September 14, 2009

Reading Old Magazines: “The World’s Resources I—The Lean Years”

The energy shocks of the 1970s caused many Americans to rethink energy in fundamental ways. The October 1973 OPEC oil embargo proved just how heavily U.S. energy supplies relied on the whims of a few countries; the 1979 energy crisis hammered it home, as did the sharp price spikes resulting from the Iranian Revolution.

Not surprisingly, these events set off a public debate on U.S. energy policy (and provided the impetus for the Energy Security Act of 1980). Richard J. Barnet, a former Kennedy administration official and the founder of the Institute for Policy Studies, weighed in on the debate in his book about natural resources, The Lean Years, from which three parts were excerpted in The New Yorker in 1980. The March 17, 1980 issue of the The New Yorker features the first excerpt in the series, “The World’s Resources I—The Lean Years” (subscription required), which introduces what Barnet called the “five critical resource systems—food, water, human energy, non-human energy, and non-fuel minerals.” None of these systems is entirely separable from the others, of course. For example, we use energy to harvest crops, use minerals as components in machines used to mine more minerals, etc. For analytical simplicity, though, Barnet examines one system at a time, and devotes his first essay entirely to non-human energy.

In his essay, Barnet asks three questions about global energy supply – questions that are just as important today as they were 30 years ago: “Is industrial civilization running out [of energy]? Who or what is responsible? What can be done about it?” Much like the United States of today, the United States of 1980 was heavily reliant on oil in its transportation sector, and Barnet discusses petroleum at length. He points out the dangers of supply disruption and notes the disagreements among analysts about when the Earth's oil will be exhausted (disagreements that still resonate today in debates over peak oil).

From his perspective in 1980, Barnet was confident that “At some point in this generation – possibly in this decade – the oil era will come to an end.”  For Barnet, this meant that oil transport infrastructure would simply fail to meet rising oil demand, so oil would no longer be a viable fuel source after the year 2000. Obviously, this did not come to pass – perhaps because people like Barnet sounded such warnings back then. In addition, Barnet is curiously silent about the sources of future oil demand. He extrapolates from then-current consumption levels but does not account for the growth in energy consumption by rapidly-developing nations like China and India.

But rather than harp on what didn’t come to pass from Barnet’s article, it is more productive to look for insights that remain relevant today. For example, Barnet foresaw a period of post-petroleum transition, when nations would have to choose a transition fuel before moving toward solar or nuclear energy as their principal source of power. Our world is playing out much like Barnet described, just with a different timeline. We can clearly see the United States in particular looking to the future and working toward renewable sources of energy, with a focus on the transition from petroleum to another primary source of energy for the transportation sector. For example, the Obama administration has made clear its interest in domestic natural gas reserves as an aid to a transition from oil. In addition, Barnet makes a notable point about the drive for innovation in alternative energy: we cannot trust the energy companies of today to provide us with the fuels of tomorrow at the rate that we need them. As he writes, “the control of alternative-energy sources [should] be ended. The companies’ timetable for the development of the most promising energy alternatives is not the same as the nation’s timetable.” Energy companies seek profit, and in economically difficult times they are liable to stick with what works rather than invest on a large scale in research and development for the future.

Finally, the greatest strength of Barnet's essay is that he seeks not only to answer his three questions about energy, but also to illustrate the social consequences of resource competition, consequences that are hugely important for defense strategists. As he notes, “Ever since the energy crisis began, in 1973. . .the tide of anger against the oil companies has ebbed and flowed.” Today, energy companies are often the targets of populist outrage when they are seen as acting callously. Just last week, The New York Times reported on anger in Iraq's Wasit Province at the China National Petroleum Corporation, which is encroaching on local farming land and bringing little in the way of jobs or quality of life investment to the impoverished area. The policies of energy firms can bring civil unrest in destitute environments – and the importance of Iraq’s stability to U.S. security interests is obviously high.

Barnet’s command of the issues is impressive, especially given the research necessary to intelligently discuss the spectrum of resource and energy issues. Anybody looking for an interesting historical perspective on the energy security debate should delve into Barnet’s work. In coming weeks, the Natural Security team will be writing about the second excerpt in the New Yorker series, “The World’s Resources II—Minerals, Food, and Water.” Be sure to check back.