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A thirty-year war for energy pre-eminence? You wouldn’t wish it even on a desperate planet. But that’s where we’re headed and there’s no turning back.
From 1618 to 1648, Europe was engulfed in a series of intensely brutal conflicts known collectively as the Thirty Years’ War. It was, in part, a struggle between an imperial system of governance and the emerging nation-state. Indeed, many historians believe that the modern international system of nation-states was crystallized in the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, which finally ended the fighting.
Think of us today as embarking on a new Thirty Years’ War. It may not result in as much bloodshed as that of the 1600s, though bloodshed there will be, but it will prove no less momentous for the future of the planet. Over the coming decades, we will be embroiled at a global level in a succeed-or-perish contest among the major forms of energy, the corporations which supply them and the countries that run on them. The question will be: Which will dominate the world’s energy supply in the second half of the twenty-first century? The winners will determine how—and how badly—we live, work, and play in those not-so-distant decades, and will profit enormously as a result. The losers will be cast aside and dismembered.
Why thirty years? Because that’s how long it will take for experimental energy systems like hydrogen power, cellulosic ethanol, wave power, algae fuel and advanced nuclear reactors to make it from the laboratory to full-scale industrial development. Some of these systems (as well, undoubtedly, as others not yet on our radar screens) will survive the winnowing process. Some will not. And there is little way to predict how it will go at this stage in the game. At the same time, the use of existing fuels like oil and coal, which spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, is likely to plummet, thanks both to diminished supplies and rising concerns over the growing dangers of carbon emissions.
This will be a war because the future profitability, or even survival, of many of the world’s most powerful and wealthy corporations will be at risk, and because every nation has a potentially life-or-death stake in the contest. For giant oil companies like BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell, an eventual shift away from petroleum will have massive economic consequences. They will be forced to adopt new economic models and attempt to corner new markets, based on the production of alternative energy products, or risk collapse or absorption by more powerful competitors. In these same decades, new companies will arise, some undoubtedly coming to rival the oil giants in wealth and importance.
The fate of nations, too, will be at stake as they place their bets on competing technologies, cling to their existing energy patterns, or compete for global energy sources, markets, and reserves. Because the acquisition of adequate supplies of energy is as basic a matter of national security as can be imagined, struggles over vital resources—oil and natural gas now, perhaps lithium or nickel (for electric-powered vehicles) in the future—will trigger armed violence.