Friday, February 8, 2008

Unpacking Energy Security

Let me take a minute to outline what I'm trying to do, which is in essence about figuring out what is meant by “energy security”. Energy security is a concept that is usually taken to mean something like "the assurance of sufficient supplies of energy at affordable prices". A few points here.

One, such a definition already contains a “security” term – assurance. That is, security is about being secure. So what does assurance mean? Certainty, perhaps? Can we be confident in our supply? Do “certain” and “confident” here not mean essentially the same as “secure”? (This circularity is rampant in our language, of course, and does much to generate the nonsense that we put up with in life J. ) Furthermore, are certain, confident, and secure not essentially subjective and emotional terms? They refer to perceptions, expectations, nerves… (The anthropomorphization of the state; do states have feelings? Do they fear, and feel insecure? Do they not-fear?)

More interesting, perhaps: how is that certainty or confidence or absence of fear to be achieved? Through promises from Russia? Via the occupation of Iraq? Perhaps through the elimination of competitors – the destruction of China (or at least, of China’s energy demand)? Policing the pipelines? Guarding the straits? Arming Nigeria? Etc etc etc.

Second is the notion of “sufficient supplies”. But “sufficient” for what? For continued economic growth and consumption? (We’ll allow Albert Bartlett to respond to that one.) Sufficient for business as usual? Sufficient to enable a transition? Sufficient to keep England’s homes warm? Sufficient seems to me to imply “such that things don’t have to change much” – but of course, they do. So is this a useful term? Is it indicative of a fantasy of the viability of the continuity of our way of life?

Again, sufficient FOR WHOM? The World? The USA? Montreal? My family and household? Everyone, or only the rich? 6.5 billion, or 10 billion? Note: at some levels we’re clearly already NOT energy secure. This relates very closely to the question: WHOSE CONCERN IS IT? The “global community”? NATO? The USA? Me?

Finally (?), sufficient FOR HOW LONG? For this electoral cycle? For a century? Until next winter? Or until alternatives (in energy supply, in living, working, and industry) are established? Sufficient to get us through the transition? There is a big question here, regarding the inevitability of transition – in effect, maybe it’s a question of whether our remaining and emerging energy supplies can suffice to keep this going awhile longer, or to power the transition… or can they, in fact, do both? (Let's face it, it's not as if the transition can occur instantaneously... so they have to do both!

Third: “affordable”. Well, again, energy seems barely affordable now for a lot of the world’s people, including many in the homeland who are borrowing money to pay their heating bills. Affordable in that an economy can keep functioning? Affordable for the US army to keep doing its thing, and our cities to maintain operations? Affordable in terms of inputs into energy extraction – i.e., can we afford to go get more (uranium, oil, copper)? Affordable in not requiring militias to maintain public order? (Wait, do we not already rely on them…?)

Clearly, all these factors are interrelated: What, how, how long, for whom…? My research interest is to draw out some of these links, and specifically to relate them to food security, and policies regarding biofuels, farm aid etc. That also relates to what may be the biggest question: WHAT FORM OF ENERGY? Oil and gas, yes. Electricity. But also heat. Mobility. And food. You can’t eat Uranium. And as I recall it’s a bad idea to put sugar in your gas tank.

So what am I trying to do with these questions? I think I’m just trying to hold up a mirror, so that those who use such terms can see what they’re saying, and maybe to help us realize how little we understand about the words we use. And if that helps us through what I see as the certainty of change, all the power to it.

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