What Happens When the Think-Tank is Empty of Thought?

by | Sep 2, 2010

As has been said before on this blog, environmentalism is not as much an concrete idea in itself as it is a constellation of phenomena. Its parts move independently to intersect with many other issues. One such convergence of issues is epitomised by the New Economics Foundation (whose policy director, Andrew Simms, was the subject of my previous post). In 2008, the group called for a Green New Deal, to avert disaster:

The global economy is facing a ‘triple crunch’: a combination of a credit-fuelled financial crisis, accelerating climate change and soaring energy prices underpinned by encroaching peak oil. It is increasingly clear that these three overlapping events threaten to develop into a perfect storm, the like of which has not been seen since the Great Depression, with potentially devastating consequences.

While environmental thinking is expressed differently by seemingly radical groups such as the NEF to their more mainstream counterparts such as the UK Conservative Party, the shape and function of those ideas and arguments is often similar. For instance, mainstream political parties don’t argue for the end of economic growth (as the NEF do), and promise that growth is possible within a ‘greener’ economy. Yet the arguments produced by both will claim to have a foundation in material reality — the climate is changing, resources are running out, economic growth is now/forever impossible so we’re all going to have to make do with less — and this claim is held to create moral and political imperatives. In short: we’re told that material reality itself determines the parameters of politics. On this view, the best form of political, economic or social organisation can be read-off, so to speak, from data produced by studies of the natural world. Yet, curiously, the same data about the world produces often highly divergent claims about What is to be Done. It’s not so simple, then, as reading from Mother Nature’s script. Leaving the discussion about what is affordable according to material reality, what I suggested yesterday is that what ‘thinkers’ such as Simms do is to project their own anxiety onto the world, before any material investigation has begun.

An article in Der Spiegel is currently touring the alamist circuit.  The article claims that a ‘Military Study Warns of a Potentially Drastic Oil Crisis’:

A study by a German military think tank has analyzed how “peak oil” might change the global economy. The internal draft document — leaked on the Internet — shows for the first time how carefully the German government has considered a potential energy crisis.

Washington-based ‘alternative news’ website, The Raw Story turns a leaked, unpublished draft report by a German military think tank into a ‘secret Germany military report’, which claims that ‘Peak oil could lead to collapse of democracy’. This gives the claims made in turn the appearance of sinister authenticity: they don’t want you to know … It must be true.  But there is no reason to believe that being unpublished and being secret are the same thing, and there is good reason for doubting the provenience of the analysis. Are the speculations of the Bundeswehr Transformation Centre about ‘Peak Oil’ and its consequences any better than anyone else’s — the NEF’s, perhaps? A glance at the organisation’s website suggests that it is the victim of the same form of disorientation and confusion about the world as any other think tank.

Transformation is the continuous adjustment to a continually changing and increasingly complex world. Transformation must be understood as a process in which the Bundeswehr takes the current and the future social, technological and security changes into account.

Change and adaptation reflect the natural course of events, they have always existed. However, not only quality and speed of the change and the need for adaptation have increased by now. The awareness of this process has also changed significantly. One must no longer just respond to change, but must anticipate it – who does not think today what may be the day after tomorrow will have missed the train of development tomorrow and be lagging behind.

The Bundeswehr Transformation Centre deals with this process. We try to define possible futures and to draw conclusions for the future capabilities of our Bundeswehr.

Aside from the fact that this absurd prose looks more like the work of some new age cult than a secret government outfit, The Bundeswehr Transformation Centre’s very raison d’être is the study of change as such change threatens (I assume) the security of Germany and the operations of its armed forces. Two things should be said about this.

The first is that it is striking that there needs to be a special ‘think tank’ which is given the task of identifying threats to national security. After all, Germany was, just decades ago, literally ripped apart by an escalating conflict between superpowers, who drew a line through it. The threat existed in the form of powerful missiles pointed at its cities, ready to kill millions of people at the press of a button. There was no need of special think tanks to identify the threat in such times — geopolitics was indeed a great deal more straightforward.

Second, it must be at least plausible that the era in which East and West stood ready to annihilate each other has left a legacy that leaves us inclined to see the world in the terms of the scale of its conflict. The anxiety and paranoia remains, even though its object has collapsed. There is, so to speak, a totalising-threat-shaped hole at the very centre of not only political imaginations, but also the organisational structure of certain states. It doesn’t require a leap of the imagination to wonder if the Bundeswehr Transformation Centre is looking for the next Soviet Union, and so is ready to see any threat — however small — as its equivalent.

The shameful state of politics of the UK at least, would seem to suggest that at least some politicians in the West struggle to define themselves without a crisis of one form or another to serve as their platform. And this has been the ground of environmentalism’s rise. Not forgetting the War on Terror, of course. And now peak oil. There is a need for crisis, or at least a sense of crisis. What would our politicians do without it? It is the absence of threat that drives politicians to seek them. The moral certainty that emerges from a threat to survival comforts those who assume public roles but who do not really know how to offer any vision of progress. For us in the west, the post-cold-war era has been amongst the most peaceful and secure time in history. But it seems that peace and security is not a condition that leaders are comfortable with. Without it they lack identity and a vision with which to engage the public. And so think tanks — whether it be the NEF, or the Bundeswehr Transformation Centre — are recruited to identify the purpose of public institutions.

The anxiety about resource and ecological security fostered by politicians threatens to toxify relations between countries, rather than create the security that they aim for. Der Spiegel says that the report claims that, following its peak, ‘Oil will determine power’, this in turn will make nice, warm, fluffy democracies obliged to evil regimes. ‘”States dependent on oil imports” will be forced to “show more pragmatism toward oil-producing states in their foreign policy”’, says Der Spiegel. Worst still, the government will find itself sandwiched between ‘undemocratic’ foreign powers, and domestic hostility.

Parts of the population could perceive the upheaval triggered by peak oil “as a general systemic crisis.” This would create “room for ideological and extremist alternatives to existing forms of government.”

Heaven protect us from ‘ideologies’ and ‘alternatives to existing forms of government’! This is nothing new. The same argument is produced by each ‘think tank’ and organisation that seeks to exploit the Peak Oil issue. Here we see the problem of peak oil — if it is one — turn quickly into a problem of dangerous foreigners and subversive domestic forces: problems to be managed in lieu of ideas about how to achieve positive change. This appeals to politicians who cannot summon the ideas necessary to match the creativity of emerging economies, and to appeal to the increasingly disengaged public. Here is one such politician — Britain’s first Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas — demonstrating precisely this mode of engagement.

Back to material reality. There is no single magic solution which will create limitless energy in the immediate future. But the idea that we face an immediate threat from the exhaustion of resources should not be taken at face value. Not only are there good reasons for feeling confident that there are sufficient resources to meet our needs for a good while yet, it seems obvious that we should question the increasing prominence of Peak Oil in public debate.

Attempts to read instructions from objective, material reality quickly turn out to owe a great deal to what happens in the human world. The attempt to form political agendas from what appears to be the state of the natural, material world — peak oil, climate change, population growth, biodiversity, and so on — comes after the messy, anxiety, aimlessness and sense of crisis have been projected onto it. It’s as though what’s out there is easier to confront than that same mess, aimless, crisis and anxiety. In today’s silly debate about resources, too much exists prior to any sensible data about how to make the best use of them, occluding a clear view of our situation. The ‘thinkers’ that populate ‘think’ tanks and political organisations, having no positive programme to speak of, cannot respond to theoretical risks proportionately. Nervousness about change in the material world reflect nervousness about politics itself, so any notion of change amplifies, to become the next Soviet Union, the next Nazi Party, or the next great flood. It follows that vapid politicians with hollow agendas would make a virtue of scarcity.


  1. Philip

    — The shameful state of politics of the UK at least, would seem to suggest that at least some politicians in the West struggle to define themselves without a crisis of one form or another to serve as their platform. —

    Even if the Russians are now our friends, surely the shadow of terrorism should be big enough to distract our politicians from the absurdities of the environmental movement. I fear instead that they have all succumbed to a toxic pillow of sentimentality and authoritarian loutishness. God knows I hope I’m not already an old git, but I can feel myself becoming strangely nostalgic for the pragmatic, rational Tory politicians of old, who you could at least honestly disagree with. Perhaps you young whippersnappers can suggest where they have all gone?

    BTW, it is a genuine pleasure to see you back with this slew of insightful articles – your rest has clearly left you with a lot to say!

  2. Robert of Ottawa

    The moral certainty that emerges from a threat to survival recalls to me the various calls, by the greenies, of a return to the WWII spirit – one where sacrifice is readily endured


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