A somewhat useful introductory survey to peak oiler concerns. Style is easy to read but stilted - academese that has been rendered into a more journalA somewhat useful introductory survey to peak oiler concerns. Style is easy to read but stilted - academese that has been rendered into a more journalistic form, but in a rather wooden manner. The book's treatment of energy in history is, as is all too common in such books, very overdeterministic, but some points are well taken. The four futurist scenarios - optimistic technogrowth, virtual lives, resource wars, and liberal relocalisation seem useful markers, though I know the market is flooded with these and I haven't been keeping up to date.
There is actually remarkably little in terms of 'sociology' in this book - I had expected a less materialist angle and wanted to hear more about alternative ideas of economic organisation, religion, non-Western views, etc. In Urry's world, western-style liberal capitalism (albeit a more powered down, local, civil society-infused form) is the most desirable end game in town. Almost Fukuyama-ish in some ways. But the notion that greater economic participation (more people making Apps!!!) implies more participatory democracy is rather limiting in imagination. Why not start from the other way around instead?...more
Little of this, I suspect, will be new to anyone familiar with the brief explosion of literature on peak oil and transition movements since the 1970s,Little of this, I suspect, will be new to anyone familiar with the brief explosion of literature on peak oil and transition movements since the 1970s, but this is nevertheless an excellent updated introduction to the genre, as well as the reality we are already facing in various forms. It has some warts (both factual and conceptual), but these are minor blemishes on what is generally a well balanced and thoughtful exploration of imminent de-industrialisation in the face of depleting resources, chiefly petroleum. I say well-balanced because everything in Greer's book flows from the view that complex societies do not implode instantly from resource overstretch. Historically it has tended to take several centuries at a time, to the point that it is actually impossible for any one generation or individual living in it to even grasp the sheer scale of the ongoing process (see Tainter 1988 and others).
Once one has accepted this premise, and as well the implications for how much suffering this is still likely to involve on a personal and societal level, Greer's suggested ways to cushion this slow decline are correspondingly sensible and reasonable. We can still make choices within decline, but those choices may become increasingly narrow and painful, depending on how our elites and local societies navigate the early stages of the transition. To speak of peak oil having been pushed back by several decades because of the commercialisation of shale deposits, tar sands, heavy oils etc, is less a sign for optimism than a failure to recognise that industrial societies are burning through the dregs of dense liquid energy carriers. These could be instead helping us to retool our overbuilt, overstretched and dysfunctional infrastructures into systems that will actually endure more than a few decades without a constant need for fossil fuel inputs. This involves not just reorienting transport and distribution systems for food and shelter provision, but weaning entire systems of public health, energy and sanitation provision off fossil fuels, and reintroducing (and learning) older, intermediate technologies that will make more sense in such a world. The longer these processes are delayed, the sharper the decline will be, and the more lives will be lost enroute.
One has to be in the right sort of space to read this. I had been looking for a work that summarily discussed both the impacts of peak oil and the tools we would need to weather de-industrialisation. This has both. To be frank, I am not sure what else there is left to read in this regard, except to get on with things really, and start re-learning the basic but complex (thus labour and time-intensive) skills needed for use in re-localised economies. If this involves reading a book of sorts, so be it. But most of it will be hands-on work from here on.
This is a keeper, and it has the potential to be epiphanic....more
This book, just published three months ago, has already been receiving some very warm informal reviews on the academic grapevine. Based on what littleThis book, just published three months ago, has already been receiving some very warm informal reviews on the academic grapevine. Based on what little I know of agrarian change in Southeast Asia, it has been a really informative introductory read.
(Coming immediately after having read Davis’ ‘Planet of Slums’ (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...) it is also interesting how well the two books complement each other; like siblings raised by the same parents, now living different yet interconnected lives. Seems pretty obvious that ideally the way forward is not to focus solely on either rural or urban change, but to try and see how the two co-exist at different scales.)
The book's main argument surrounding land conflicts is straightforward and can be gleaned from the synopsis. It is the elegant framework used to map out these different land conflicts, and to a lesser extent, the wealth of case studies drawn from Southeast Asia to support this framework, which are truly eye-opening. The book basically adopts a matrix format. For those who thrive on tight, structured lists this is a godsend; land conflicts can be an absolute nightmare to narrate coherently because so many different, fluctuating variables are usually in play.
On one axis are four 'powers' of exclusion from access to land; markets, legitimacy, regulation and force. The other axis consists of six identified processes of agrarian transition in Southeast Asia - land licensing and zoning, conservation agendas, crop booms, post-agrarian 'urbanisation', contests for land between social intimate neighbours and kin, and social movements against land exclusions. A chapter is devoted to each process, and the four exclusionary powers are discussed repeatedly within.
The range of case studies is fascinating and frankly quite overwhelming. Actors at all scales are covered: villagers, state officials, NGOs, donor agencies, IFIs, social movements and agribusinesses (both local and foreign). The analytical emphasis between state and class seems quite balanced, agency is recognised in both and extensively recounted in one case study after another. I don't know enough of agrarian history in general to know much about what other important studies were left out.
While the book is excellent at identifying the more proximate, overarching factors for land conflicts, this sort of macro 'mapping' exercise inevitably means that in-depth contextual knowledge of each Southeast Asian state's socio-economic history has to be sought elsewhere. This is fine as long as one knows what to expect in advance. In addition, the case studies, while extremely wide-ranging, have been chosen to illustrate the relevance of the four 'powers' at work. From the viewpoint of comparative social research the book's contribution to comparative politics, political economy etc is thus more limited; one could substitute many cases from outside the region to flesh out the same matrix. This is both a positive and negative I guess. The conceptual framework can certainly travel and be used by others, but it doesn't really systematically explore anything specific about Southeast Asia's political economy or the differences within the region. The latter is of course a very difficult thing to do and shouldn't detract from the high heuristic value of the mapping exercise itself.
The other issue which raised some flags is that the four 'powers' of exclusion from land do not really seem like powers to me; they look more like dimensions, or mechanisms via which deeper social processes unfold. This is even more evident when the concluding chapter alludes to four other powers of exclusion in passing: environmental change, technological development, political relationships/alliances , and inertia (pp. 197). Interesting but certainly raises some eyebrows. There is a clear attempt to limit the way in which power is conceptualised and defined in this book (and the authors admit as much on pp. 15). My current knowledge of debates around the philosophy of power is very rudimentary. Is power an apolitical thing, with a more political original source, or part of the very essence of being itself? Is it an instrument to be wielded, or an adjective to describe a more general state of affairs? I don't even know if I'm asking the right questions. The book's concept of legitimacy as a dimension of land conflict is also, I suspect, up for questioning. I don't know whether this is all petty semantic nitpicking or an opening for more serious criticism. I'll have to revisit these issues later. ...more
Larry Lohmann gave this book a glowing review awhile back (http://j.mp/khMPVE), but I cannot remember feeling quite as enamoured while reading a numbeLarry Lohmann gave this book a glowing review awhile back (http://j.mp/khMPVE), but I cannot remember feeling quite as enamoured while reading a number of chapters in it (including those by Keefer and Abramsky himself).
I was often tempted to put it down several times, mainly because I was not part of the audience to whom this work was really being addressed to. This, of course, says more about myself than about the book's intrinsic merits. Unfortunately this also meant not giving the book as much attention as I should probably have, which in turn affected my view of it further....
That being said, it's heartening to see this compilation of discourses of social resistance to capitalist energy technologies and calls to action all in one monumental volume. Something only too rare these days......more
Interesting survey of political risks, but again relatively little on the possible consequences of transitions to lower energy density infrastructuresInteresting survey of political risks, but again relatively little on the possible consequences of transitions to lower energy density infrastructures....more
This is an ambitious but accessible introduction to a holistic anatomy of energy flows in both the past and present. It is also, I think, a good entryThis is an ambitious but accessible introduction to a holistic anatomy of energy flows in both the past and present. It is also, I think, a good entry point into Smil's vast collection of energy-related books, if one is not sure where to begin.
Smil has a great gift for explaining a plethora (and I mean plethora) of technical concepts in a lively, clear and concise manner to the non-technically trained reader. There are boatloads of numbers and figures in the text, but these have been inserted mainly to illustrate a concept. The book digests easier if one keeps this in mind while reading. Because the book is so well structured from top to bottom, it makes for a useful reference guide (most people will probably prefer using it this way, given reading time constraints).
It appears that there are significant overlaps between this book and some of Smil's other work. For example, several key parts of General Energetics have been expanded on in 'Prime Movers' (2010), and this current work also seems to have re-used some content from his 'Energy at the Crossroads' (2003). Proofreading was also a bit sloppy: parts of General Energetics contain obvious grammatical errors and missing words.
In addition, those hoping to find accounts of possible futures, such as those involving distributed generation systems and societal restructuring, will be disappointed at how briefly Smil treats these issues, especially given how much he obviously knows about what is feasible and what isn't at a technical systems level (pp. 356-63). Maybe these are covered in more detail in his other work?
With those caveats in mind, this volume is still highly recommended both for those seeking a technical introduction to energy flows, as well as researchers and writers who would like to double-check their assumptions about energy systems....more