An interesting blend of economics, geography, sociology and ecology, the series of lectures delivered at the University of Birmingham on the 6th of June were fascinating and challenging. The theme of all the presentations was not climate change but resource scarcity- the worry that peak oil, and eventually peak gas, will fundamentally change our society and could spell the end of capitalism.
The first talk was delivered by Dr. Stefan Bouzarovski on the topic of eastern and central European pipelines and energy security. We have recently witnessed gas crises in Ukraine, which exploited its position as a transit hub of energy from Russia to its European customers for political and financial gain, showing us how critical this is. Dr. Bouzarovski’s presentation painted an insightful picture of Russia’s employment of its gas reserves to leverage political control over its neighbours. It is all too easy to focus on one country and their travails, but the countries of eastern and central Europe face a dire problem because of their reliance on Russian gas imports. This will have serious political, social and ecological ramifications in the near future.
Dr. John Barry from Belfast is also a green activist and provided us with insight into how a society similar to ours is dealing with rising fuel and electricity prices. He stressed that, although we are looking into technological changes and improvements, we aren’t studying how our society must adapt to a low-energy future. Efficiency will only get us so far; what we really need to do is shift our focus away from generating wealth and infinite growth and into happiness and well-being. Peak-energy could easily spell the end of growth based economics, if it has not already met its end, and with it we may have to find another way to fulfil our wants. The future he described was optimistic, if potentially unstable. Regardless, he made a powerful argument that with ecological change comes political and social revolution.
With Earth’s population having just capped seven million, land is perhaps the scarcest resource of all. This was the theme of Professor John Vogler’s lecture, which looked at this in relation to Common grounds. A Common is an area shared by all humans, a popular concept in medieval Britain that largely died out in the 1500s when it was enclosed by a burgeoning nobility. We can see a similar situation today with other ‘Global’ Commons. More powerful, developed countries are taking the international common areas in somewhat of a free-for-all. Modern-day commons include the high seas, outer space and the internet. The way sovereign bodies have come together to govern these non-sovereign areas is hopeful, Antarctica has successfully been excluded from mineral extraction for the next 30 years. How countries deal with future common areas, such as outer space, will have interesting and pivotal impacts on our ecology.
Rounding off the talks was Dr David Toke’s presentation on green resources and the crisis we face. Unlike the 1970s and 1980s, where oil prices sky-rocketed but were calmed by decreasing dependency on oil for heating, we face no such easy solutions now, especially with our economy so reliant on transport. Mirroring the other arguments of the speakers, he pressed the point that we can not just rely on technology, there needs to be a societal shift away from stop-gap measures and short-termism towards serious sustainable goals.
Although many academics can be worried or fretful when it comes to the impending environmental crisis, these seminars painted it as an opportunity to move away from an unsafe, unsustainable society towards one that is more focused on happiness and people. It was a fascinating set of lectures that should produce an interesting paper.