Energy Decline and Authoritarianism

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1

Data source: the Shift Project (2018)

Fig. 2

Data source: Hall et al. (2014)

Notes

  1. 1.

    As discussed by Stirling (2014), while energy plays an indispensable role in human societies, it is necessary to avoid reductionist assumptions of energy determinism. Energy supply is one factor among many affecting the evolution of social systems.

  2. 2.

    An exception to this rule were the “complex” hunter-gatherer societies which developed in resource-abundant regions and relied heavily on the storage of food, characterized by hierarchical social structure, high population density, low mobility, frequent violence, and social competition (Kelly 1995).

  3. 3.

    According to Thorley (2004), Attica’s total population was likely between 250,000 and 300,000, but free adult male citizens eligible to vote numbered less than 50,000. Women, slaves, and foreigners could not participate in public decision-making.

  4. 4.

    The Democracy Index, compiled by the UK-based Economist Intelligence Unit, seeks to measure the state of democracy in 167 countries based on 60 indicators (The Economist Intelligence Unit 2016).

  5. 5.

    The contribution of the informal economy to Gross National Income is more than twice as high for developing countries than for developed countries on average (Schneider 2002). This implies greater local production of essential goods and services and lower reliance on globalized systems of trade and finance.

  6. 6.

    For example, promoting “carbon farming” methods which enhance carbon sequestration while maintaining food production—see Lin et al. (2013) for an overview.

  7. 7.

    One notable attempt to reconcile a modern, scientific worldview with renewed spirituality is religious naturalism, which aims to provide a new planetary ethic; see Goodenough (1999).

References

  1. Acemoglu D, Ticchi D, Vindigni A (2010) A theory of military dictatorships. Am Econ J Macroecon 2:1–42

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Ahmed NM (2017) Failing states, collapsing systems: biophysical triggers of political violence. Springer, Cham

    Google Scholar 

  3. Alcott B (2013) Should degrowth embrace the Job Guarantee? J Clean Prod 38:56–60. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2011.06.007

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Alesina A, Özler S, Roubini N, Swagel P (1996) Political instability and economic growth. J Econ Growth 1:189–211

    Article  MATH  Google Scholar 

  5. Ayres RU, Warr B (2005) Accounting for growth: the role of physical work structural change. Econ Dyn 16:181–209

    Google Scholar 

  6. Bay A-H, Blekesaune M (2002) Youth, unemployment and political marginalisation. Int J Soc Welf 11:132–139. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-2397.00207

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Beeson M (2010) The coming of environmental authoritarianism. Environ Politics 19:276–294. https://doi.org/10.1080/09644010903576918

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Bonaiuti M (2017) Are we entering the age of involuntary degrowth? Promethean technologies and declining returns of innovation. J Clean Prod. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.02.196

    Google Scholar 

  9. Borowy I (2013) Degrowth and public health in Cuba: lessons from the past? J Clean Prod 38:17–26

    Article  Google 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 77:641–666

    Article  Google 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 7:1538–1544

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Chapman I (2014) The end of peak oil? Why this topic is still relevant despite recent denials. Energy Policy 64:93–101. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2013.05.010

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Close DH (1977) The collapse of resistance to democracy: conservatives, adult suffrage, and second chamber reform, 1911–1928. Hist J 20:893–918

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Craig RL (2004) Advertising, democracy and censorship. Javnost—Public 11:49–64. https://doi.org/10.1080/13183222.2004.11008853

    Google Scholar 

  15. Daly HE (2014) From uneconomic growth to a steady-state economy. Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham

    Google Scholar 

  16. Deckard ND, Jacobson D (2015) The prosperous hardliner: affluence, fundamentalism, and radicalization in Western European Muslim communities. Soc Compass 62:412–433. https://doi.org/10.1177/0037768615587827

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Diamond S (1974) In search of the primitive; a critique of civilization. Transaction Books, New Brunswick

    Google 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. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.38775.672662.80

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. EIA (2017) International energy outlook 2017. U.S. Energy Information Administration, Washington DC

    Google Scholar 

  20. Fagnart J-F, Germain M (2015) Energy, complexity and sustainable long-term growth. Math Soc Sci 75:87–93

    MathSciNet  Article  MATH  Google Scholar 

  21. Fagnart J-F, Germain M (2016) Net energy ratio, EROEI and the macroeconomy structural change. Econ Dyn 37:121–126

    Google Scholar 

  22. Fenton WN (1998) The great law and the longhouse: a political history of the Iroquois Confederacy, vol 223. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman

    Google Scholar 

  23. Fournier V (2008) Escaping from the economy: the politics of degrowth. Int J Sociol Soc Policy 28:528–545

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Foxon TJ (2017) Energy and economic growth: why we need a new pathway to prosperity. Routledge, Abingdon

    Google Scholar 

  25. Gabennesch H (1972) Authoritarianism as world view. Am J Sociol 77:857–875

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Georgescu-Roegen N (1971) The law of entropy and the economic process. Harvard University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  27. Gnansounou E (2008) Assessing the energy vulnerability: case of industrialised countries. Energy Policy 36:3734–3744

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Goodenough U (1999) The sacred depths of nature. Oxford University Press, New York

    Google 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, Princeton

    Google Scholar 

  30. Gurr TR (1985) On the political consequences of scarcity and economic decline. Int Stud Quart 29:51–75

    Article  Google 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. https://doi.org/10.1002/sd.410

    Article  Google 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. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-47821-0_12

  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 5–8

    Google Scholar 

  34. Hall CA, Lambert JG, Balogh SB (2014) EROI of different fuels and the implications for society. Energy Policy 64:141–152

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Harris M (1991) Cultural anthropology. HarperCollins, New York

    Google Scholar 

  36. Heinberg R (2011) The end of growth: adapting to our new economic reality. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island

    Google Scholar 

  37. Heinberg R, Fridley D (2016) Our renewable future. Post Carbon Institute, Island Press, Washington, DC

    Google 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. https://doi.org/10.1080/07256868.2015.1072907

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Homer-Dixon TF (1991) On the threshold: environmental changes as causes of acute. Confl Int Secur 16:76–116. https://doi.org/10.2307/2539061

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Horowitz DL (1993) Democracy in divided societies. J Democr 4:18–38

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. IEA (2016) World energy outlook 2016, executive summary. International Energy Agency, Paris

    Google Scholar 

  42. ILO (2017) World employment and social outlook 2017. International Labour Organization, Geneva

    Google Scholar 

  43. Indian Roots of American Democracy (1988) Cornell American Indian Program, Ithaca, NY

  44. Inglehart R, Norris P (2017) Trump and the populist authoritarian parties: the silent revolution in reverse. Perspect Politics 15:443–454. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1537592717000111

    Article  Google 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. https://doi.org/10.1080/17441730601073789

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Kallis G (2017) Radical dematerialization and degrowth. Philos Trans Ser A. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2016.0383

    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. https://doi.org/10.1108/17422040910938659

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Karl TL (2000) Economic inequality and democratic instability. J Democr 11:149–156

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Keefer P (2007) Clientelism, credibility, and the policy choices of young democracies. Am J Political Sci 51:804–821

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Keen S (2013) A monetary Minsky model of the Great Moderation and the Great Recession. J Econ Behav Organ 86:221–235. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jebo.2011.01.010

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Kelly RL (1995) The foraging spectrum: diversity in hunter-gatherer lifeways. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC

    Google 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. https://doi.org/10.1162/rest.90.2.216

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Klare MT (2012) The race for what’s left: the global scramble for the world’s last resources. Metropolitan Books, New York

    Google Scholar 

  54. Klitgaard KA, Krall L (2012) Ecological economics, degrowth, and institutional change. Ecol Econ 84:247–253

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Krausmann F, Fischer-Kowalski M, Schandl H, Eisenmenger N (2008) The global sociometabolic transition. J Ind Ecol 12:637–656. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1530-9290.2008.00065.x

    Article  Google 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. https://doi.org/10.1525/bio.2013.63.10.6

    Google Scholar 

  57. McChesney RW (1999) Rich media, poor democracy: communication politics in dubious times. University of Illinois Press, Urbana

    Google Scholar 

  58. Midlarsky MI (1995) Environmental Influences on Democracy: aridity, warfare, and a reversal of the causal arrow. J Confl Resolut 39:224–262. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022002795039002002

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. Mishra P (2017) Age of anger: a history of the present. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York

    Google Scholar 

  60. Mitchell T (2011) Carbon democracy: political power in the age of oil. Verso Books, London

    Google Scholar 

  61. Mohr S, Wang J, Ellem G, Ward J, Giurco D (2015) Projection of world fossil fuels by country. Fuel 141:120–135

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. Moriarty P, Honnery D (2016) Can renewable energy power the future? Energy Policy 93:3–7. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2016.02.051

    Article  Google 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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2011.06.022

    Article  Google Scholar 

  64. Natalini D, Bravo G, Jones AW (2017) Global food security and food riots—an agent-based modelling approach. Food Secur. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12571-017-0693-z

    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. https://doi.org/10.1177/0738894214544613

    Google Scholar 

  66. Ophuls W (1997) Requiem for modern politics: the tragedy of the enlightenment and the challenge of the new millennium. Westview Press, Boulder

    Google Scholar 

  67. Palmer G (2017) A framework for incorporating EROI into electrical storage. BioPhys Econ Resour Qual 2:6. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41247-017-0022-3

    Article  Google 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. https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/1580526

    Article  MATH  Google 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. https://doi.org/10.1177/1368430211401048

    Article  Google 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. https://doi.org/10.3197/096327113X13581561725310

    Article  Google Scholar 

  71. Sakamoto Y (1991) Introduction: the global context of democratization. Alternatives 16:119–128

    Article  Google Scholar 

  72. Schneider F (2002) Size and measurement of the informal economy in 110 countries. In: Workshop of Australian National Tax Centre, ANU, Canberra

    Google Scholar 

  73. Schuman H, Bobo L, Krysan M (1992) Authoritarianism in the general population: the education interaction hypothesis. Soc Psychol Q 55:379–387. https://doi.org/10.2307/2786954

    Article  Google 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 11:094009

    Article  Google Scholar 

  75. Shearman DJC, Smith JW (2007) The climate change challenge and the failure of democracy. Praeger Publishers, Westport

    Google Scholar 

  76. Smil V (2010) Energy transitions: history, requirements, prospects. Praeger, Santa Barbara

    Google Scholar 

  77. Sorman AH, Giampietro M (2013) The energetic metabolism of societies and the degrowth paradigm: analyzing biophysical constraints and realities. J Clean Prod 38:80–93

    Article  Google Scholar 

  78. Stirling A (2014) Transforming power: social science and the politics of energy choices. Energy Res Soc Sci 1:83–95. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2014.02.001

    Article  Google Scholar 

  79. Stoddard E (2015) So far, so functional? Examining functional and counter-functional dynamics in authoritarian regional cooperation. Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin

    Google Scholar 

  80. Sussams L, Leaton J, Drew T (2015) Lost in transition: how the energy sector is missing potential demand destruction. Carbon Tracker, London

    Google Scholar 

  81. Swyngedouw E (2005) Governance innovation and the citizen: the Janus Face of governance-beyond-the-State. Urban Stud 42:1991–2006. https://doi.org/10.1080/00420980500279869

    Article  Google Scholar 

  82. Tainter JA (1988) The collapse of complex societies. New studies in archaeology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  83. Tainter JA (2011) Energy, complexity, and sustainability: a historical perspective Environmental. Innov Soc Transit 1:89–95

    Article  Google 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, China

    Google Scholar 

  85. The Shift Project (2018) Primary Energy Consumption per Capita. The Shift Project. http://www.tsp-data-portal.org/Energy-Consumption-per-Capita#tspQvChart. Accessed 18 Jan 2018

  86. Thorley J (2004) Athenian democracy. Routledge, London

    Google Scholar 

  87. Trainer T (2010) Can renewables etc. solve the greenhouse problem? The negative case. Energy Policy 38:4107–4114. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2010.03.037

    Article  Google Scholar 

  88. Trainer T (2012) De-growth: do you realise what it means? Futures 44:590–599. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2012.03.020

    Article  Google Scholar 

  89. Turchin P, Nefedov SA (2009) Secular cycles. Princeton University Press, Princeton

    Google 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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2009.06.007

    Article  Google Scholar 

  91. Wantchekon L (2002) Why do resource dependent countries have authoritarian governments? J Afr Finance Econ Dev 2:57–77

    Google Scholar 

  92. Welker M (2014) Enacting the corporation: an American mining firm in post-authoritarian Indonesia. University of California Press, Berkeley

    Google Scholar 

  93. Woodburn J (1982) Egalitarian societies. Man 17:431–451

    Article  Google Scholar 

  94. Yetiv S, Field L (2013) Why Energy Forecasting Goes Wildly Wrong. http://ensec.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=466:why-energy-forecasting-goes-wildly-wrong&catid=139:issue-content&Itemid=425. Accessed 10 Jan 2018

  95. Zittel W, Zerhusen J, Zerta M, Arnold N (2013) Fossil and nuclear fuels—the supply outlook. Energy Watch Group, Berlin

    Google Scholar 

Download references

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.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Timothy Crownshaw.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

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

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Heinberg, R., Crownshaw, T. Energy Decline and Authoritarianism. Biophys Econ Resour Qual 3, 8 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41247-018-0042-7

Download citation

Keywords

  • Energy depletion
  • Societal metabolism
  • Political risk
  • Democracy
  • Authoritarianism