Nafeez Ahmed reviews Energy of Nations, Part 2: "Could he be right?"

Nafeez Ahmed in the Guardian: “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 aresounding 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.”
….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?”