Is a world war threatening for the world's natural resources? Opinions from Rifkin, Alt and Scheer
Books reviewed by Jürgen Turek (translation of a review in the German journal "Internationale Politik" 3/ 2003)
02.03.2003 · Books reviewed by Jürgen Turek
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The discussion about the substitution of oil, coal and natural gas for regenerative energies - solar energy, water energy, organic substances or wind energy - is reflecting two aspects: On the one hand the ongoing and rising use of fossil energies will result in increasing climate turbulences. In addition, thirty years after the spectacular false diagnosis about the "limits of growth" in the report to the Club of Rome now the finiteness of fossil energies seems to last much more undoubtedly until the middle of the 21st Century at the latest. On the other hand it is argued that the dependency on especially Arabic oil is the connecting link between the Western industrialised and the Arabic oil producing states. The simple conclusion of political elites after the oil crises of the seventies was: Given the possibility to significantly decrease the dependency on Arabic oil this would be the key for a far reaching autonomous Western energy policy, which would no longer be dependent on energy imports from one of the most unstable regions of the world.
The one or other strategist may have the unsaid relieving association that with a radical change in energy policy this disconcerting region with all its internal conflicts could be neglected, as not being of outstanding importance - provided that individual states do not dispose of weapons of mass destruction.
In spite of intensive research support and quite considerable subsidies for alternative energies there is no doubt that the "energy greed" of the industrial nations for oil ensures a considerable dependency on the OPEC states. The largest oil resources are located in Central Asia, Saudi - Arabia, and Iraq. Therefore, it is not astonishing that in these days the journalism picks out these facts as a central theme - sensitised by 9/11 and the conflict with Iraq. Especially three authors stand exemplarily for an energy turnabout in order to reduce dependencies and to secure sustainability: Jeremy Rifkin, Franz Alt and Hermann Scheer. They are urged by different concerns, but evaluate the theme also in categories of international politics. Oil, the black gold, has also a strategic importance for them. They differ in the way how they emphasise the ecological aspect of a sustainable energy policy.
The American 'enfant terrible' in the economical discussion, Jeremy Rifkin, focuses on the "hydrogen revolution". He aims at a basic alternation in the international relationships by applying a new energy policy and he demands that the nuclear/fossil energies have to be substituted as soon as possible. With that he wants to bring about the overthrow of the existing energy policy. Starting point of his deliberations is that the year 2010 will be the approximate date when the global oil consumption will exceed the annual output. This would result in an oil crisis that would surpass everything known dramatically. For him, the crisis results from the complete dependency of the world economy on fossil energy, which led in the past to a centralised energy economy and adherent dependency based on the rules of the energy flow from some regionally clustered production sites to the lots of consumers in the world. Rifkin points out that 26 of the huge oil fields are situated at the Persian Gulf. If the global oil production fell all still exploitable reserves would be in the Middle East. The author fears that Islamic fundamentalists try to exert pressure on their governments in order to use the oil as a weapon against the United States and other Western countries (p.15).
Against this background Rifkin focuses on renewable energy accumulated in hydrogen and on the fuel cell as outstanding alternatives. In the future the computer and telecommunication revolution would combine with the new revolution of the hydrogen technology giving rise to the idea of an all liberating decentralisation. A new dynamism would emerge and the interaction of human relations in the 21st and 22nd Century would have to be redefined. A world wide hydrogen energy net would set off the next technical, economic and social radical change; such as the internet it would offer new possibilities of engagement. Fuel cells were already used commercially for energy, light and heat generation. In the future the consumers could produce their electricity themselves and, if numerous small power stations fed surplus energy to the net, they could trade in energy among themselves similar to the example internet. Rifkin aims at three effects with his vision: First of all he hopes that the existing, extremely centralist organisation of the energy flow could be overcome by a decentralised distribution system. At the same time it is important for him to reduce the CO2 output to approximately twice the pre-industrial level so that the global warming would not have an even more alarming effect on the biosphere as feared anyway. Last but not least he assumes that the H2 revolution would bring the dependency on oil imports to an end and neutralise the dangerous geopolitical game between Muslim extremists in the Middle East and the West.
Franz Alt, too, picks out the potential for international conflicts as a central theme in the struggle for availability and use of fossil fuels. His approach to the solution, however, is quite different to the one of Rifkin. For him hunger is the widest spread terror in the world, and the climate change is the emergency of the world's domestic affairs, which has already occurred long ago. His approach is a change of awareness, which he describes with the words of Albert Einstein: "The problems of this world cannot be solved with the same way of thinking by which they have been caused." The essential issue for him is: "War about oil or peace through sun." He demonstrates the dichotomous picture of either a short-term growing re-militarised struggle for fossil resources or a peaceful and ecologically settled world by solar energy. He assumes that if the complete change to renewable energies did not succeed rapidly, the industrial nations' hunger for energy would lead to the biggest bloodbath of mankind.
Alt does not emphasise the analysis but seeks the escape route out of the greenhouse effect and out of the dangers of war, which he illustrates with concrete initiatives and examples. He outlines that till 2050 it would be possible "to save 60 p.c. of today's consumption of energy through energy reduction, efficiency and solar use and to generate the remaining energy exclusively by sun, water-power, wind and organic substances (p. 197). He demonstrates the potential of this development with already existing projects and initiatives, e.g. in the sector of alternative house building or with the efforts of the established energy groups to transform to solar energy groups. "BP" would then no longer stand for British Petroleum but for "Beyond Petroleum".
The third one in the league, Hermann Scheer, starts with the Rio-process that seems to be broken down to the greatest possible extent. He therewith focuses on the ecological consequences. In the by now fifth and updated edition of his work on solar world economy this pioneer of the solar energy refers to the fact, that after the stranded follow-up conference "Rio plus 10" the world economy turned out to be ecologically more unrestrained and the social development balance worsened over again. The world war against nature would go on with full force. Also the Agenda 21 or the Kyoto-protocol were so weak that an authentic climate policy with the instruments agreed upon was impossible. For Scheer the insufficiencies of the well-worn environmental and energy policy become apparent in view of the complexity of the energy flows. A comparison of the different energy flows and chains of energy allocation of nuclear/fossil and renewable energies would show a clouding horizon of the fossil world economy in all its shadings - and on the contrary the enlightened horizon of a solar world economy.
Even if one cannot share the anxieties of the three authors: The brutal statistics of the shrinking availability of fossil fuels and the principally growing conflict potential in the energy-political industrial complex shows that is not a question, at what time a turnabout in the energy policy will come, but when and how it will become a political reality.
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