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date: 14 April 2021

(p. 61) The Persistent Material and Geopolitical Relevance of Fossil Fuels

Abstract and Keywords

Fossil fuels and their high yield of available energy regulate the global economy and structure its hierarchy of nations. When a “pulse” of energy—over months, years, decades, or centuries—enters the global industrial system, overshoot dynamics are often observed. The system enters a new mode of production, with new technical combinations. Once it does, it is extremely difficult to return to the old infrastructure, even though the energy resource that provided the pulse likely will yield less over the years (the US and its highway system provide one example of an infrastructural system conceived in a higher-yielding environment, the US oil boom of the early twentieth century). As the energy surplus, or marginal resource return, begins to diminish, output declines, slowing the rise of powerful nations, and transferring growth elsewhere. The effects of declining returns often show up in the monetary system.

Fossil fuels have been at the heart of geopolitics since at least World War I. During the ensuing 100 years, our growing dependence on such resources has left indelible marks on the physical, cultural, and political structures of modern societies. And the unequal geographic distribution of fossil fuel storehouses has been a linchpin of the dynamics of those political relations. But the presence of reserves does not necessarily translate into political power; rather, the relation between fossil fuels and power is far more complex, often materializing in an inverse relationship between oil dependence and democracy. In Chapter 5, Jalel Sager makes quite clear the intimate relationship between energy and economies, highlighting that as the investments required to ensure continued access to the fossil fuels used to run our economies grows, they can eat up the very surpluses generated by those economies, describing the proverbial snake eating its own tail.

(p. 62) David Mares extends this theme in Chapter 6, offering a compelling analysis that suggests that long-term, top-down energy planning is difficult, if not impossible. He describes how the geographic dispersion of energy resources, and of the skills and technologies required to develop them, creates interdependencies with geopolitical implications, which in turn can help or hinder, but always shape, regional economic development. Renewable energy sources are no different: their potential is likewise geographically dispersed in a non-uniform manner; they are associated with a host of their own material problems; and they too shape, and are shaped by, geopolitics. Subsidization of particular types of energy resources do not necessarily provide improvements in energy security and well-being—to the contrary, in fact: for those countries that are highly economically dependent on a small basket of petrochemical products and that have relatively weak institutions, continued reliance on these markets can be highly deleterious, leading to the “resource curse.”

In Chapter 7, Paul S. Ciccantell and Paul K. Gellert offer a cautious if discouraging account indicating that while coal may have become the “bad boy” in energy discourse, it remains a substantial material resource in the world system, which continues to be manipulated by those with control over energy resources. Just as coal fueled the ascent of the United States and the United Kingdom in previous eras, so too does coal fuel the ascent of China today. These energy flows are not going to change overnight, nor are they static. As non-renewable reserves are depleted, and related technologies undergo continuous transformation, the landscape changes, but the tension between economics of scale and dis-economies of space will persist, and will continue to shape the geopolitics of energy in ways that are difficult to control.

Jack D. Sharples closes Part II by drawing much needed but rarely offered explicit attention to those dis-economies of space, and the materiality of resources. In Chapter 8, Sharples reminds us that material energy resources are just that: they are located in certain places, and their eventual consumption requires transport over routes that are not of either the seller’s or the buyer’s choosing. The energy security of the economies and many citizens within the European Union (EU), for example, is provided via pipelines that originate in Russia and travel through Ukraine, among other jurisdictions, linking indelibly a set of nation-states and peoples in a quagmire of interdependency in which politics, not markets and not technology, prevails.

The chapters in Part II, if anything, remind us that although much has changed, much still remains the same in the political economies of energy. These arguments pose a formidable challenge to decoupling enthusiasts. Notably, the geopolitics of energy today are as dynamic as ever, shifting dramatically as each new source of fossil fuels is brought into the marketplace, particularly sources in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. The potentially vast reserves lying beneath the Arctic mark an emerging geopolitical arena on the horizon that will be important to watch, with no less than eight countries vying for access amidst highly contested jurisdictional claims. In later parts of this volume, we will also draw attention to insights offered by post-structural approaches, by highlighting, for example, the importance of cultural history to our evolving energy-society relations.