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A review of “Failing States Collapsing Systems – Biophysical Triggers of Political Violence” by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, Springer, Cham, Switzerland, 2017

Matthew Henry

This is an excellent book, but it, in my opinion, generally arrives at the right conclusions by the wrong path. The key problem is the focus of the author on the increasing cost of extraction of fossil fuels and the arrival of “peak oil” in a number of major oil provinces. I think that five, or ten, years ago this would have been the correct path, but there have been two recent developments which are not mentioned; firstly, the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015, with its severe limitations on carbon emissions, and the dramatic fall in the cost of renewable energy, notably offshore wind and solar PV. New offshore wind installations in the North Sea are providing electricity at £57.50 per megawatt hour, and the outlook is for further dramatic reductions in costs. By the late 2020s the UK will have 10 gigawatts (GW) of installed offshore wind. I must admit that I had the same problem and had to rewrite the text of The World in Crisis to deal with this emergent reality. Initially I was very concerned about the prospect of Peak Oil in Saudi Arabia, but I increasing see oil resources as “stranded assets”, much of which we will be unable to access, a process that is already occurring in the coal industry. The oil industry is now threatened, as disinvestment gains more followers, ultimately leaving natural gas as the last fossil fuel (possibly mixed with hydrogen produced from renewable energy).

Ahmed’s main argument is that increasing social unrest, which threatens governments around the world, is ultimately caused by “the end of the age of cheap fossil fuels, and its multiplying consequences for economic growth, industrial food production, and the Earth’s climate stability.” I disagree that with him that we are entering an age of net energy decline, for the reasons mentioned previously. I also do not accept his thesis that our current problems have what he calls, “a single common denominator: the fundamental and permanent disruption in the energy basis of industrial civilisation.”  However, I do agree with him that the global system that is on the brink, of a fundamental phase shift, and that traditional capitalist models cannot be sustained. I would stress that the necessity of moving to a sustainable economic system will undermine the expansionary capitalism model, because it is incompatible with sustainability, something that Ahmed implies at the end of his book. He also says that, “the intensifying perfect storm of climate, energy and economic crises requires a fundamental reconceptualization of their true nature as symptoms of an overall civilizational system which, increasingly, cannot be sustained by the biophysical environment.”

Having identified net energy decline as a fundamental problem, he also sees global economic as experiencing an unmistakable plateau, clearly correlated with “the emerging plateau in energy production.” While he, correctly, identifies the fact that economies cannot continue to grow without limit, and he attacks debt driven growth, his coverage of economics is partial; there is no mention of global imbalances, terms of trade and the effective replacement of oil income with more sophisticated products and services. For example, he says that, “The unsung villain of political turbulence in Egypt is the peak of its conventional oil production”; but Egypt is not a resource dependent economy in the way that Saudi Arabia is, it has an extensive industrial base, I think that misgovernance over many years, and the centralization of the economy in a few hands, are more realistic causes. Well-run economies have no need of primary energy production, if this was the case then Switzerland would be poor and Yemen rich.

In his analysis Ahmed uses two terms, Earth System Disruption (ESD) and Human System Destabilisation (HSD). He explains ESD with reference to climate change, and the impact of the current trajectory of human civilization on the Earth System; heat waves, ocean acidification and threats to food production. HSD refers to the weakening of human societies, failing states, an increase in non-state political violence, terrorism and the increasingly negative results of American military interventions. As he says, “ESD phenomena are leading increasingly to the breakdown of the old geopolitical framework [HSD] … which in turn has elicited efforts to restore and adapt that geopolitical framework to the new conditions.”

Ahmed is most interesting when he looks of the impact of the changes he foresees in various countries. I think that he could have expanded this book to investigate the threats and potential impacts in more detail. I agree with his comments on India, that the declining water supply is a major threat to the country and that its population growth rather than a providing a ‘demographic dividend’ will ultimately act as a brake on economic growth. He fails to refer to the projections of extreme heat waves, which researchers claim, will exceed the capability of the human body to survive in large areas of India, neither does he consider the instability of the monsoons. I trend to disagree with him on China, where he focuses on energy issues, as China is well along the path to cheap renewals. He is correct about the impact of climate change on China, but he does not identify the economic imbalances which lie at the heart of the Chinese economy, its increasing levels of debt and its massive over-investment in non-performing assets. I do agree with him when he says, “for both India and China, then, the prospect of mimicking the historical industrial development trajectories of the Western world is a fantasy.”

I also believe that he is correct when he says that the current system will change, but it is not inevitable that there will be a systemic failure of states as he claims. As Christiana Figueres said, “If I were to summarize The Paris Agreement in one sentence I would say that The Paris Agreement is all about how we are going to decouple GNP … from GHGE [Greenhouse Gas Emissions] .. if we don’t do that we are actually sealing ourselves into a world of more inequality.”  It is important to understand that The Paris Agreement is closely coupled with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I believe that this is a route which brings the prospect of hope, change by agreement, with the economic system altering to meet the different set of requirements established by the Paris Agreement. If the causes of violence around that world are examined it would seem that there are multiple causes, including massive misjudgements by Western nations since 1945; Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq to name three. There are also tensions originating with weakening nations, like Russia, growing nations like China, and defensive regimes like North Korea, attempting to make themselves too dangerous to invade. The Middle East is beset by regional conflicts, the fight for dominance. We have also trended to ignore the wars of Central Africa, in which millions have died, the famine created by Chairman Mao, and the killing fields of Cambodia and Rwanda.

We are undoubtedly entering into a dangerous era, but we must hope that it is no worse than the period that has preceded it, although periods of change can be very dangerous.

I found this short book interesting and the author raises a number of interesting questions which need to be addressed in more detail. Although I disagree with him about the role of energy, believing that the emergence of cheap renewable energy is a game-changer. However, I do agree that the world we know today will not survive in its current form.

© Andrew Palmer, 2017, not to be reproduced without permission


About Andrew Palmer (275 Articles)
Book by Andrew Palmer explores today's fundamental & systemic problems of the world. Proposes a framework for understanding the forces that are driving change.

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