books energy peak oil

The Energy of Nations, by Jeremy Leggett

Energy-of-NationsThe Energy of Nations is about ‘risk blindness’ – society’s apparently pathological inability to confront the looming crises of the 21st century. The risks in question here are chiefly climate change, oil depletion and the ongoing wobbles of the financial industry, and the book is essentially a history of how these problems have been ignored and sidestepped for the last ten years.

The book is chronological. It begins in 2004 as the oil price starts to rise and the idea of peak oil is rediscovered. From there it gallops on through the key events in the energy, climate and finance worlds – the Stern Review, the IPCC report, the 2008 oil spike, the credit crunch, the failure of the Copenhagen talks, Deepwater Horizon, the shale boom, Fukushima, the Arab Spring. It ends around April 2013 with the launch of the second Carbon Bubble paper, which I reported on here.

It’s quite a ride, and looking at these remarkable events in hindsight shows broader narratives that I haven’t really considered. In particular, the story of how the building momentum around climate change evaporated with the financial crisis, a handful of PR victories from the sceptics, and the failure of the Copenhagen talks. With the economy a more important priority than ever, the ‘threat’ of climate action receded and new investment flowed into fossil fuels. Oil production rose in the US, and a wave of hype with it. The book went to press before Osborne and Cameron’s big push for shale gas in Britain, but it would have made a perfect cherry on the top of this multi-layered cake of denial and prevarication.

I found this historical overview particularly engaging, as it was around 2003 to 2004 that I first began to grasp the scale of the climate change challenge myself. I began to read seriously around the issues, and began writing about the interactions of energy, environment and economy shortly afterwards, on a previous blog and then this one. The ten year history in The Energy of Nations is interesting personally, but it’s going to be a significant decade in the longer run of history too. What struck me is that I’ve recently been researching the First World War for a project, and there are parallels between this last ten years and the rising nationalism and militarisation in Europe before the Great War. Surely, we might think now, everyone could see what was brewing? How was it allowed to happen?

Of course, it’s still possible that the pile-up of climate destabilisation, financial collapse and oil crisis can be averted, but the signs aren’t good. One of the more notable aspects of The Energy of Nations is that the history is interspersed with excerpts from Jeremy Leggett’s diary, recounting events he attends or notable conversations. As a senior environmentalist, entrepreneur and former oil geologist, he moves in some pretty high circles. Blair, Brown and Cameron all make cameo appearances, former BP chief Tony Hayward, Barclay’s Bob Diamond, Prince Charles. The conversations dramatically illustrate the theme of risk blindness. In one encounter, Leggett meets with Chris Huhne, then Energy Secretary, to see if he can persuade his department to work with the Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security to develop some contingency plans for oil depletion in Britain. They decline, not because they don’t think it’s a risk, but because “the treasury’s view is ‘don’t scare the horses'”.

There’s a long list of people here who say one thing in public and believe something different in private, including the International Energy Agency and the British government – remember the ‘there is no crisis’ Wicks Report and the unreleased alternative report that only surfaced after a Freedom of Information request? There really has been a quite deliberate refusal to engage in the realities of climate change, financial recklessness and oil depletion. An official acknowledgement of peak oil, as I’ve commented before, could trigger a self-fulfilling price spike. Nobody wants to risk it, so the issue gets kicked down the road for another government, another leader, guaranteeing that no serious action will be taken until it’s too late.

However, the situation isn’t entirely hopeless, Leggett suggests in his surprisingly optimistic conclusion. The onset of crisis would give the authorities ‘the power of context’. The financial crisis led politicians to move quickly and boldly to avert the complete collapse of the banking system, acting against their own ideological instincts to take banks into public hands. Who’s to say what long-awaited renewable energy policies might be implemented, what emergency funding might be found, what efficiency drives, public transport revolutions and localisation movements might coalesce if we experience another oil crisis? That’s by no means a foregone conclusion, but a ‘renaissance’ is possible.

There’s more I could say, but let me just sum up with five reasons to read the book.

  1. Leggett brings an insider perspective to many of the events we’ve all seen in the news over the past few years. It is enlightening and alarming to read about some of the views in the room that we, as the general public, weren’t privy to – both good and bad.
  2. The language of risk is a useful way of talking about things that can otherwise be pigeon-holed as ‘environmental issues’. While the book doesn’t unpack that idea in any great detail, it’s clear that Leggett himself has deliberately adopted some new language to communicate his concerns more effectively.
  3. The Energy of Nations draws some lessons from the financial crisis and applies them to the world of energy, arguments I’ve not seen elsewhere. The peak oil debate, Leggett suggests, is ultimately about “the risk of a mighty global industry having its asset assessment systematically overstated, due to an endemic culture of over-optimism, with potentially ruinous economic implications.”
  4. Leggett isn’t afraid to ask some difficult questions, including the taboo subject of economic growth. “Questioning the primacy of growth-at-all-costs to date has been deemed the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries” he writes. “But question it we must.”
  5. Finally, assuming you’re into such things, the last ten years of risk blindness actually a darn good story.

5 comments

  1. For a while now I have been thinking that the situation currently in the world is more and more closely resembling the pre WW2 environment. Interesting to hear you compare to pre WW1

    1. There are plenty of parallels between the pre-war periods, so that doesn’t surprise me. It’s only because I’ve been researching the First World War that I saw those comparisons first. I suspect others might see parallels with the fall of the Roman Empire and all sorts – risk blindness is a recurring theme throughout history.

  2. Good one Jeremy, so many books so little time… I read “Half gone” and from what you say he’s rightly changed is position on some things such as endless growth using renewables.

  3. PS. forgot to say I know for a fact Chris Huhne did have at least one meeting with the “Peak oil taskforce”. As I wrote in “No oil in the lamp”, my second FOI request on peak oil was turned down for the reason there were too many policy documents.

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