Energy has now become literally a component, an organ, of the human being
in modern society. Energy dependence/capability — now a fundamental trait of modern human logic and survival — is what separates “modern societies” from “traditional societies”. Energy has become integrated into the modern human, as much a part of belief systems as other social belief systems are in traditional societies.
As this reality evolves — as I hope to explain — we are also aware that the chaos of change has been encroaching on an almost global scale. Certainly, we have not shrunk from it in our discussions in these pages. But the knowledge that the present and anticipated levels of change was coming — particularly in “modern” or Westphalian forms of society — does not sufficiently prepare most institutions of state for that change. Societies and their institutions change gradually, almost imperceptibly.
The great British constitutionalists, J. R. Tanner and Walter Bagehot, agreed that the “existence of the Crown serves to disguise change and therefore deprive it of the evil consequences of revolution”. We are now in a transitional period in which the success or survival of existing modern societies will be defined by “change disguised as status quo”, and failure will be marked by sudden and disruptive events.
Apart from the overall transformations in social structures, including the viability of various forms of governance, what has been perhaps most significant has been the gradual evolution of the global energy environment. We have witnessed perhaps 10 millennia of human dependence on external forms of energy (more, of course, if we count the reality that food is the fundamental form of human energy). In June 2008, I noted: “The immediate and direct strategic linkages between energy, food, water, social stability, and strategic power are now more profound and global than ever before, thanks to emerging technology and the globalization of markets and trends.” We have witnessed the evolution of energy markets and technologies — such as the transforming uranium and thorium reactor prospects — over the past decade. We have seen the sudden surge in Eurasian (and for that matter, to a degree, African) oil and gas pipelines resembling the evolution of synaptic links in a growing human brain. The Eurasian Continent’s pipeline and powerline 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 unrivaled. In terms of systems complexity and human integration, it will move in the same direction as the compactly interdependent energy-social system in the North-Eastern North American Continent. There, increasingly, it is becoming impossible to separate out “energy” — the electrical carrier force — from the computing and communications interactivity which literally enables society to function.
In technologically advanced societies — modern societies — the removal of “energy” is the removal of mobility, communications, food and water production and movement, manufacturing, and human and product mobility. Interference with any aspect of the neural network of energy/communications/computerization renders the society helpless. Large urban gatherings of people (and the world’s population is now preponderantly urban) cease to be viable within days, or at best weeks, of a sustained interruption of electric impulses; even the delivery of combustible fuels for mobility are now dependent on this interactive network. On the other hand, modern life, as it has developed over the past 120 years, is feasible because of this patchwork evolution of interactive networks. It is modern society’s greatest strength and its greatest vulnerability, given the potential for sudden, sharp, and catastrophic interruption.
The reality now is that, in the past decade of this staggeringly rapid transformation of human society — 120 or so years out of some six-million years of modern mankind — the cementing of the energy/communications/computerization matrix into human viability has rendered meaningless a focus merely on the raw components of energy. In other words, just as the “bronze age” was not about bronze itself, but about what bronze implements could achieve, so the ages of coal and petroleum have passed astern of us. We are in an integrative phase in which bronze, and iron, and coal, and petroleum — and whatever else — are now but old building blocks, not important for themselves, but merely representing the fact that such a material substance represents the kind of tool required to achieve the outcome required of human society.
In a report in 2010, I said that the “age of gas” had begun in earnest, to indicate that gas as a fossil fuel was about to become a major energy component to rival (and perhaps dwarf) petroleum, but it was not meant that modern society was moving from “the petroleum age” to “the gas age”, because petroleum, gas, nuclear power, and so on, are now merely alternate tools in the delivery of desired outcomes.
The outcome we desire is not oil, or gas, or uranium, nor even access to these commodities. The outcome we desire is societal, and even species, survival and the dominance (ie: freedom from being secondary considerations) of our own group or society. We are so embroiled in the process of survival or life that we forget the outcome we desire.
At this point it is necessary to outline a maxim which should have been articulated long ago: Preoccupation with process and means is tactical; preoccupation with outcomes and future context is strategic. With regard to energy, we can already see that sustaining and protecting the neural networks of interactive electricity/communications/computerization is a priority with direct impact on the non-negotiable strategic outcome of societal survival. How this process is fed is a tactical process.
Commodities and products are tactical; what is done with them determines strategic outcomes. Oil, gas, internal combustion engines, semaphore flags, the theory of relativity: all were building blocks helping to define “victory” (ie: the desired outcome) at a certain stage. It is essential, therefore, to focus on outcomes, and to be aware of the vulnerabilities (as well as possibilities) which our accretion of tool-building has given.
In this, perhaps it is possible to proffer one more maxim: All steps forward are based on vision; all steps backward are based on budget.
Our “total man” constitution of human/electrical/communications/computerization is so delicate that, in this time of global transformation, an absence of vision could reduce humankind rapidly in its welfare, and even its survival.
Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs.
Copyright 2011, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs. All rights reserved.