BOOK REVIEW: The geopolitics of energy

April 16th 2011

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EDITORIAL: Greens fracture over anti-Israel policy

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EDUCATION: Schools need to devolve to evolve

OPINION: Labor's carbon tax will destroy our advantage

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Killing the unborn is wrong, say 78 Argentinean obstetricians

BOOK REVIEW: The geopolitics of energy

BOOK REVIEW: Butcher laureate of the 20th century

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The geopolitics of energy

News Weekly, April 16, 2011

How Energy is Central to the Changing Global Balance in the New Age of Geography

by Gregory Copley, Andrew Pickford, Yossef Bodansky and David Archibald

(Alexandria, Virginia: International Strategic Studies Association)
Paperback, 166 pages
ISBN 9781892998165
RRP: AUD$28.95


Reviewed by Peter Westmore


The title of this book is both baffling and enticing. At first glance, it sounds like the title of a second-year university subject: but no one has ever studied Energy Security 1. Alternatively, it looks like the second version of a computer program, but in this case, dealing with energy security.

In fact, the title is taken from “Web 2.0”, a term which is associated with internet applications which allow users to share information and collaborate.

A Web 2.0 site allows users to interact and collaborate with each other as creators of user-generated content in a virtual community, in contrast to websites where users (consumers) are limited to the passive viewing of content that was created for them.

Examples of Web 2.0 include social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, blogs, Wiki sites, and so on.

Applied to the issue of energy security, this book is a collaboration to describe changes in how modern societies need and use energy, and how energy has become the key to the survival of modern industrial states.

The term “Energy Security 2.0” is also used by environmentalists, such as the Worldwatch Institute, who want to link energy security to climate change.

The authors see the uncertainties of energy supplies, on which the standard of living of people around the world depends, as the central issue in current political and strategic analysis, superseding the old fault lines of the Cold War era and its successor, the brief era of globalisation.

The authors believe that geography — briefly sidelined by globalisation — has once again become a key to understanding social, economic and political power, and that energy security is the key element in this equation.

This is in some respects similar, they point out, to what happened 100 years ago. Gregory Copley, the project leader of the group which published this work, argues that “Notwithstanding the apparently unique scale of the present and coming global transformation, it is evident that historical lessons truly apply to policy-makers in the first part of the 21st century.”

He sees the world as becoming divided between “the great heartland” of the Eurasian continent and “the great oceans”, which remain essentially Western. This is the global division postulated by Sir Halford Mackinder a century ago, based on his own ideas as a geographer and those of his predecessor, Admiral Alfred Mahan, whose most popular work was The Influence of Sea Power on History.

Energy security refers not just to the availability of secure, inexpensive supplies of fossil fuels such as petroleum, gas and coal, but equally, the provision of electrical services on which modern societies increasingly depend.

The authors argue that across the Eurasian continent, energy supplies are increasingly integrated through shared infrastructure, and they draw on the historical experiences of ancient Rome and Angkor Wat, whose declines as great cities were a consequence of the collapse of their infrastructures.

They see the future as being determined by whether any single power is able to establish its hegemony over the great heartland, the Eurasian continent, or whether there is stability in guaranteed energy supplies.

There are a number of issues here. First, the instability in the Middle East, particularly the Sunni-Shia divide, but also divisions between the traditional centres of power — Iran (Persia), Egypt and Syria — are unresolved. Because the Middle East is the largest single source of petroleum, it remains central to the issue of energy security.

Additionally, there are contested areas between Russia and Turkey, particularly in the South Caucasus and the Balkans, which also threaten the energy security of the world. And finally, there is the question of China.

Yossef Bodansky, director of studies at the US-based International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA), has a highly original analysis of how the Chinese Communist Party’s internal doctrine has evolved over the past 20 years, from the doctrine that the United States was China’s main adversary, to one of building strategic alliances in Africa and with Russia and the EU, as a means of projecting China’s power globally, while avoiding direct conflict with the United States.

David Archibald, the West Australian author of The Past and Future of Climate, has also written an incisive chapter on Australia’s lack of a coherent energy policy. He warns that “Australia, along with much of the rest of the world, is sleepwalking towards a major economic dislocation due to the rapidly tightening world oil supply”. He urges that Australia embark on a major effort to reduce its dependence on imported oil by developing liquid fuels from low-grade coal, supplemented by use of LPG and natural gas in vehicles.

Additionally, he argues that the future of necessary base-load power stations should be from molten salt breeder reactors, using readily available thorium rather than uranium.

The book has three appendices, but lacks an index which would facilitate easier reference

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