Don’t Look Under your Feet

In his monumental book, Daniel Yergin promises to draw new maps of energy, geopolitics, climate, and chart a roadmap to a green transformation. But in fact, his New Map: How Energy is Changing Geopolitics represents the beaten paths on which the imagination of our economic and political elites is stuck.

In Adam McKay’s celebrated film Don’t Look Up, the media, politicians and visionary businessmen combine their efforts to make as much money as possible from a meteorite heading toward Earth, and squander the chance to avoid a collision and the annihilation of humanity in the process. In the real world, when faced with the looming climate crisis, the same coalition is suggesting more or less the same thing, except that we shouldn’t look beneath our feet. Let’s not look at the degraded human habitat, the desolate land and poisoned water, let’s not succumb to ecological emotions, let’s think positively, and preferably let’s engage in constructive analyses of the geopolitical puzzle, technological wonders and planetary engineering. This is the responsible way forward. This also seems to be Daniel Yergin’s idea.

In his comprehensive book, this American consultant to the oil industry, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his 1991 book The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power, reflects on the future of the energy sector, the rivalry between the superpowers in this area, and possible exit strategies from the current impasse (in which, as an optimist, he probably does not fully believe). The road leads from America’s shale revolution to Russia’s regeneration and China’s awakening, and the framework encompasses almost the entire world—from Middle Eastern pisaks to the turbulent waters of the South China Sea to the greenest enclaves of California. So Yergin’s work has tremendous scope, and what’s more, the author’s writing talent cannot be denied, which makes it a great read.

Until There Is Oil (Again)

The beginning of the book resembles the plot of another film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson in 2007, There Will Be Blood. The picture telling the story of the beginning of the oil fever in nineteenth century Texas could be a great blueprint for Yergin’s story of the shale revolution in the first decade of the twenty-first century. The difference is that in The New Map everything has a happy ending. In Anderson’s picture, the pioneer of the American oil industry, played by the excellent Daniel Day Lewis, pays a huge price for his successes, and a large part of the cost is borne by the people around him, as he destroys his closest ones and loses his friends. In Yergin’s story, the shale pioneers are more likely to smile. Some, in keeping with the “rags to riches” myth, move seamlessly from making hamburgers to fracking and raking the profits in.

Exaggerated? Only a little.

The shale revolution that erupted around 2008 did indeed produce quite a few fortunes, although it gave much less prosperity and jobs than the author suggests—only 30 thousand in a sector employing over 4 million people in the US.

It has given, however, the US energy self-sufficiency and the position of a world leader in the production and export of oil and gas. This was enough for the melancholy mood stemming from the depletion of resources in the first years after 2000 to give way to a new vision of an unlimited oil boom. 

The enthusiasm, fuelled by billions in profits, lasted for several years. The author gladly allows himself to be carried away by it, which allows him to downplay the objections of environmentalists and numerous public protests. Huge consumption and pollution of water, methane emissions and increased frequency of drilling (resulting from a rapid decrease in the profitability of wells), along with high financial costs (to make shale extraction profitable, a barrel of oil has to cost over $50), have made fracking a controversial technology from the very start. It has been banned in several states and countries. Yergin mentions this criticism, but only when listing the obstacles (irrational as he suggests) on the way to the shale Eldorado. Incidentally, throughout the book the author casts environmentalists as the brakes on progress and development. He seems to adhere to the principle that the enemy of green doctrinaires is my friend, when with disarming frankness he compliments the far-right Brazilian president, writing that under Bolsonaro hope has finally returned to the country.

Old Obsessions of New Geopolitics

The geopolitical rivals of the United States seem to play a similar role on the international plane to that played domestically by environmentalists. This is the most traditional of Yergin’s proposed “new maps”.

And perhaps the most predictable. In analyzing global energy and economic interdependence, the author follows the old route laid out by American neoconservatives. He also succumbs to many of their ambitions and obsessions, with rather bizarre consequences. 

It must have taken a lot of hard work to mention Dick Chenney (Hulliburton), Condoleezza Rice (Chevron), Donald Rumsfeld, and George W. Bush (Arbusto) only in passing in an extensive chapter on the role of the Middle East on the global energy map. The effort must have been even greater in the light of the fact that a large part of the analysis is devoted to the destabilization of the region in the last two decades, to which these foursome strongly contributed to. Yergin succeeded in doing so, although one has to admit that it came at the price of crossing the border of seriousness. This is how we should evaluate the fact that writing about the war in Iraq and its tragic consequences, including Syria, he makes the Iranian general and chief of foreign operations (the so-called Quds Force) Qasem Soleimani the main culprit.

It stops being funny, however, if we realize that such a vision of the Middle East is shared by a large part of the American political class which is stubbornly pushing for war with Iran. Blaming General Soleimani, or even the entire government in Tehran, however, for the American defeat in Iraq, the rise of the Islamic State, the war in Syria and Yemen, the revolution in Bahrain, Hezbollah’s strong position in Lebanon and Israel’s troubles is absurd enough to undermine the credibility of Yergin’s geopolitical analyses. Especially when this is coupled with the very forgiving tone in which he writes about Saudi Arabia and the role played by Riyadh in the region.

Making Money on the Climate Crisis…

Describing the shale revolution and the return of the US to its position as a leading oil producer, Yergin uses language reminiscent of rallying speeches at oil industry conventions in Texas. Later on, the tone seems to change, but this is only an appearance, because despite the fact that his nearly 600-page book is supposed to chart the world’s energy future, the author devoted barely 100 pages to climate destabilization issues. 

Apparently, Yergin feels best on familiar ground. Traditional oil mining, pipelines, tankers, OPEC negotiations, geopolitics of great powers and oil and gas corporations are his element. This is where he feels confident, and neither the role of expert nor spokesman for the sector ‘suits’ him best. He doesn’t have much time for climate issues. In fact, the real – social, environmental, economic, public-health, political – consequences of global warming do not interest him. He mentions the need for a New Green Deal, but we don’t learn what we risk if we don’t implement it. 

He doesn’t have much to say about the impact of global warming on geopolitics either. He focuses on the future of energy in the new environment, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Yergin’s plan boils down to “everything has to change to stay the same”. How else to explain the claim, delivered in earnest, that the oil and gas sector has to be the engine of the green transition? Or the focus on the promise of new technologies like Tesla’s electric cars or the expansion of gig economy business models represented by ride-hailing apps like Uber or Lyft? Yergin presents a belief, typical for many representatives of the business and political class, in the power of technology to solve the climate issue and allow us to get richer. He shares this belief with Bill Gates, for example, but in both cases it seems to be a red herring.

…or Maybe Get Out of it?

After all, both men can’t think of any social solution to the climate issue. Meanwhile, all indications are that in this area the technological transformation will only be an addition to the transformation of society. Incidentally, the latter seems literally within reach.

After all, we can already see that different social models and consumption cultures have different ecological burdens.

To see that, it is enough to compare the USA and the EU countries. It turns out that energy consumption in the US per capita is twice as high as in Europe (300 megajoules per year against 150 megajoules). And we are talking about two advanced and closely related capitalist economies! 

The conclusion is that the energy Europeanization of the United States would have a much better effect than the visions of flying cars on the application. Less emissions from now on is quite possible, and certainly in the USA. Why play – as Bill Gates did – with geo-engineering utopias or complicated technologies of CO2 sequestration resembling the ideas from Don’t Look Up when we have ready and tested solutions under our feet? Such as good public transport and rail transport? Of course, their implementation and widespread use will have significant costs, but these costs will be political.

Transformation of the economic model, based on mass individual consumption, into one that is more based on collective consumption and replaces private services with public ones (while changing the form of their financing to one based on contributions) seemed unlikely until recently. We have become too accustomed to leasing SUV-s, TV sets on hire purchase, cheap flights and buying new shoes six times a year. In addition, everything common, collective and public smacks of socialism. At a time when the conventional wisdom was that it was easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, mentioning the public sector must have evoked a smile of pity from serious commentators.

Today, two years after governments and the EU shut down the capitalist economy at the dawn of the pandemic with a single snap (only to turn it back on again a few weeks later), we know that one economic model or another is a product of political will and economic interests.

Change is surely not only necessary, but also possible. After all, there is powerful potential for reducing emissions and energy costs in Europe itself, as, for example, the current boom in oil and gas markets is due not only to Russian aggression in Ukraine, but also (and above all) to the consequences of the pandemic crisis and the EU’s ill-advised energy deregulation, which has put supply and prices at the mercy of the whims of stock market investors (otherwise much appreciated by Yergin). However, if the EU treated its territory not as a minefield for profits of large corporations, but implemented a coherent energy policy in an economic system encompassing 450 million people, it would gain not only access to cheaper and more rational energy, but also an appropriate weight in negotiations with suppliers. Because those will have to be conducted in the coming decades anyway.

How (Not) to Eat Apples

Yergin is right when he argues that the global economy is unlikely to be freed from fossil energy any time soon. The green transition will not fall from the sky. It has to take time and cost money. He is wrong, however, when he concludes that green energy should be treated as just another segment of the market energy mix and its share should be gradually increased (with the support of governments and market demand), while at the same time ensuring a decent increase in profits for shareholders of ‘green’ companies (e.g. Elon Musk). It would be much more sensible today to consistently use fossil energy for a radical energy transformation. As it happens, we have reached the point where energy production itself has become too energy intensive. And if we seriously want to reduce the Energy Growth Rate from Energy Investment (EROEI), then public imagination is probably much more necessary than painting capitalism green, as proposed by Yergin and many of his ilk, who would like to eat the apple and keep it.

Daniel Yergin, The New Map. How Energy is Changing Geopolitics, transl. Paweł Cichawa, Post Factum Sonia Draga, Katowice 2021

Przemysław Wielgosz

is editor-in-chief of “The Library of Le Monde Diplomatique—Polish edition” book series. Author, co-author and editor of several books, recently issued “TTIP–a Transatlantic Trap” (2015) and “The Dictatorship of Debt” (2016). Co-curator of the exhibition “Refugees. Present — Absent” presented in gallery księgarnia/wystawa in Krakow, he cooperates with the Polish Theatre (Teatr Polski) in Bydgoszcz.

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