Energy Decline and Authoritarianism

  • Richard Heinberg
  • Timothy CrownshawEmail author
Review Paper


Could declining world energy supplies result in a turn toward authoritarianism by governments around the world? Mainstream forecasts of an increase in world energy production lasting until at least mid-century are coming under sustained criticism from researchers emphasizing the dynamics of resource depletion. Energy decline is a likely near-term challenge that polities around the world will face. Energy metabolism is a constraining factor for societal complexity and economic production, as established in the anthropological and biophysical economics literature and supported by a multitude of examples of both modern and pre-modern societies. It can be argued that political systems will necessarily face significant destabilization and the potential for a reversion to more autocratic forms as a result of energy depletion. We review relevant risk factors for this shift toward authoritarianism and discuss the contrasting aspects of democratic and authoritarian governance under conditions of energy decline. We conclude with a discussion of possible responses to counter the risks of democratic failure. Overall, we find that opacity of the links between energy, the economy, and politics may hamper such responses and that a more widespread understanding of the role of energy in society will be advantageous to the survival of democratic governance.


Energy depletion Societal metabolism Political risk Democracy Authoritarianism 



We would like to thank to Matthew Burke for reviewing drafts of this paper and offering many useful suggestions. Thanks also to the Post Carbon Institute for help in development of early drafts and for publishing a previous version online.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.


  1. Acemoglu D, Ticchi D, Vindigni A (2010) A theory of military dictatorships. Am Econ J Macroecon 2:1–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Ahmed NM (2017) Failing states, collapsing systems: biophysical triggers of political violence. Springer, ChamCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Alcott B (2013) Should degrowth embrace the Job Guarantee? J Clean Prod 38:56–60. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Alesina A, Özler S, Roubini N, Swagel P (1996) Political instability and economic growth. J Econ Growth 1:189–211CrossRefzbMATHGoogle Scholar
  5. Ayres RU, Warr B (2005) Accounting for growth: the role of physical work structural change. Econ Dyn 16:181–209Google Scholar
  6. Bay A-H, Blekesaune M (2002) Youth, unemployment and political marginalisation. Int J Soc Welf 11:132–139. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Beeson M (2010) The coming of environmental authoritarianism. Environ Politics 19:276–294. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bonaiuti M (2017) Are we entering the age of involuntary degrowth? Promethean technologies and declining returns of innovation. J Clean Prod. Google Scholar
  9. Borowy I (2013) Degrowth and public health in Cuba: lessons from the past? J Clean Prod 38:17–26CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Capellán-Pérez I, Mediavilla M, de Castro C, Carpintero Ó, Miguel LJ (2014) Fossil fuel depletion and socio-economic scenarios: an integrated approach. Energy 77:641–666CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Carbajales-Dale M, Barnhart CJ, Benson SM (2014) Can we afford storage? A dynamic net energy analysis of renewable electricity generation supported by energy storage. Energy Environ Sci 7:1538–1544CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Chapman I (2014) The end of peak oil? Why this topic is still relevant despite recent denials. Energy Policy 64:93–101. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Close DH (1977) The collapse of resistance to democracy: conservatives, adult suffrage, and second chamber reform, 1911–1928. Hist J 20:893–918CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Craig RL (2004) Advertising, democracy and censorship. Javnost—Public 11:49–64. Google Scholar
  15. Daly HE (2014) From uneconomic growth to a steady-state economy. Edward Elgar Publishing, CheltenhamCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Deckard ND, Jacobson D (2015) The prosperous hardliner: affluence, fundamentalism, and radicalization in Western European Muslim communities. Soc Compass 62:412–433. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Diamond S (1974) In search of the primitive; a critique of civilization. Transaction Books, New BrunswickGoogle Scholar
  18. Ding QJ, Hesketh T (2006) Family size, fertility preferences, and sex ratio in China in the era of the one child family policy: results from national family planning reproductive health survey. BMJ 333:371–373. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. EIA (2017) International energy outlook 2017. U.S. Energy Information Administration, Washington DCGoogle Scholar
  20. Fagnart J-F, Germain M (2015) Energy, complexity and sustainable long-term growth. Math Soc Sci 75:87–93MathSciNetCrossRefzbMATHGoogle Scholar
  21. Fagnart J-F, Germain M (2016) Net energy ratio, EROEI and the macroeconomy structural change. Econ Dyn 37:121–126Google Scholar
  22. Fenton WN (1998) The great law and the longhouse: a political history of the Iroquois Confederacy, vol 223. University of Oklahoma Press, NormanGoogle Scholar
  23. Fournier V (2008) Escaping from the economy: the politics of degrowth. Int J Sociol Soc Policy 28:528–545CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Foxon TJ (2017) Energy and economic growth: why we need a new pathway to prosperity. Routledge, AbingdonGoogle Scholar
  25. Gabennesch H (1972) Authoritarianism as world view. Am J Sociol 77:857–875CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Georgescu-Roegen N (1971) The law of entropy and the economic process. Harvard University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Gnansounou E (2008) Assessing the energy vulnerability: case of industrialised countries. Energy Policy 36:3734–3744CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Goodenough U (1999) The sacred depths of nature. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  29. Gordon RJ (2016) The rise and fall of American growth: the U.S. standard of living since the Civil War. Princeton University Press, PrincetonCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Gurr TR (1985) On the political consequences of scarcity and economic decline. Int Stud Quart 29:51–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Haberl H, Fischer-Kowalski M, Krausmann F, Martinez-Alier J, Winiwarter V (2011) A socio-metabolic transition towards sustainability? Challenges for another great transformation. Sustain Dev 19:1–14. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hall CA (2017) The history, future, and implications of EROI for Society. In: Energy return on investment: a unifying principle for biology, economics, and sustainability. Springer, Cham, pp 145–169.
  33. Hall CA, Klitgaard KA (2012) Peak oil, eroi, investments, and our financial future. In: Energy and the wealth of nations: understanding the biophysical economy. Springer, New York, pp 5–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Hall CA, Lambert JG, Balogh SB (2014) EROI of different fuels and the implications for society. Energy Policy 64:141–152CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Harris M (1991) Cultural anthropology. HarperCollins, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  36. Heinberg R (2011) The end of growth: adapting to our new economic reality. New Society Publishers, Gabriola IslandGoogle Scholar
  37. Heinberg R, Fridley D (2016) Our renewable future. Post Carbon Institute, Island Press, Washington, DCCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Hogan J, Haltinner K (2015) Floods, invaders, and parasites: immigration threat narratives and right-wing populism in the USA, UK and Australia. J Intercult Stud 36:520–543. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Homer-Dixon TF (1991) On the threshold: environmental changes as causes of acute. Confl Int Secur 16:76–116. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Horowitz DL (1993) Democracy in divided societies. J Democr 4:18–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. IEA (2016) World energy outlook 2016, executive summary. International Energy Agency, ParisGoogle Scholar
  42. ILO (2017) World employment and social outlook 2017. International Labour Organization, GenevaGoogle Scholar
  43. Indian Roots of American Democracy (1988) Cornell American Indian Program, Ithaca, NYGoogle Scholar
  44. Inglehart R, Norris P (2017) Trump and the populist authoritarian parties: the silent revolution in reverse. Perspect Politics 15:443–454. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi M, McDonald P (2006) Fertility decline in the Islamic Republic of Iran: 1972–2000. Asian Popul Stud 2:217–237. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Kallis G (2017) Radical dematerialization and degrowth. Philos Trans Ser A. Google Scholar
  47. Kallis G, Martinez-Alier J, Norgaard RB (2009) Paper assets, real debts: an ecological-economic exploration of the global economic crisis. Crit Perspect Int Bus 5:14–25. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Karl TL (2000) Economic inequality and democratic instability. J Democr 11:149–156CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Keefer P (2007) Clientelism, credibility, and the policy choices of young democracies. Am J Political Sci 51:804–821CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Keen S (2013) A monetary Minsky model of the Great Moderation and the Great Recession. J Econ Behav Organ 86:221–235. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Kelly RL (1995) The foraging spectrum: diversity in hunter-gatherer lifeways. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  52. Kilian L (2008) Exogenous oil supply shocks: how big are they and how much do they matter for the U.S. Economy?. Rev Econ Stat 90:216–240. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Klare MT (2012) The race for what’s left: the global scramble for the world’s last resources. Metropolitan Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  54. Klitgaard KA, Krall L (2012) Ecological economics, degrowth, and institutional change. Ecol Econ 84:247–253CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Krausmann F, Fischer-Kowalski M, Schandl H, Eisenmenger N (2008) The global sociometabolic transition. J Ind Ecol 12:637–656. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Lin BB, Macfadyen S, Renwick AR, Cunningham SA, Schellhorn NA (2013) Maximizing the environmental benefits of carbon farming through ecosystem service delivery. BioScience 63:793–803. Google Scholar
  57. McChesney RW (1999) Rich media, poor democracy: communication politics in dubious times. University of Illinois Press, UrbanaGoogle Scholar
  58. Midlarsky MI (1995) Environmental Influences on Democracy: aridity, warfare, and a reversal of the causal arrow. J Confl Resolut 39:224–262. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Mishra P (2017) Age of anger: a history of the present. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  60. Mitchell T (2011) Carbon democracy: political power in the age of oil. Verso Books, LondonGoogle Scholar
  61. Mohr S, Wang J, Ellem G, Ward J, Giurco D (2015) Projection of world fossil fuels by country. Fuel 141:120–135CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Moriarty P, Honnery D (2016) Can renewable energy power the future? Energy Policy 93:3–7. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Murphy D, Hall CAS (2011) Adjusting the economy to the new energy realities of the second half of the age of oil. Ecol Model 223:67–71. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Natalini D, Bravo G, Jones AW (2017) Global food security and food riots—an agent-based modelling approach. Food Secur. Google Scholar
  65. Omer Y, Dan M (2014) Youth bulge and civil war: why a country’s share of young adults explains only non-ethnic wars. Confl Manag Peace Sci 33:25–44. Google Scholar
  66. Ophuls W (1997) Requiem for modern politics: the tragedy of the enlightenment and the challenge of the new millennium. Westview Press, BoulderGoogle Scholar
  67. Palmer G (2017) A framework for incorporating EROI into electrical storage. BioPhys Econ Resour Qual 2:6. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Podobnik B, Jusup M, Kovac D, Stanley HE (2017) Predicting the rise of EU right-wing populism in response to unbalanced immigration. Complexity 2017:12. CrossRefzbMATHGoogle Scholar
  69. Poteat VP, Ethan HM, Marcia LL, Nam JS (2011) Can friendships be bipartisan? The effects of political ideology on peer relationships. Group Process Intergroup Relat 14:819–834. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Quilley S (2013) De-growth is not a liberal agenda: relocalisation and the limits to low energy cosmopolitanism. Environ Values 22:261–285. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Sakamoto Y (1991) Introduction: the global context of democratization. Alternatives 16:119–128CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Schneider F (2002) Size and measurement of the informal economy in 110 countries. In: Workshop of Australian National Tax Centre, ANU, CanberraGoogle Scholar
  73. Schuman H, Bobo L, Krysan M (1992) Authoritarianism in the general population: the education interaction hypothesis. Soc Psychol Q 55:379–387. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Sgouridis S, Csala D, Bardi U (2016) The sower’s way: quantifying the narrowing net-energy pathways to a global energy transition. Environ Res Lett 11:094009CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Shearman DJC, Smith JW (2007) The climate change challenge and the failure of democracy. Praeger Publishers, WestportGoogle Scholar
  76. Smil V (2010) Energy transitions: history, requirements, prospects. Praeger, Santa BarbaraGoogle Scholar
  77. Sorman AH, Giampietro M (2013) The energetic metabolism of societies and the degrowth paradigm: analyzing biophysical constraints and realities. J Clean Prod 38:80–93CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Stirling A (2014) Transforming power: social science and the politics of energy choices. Energy Res Soc Sci 1:83–95. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Stoddard E (2015) So far, so functional? Examining functional and counter-functional dynamics in authoritarian regional cooperation. Freie Universität Berlin, BerlinGoogle Scholar
  80. Sussams L, Leaton J, Drew T (2015) Lost in transition: how the energy sector is missing potential demand destruction. Carbon Tracker, LondonGoogle Scholar
  81. Swyngedouw E (2005) Governance innovation and the citizen: the Janus Face of governance-beyond-the-State. Urban Stud 42:1991–2006. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Tainter JA (1988) The collapse of complex societies. New studies in archaeology. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  83. Tainter JA (2011) Energy, complexity, and sustainability: a historical perspective Environmental. Innov Soc Transit 1:89–95CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. The Economist Intelligence Unit (2016) Democracy Index 2016: revenge of the “deplorables”. The Economist Intelligence Unit, London, UK; New York, NY; Hong Kong, ChinaGoogle Scholar
  85. The Shift Project (2018) Primary Energy Consumption per Capita. The Shift Project. Accessed 18 Jan 2018
  86. Thorley J (2004) Athenian democracy. Routledge, LondonGoogle Scholar
  87. Trainer T (2010) Can renewables etc. solve the greenhouse problem? The negative case. Energy Policy 38:4107–4114. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Trainer T (2012) De-growth: do you realise what it means? Futures 44:590–599. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Turchin P, Nefedov SA (2009) Secular cycles. Princeton University Press, PrincetonCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  90. Vivoda V (2009) Diversification of oil import sources and energy security: a key strategy or an elusive objective? Energy Policy 37:4615–4623. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Wantchekon L (2002) Why do resource dependent countries have authoritarian governments? J Afr Finance Econ Dev 2:57–77Google Scholar
  92. Welker M (2014) Enacting the corporation: an American mining firm in post-authoritarian Indonesia. University of California Press, BerkeleyCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  93. Woodburn J (1982) Egalitarian societies. Man 17:431–451CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  94. Zittel W, Zerhusen J, Zerta M, Arnold N (2013) Fossil and nuclear fuels—the supply outlook. Energy Watch Group, BerlinGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Post Carbon InstituteCorvallisUSA
  2. 2.Department of Natural Resource SciencesMcGill UniversitySte. Anne de BellevueCanada

Personalised recommendations