From the Conference Notes of Alexander Mirtchev for “Global Security Dimensions of Alternative Energy”, Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies and Platts Roundtable, London, April 12, 2010

alexander-mirtchev-megatrend1. Today’s energy debate typically is viewed as divided into two hotly opposing camps.

There are those who believe that more emphasis should be placed on an immediate and robust development of resources because countries are at different stages of development with access to varying resources. This view generally revolves around the exploitation of fossil fuels, whose availability and applications are well understood. Supporters of this view generally point to the immediate economic benefits, even necessity, of the robust use of traditional fuels to sustain national growth in order to support prosperity today while allowing alternative energy sources to develop in due course.

Others view the contemporary reliance on traditional energy sources as little more than an anachronistic surrender to entrenched corporate interests, and that support for this reliance is possible only through willfully avoiding consideration of its devastating environmental consequences. The long-term prosperity of society, this argument goes, hinges entirely on our ability to actively nurture, hone and then deploy the most promising alternative fuel sources. The potential power of alternatives fuels is understood to be limitless, with paradigm-shifting effects on political, economic and security frameworks throughout the globe. In this view, to continue to develop yesterday’s power sources is simply folly.

2. Yet are these views that far apart?

What both camps accept as fact, implicitly or explicitly, is the inevitable emergence of one or more dominant, cost-efficient, rapidly and globally deployable new energy source. Both seek a way of fuelling everyday life that would be secure – easily available, affordable and uninterruptable supply of energy. This belief stirs the thinking, discussion and debate occurring across economic sectors and nation-states, multilateral constructs and informal networks. It is turning long-evolving and firmly held concepts of security right on their head throughout the globe.

Both points view also have another common point – whether or not alternative sources of energy can compete with fossil fuels or not, they have become part of international energy calculations and, rightly or wrongly, will continue to feature in future energy strategies. Indeed, our internalization of this paradigm-shifting change that lies ahead is best understood as the alternative energy megatrend – the global acceptance of a new truth, that alternative energy has staked a claim as a force for the future.

There are tangible indications of alternative energy’s presence, but these indications should be approached with caution, as renewables still remain a small fraction of the overall energy mix. Furthermore, this presence would inevitably be affected by the advances in areas such as shale gas and oil, tar sands and other non-traditional fossil-based energy options. Though unexpected events could always transpire that would make
this megatrend dissipate, it has already demonstrated the capacity to both transform and be transformed.

3. Broadly speaking, alternatives to fossil fuels such as wind, solar and hydropower, biofuels, geothermal, wave and tide, as well as nuclear power, have evolved in recent decades from a relatively minor contributor to the energy mix to a profound portent of things to come – already affecting how energy is produced and distributed, as well as society’s values, international relations and ways of doing business.
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5. Why and how has alternative energy emerged as a 21st Century socio-political and techno-economic megatrend?

The trend is propelled by a set of evolving, converging and interdependent drivers that actually comprise the trend itself. These drivers are wideranging, the most important include: fluctuating energy demand; environmental concerns; economic growth imperatives; global (although uneven) technological advances; defense considerations, policies and strategies; new forms of empowerment; and even quasi-ideological impatience with the ‘delayed arrival of the future.’

Together, these drivers are determining – and at the same time are integrated by – the various policies and regulatory systems related to alternative energy developments. Representing more than the sum of all parts, these drivers define the trend’s evolving identity – and chart its future promise.

The drivers of the alternative energy trend exhibit attributes that categorize it as a 21st Century megatrend. This phenomenon has already elicited novel reaction and unparalleled responses by policy-makers and global society. Its geographical scope encompasses the globe and is moving into space. It has demonstrated impacts on the actions of state and non-state actors, as well as on wider society. Its progression both exhibits and appears to be granted an inherent claim of longevity, and has acquired an aura of irreversibility, inevitability, durability and infallibility. This range of attributes has both an observed history and is continuously evolving, and generating new conditions that are gradually accepted as the prevalentreality, and interpolated in societal idea constructs and visions. The attributes of a megatrend are thus pervasive and self-propagating, in line with the progression of the megatrend itself. In aggregate, all of these parameters, facets, and characteristics confirm that the modern alternative energy phenomenon is in fact a global megatrend.

6. What does the emergence of the alternative energy megatrend imply for the universal securitization of the 21st Century world?

The alternative energy megatrend is already well on its way toward exerting tangible global security impact that has, in turn, created the megatrend’s own global security trajectory. While not yet easily perceived by the public, the alternative energy megatrend affects a wide range of explicit security considerations, from energy rebalancing, diversification and independence, to proliferation and military affairs. It also encompasses broader security concerns, such as environmental security (including climate change concerns), economic security and technological security implications.

7. How are explicit security priorities – such as energy security, defense and geopolitics – affected by, and reactive to the advancements of the alternative energy megatrend?

The explicit security aspects that can be discerned within the progression of the alternative energy megatrend provide a new perspective on the 21st Century geopolitical flux and the movement toward upcoming equilibrium, already reshaping traditional geopolitical divisions, such as Core and Periphery, East and West, North and South, as well as altering the roles of state and non-state actors in the evolving global security architecture. The megatrend plays a role in an anticipated global energy rebalancing that is disproportionate to renewable technologies’ current capabilities. At the same time, the trend is influencing future defense policies, military doctrine and planning, including logistics, operational effectiveness and enhanced abilities to project military power swiftly across vast distances, as well as calculations of readiness, efficiency, contingency planning and force postures.

7.1. The projected aspects of the megatrend’s evolution are gradually entering the geopolitical continuum. The role of alternative energy is modifying the aims and positions of actors, and their ability to affect the geopolitical equilibrium. The emerging energy resource map of the world revealed by the megatrend thus offers a perspective on the new guises of geopolitical actors, while at the same time these actors drive worldwide policy developments that encourage or impede the megatrend’s progression.

7.2. The energy security impact of alternative energy technologies reinforces the growing complexity behind this notion. As a promising local solution to a global problem, renewables bring to the fore the interplay of factors that influence energy security The megatrend could also play a role in altering established geopolitical notions and be incorporated into states’ deterrence strategies and bargaining positions. Through the point of view provided by the megatrend, it examines the emerging understanding of the capacity of the 21st Century transformations and phenomena to modify actors’ deterrence strategies, enhance their geopolitical leverage, as well as play a role in the alteration of geopolitical attitudes such as energy imperialism and resource nationalism.

7.3. When considering alternatives to fossil fuels, it is important to incorporate the impact of nuclear energy. In view of upcoming nuclear energy developments, their place in a global culture where nuclear power is associated with large-scale accidents is problematic. At the same time, in a post-proliferation world where many actors find the acquisition of nuclear weapons an increasingly attractive option, nuclear power could provide a possible template for the security trajectory of the alternative energy megatrend.

7.4. New defense-related considerations and needs propel alternative energy developments, prompting calls for the integration of renewable energy technologies into defense practices. From the perspective of worldwide defense policies related to alternative energy, the focus is predominantly on the U.S. and NATO. When considering this defense integration of renewables, it is imperative to pay close attention of the impediments that alternative energy technologies give rise to, in particular in view of the constant tradeoffs between effectiveness and efficiency that the military is forced to make on a daily basis.

8. How are broader security priorities – such as environmental and economic security – defining and being influenced by the progression of the alternative energy megatrend?

Implicit, or broader, security considerations encompass a range of threats, including environmental, economic, technological, as well as other security discourses such as new aspects of national and international power and expressions of civic empowerment. These aspects are traditionally viewed as outside the classic scope of national security studies, but are increasingly gaining ground in modern security considerations. From a broader security perspective, the megatrend is redefining environmental security by staking a claim as a universal solution to environmental security threats and risks. It also weighs upon economic policies and grand strategies of states, and its emerging forms are already becoming incorporated in economic security strategies of states.

8.1. Alternative energy developments are a contributing factor to the redefinition of environmental security. The options that alternative energy provides for addressing threats to natural habitats are changing the impact of environmental security policies, but remain constrained by the unaddressed environmental vulnerabilities and side-effects of renewables. Through the prism of the megatrend, it is possible to get a better understanding of the gradual encroachment of environmental security considerations into international relations agendas, denoted by the consistent ‘greening’ of geopolitics.

8.2. Alternative energy-related considerations are affecting the evolving notion of economic security and its expanding array of referent objects and respective securitization mechanisms. Of particular significance for the upcoming economic security implications of the megatrend are the possiblefuture role of the state and the emergence of an eventual global alternative energy market, as well as how the still uncertain economic viability of some renewable energy technologies could frame their economic security impact.

9. What appears to be the future and security trajectory of the alternative energy megatrend, and how does it provide for a better understanding and policy insight that meet the challenges of the universally securitized world?

Irrespective of the anticipated progress of alternative energy, the possibilities of the imminent demise or continued growth of the megatrend are yet to become clear, which is respectively extrapolated onto its potential security implications. Though unexpected events could always transpire that would make this megatrend dissipate, it has already demonstrated the capacity to both transform and be transformed. The megatrend provides new perspectives on future security and geopolitical developments, outlining the scope of likely changes in strategies, geopolitical stances and power projection capabilities of actors that are in continuous flux. The new security threats that would emerge make the viability of securitization mechanisms increasingly problematic. Policy focus in a number of areas would need to be emphasized to achieve beneficial outcomes from the alternative energy megatrend. These areas of policy focus include: steadily increasing the reliance on an alternative energy market as a proven mechanism that can most efficiently guide and govern the multiple factors and elements that constitute the alternative energy megatrend; keeping the innovation horizons open as the means of achieving the necessary viability of the alternative energy technologies; and establishing securitization mechanisms for the megatrend itself and enabling its inclusion within the 21st Century global security architecture.

10. Although the fate of this megatrend is ultimately tied to the supply and demand of fossil fuels, and the ability of renewable technologies to match them in effectiveness and cost efficiency, the presence of renewables in energy, economic and political considerations is growing.

Alternative energy resources have advanced in recent decades, from making relatively small contributions to a larger energy mix, to being more pronounced portents of things to come. They have already begun shaping how production choices are made and how energy is distributed, as well as playing a visible role in the transformation of societal values, global political economy priorities, and ways of doing business. In short, there is now international acceptance of the inevitable emergence of alternative energy game-changers, an expected tide of paradigm shifts to the geopolitical structures we have long relied on to organize and define our societies. And, whether consciously or not, across the globe we now await the practical effects that the projected evolution of renewables will have on our world.

11. It is entirely possible that none of the prospective energy developments we look toward today will ever come to fruition at a level that achieves the transformative power that we anticipate. Certainly none are even close to being proven otherwise.

And best of all, it may not matter.

It’s the megatrend itself that matters; it is sparking motion and causing reaction in and of itself. For modern society has arrived at a new crossroad, where the path towards the good stewardship of nature finally intersects with the quest for the abundance of resources. From this crossroad, a new course is to be chartered.

In ancient Greece, the search for knowledge was considered beneficial in its own right. Once the notion of matter was accepted, philosophers moved on to the search for methods to transmute matter into what societies deemed most valuable, be that gold, wisdom, or immortality. Centuries later, the body of methods purporting to bring humanity closer to the attainment of these goals became known as the “Arcanum,” the mystical precursor to a unified theory of the universe. Philosophers of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries sought to discover the code that would allow man to reach abundance by communicating with nature in an elemental, intimate manner, and ultimately to possess its essence – a quest that ultimately led to the advancement of chemistry, physics, mathematics, biology, anatomy, history, literature and psychology.

In other words, a useful allegory for the role of the alternative energy megatrend may be found in the Arcanum, in its perceived capacity to break the boundaries of economic laws, open new paths to prosperity and transcend social strictures. Like the Arcanum, alternative energy offers a potential short-cut toward human advancement. Ultimately, the value of the alternative energy megatrend may not lie so much in the goals and targets identified around specific technological advances at the outset, but rather in the process of developing and acquiring knowledge itself – possibly leading us, inadvertently or not, down the road we all assume we are headed.

It’s the pursuit of the Arcanum that matters. The very human impulse that drives us toward a game-changing energy outcome will likely lead us somewhere we have not as yet conceived. Keep your eyes open, enjoy the ride and delight in the results, wherever they emerge. It is for that reason that an intelligent and vigorous pursuit of innovation and expeditious entry into the realm of the unknown, in a secure but non-restrictive manner, would position the alternative energy megatrend as a transformational factor that could provide benefits regarding energy rebalancing, military capabilities, environmental safety, economic growth, global stability, and the furtherance of human prosperity, dignity and freedom.