Monday, March 09, 2009

The End of the World As We Know It?

The opinion section of the Sunday New York Times made for sobering reading this weekend. While the Times has hardly been a bastion of economic optimism of late, three op-eds stood out for their shared sense that we might be on the brink of truly wrenching change. Tom Friedman invoked an enviro-economic tipping point, citing one expert's prognosis of a "Great Disruption;" a best-selling author saw the risk of "economic cataclysm" in the bursting of Eastern Europe's foreign debt bubble; and another found parallels to the Austria-Hungary of 1913, one year before the war that ended at least three empires and mortally wounded a couple of others. But while the systemic unraveling of the past six months or so makes such possibilities likelier than they would have been just a few years ago, the odds still favor a much less drastic result than revolution or apocalypse. The enormous recent increase in the range of uncertainties we face lends added credibility to the direst scenarios. However, it's important to realize that these predictions are not certainties, unless our responses make them so. That applies to energy, as well.

When I think about the possible paths of energy supply and demand over the next few years, they depend much less on specific energy or environmental trends than on the future state of the economy. Forecasting oil prices has become meaningless without a clear view of growth, particularly in the US and China. Demand may have rebounded recently in the US, but the combination of a crippling financial crisis with a deep cyclical downturn has Americans questioning the future in ways that I haven't seen in decades, other than the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The tangible effects of what noted historian Niall Ferguson has dubbed the "Great Recession" serve to reinforce the hangover of millennial angst from the turn of the century, which manifested in the more extreme views of Y2K and more recently Peak Oil. Layer in the propensity of my own Baby Boom generation to see itself at the epicenter of great events, and the stage is set for receptiveness to the view that we stand on the brink of unprecedented, permanently life-altering change.

When I was involved in my first scenario planning project at Texaco, we came up with three remarkably insightful views of the future of the energy industry, at least two of which have remained relevant far longer than any of us could have guessed. They received wide distribution throughout the company and had the general support of many in upper management. However, that project also came up with the seeds of another scenario, a much darker view involving the rejection of globalization and a growing wave of anti-Americanism around the world. Although in some respects it was no less prescient--or challenging--than the other three scenarios, it went nowhere, because the context for exploring it didn't exist in 1997. The external consultants who guided us through the process advised us not to pursue it, or risk destroying the credibility of the entire effort. That was good advice, even in retrospect, and it served as a useful lesson about the way that assessments of the future interact with our views of the present and our experience of the past. They must also be grounded in reality.

That's certainly true for energy, today. However much we might consider our energy future to be in flux, our views of it must take into account the embedded dominance of fossil fuels in our energy systems. Given the scale of these systems, that dominance will still exist next year and the following year, no matter what policies are enacted in the US or elsewhere. This might all seem to be up for grabs, but that's really only true in the long term. I've believed for a long time that we are on the threshold of a revolution in the ways that we produce and use energy, and it has arguably already begun. But no matter what happens in the economy, short of a massive global collapse, this revolution cannot be completed overnight. It will take decades, and that is equally true of our response to man-made climate change, which took a century to create.

Whenever I watch the news or read the latest statistics about the economy, I worry about what next year might look like. The uncertainties are huge and daunting. But I also know that while the chances of a Great Depression-style collapse or a radical socio-enviro-political transformation have risen, the economic future is likelier to resemble the last few decades, minus the unsustainable levels of personal and institutional debt. In the same way, the energy transformation is likely to play out as a set of big, gradual shifts: away from coal and other carbon-intensive fuels and toward renewable energy and nuclear power, and away from liquid transportation fuels and towards the eventual electrification of most ground vehicles. These transitions will take time, and that means that, whatever their price, a decade from now there will still be electricity and natural gas for the appliances and devices you buy today, and there will still be fuel for the car you buy today. That's one set of uncertainties over which we shouldn't lose sleep.

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