Friday, April 12, 2013

Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet

Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet
352 pages
© 2008 Michael T. Klare

For much of the 20th century, a handful of industrialized countries enjoyed access to a seemingly infinite supply of oil. But a century of economic progress has seen global demand for oil soar. Ever more countries are scrambling for a bigger piece of the petroleum pie, and there's increasingly less to divide, while appetites the sticky sweet stuff have only just been whetted.  As nations scramble to find new oil deposits to replace those which they've already exhausted, the global balance of power has shifted. Formerly impoverished nations are now fat with wealth, and titans of the global economy have become increasingly anxious beggars on the verge of throwing punches. In Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet,  Michael Klare elaborates on why the global dependency on a resource with an unstable future is a growing threat to world peace and muses on how the great powers, old and new, can turn competitive tension into collaborative energy and prevent quests for energy security from becoming World War III.

Oil (and gas) are potent stuff.  The energy contained within them isn't limited to fuel for transportation: they can  and have brought back to life, Lazarus-style, failed states like Russia which capitalized on its ability to control the flow of fuel to Europe. They've also turned desert wastelands dotted with yurts into spectacles of affluence; goodbye tents, hello opulent towers and water fountains performing music.  This enormous wealth has been generated because global demand for oil is climbing at the same time that supplies are faltering:  the great wells have been drained, discoveries of new ones are falling, and wells are exhausted more quickly than they can found. In addition to our rapacious appetite for fuel wreaking havoc on the environment  (who needs mountains when you can have coal? Aw yeah.), they're not having a happy effect on global politics, either. Not only has the wealth and power given to Russia and the new petrostates been restricted to a relative few, with little of the wealth being invested back into their societies, but the few have used the power to strengthen their hand; petty tribal chiefs now have money and foreign militaries doing their oppressing for them. Which foreign militaries? Those of the United States, Russia, and China, the Big Three who are canvassing the globe in search of resources and playing games with whatever tinpot dictator they can pressure to give it to them -- from the Caspian Sea to Africa, and especially the Middle East. Although Klare's early chapters detail the rising demand for oil, most of the book is given to studying how various powers, the big three in addition to Japan,  India, and a few other states, are competing with one another in board rooms cutting deals, and increasingly on the edge of the battlefield. While no wars have erupted yet, Klare seems to think they're inevitable. His final chapter urges the powers to work together to solve their common problem of energy security, rather than wasting scarce resources trying to stave off the inevitable.

Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet is a book to read if you've any interest in global affairs and the future of energy. It's replete with data to impress (and horrify) your friends: did you know we'll have to double our production of oil to meet predicted demand by 2020?  (Considering that we've been reduced to smashing  greasy rocks together to find it, that's a fairly daunting challenge.) Klare is an engaging writer, making a discussion of production figures seem interesting; it helps that competition for them is causing so much conflict.  Given the importance of the subject, this is a book I think more people should read, but there are a couple of niggling problems: first, this book is four years out of date, and  so many of the facts may have changed.  Russia's Gazprom, for instance, isn't quite as intimidating now as it was in the book, and the new petrostates aren't wasting all of their oil money. Some nations on the Persian Gulf are investing in renewable energy in anticipation of the inevitable day that oil proves to be not magic and runs out, like every other resource.  Additionally, some of his advice seems a bit unhelpful, namely that suggestion that China and America collaborate to make more fuel-efficient cars; those meager contributions be dwarfed by the fact that both nations are aggressive car promoters and yearn for more automobile sales. These are trifling matters, though; the meat of the book is more than food for thought.

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