Millions of people on the planet are working on alternative energy: engineers, politicians, laborers and analysts. Even more people are the consumers of these emission-free power sources which range from solar to biofuels. In the future, yet more novel types of energy will charge our grids: geothermal, space-based solar, tidal, hydrogen, and more.
Dr. Alexander Mirtchev, the Vice Chairman of the Atlantic Council and Distinguished Professor at the School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, just came out with a massive, in-depth treatment of the subject, his Prologue: The Alternative Energy Megatrend in the Age of Great Power Competition, (Simon & Schuster, 2021). He did a yeoman’s job analyzing the greatest transformations of our times.
The Megatrend is defined as a group of evolving and converging economic, technological and socio-political drivers. The 480 page long, painstakingly researched book, which grew out of the author’s Wilson Center research project, accomplishes a much-needed task: putting the often-chaotic development of alternative energy around the globe into a multi-disciplinary conceptual framework. This is a welcome development to all those, including this writer, who would like to understand how energy is evolving on Earth and what the implications are for the future. The consequences are many for business, national defense, global security, and technology
Energy played a pivotal role in human development since time immemorial. The myth of Prometheus bringing fire to the humans reflects the centrality of capturing the Sun’s energy for people to use. The main source of energy in the early ages was wood and truly renewable resources like dried animal dung. What we consider the alternative energy today, hydro, solar and wind, were used as early as the antiquity by the Greeks, the Romans and the Chinese, who utilized concave mirrors to capture the sun’s heat, Mirtchev writes.
A breakthrough of a steam engine propelled the Western industrial civilization, which quickly transformed to coal, then petroleum – both of which fueled internal combustion engines in the late 19th century — followed by diesel in the early 20th century. Soon after, the path opened to nuclear fission. But renewables are the cat’s meow of the early 21st century.
Every energy-based paradigm shift generated a geopolitical corollary. A strategic placement of coaling stations became a priority for the British Royal Navy; the struggle for Iranian and Iraqi oil was a top priority for the British military planners in World War I, resulting in the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, that kept the French out of Iraq.
Hitler suffered his biggest defeat at Stalingrad in 1942 as he overreached trying to conquer the Baku oil fields in Azerbaijan. Gen. Erwin Rommel was sent to North Africa to punch through to Iraq, only to be stopped by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery at El-Alamein.
The U.S. presence in the Middle East and reliance on Saudi Arabia was the consequence of the shift from coal and steam to gasoline and diesel-driven transportation. The Reagan Administration contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union by convincing the Saudis to flood the market with cheap oil as of 1985. The Kremlin just went bankrupt despite being the largest producer of hydrocarbons at the time. The U.S. defeat of Iraq in 1991 re-established American hegemony in the Middle East for 30 years. Now it is challenged by Russia, Iran and China. This was the (geopolitical) era of hydrocarbons.
There is no reason to believe that our ago of transition to alternative energy will be different. Paradigms shifted after the collapse of the Soviet Union like tectonic plates do. The world’s unipolar American moment has proven to be short-lived. Both the western and the rising eastern centers of powers, led by China and India, and countries north and south, such as Brazil, despite all their divisions, have increasingly sought to shake off the reliance on oil and gas. The global climate change has become an overarching concern, and the drive to curb carbon emissions emerged as the Prime Directive for the planet – almost a pillar of faith.
Mirtchev points out that the Alternative Energy Megatrend, which idolizes the renewables, became somewhat of a Manichean cleaver: alternative energy adherents consider it “good”, moral and ethical, while fossil fuels are “bad”. The reality is more complicated, as Dr. Mirtchev explains in detail.
For example, we know very little about the environmental impact of wind, especially offshore wind. There is a massive displacement of food crops by those earmarked for biofuels like corn, sugarcane, and soybeans. Rare earth minerals, their production dominated by China even to a greater degree than oil was controlled by the Saudis, are the bottleneck of this epoch’s Megatrend, Mirtchev posits. He outlines problems that the Megatrend raises, which may lead to regional and global competitions, tensions, and possibly “hot” conflicts, just as in the past countries fought for the control of coal and oil. International diplomacy, trade and regulation are in order, as well as much better functioning global institutions, which so far failed to deliver.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the discussion of the Megatrend as a socially constructed phenomenon. It reflects interests, opinions and hopes of competing civilizations that comprise the human species, from Western market-oriented techno-democracies, to Islamists, to the new authoritarians, to environmentalists. We can cooperate in making the Megatrend a reality, such as working with China in the photovoltaic and wind spaces, or bringing Russia to the hydrogen market. Yet global flashpoints exist, from access to rare earths supply chains to longstanding territorial disputes (Ukraine, Taiwan, Cyprus, Hong Kong, etc.).
Humans fight over turf. Countries and sub-state actors may compete for access to wind-rich corridors in North Africa and Northern Europe, to geothermally abundant areas along seismic fault lines, or solar-intensive territories in the Middle East. Another important point Mirtchev makes is that the world has evolved far away from the constraints of the Westphalian nation-state model. Today, sub-state groups and global movements, and first and foremost, the green movement on all its factions, from Al Gore to Greta Thunberg, and varied public opinion swirls play a growing role in defining state policies framing the Megatrend.
Mirtchev is correct pointing out the cacophony of policies, and the failure of the global governance bodies, including international organizations, to offer and enforce a road map and “traffic rules” en route to the brave new world of alternative energy.
The leading practitioners of U.S. foreign policy praised the opus magnum.
Mirtchev’s profoundly original book reveals these new dilemmas that will challenge policy makers in all major economies and provides for dealing with the new realities in a smart way. says Judge William H. Webster, Chairman, Homeland Security Advisory Council, Former Director of the CIA and FBI. Others agree.
Gen. James L. Jones, the National Security Adviser to President Barack Obama, to Admiral James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, to Mr. Geopolitics himself, Dr. Henry Kissinger, found the book valuable, intellectually honest, and valuable. The work is a must-read to practitioners of international relations, defense experts, academics and students alike, as well as businesspeople and the public at large. An important and thought-provoking read, I found it broad, deep and deeply engaging.