National Observer: Australia and World Affairs, No. 85, 2012


Energy and the new age of geography


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 / Perth, WA: ISSA Indo Pacific Pty Ltd, 2011)
Paperback, 166 pages
ISBN 9781892998165
RRP: AUD$28.95
Available at News Weekly Books.


Reviewed by Warren Reed


Here’s a new book by a four-man Australian-American team that is worth its weight in gold. Coming in at just 165 pages, Energy Security 2.0: How Energy is Central to the Changing Global Balance in the New Age of Geography, provides a refreshing, big-picture look at the vital role that electricity plays in the modern world and the implications this has in geopolitical terms. Of course, human society has had dependencies before, and this is where one of the book’s strengths is revealed: it provides an interesting historical perspective that links the challenges of the present to the distant past. Plus ça change…

“Energy Security 2.0” is a term used to express how some very new and profoundly strategic patterns of global change are emerging. They are occurring particularly in how we use energy, and how modern society has come to integrate energy as the key determinant of the survival of urban-dominated states. As the book points out, geography — temporarily sidelined as the core strategic constant during the brief period of globalisation — has once again become a basic element of emerging social and power balance changes. One of its main themes is the evolution of the Eurasian continental states as an increasingly integrated bloc, and the separate evolution of maritime powers. These groups have different outlooks on governance, commerce and, in some respects, energy systems.

One of the four authors examines the lessons from the rise and fall of Angkor Wat, which was dependent on canals; at ancient Rome, which was dependent on aqueducts; and at present-day New York with its dependence on electricity. Another looks at the spread today of energy linkages across the Eurasian landmass and the impact which that integrating logistical net — the Great Silk Energy Route — will almost certainly have on Euro-American relations. The sudden surge in Eurasian, and to a degree African, oil and gas pipelines resembles the evolution of synaptic links in a growing human brain. The Eurasian Continent’s pipeline and power-line linkages, coupled with fossil-fuel-powered land, sea and air infrastructural growth, are spreading like a visible flood from the Pacific to the Atlantic. The entire fabric of Continental Eurasian society, linking East Asia with the Atlantic-Mediterranean European states, is beginning to feed from that interactive arterial energy-logistical system. In geographic scope, this is unrivalled.

In terms of systems complexity and human integration, it is becoming increasingly impossible to separate out “energy” — the electrical carrier force — from the computing and communications interactivity that literally enables society to function. Removal of “energy” is also the removal of food and water production and movement, manufacturing, human survivability conditions, and human and product mobility. Interference with any aspect of the neural network of energy-communications-computerisation renders society helpless. This is modern society’s greatest strength and its greatest vulnerability, given the potential for sudden, sharp and catastrophic interruption. Recent natural disasters in Japan, New Zealand and elsewhere have highlighted this only too well.

Energy Security 2.0 explains how the world has been divided into “the great heartland” of the Eurasian continent, and “the great oceans”, which remain essentially Western, but which are increasingly contested. It is time, then, to look with new eyes at the great teachings of Rear-Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan and others on sea-power; geographer Sir Halford Mackinder on heartland theories; Stephan T. Possony on air-power; and Alexis de Tocqueville on great power development. “We may eventually look back,” the authors suggest, “and see 2010 as the year in which the new geographical shape of the world became more clear. By that year, the relative strategic fortunes of the maritime powers — essentially the Anglosphere and Japan — were declining in direct proportion to the rise of the Eurasian collective.”

The maritime powers, it says, are foundering upon a malaise of leaderlessness and hubris: it is that which is hindering the retention of their wealth and power. The heartland states are stumbling with inefficiency and petty suspicions toward their economic and strategic growth: it is that dysfunction which hinders — and may undermine the evolution of the great Eurasian integration. The new Great Silk Route is the spinal chord of the emerging Eurasian heartland trading and structural entity. The Great Silk Sea Route, linking the Pacific to the Atlantic through the Indian Ocean, is still outside the grasp of the heartland, and control of this remains with the maritime powers, at least for the time being.

China’s sway over the Pakistan landbridge, which links China with the Indian Ocean, constrains India to look seaward. This is a reality which is central to Beijing’s strategy but has yet to be understood by most Pakistanis and Indians. India, then, cannot effectively look to the Central Asian hinterland as long as it cannot build an overland link through Pakistan to Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, into the Eurasian trading pattern of the revived Great Silk Route. Thus China ensures that India cannot look landward. At the same time, Beijing is building a navy to challenge India — and the West — at sea. India can only compete strategically with China as a trading and maritime state, and diplomatically; not as a continental power.

At their core, the book points out, provision and maintenance of critical infrastructure, such as electrical systems, are derivative societal choices. Electricity infrastructure is not unique. Despite Angkor Wat, Rome and New York being separated by centuries and thousands of kilometres, a common feature runs across all cities. Over time, the use, deployment and structure of electrical power systems reflect the successive choices which a society makes. Whether it is canals or aqueducts, to maintain the benefits of an infrastructure system, the system requires continued upkeep, repair and maintenance, as well as expansion. Without the necessary investment, systems deteriorate and fall into ruin.

Largely through the work of Jarad Diamond, and his influential publication, Collapse: How Human Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, analysis of the decline of societies is viewed through the prism of determinist ecological decline. The more subtle message — which is overlooked in the age of climate change alarmism — is the way in which a society can choose its own destiny and maintain the production of surplus resources to sustain and expand critical infrastructure. Typically, when a civilisation flourishes, it builds new network infrastructure that both compresses time and space and improves the material well-being and health of its citizens. This includes food, fresh water and, today, electricity. Justifying continued expenditure on these networks over generations is difficult, as there is a temptation to defer upgrades and maintenance for short-term political imperatives. The experiences of Rome and Angkor Wat serve as examples of how critical infrastructure can experience vulnerabilities and decline.

There should be food for thought in that for all Australians interested in this country’s future. Much of our national infrastructure is in a woeful state.

The knowledge, wisdom and analysis that Energy Security 2.0 brings to the reader are unique; we usually have to wade through lengthy hard-back tomes with swathes of statistics to distil far less.


About the reviewer

Warren Reed carried out postgraduate research in the 1970s in the Law Faculty of the University of Tokyo into Japan’s total dependence on imported energy and resources. He later spent 10 years as an intelligence officer with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, serving in Asia and the Middle East, following which he was chief operating officer of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia.



National Observer: Australia and World Affairs, No. 85, 2012