: the old industrial paradigm of centralised, hierarchical fossil fuel dependency with all its concomitant economic and environmental ramifications; and a new paradigm of clean, equitably-distributed, people-owned energy, with greater economic and environmental equity.
Although in a post-crash scenario “the very cohesion of society will be in doubt”, these two contrasting “world views will compete head-on”:
“The incumbency, with their ‘new era of fossil fuels’, will have suffered a setback as a result of the oil crisis, not a rout. They, like the investment bankers before them, will soon be arguing that the time for remorse is over. They will argue that all forms of national or regional carbon fuel resource must now be mobilised as fast as possible.”
Leggett’s observation here, published in late 2013, has turned out to be quite prescient. On the same day the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s released its latest climate impacts report, Exxon Mobil declared its startling unswerving commitment to burning the entirety of its available fossil fuel reserves indefinitely, to sustain continued “economic growth.”
But the dissenting arguments of those advocating that ‘another world is possible’ will become even more compelling, as the self-evident dysfunction of the incumbency’s oil addiction grows ever more transparent.
It seems that even before we hit any sort of potential crash, elements of the incumbency are already waking up. In what was effectively a resounding slap in the face to Exxon, 70 leading energy companies including Shell and EDF Energy have just called for governments to implement policies that will prevent emissions from over a trillion tonnes of carbon, in order to move away from fossil fuel dependency by end of century.
If that isn’t a major defection to the ‘another world is possible – and on its way’ camp, I don’t know what is.
Leggett’s optimism should not be equated with wishful thinking. He points out that he does “not pretend that things won’t get much worse before they get better.” Business as usual has already set us up for crisis: “There will be rioting. There will be food kitchens. There will be blood. There already have been, after the financial crash of 2008. But the next time round will be much worse.”
Yet he outlines five key critical factors which – depending entirely on our choices – could serve to challenge the status quo and speed the transition to new paradigm:
“First, the readiness of clean energy for explosive growth. Second, the intrinsic pro-social attributes of clean energy. Third, the increasing evidence of people power in the world. Fourth, the pro-social tendencies in the human mind. Fifth, the power of context that leaders will be operating in after the oil crash.”
1. The Post-Carbon Energy Revolution
As I’ve noted previously, developments over the last few years show that we are arriving at a real tipping point in energy transition, in which renewables are becoming cost-competitive at multiple scales with fossil fuels. Mounting evidence, says Leggett, shows that “modern economies can be 100% powered by renewables, including in the transport sector, and far more easily, quickly and less expensively than many people think.”
The transition is being led by governments, big business and people power. Leggett reports that the Swedish retail company, IKEA, is procuring solar roofs for all its stores worldwide – almost 300 of them in 26 countries – to attain 100% renewable power powered in all its global operations by 2020. The company owns and operates 14 wind farms in six countries already.
In Germany, nearly 55% of the land area “comprises regions with declared energy-autonomy targets, intentions and processes in place.” By the end of 2012, over 600 clean-energy co-operatives had been set up in Germany, many of them revolving around wind and solar.
A 2006 national real-time scaled experiment showed that all Germany electricity could be powered throughout the year from solar photovoltaic, wind, biogas and pumped- water storage of energy, with 55 gigawatts of photovoltaics. As of March 2012, 25 gigawatts has already been installed.
The renewable revolution is transferable. Britain’s all-renewable requirement for photovoltaics, supported with the UK’s abundant untapped resources of offshore wind, biogas, geothermal, hydropower and marine power, is about 37 gigawatts. If we were to install photovoltaic capacity at rates similar to Germany, reports Leggett, we “could build enough to achieve solar’s share of a 100% renewable supply by 2020.” No wonder a trio of British, Germany and Italian scientists “have called for an immediate moratorium on all new non-renewable power plant construction in the UK.”
Modelling studies back this up. A Stanford University study found that wind, water and solar technologies could provide 100% of the world’s energy by 2030, “without mobilising any one technology any faster than technologies have already been mobilised historically.” This year, the team behind that study put forward a 50-state roadmap to transition the US to 100% renewables by 2050.
2. The New Cooperativism
The new clean energy paradigm is especially commensurate with a more participatory, distributed and decentralised economic and social networks. With heightened capacity for community ownership of energy production, clean energy is intrinsically “pro-social,” more suited to “local economic activity,” and more “job rich” than fossil fuels: “in solar’s case, up to ten times more jobs per megawatt than gas.”
The energy revolution is thus commensurate with the emergence of a parallel revolution in economics, illustrated by the inexorable rise in community-owned energy cooperatives – a model which could be transferred to workplaces and beyond. Leggett highlights “a potential megatrend in crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lending.” To date, crowdfunding has provided over $500 million “by aggregating micro-investments from many thousands of motivated and unaccredited individual investors.” If just 1% of current retail investment in savings accounts, money markets and US Treasuries could be diverted to crowdfunding, $90 billion would become available.
The growing disillusionment with the big banks led the Bank of England’s Andy Haldane to conclude: “The mono-banking culture we have had since the 1990s is on its way out. Instead, we are seeing a much more diverse ecosystem emerging with the growth of new non-bank groups offering peer to peer lending and crowdfunding which are operating directly with a wider public.” Earlier Haldane had even conceded that the Occupy movement‘s analysis of the causes of the 2008 financial crash was correct.
Ultimately, in a post-crash economy “governments would very soon find themselves under pressure to rethink the very basis of capitalism.” Leggett points to the pioneering work of Prof Tim Jackson – former economics commissioner in the UK government’s now-defunct Sustainable Development Commission – who refutes “the typical economist who believes we can ‘decouple’ GNP growth resource use through an increased efficiency.” The multiple crises we face mean we must question the mantra of “the primacy of growth-at-all-costs.”
3. People Power
The escalation of these systemic crises and the intensification of civil unrest are two sides of the same bankrupt coin. This has positive and negative connotations. On the one hand, Leggett notes, the ‘Arab Spring’ “gives a foretaste of what to expect after the crash” – especially given the critical role of climate change, oil depletion, and rampant economic inequality in catalysing political grievances into street violence.
Despite the potential for meltdown, the “success of an organisation like Avaaz offers grounds for qualified optimism.” A comparison of public opinion in issues like the environment, foreign policy, banking, and the political class from today and decades back illustrates a surprising convergence of views that are increasingly sceptical of power and concerned about business as usual policies.
Leggett highlights the import of Transition Town initiatives, of which there are 2,000 across 40 countries, are another examples of positive grassroots action “to take concrete steps towards making their local economies more resilient.” The Bristol Pound, the first city-wide alternative currency launched by Transition, continues to take eager local businesses by storm, strengthening the local economy.
4. A New Ethic
All these mega-trends illustrate the intrinsic value of ethical action, as opposed to behaviours focused on self-centred endless material production and consumption. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the dysfunctional trajectory of today’s global capitalism – which at worst could lead to an uninhabitable planet – demonstrates that the reductionist values of this system are, objectively, not working. In contrast, ethical action which recognises our interconnection with the web of life, and our embeddedness in nature, appears to have genuine, objective, evolutionary utility in species survival.
Leggett draws on the work of Jeremy Rifkin, the main architect of the European Union’s ‘Third Industrial Revolution’ plan for a sustainable economic transition, to underscore the potential for emergence of “an increasingly empathic civilisation.” Based on new research in neuroscience and sociology, Rifkin argues that most people tend to “abhor violence and favour community”, that “groups who co-operate consistently do better than those wherein the individuals do not,” and that “people tend to work harder when united by non-monetary social norms than they do for payment.”
While the possibility of social polarisation in response to intensifying crisis is very real and already happening, equally, revolutions in information technology and mass communication, spurred on by the decentralised energy transition, are accelerating opportunities for empathy and connectedness across ethnic, national and cultural boundaries.
5. The Power of Context
Leggett’s fifth pathway is, ironically, the context of crisis itself. While things will get much worse before they get better, he says, this is precisely the process that will increasingly delegitimise business as usual, and accelerate demand for change. “Many things might be possible in that environment” of post-crisis turmoil “that today might be unimaginable, absent the power of context.”
“The next crash will lay bare all the incumbency’s illusions about a new era of fossil fuels and of a wealth-creating financial system in need of only light-touch regulation. They will have left themselves at the mercy of a society that will be looking back in anger, and a political class that will feel impelled, given the state of their streets, to project the will of the people. Society will be being swept with a realisation that energy needs must be met in large measure at home, as fast as possible, and in a climate wherein modern financial institutions cannot in general be trusted with either individuals’ money or the provision of financial services to viable economies.”
Leggett’s reserved optimism speaks to the real possibility of a rocky transition to a post-capitalist, post-materialist global society that transcends the crisis-generating dynamics of industrial civilisation as we know it:
“Modern capitalism’s worst-ever crash may prove to be a cloud drifting across human history that has a very big silver lining indeed.”
Could he be right?
Dr Nafeez Ahmed is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development and author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation: And How to Save It among other books. Follow him on Twitter @nafeezahmed