The huge (magnitude 9.0) Tohoku earthquake in Japan and the resulting tsunami on 11th March was the latest in a recent series of such ‘natural disasters’, from China (2008) and Pakistan (2008) to Indonesia (2004) and New Zealand (2011). The Japanese disaster has killed at least 10,000 people and injured 2,775, with another 17,500 still missing. Around 250,000 people have moved to temporary shelters as almost 150,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed. [There is a dedicated site here.] The Fukushima nuclear site with its six nuclear reactors was badly damaged leading to increasing levels of radiation in the area. The Japanese government declared a 20km exclusion zone around the site and evacuated thousands of residents. People up to 30km away have been advised to stay indoors. Water supplies and vegetables in the Fukushima prefecture have become contaminated and many countries have banned all imports from the area. Activity in Japan’s ports, vehicle and other high-tech manufacturing plants have all been disrupted.
Natural disasters can have a profound impact on communities, societies and belief systems. The 1755 Lisbon earthquake (magnitude about 9.0) in Portugal devastated the city, leading to thousands of deaths, raging fires and the destruction of many important buildings. Thousands more were killed in Spain and Morocco. In the mid-eighteenth century, religious beliefs and arguments remained strong with many seeing the Lisbon quake as evidence of God’s anger. Philosophers of the European Enlightenment saw the sheer misery and destruction of Lisbon as an ‘excess’ of evil that could not be squared with the idea that we live ‘in the best possible world’ as described by Leibniz (1710). Some have argued that the Lisbon quake was a stimulus to secular, scientific endeavour, giving credence to scientific thinking over theology.
In spite of the devastating impact of recent natural disasters, there’s no sign yet that they are having anything like the same impact on people’s thinking and beliefs. One reason, of course, is that the dominant mode of explanation is now secular – science – and as far as I can tell we don’t have a better one which might challenge it. However, damage to the Fukushima nuclear site by the tsunami may well intensify a rapidly growing concern with energy security. How much energy do societies need? How can security of energy supply best be achieved? Is nuclear power part of the solution? Are renewable energy sources really capable of producing enough to enhance national energy security?
Several factors have brought energy security back into focus as an essential political problem. Between 2002 and 2007, oil prices trebled, peaking at US$140 per barrel by mid-2008. California experienced power blackouts as a result. Increasing attacks on oil production facilities in Nigeria and worries about possible terrorist attacks on energy facilities also played a part. However, in Europe, Russia’s cutting off of gas supplies to Ukraine in 2006 during a dispute over pricing, doubling the price of gas to Georgia and cutting gas to Belarus in 2007, laid bare the problem of the security of supply lines (Youngs 2009). Add in Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, two Gulf Wars, current unrest in the Middle East and North Africa and forecasts that by 2030 – due to population growth and the rise of high consumption levels in India, China and other developing countries – the world will need 45 per cent more energy than it uses today, and it becomes clear that issues of energy production and security will be central to early twenty-first-century politics.
The issue is already particularly acute for Europe, which is the world’s largest energy importer. In 2006, the European Commission argued that Europe was at risk from its high dependence on energy imports from a small number of ‘unstable regions’. The Commission recommended a focus on internal reform of EU energy production and a turn towards renewable sources such as wind, solar and hydroelectric power and, at the same time, a reconfiguring of EU foreign policy. The Scottish Government, for example, has made a commitment to meet 80 per cent of gross electricity consumption and 11 per cent of heat demand from renewable sources by 2020. However, so far there seems to be little chance of renewable energy being able to plug the potential European energy gap in order to strengthen security of supply. [See this site for more information.]
The steady rise of environmental awareness since the late 1970s has also applied a brake to some forms of energy. Coal-fired power stations are now out of favour, given the need to reduce carbon emissions to curb climate change and 59 stations were cancelled in the USA alone in 2007 (Luft and Korin 2009). Similarly, nuclear power presents its own, unique difficulties, not least start-up costs and how to dispose of nuclear waste. Long hated by environmentalists, nuclear power has recently undergone something of rehabilitation. Some environmental campaigners (as well as national governments) now see nuclear – which produces negligible amounts of CO2– as one element in the kind of energy mix which will be needed if CO2 emissions are to be reduced and global warming tackled effectively. But the dangers of nuclear reliance have been thrown into sharp relief by events at the Fukushima plant and it seems likely that advocates of nuclear power will not have things all their own way from now on.
And there is an important caveat to this entire debate, which concerns the very concept of ‘energy security’ as set out above. In energy, as in economic development generally, there is inequality and diversity. Some countries, including Russia, USA and France are self-sufficient for electricity production but not transportation. Others, notably Brazil, are in the reverse position, in Brazil’s case due to its move to sugarcane ethanol for its transportation energy needs. Still others rely on imports for both electricity generation and transport which makes them even more vulnerable to shifts in energy prices and disruption caused by political or military actions. And we cannot forget that the biggest disparity of all is between the developed and developing countries. Around half of the global population is said to be in ‘energy poverty’, with no access at all to electricity with millions more suffering chronic unreliability of supply. If globalization became the key to understanding late twentieth-century developments, incorporating energy security into social science looks to be ‘the next big thing’.
Luft, G. and Korin, A. (Eds) (2009) Energy Security Challenges for the 21st Century: A Reference Handbook (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger).
Youngs, R. (2009) Energy Security (London: Routledge).
Chapter 5 ‘The Environment’ is the logical place to start with this one. Chapter 4 ‘Globalization and the Changing World’ also contains much material which sets this debate into a wider context as does Chapter 13 ‘Global Inequality’.