Book Review – The Energy of Nations

It was with a bit of trepidation that I started to read Jeremy Leggett’s most recent book, The Energy of Nations: Risk Blindness and the Road to Renaissance (Routledge, 2013). Last time I read one of Leggett’s books – The Carbon Wars – it had such an impact on me that it contributed heavily to my decision to leave a promising job as a financial journalist to pursue a fascinating but less linear career in climate change policy. Of course I never regretted that; in fact I am grateful. Yet I was a bit worried about a book that looks at more recent developments in global energy (not all positive, as we know) and then goes well beyond that, trying to connect the dots.

Leggett looks at five global issues that he says give rise to major systemic risks for the world, and the potential interaction between them: the risk of an oil shock; the likelihood of ruinous economic and social impacts from climate change; the possibility of a further crash in the global financial system; the additional risks posed by the “carbon bubble” in capital markets and the risks related to the shale gas boom. With all the necessary caveats about how hard it is to make forecasts, Leggett boldly speculates about which one, amongst these risks, will hit the world first and hardest.

The book lived up to my expectations, and is an excellent, thriller-like overview of fast-paced and overlapping developments over the past few years. The summary of various key events is then interspersed with wonderful anecdotes about the way otherwise perfectly reasonable people behave. Leggett is particularly interested in analysing “the incumbency” and the comforting narratives it likes to promote. He also has an interest in neuroscience and dwells on various psychological forces at play that work both against and in favour of tackling these risks. All this whilst retaining the authority commanded by someone who has deep experience of the energy sector, which alone makes it a worthwhile read. The way the book chronicles events is also a reminder for anyone in the field that there are a lot of amazing, often untold stories we witness, that would be worth keeping track of. Jeremy must be keeping very detailed diaries indeed, and so should we all. This may also come useful for posterity when they wonder what on Earth our generation was up to at this critical point in history.

Like any book of this nature, this one too has some inevitable drawbacks: a few crucial developments over the past few years have not made it into the book, from the mass mobilization of UK civil society to campaign for the 2008 Climate Change Act, to European Union level discussions. Yet Leggett himself admits this is “one person’s view”, and we all know that trying to cover all aspects of any given issue can be disastrous for readability. In fact, one person’s account of their experience can help to make otherwise pretty complex, technical issues come to life. So well done to Leggett for producing a rare example – for this field – of an authoritative, yet readable book cutting through the complexity of hundreds of reports and activities we have all worked on over the years.

So was I right to be worried about reading this book? Certainly the endless stories in the book of missed opportunities and encounters with people who just won’t listen, made me despair about our collective ability to sort out the mess we are in. Yet the book does also give some cautious reasons for hope (whilst trying to avoid what Leggett calls his “own version of cognitive optimism bias”). Personally, I really appreciate the honesty in this approach. Among the causes for optimism, the author mentions the huge potential rapid deployment of energy efficiency as well as the “readiness of clean energy to explosive growth” which also has  “the intrinsic pro-social attributes”, alongside “increasing evidence of people power in the world”.

As a specific example, Leggett lists movements such as Transition Towns, a phenomenon originating in the UK and now expanding to many other countries where people are taking things in their own hands while governments fiddle. This is indeed reason for great hope, and a line of thinking that is getting a lot of traction in the UK where there is a big tradition of local activism to tap into. Yet in my humble opinion far more needs to be done to ensure that the great people working on projects at grassroots level actually connect with decision makers and persuade them to act nationally and internationally. This doesn’t always happen. Don’t get me wrong, I am keen on local level action too, and in fact I have initiated my own solar school project. This is crucial as a way to involve a wider group of people in fighting climate change. Yet these initiatives will remain relatively ineffective as a way to sort out major global challenges if they are not connected to the broader picture.

But perhaps Leggett’s book can help precisely with this dilemma. For those people working at local level (or wondering about what they can do in their neighbourhood or their workplace), the book can help to connect with global discussions. At the same time, it can be a kind of wake up call to all of us who work on the bigger picture to try to make more connections with people working at grassroots level (and not just those working on environmental issues – but also myriads of groups concerned with community issues of various kinds). Leggett’s book certainly helped me to appreciate the importance of reaching out to the local community as well as with national and international policy makers, and to think about ways of making more of those linkages.

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