The Accidental Superpower discussed a post-Bretton Woods world where easy, safe shipping cannot be assumed. In this "scared new world," renewables change the dynamics of energy flows by moving production closer to energy use.

Oil Tanker at Sunset

My wife, Lynne, recently gave me a copy of Peter Zeihan's book, The Accidental Superpower: Ten Years On. The book was originally published in 2014, but Zeihan has updated it by inserting chapters talking about what he got right in 2014, what he got wrong, and why. The focus of the book is geopolitics—how geography and demographics shapes the world order—and how Bretton Woods changed that in significant ways. The book makes the case that so much of what made Bretton Woods useful to the US and why the US engaged with the rest of the world for the 70 years following World War II is changing. As it changes the free trade system enabled by Bretton Woods is also changing. This will have significant impact on every country in the world.

Much of what changes has to do with energy. One of the things1 Zeihan got right was his assertion that unlike much of the rest of the developed world, the US doesn't need to import energy—specifically oil—we are a net energy importer. This changes the dynamic wherein the US is willing to be the protector of shipping lanes for the entire world. As a result, the future could see a US that has the luxury of ignoring events in the Middle East, Ukraine, and elsewhere, whereas Europe (to take just one example) cannot. The book is full of other interesting predictions and conclusions just like this one. I encourage you to read it if you find this as fascinating as I do.

Zeihan makes a big deal of shale oil production, which accounted for 66% of US production in 2022. But as I read this, I was thinking about renewables. As I wrote in 2020, I've gone in big on solar power at my house, love my EV, and have replaced most things in the house (like the furnaces) with versions that run on electricity.  I did this because it made my life easier and saves me money. The fact that it's good for the environment is a bonus.

But, solar and wind are not just renewable, they also allow energy production to be decentralized in ways oil and natural gas can't. Oil and natural gas deposits are where they are. Some countries are blessed with them and the others have to buy from those countries. And they're often far away, requiring shipping through potentially hostile waters. But that's not true of renewables. They can usually be built and located where ever the need is2. This changes geopolitical equation in significant ways. Areas of the world that are not energy independent, like Europe, are moving toward renewables too slowly to prevent future energy shocks. The problem with renewables is that they're long-lead items—they take years to plan and bring online.

Petroleum and Bretton Woods enabled the modern world, providing portable, storable sources of energy that could easily and safely move to where ever it was needed.3 If we are indeed at the end of the Bretton Woods era, the world is in for significant changes as it adjusts to a life where free trade, and easy access to petroleum-based energy, cannot be assumed. Moving energy production closer to the places it's used is one strategy for dealing with this world-altering disruption. Buckle up.


  1. There are other things that are important to the books overall conclusion besides energy. I'm just cherry picking that because I was thinking about it. For example, the US is largely self-sufficient from an overall import/export standpoint. We don't import nearly as much as many other countries and could replace what we do import relatively easily.
  2. It's not just renewables. Nuclear power can also be located closer to demand than an oil deposit. I started my career as a nuclear metallurgist, so I'm a fan. I think many countries are going to be sorry they've closed nuclear plants and made them too hard to construct profitably.
  3. The feats of engineering that have enabled these energy flows is truly astounding.

Photo Credit: Oil Tanker at Sunset from Terski (Pixabay)

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Last modified: Tue Mar 19 09:31:29 2024.