NS Essay - "Power failures reveal a deep truth: the earth's resources are irrevocably finite"

We like to believe that growth can go on for ever and that the western way of life can be replicated

The crowds milling gently around Charing Cross Station when the power failed did not look too worried. Many seemed to view the breakdown as nothing out of the ordinary - just another trial in the daily ordeal of commuting. A few - perhaps welcoming the sudden disruption of their daily routine - made off for nearby coffee shops and bookstores when it became clear that normal service would not be resumed any time soon. Some were heard muttering about the outage that had blacked out New York and much of the eastern coast of North America, but nobody panicked.

The unruffled confidence I observed on the night of the outage continued in its aftermath. Experts on the National Grid described the power failure as a "unique event", well beyond the reach of any kind of contingency planning. Others hinted that it might be the shape of things to come. Either way, we needn't worry. This was a glitch, perhaps of a kind to which we would have to accustom ourselves in future, but certainly not a crisis.

The consensus is that there is nothing in such events to suggest that our way of life is threatened. We have come to think of our rich, energy-intensive societies as normal, and we cannot take seriously the possibility that they may be unsustainable. Even when we are confronted with evidence that our high-tech way of life is fragile, we insist that this is not a fundamental flaw, but merely a technical problem.

Starting in Britain less than 250 years ago, industrialisation has swept the world, and along with it has gone increased longevity and higher living standards. Why shouldn't this growth go on for ever? If there are problems, they can be overcome. There seems to be no reason why our present way of life should not last indefinitely and spread to all of humanity.

The belief that our way of life can be replicated across the world is accepted by pretty nearly everybody. It is an integral part of the faith in progress that has replaced religion in most of the advanced industrial societies, and the basis of development programmes throughout the world. Yet it is a dream no more realisable than the fantasies of the early 19th-century utopian socialist Charles Fourier, who has been forever mocked for believing that the oceans would some day be composed of lemonade.

We have had it drummed into our heads that utopian thinking has a natural home on the left, but today it is found across the political spectrum. All parties subscribe to the faith that there are no limits on human ambition that we cannot overcome with technology. The recent outages are seen as technical failures. Privatisation, it is said, may have made energy infrastructures more vulnerable, but there is nothing wrong with them that cannot be fixed.

The unprecedented power failures of the past few weeks reveal a deeper truth. Human ambitions may be limitless, but the earth's resources are irrevocably finite. Our present way of life cannot renew itself without cheap energy; but the resources from which energy is extracted are becoming inexorably scarcer and more expensive. At the same time, they are becoming a focus of conflict between states.

As countries such as Britain and the US become ever more dependent on energy originating in faraway regions, they are drawn increasingly into trying to secure control of them by military means. Conflict in the Middle East has an extremely complex history, but anyone who tells you that western intervention in the region has nothing to do with oil is a fool or a liar. In central Asia, the Great Game has been resumed, with the major powers vying for access to the region's reserves of oil and natural gas. Behind all the rhetoric about humanitarian intervention, the hard realities of classical geopolitics have returned.

The social theories we have inherited from the 19th century tell us that industrialisation enables scarcity in the necessities of life to be abolished. Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer may not have agreed about many things, but they shared an unshakeable faith that industrialism could rid humanity of the worst forms of material deprivation - and thereby of the wars of scarcity that had plagued it in the past. Worldwide industrialisation would put an end to the savage competition for resources that dominates much of human history.

This fanciful 19th-century creed is now the basis of mainstream economics. For most economists, there is no such thing as scarcity, only price. If there is growing demand for natural resources, they will become more expensive. New resources will be found, or new technologies developed, and economic growth will continue. In this view, there is no reason why a dwindling natural resource should spark military conflict. Market pricing and technological innovation can be relied upon - at least over the long run - to overcome any shortage that may temporarily arise.

In the 1990s, the faith of Spencer and Marx was repackaged and sold to governments. Given a spurious rigour by economists, it became the intellectual basis for the global free market. Yet its influence over policy has never extended to defence planning. Bien-pensants economists can babble on as much as they like about the pacifying effects of free markets, but military strategists continue to assume that secure access to energy sources is a strategic imperative. Advanced industrial societies would collapse if they were cut off from them for more than a few months. No new technology can prevent such a disaster.

Talk of new sources of energy replacing oil in the long run is all very well, but history is one short run after another. The first Gulf war was waged to protect western oil supplies, and for no other reason. Iraq's vast oil reserves are not the only reason that country was invaded, but they are a vitally important factor. If - as some strategists believe is likely - military conflict breaks out between China and the United States over the next few decades, it will be partly because they are the chief competitors for the world's shrinking reserves of cheap oil. The rising demand for energy has become a cause of war.

Contrary to the theories of progress bequeathed to us from the 19th century, worldwide industrialisation is not banishing scarcity in the necessities of existence and ushering in a new era of peace. It is creating new scarcities and triggering new conflicts. Without oil, the energy-intensive agriculture on which we rely so heavily could not exist. A steady supply of oil is as important in our lives as good weather was in the agrarian societies of the past.

As reserves are depleted, we become dangerously dependent on lines of supply that cross highly unstable regions of the world. With North Sea oil production peaking, a growing proportion of Britain's energy will originate in central Asia, coming via long pipelines. Along the way, it will be vulnerable to every kind of political risk - including terrorism.

Our present way of life is more prone to disruption than most people think, and its fragility is increasing. We tend to think that as global networks widen and deepen, the world will become a safer place, but in many contexts the opposite is true. As human beings become closely interlinked, breakdowns in one part of the world spread more readily to the rest. After the Y2K scare - which seems to have been not much more than a scam - it is easy to underestimate the vulnerability of global computer networks. The so-called "millennium bug" never materialised, but the extreme delicacy of the virtual ties that bind us together was demonstrated in the computer viruses of the past weeks. It is probably only a matter of time before cyber-terrorists disable power stations and airports by hacking into their computer control systems.

In global financial markets, the instantaneous transmission of information was supposed to engender stability. In fact, it has produced enormous movements of speculative capital - often triggered by computer programs - that can threaten the entire financial system. The meltdown in 1998 of Long-Term Capital Management - a hedge fund advised by Nobel Prize-winning economists - shows that systemic risk of this kind is not a fantasy of doom-mongers.

What is truly fantastical is the notion that global economic expansion can continue indefinitely. Exponential growth cannot go on for ever, and we may already be reaching its limits. In so far as it is humanly caused, global warming is a by-product of advancing industrialisation. As more human beings adopt an energy-intensive way of life, climate change can only accelerate. The profligate lifestyle of a few rich countries cannot be sustained - still less exported worldwide. The earth itself stands in the way.

Nothing infuriates true believers in progress as much as the observation that the planet imposes insuperable limits on their ambitions. Human intelligence can transform the planet, they insist, and create a future for humanity better than anything it has known in the past. Nowadays, this philosophy is commonly associated with a quasi-religious faith in free markets, but the same view of relations between humans and the natural world inspired the Soviet system for more than 70 years - with horrific results.

In pursuit of human mastery over nature, Stalin created a vast dust bowl from some of the world's most fertile land, and millions of peasants starved as a consequence. Later, Mikhail Gorbachev - like Stalin before him, a darling of western progressive opinion - planned a vast dam that would have flooded much of Siberia and altered the global climate. Luckily, Gorbachev was toppled before he could implement this madcap scheme. Even so, the former Soviet Union contains some of the most ecologically devastated environments in the world.

A utopian faith in the power of technology runs right through modern western thought, and it is found in the unlikeliest of places. Centrist politicians who believe that globalisation cannot be stopped take for granted that it will not be derailed by ecological crisis or war. Yet in the longer sweep of history, that is exactly how many civilisations have ended. Why should ours be any different?

Green thinkers believe that our current economic system can be radically reformed and thereby made more sustainable, but they fail to take the full measure of the difficulties that lie ahead. In time, worldwide industrialisation will be cut short by ecological crisis, but it is impossible to stop it or slow it down by political means. Nor is it clearly desirable to attempt to do so. Human numbers are already too high for any reversion to localised economies to be feasible, and they will rise substantially over the coming half-century. Much more can be done in developing technologies that are environment-friendly, but an economy based on solar energy and wind power cannot support eight billion people.

Where greens are right is in thinking that a fundamental shift in the way we live is inevitable. Conventional thinkers of all stripes think in terms of increasing global interdependence, but the more closely integrated the world becomes, the more vulnerable it is to destabilising shocks. A Rousseau-esque world of small agrarian communities does not figure in any realistic scenario - fortunately, in my view - but a more fragmented world could be more humanly sustainable than the one we live in today.

There is an ingrained tendency to think of progress in terms of convergence on a global way of life and, up to a point, a global viewpoint is unavoidable. Pollution and climate change do not respect borders, and war or anarchy in any part of the world has spillover effects on the rest, but we should discard the idea that one sort of regime is best for everybody. Instead of thinking of progress as a movement towards a single, ideal way of life, we could think of it in terms of different ways of life developing in their own ways. If some countries wish to opt out of the global market, they should be free to do so. If they want to pick and choose among new technologies, let them try.

A world in which different ways of life coexist in peace is an attractive prospect, but it is infinitely remote from the trajectory of events. As we look ahead, a less tightly integrated world seems inescapable, but it will come into being through a piecemeal and at times extremely painful adjustment to the fragility of the high-tech lifestyle we have adopted. When a more balanced world eventually emerges, it will be after many crises, and after our present utopian faith in technology has been consigned to the rubbish heap of history.

John Gray is the author of Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals, recently republished in paperback, with a new foreword, by Granta (£8.99)