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Energy Decline and Authoritarianism

  • Richard Heinberg
  • Timothy CrownshawEmail author
Review Paper

Abstract

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.

Keywords

Energy depletion Societal metabolism Political risk Democracy Authoritarianism 

Notes

Acknowledgements

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.

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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

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