Global Energy Shifts: Fostering Sustainability in a Turbulent Age

Global Energy Shifts: Fostering Sustainability in a Turbulent Age

Global Energy Shifts: Fostering Sustainability in a Turbulent Age

Global Energy Shifts: Fostering Sustainability in a Turbulent Age


In the year 1900, the industrial world was almost entirely reliant on coal for its commercial energy. Only 50 years later, a new system - based on oil - had spread across the entire globe. By the end of the twentieth century, yet another system - based on natural gas - was achieving world-wide diffusion. Global Energy Shifts explores the societal forces that led to the expansion of these energy systems and demonstrates that the convergence of specific geopolitical, commercial, and social conditions can generate rapid and far-reaching transformations in the energy foundations of our world. In an important concluding chapter, Podobnik describes opportunities for fostering a similarly rapid shift toward renewable energy systems in the twenty-first century drawing on lessons from world history.


In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the citizens of Great Britain faced what seemed to be a bleak energy future. Commentators argued that the country's most important energy resource—coal—was destined to run out within a generation or so. At the same time, they argued that there was no viable alternative to coal. Two primary solutions to Britain's perceived energy crunch were therefore offered: Military strategists were urged to undertake expeditions to seize control of coal reserves in for- eign lands, and companies were urged to drive their workers harder to increase domestic production of the resource. But these efforts were met with resistance from other colonial powers and from unions inside Britain. Meanwhile, cities across the nation grew increasingly choked with the sul- furous pollution flowing out of factories, railroads, and homes.

Accounts at the time argued that Britain was destined to lose its global preeminence as its coal reserves disappeared and as social and environ- mental problems originating from the industry tore at the fabric of British society. In the eyes of many commentators, the resource that had once fueled the rise of the nation's fortunes had begun to contribute to the weakening of the British Empire.

Shifting forward in time, intriguing parallels between the “coal panics” that swept through Britain in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the “oil panics” that grip the world today are clear. The world's oil infra- structure is threatened by insurgencies in many countries, and there are widespread fears that reserves of oil will be unable to meet world demand within a decade or so. At the same time, many analysts claim that there are few viable alternatives to oil. Likewise, the recommendations that flow from this view rather eerily echo those proposed in the nineteenth century. Governments across the world are again being urged to seize military or commercial control over key oil reserves, and local officials in many countries are being urged to remove constraints on domestic oil extraction to maximize production.

But resistance to these efforts is even fiercer today than it was in the nineteenth century. Oil-producing countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran . . .

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