The Mint:                     Good afternoon, Helen, and thank you very much for giving some of your time to talk to The Mint Magazine.

Helen Thompson:          It’s a pleasure to be here, Henry.

The Mint:                     Well, where I’d like to start is to give a sense of the difference between how you see the research challenge as an international political economist as opposed to maybe some of your colleagues in economics departments as mainstream economists looking at the international economy might see the world.

Helen Thompson:          Yeah. I mean, I don’t really think of myself as an economist at all, I should make that clear for starters. I think that in good part my subject field has been international political economy, but that if you say, how do I describe myself, I would think of myself as a political economy scholar or a scholar of politics, a student of politics, and it happens to be the case that I’m really interested in the politics of economic questions or the politics of material questions if you like.

                                    But in a way I’m always starting with the political significance of what happens in the economic world. So in that sense, I don’t have any real interest in modelling the economic world. I have an interest in trying to understand what the political consequences of economic change are. And that obviously puts me into a very different position as it does anyone else really who studies political economy from a politics perspective than economists who are starting with some sort of clearer ideas, not necessarily about how the economy should work, but have an interest in theorising the way in which it works in its own terms. And politics might come into it from time to time, but it’s clearly not their central political… Well, it’s not their principle preoccupation.

The Mint:                     But would you say you had a theoretical perspective?

Helen Thompson:          That’s a good question. In a way I suppose that I do in this sense in that I’ve come to a position where I think that it’s not possible to understand any of these questions in political economy, that in one way or another I’ve been thinking about through my academic career without making energy central to that. Now, I’m not sure that really constitutes a theory because I’m very conscious that I should avoid slipping into energy determinism in which you get to the point where energy supposedly explains everything. I mean, I don’t think that is the case, but I can see it’s a clear trap if you like, of taking energy as seriously as I do that you can start to think that it explains everything. But I think to turn it into a theory and say that actually that in any way that you can kind of model that, that’s where I think I become sceptical. So I’m starting with a quite strong set of priors, if you like, of leaving pretty strongly that you can’t understand either geopolitics or the world economy without making energy pivotal.

The Mint:                     But I would say, I mean, having read your book, which I love the title, Disorder, which, of course, is in contrast to equilibrium, that beloved of the economist, it seemed to me that your approach might be described as a sort of complex systems approach where there’s no such thing as illegal… There are different systems, interactive, creating crises, sort of building up different links. And I love the way I got a sense that all these people are slightly in the dark trying to find a way forward doing things that they don’t fully understand the consequences of, which then ends up in outcomes that are totally outside their plan.

Helen Thompson:          Yeah, I mean, to be honest, I suppose that I did when I first started thinking about writing such a book, have some ideas about in a way writing it in a more systems theory kind of way, that would’ve required though me getting up to speed on a literature that I don’t know. And I think precisely because I wanted to tell a story about western democracies as well going back actually before the 20th century, but culminating in what was happening in western democracies over the last decade or so, whilst I think the more needs to see the systemic effects of geopolitics and of international economic change in order to understand democratic politics today, I’m very hesitant about any idea that you can then read democratic politics off from that material set of conditions, either geopolitically or more straightforwardly economically without bringing some other considerations into play.

                                    And this is where I suppose my politics mindset really comes to the fore, and I start from the idea, my straight politics mindset, if you like, that the tendency is towards disorder and not towards order. And that actually achieving any kind of political order for any length of time is pretty difficult if one looks at history. And I think in a way I wanted to play with the idea which I sort of do in the beginning of like saying, look, if you take entropy seriously where energy is concerned, it moves towards disorder. And then I think if you understand politics, at least in a way in which I try to, it’s got a fairly strong tendency to disorder. They’re not playing out in the same way, the same kind of structural dynamics, but the big picture is the tendency towards disorder.

The Mint:                     Yeah, it makes total sense and therefore politicians and people are desperately trying to create order which requires a huge amount of energy in a way out of disorder. So let’s go to energy then, because it seems we are in the midst of a huge change in the energy system and obviously with the Ukraine war and the move of Europe trying to decouple or seemingly trying to decouple itself to as much as it can from Russian energy supplies and at the same time new green energy sources and so forth. Given you see energy as core to the international political economy, how is this going to change things?

Helen Thompson:          Well, I think several things here. First of all, clearly if Europe upends a significant part of its long-term energy relationship with the world’s energy exporting superpower, which is what Russia has been, that is a major shock not just to Europe but to the world generally. And I think that we can see the consequences of that in a number of specific ways in the sense of Russian oil trade being geographically reconfigured towards, in crude terms anyway. And I mean by that crude oil terms towards China and India and away from Europe. And we can see that there is a very intense competition for liquid natural gas supply between European countries and Asian countries. It began before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but that invasion has intensified that competition. And given the history of the Europe Russia energy relationship and in particular the German Russia energy relationship, going back obviously to the Soviet days, this is geopolitically transformative in itself.

                                    And if we think about it in terms of within the European Union and the tensions over energy over the last couple of decades, particularly around gas, you would say it’s a victory for the view in Warsaw over the view in Berlin. Nonetheless, I think it’s also true that the extent to which Europe has to use that language of decoupling decoupled from Russia in energy terms can be overstated. So whilst European countries might not be buying anywhere near as much crude oil from Russia, they are still buying refined products often from India, have been refined out of Russian crude coming back. They might not be buying because the Russians don’t want to sell it to them, pipeline gas from Russia, at least since the middle of 2022. But a number of European countries, including France and Spain, have increased the amount of liquid natural gas that they’ve bought from Russia.

                                    And no point during this war has any European country or the European Union or indeed the United States for that matter, imposed nuclear power sanctions on Russia. So we need that caveat in as well. Having said both of those two things, which obviously pull in somewhat different directions, it’s clearly the case that there’s been a big energy wake up call in Europe as a consequence of this shock and that there’s an increased desire to accelerate the decarbonization of electricity in particular. The question I think then is at what realistic speed can that renew decarbonization go? And then I think that that raises a set of questions which you can probably come to about the resource inputs, particularly metal resource inputs that are necessary for the energy transition in terms of decarbonizing, particularly again in the electricity sector, well, not actually in the electricity sector generally, and what the implications of that are for Europe as a generally resource poor continent.

The Mint:                     Well, I think that is actually the really interesting thing in that it seems rather than being dependent on suppliers of oil, we are now going to be dependent on suppliers of minerals. And is that going to be as big a dependency do you think, or not as big?

Helen Thompson:          I think in a way that this is still an open question, but I think certain things are clear. The first of all is as I’ve said, that Europe is not particularly well endowed as a continent with these metals. Generally the most important metals for the energy transition are in the southern hemisphere to the extent that they are in the northern hemisphere and to the extent that they are in European countries, I think there’s a great deal of political reluctance in European countries to engage in metal mining. There may well be more resistance on environmental grounds to that in Europe than there is in the United States. And the United States is probably actually geographically better endowed as well.

                                    So to the extent that there may be scope for reducing overall foreign dependency on the resource moving from energy to metals, it may be that European countries can’t even extract what might be there to extract because the politics of it are hard. And they are hard in part for good reason because most European countries are pretty densely populated. And so the ecological consequences of going into large scale metal mining are rather different than they are in a less densely populated country, say like Australia.

The Mint:                     And in terms of Europe then becomes, it wants to avoid dependency on China and Russia, it’s left with the US, Australia, Africa, but then it’s fighting with China and the US over access to minerals in Africa. Is that right?

Helen Thompson:          Well, I’m not sure at the moment what the interest of the United States in Africa is. I mean, to some extent, yes. But I think that the important thing that you said, Henry, is that actually it’s a competition really between China and European countries that the United States will both do more domestic metal mining than European countries will. And we can see already through the Inflation Reduction Act, it’s constructing an economic block that actually won’t just be with countries with which it has a free trade agreement that will be with countries with which it deems important for American national security, has made that kind of arrangement with Australia.

The Mint:                     This is the mineral strategy alliance, is that right?

Helen Thompson:          Yeah. And I think though that European Union is obviously aware of the same issue and wants to have a metal mineral strategy too, but it’s going to be looking, I think, primarily in Africa. And as we know, European countries have got a history of an imperial relationship around resource extraction in African countries, and that brings with it certain political difficulties, including the fact that European countries will often be asking African countries to engage in investment partnerships about metal mining whilst not being particularly willing to support fossil fuel energy infrastructure projects for those African countries. So European countries kind of saying, “We’re going to do the energy transition and we’re going to use fossil fuel energy as our insurance policy. Well, if you’ve just got to get on with the energy transition because you haven’t got fossil fuel energy insurance policy, we’re not going to let you have one either.” So I think that’s going to be politically quite tricky, but very tricky.

The Mint:                     So Europe could be seen as a bad partner in Africa, whereas China will be less judgmental.

Helen Thompson:          I think that it will both be less judgmental and that China will probably be more willing to support fossil fuel projects for African countries. If you look at the kind of decisions that China’s made so far in this respect. And it should also be said obviously that China’s got a serious headstart over European countries. It’s been courting these resource alliances in African countries over metals for longer. And it’s also in a better position domestically, particularly in terms of rare earths that minerals that are quite strongly concentrated in China.

The Mint:                     And a lot of African countries probably now owe a lot of money to China.

Helen Thompson:          Yeah, I mean, I certainly think the issue of who provides credit to whom in this new energy world is going to become quite significant.

The Mint:                     So if we then add another layer, which is of course climate change. And all the time while this is going on, the climate is going to be changing and there’s a sort of image of that throwing oil on an existing fire or disorder and so forth. I mean, how’s that element going to, do you think, play out in this sort of new mix of pressures and relationships?

Helen Thompson:          Well, I think there’s at least two different things that we can see here. The first of them is about migration and where migration driven by climate change is likely to take place. And where migrants leaving places that have become too hot to live are likely to go, want to go. And I think the Middle East is obviously a place that is already experiencing severe difficulty at times from climate change. Iraq, I think, the last couple of summers it’s been pretty difficult, which you throw drought into the situation. And as we know that migration out of the Middle East into Europe in 2015 driven by the refugee and migrant crisis coming out of the Syrian Civil War in particular, was quite destabilising in a number of West European democracies, I should say is politics, including I’d say probably very strongly Italy’s in the second half of the last decade.

                                    I think then there’s also a question, which obviously ties to the energy and transition itself about who is going to bear the short-term burdens, short to medium-term burdens perhaps of the adjustment. So we have a situation where climate change in which at least within an individual country, the problem, the threat is to everybody. But if you then say who is going to be the beneficiaries, particularly perhaps in material terms of the energy transition, which groups of people on the income distribution, which kind of companies, and then you say, who are the ones who are going to bear more the costs of that, I think we’re going to see that it kind of matches the income distribution now and probably intensifies some of those equalities.

                                    And then you’ll have a set of companies that will benefit from the subsidies and tax care credits available. So I think that there’s a real risk that what will happen is that what I call in Disorder the pressures towards aristocratic excess in democratic politics will get intensified by the conjunction of the universality of climate change. So that it’s for everybody, and yet it looks like who has to do the adjusting and who benefits the most from it are at some odds with each other.

The Mint:                     And I suppose if you’ve got the resources, it’s now becoming a matter of survival. Or you will do anything you can to try and insulate yourself. As far as that, of course, it’s not possible totally at all, but presumably to some extent it’s possible for the richer people to somewhat insulate them, literally insulate themselves as well as figuratively insulate themselves from climate change.

Helen Thompson:          Yeah, I mean, if you just looked at it in terms of the options that are available to people in terms of being able to cool themselves using energy to do it, air conditioning. The amount of money that people are going to be able to spend on having air conditioning installed in their houses and using energy for that purpose is obviously going to correlate pretty directly with how well off that they are. In the same way, I would say that their ability to buy electric cars is also going to correlate pretty strongly with their incomes.

                                    And I think that there’s kind of been a presumption that we can just replace mass car use, mass car ownership in a fossil fuel energy world with mass car ownership, mass car use in a low carbon energy, well, without actually thinking whether that is doable or not, and what the political implications of a great deal of unevenness and inequality around personal transportation may be in the future. Because if you go back to the beginning of the automobile and before Henry Ford essentially democratised the car with Model T, then what we can see is that it was something, a development that really intensified class grievances. I mean, the former American President Woodrow Wilson, before he became American president, said he couldn’t think of anything that was driving the United States closer towards socialism than car ownership.

The Mint:                     So that moves us quite neatly to the sort of post growth ideas, the idea that actually all this competition to get whatever’s going and the inequality is obviously part of the driver of climate, but it’s also conflict and so forth. So if we can somehow change culture and expectations and lifestyle choices, et cetera, et cetera, into a different space, we can develop a new way of living that is less dog eat dog, I suppose, within the sort of boundaries of ecological possibility. Does that sort of idea figure a small international political economy, is it something that is laughed out of court, that’s never… Humanities, history is all about conflict and people fighting to get as much as they can, et cetera, et cetera? Or is this, especially in the context of the Ukrainian war that all this conflict and tension, is this just totally idealistic?

Helen Thompson:          No, I mean, I think there are quite a number of people in recent years who are scholars of international political economy who’ve been very much drawn to the degrowth paradigm and very much making arguments essentially about the finite nature of the Earth’s resources and what happens when it looks like we start approaching them. I mean, I think in terms of trying to put any timescale on that, that that starts becoming very difficult. And that’s when you can start making projections that just make you look pretty idiotic when they don’t turn out to be. And clearly that there will be technological innovations that none of us can imagine right now that will change, I think, the relationship between our present resource predicament and what the future material world and political world will be. Nonetheless, I think that it’s pretty clear that we are heading for at least a significant period of time in which growth is going to be pretty difficult and they’re actually getting through the energy transition. Really, it’s an energy revolution, not an energy transition.

                                    And being able to do that while having high levels of growth, I think at the moment, I mean, I don’t want to go as fast to say that it’s utopian, but it looks pretty optimistic. So I think that it’s politically pretty much impossible for democratic politicians in Western countries actively to pursue degrowth. Not least because the whole premise of democratic politics, at least as it’s developed in western democracies, depends upon the state’s ability to spend money, provide services for its citizens. In order to do that, it needs tax revenues basically to be going upwards and they go upwards with growth. But just because I don’t think it’s politically possible for politicians to pursue degrowth, it doesn’t mean that we might not be for western countries at least in something like a post growth world or at least the world of extremely sluggish growth, where the norm will not be growth even maybe at the 2% level, that we’ll be looking at something that looks quite stagnant and that the fallout of that then will be intensified distributional conflicts and a more zero sum politics.

                                    And then I think if we go out into the international sphere, then so long as the energy transition requires such huge quantities of metals and minerals, i.e., until there is something technologically happens that changes that we are going to be living in a world of intensified resource competition. And there’s no reason if we look at history to think that isn’t going to be quite confliction with that. I don’t think that means we need to imagine that we’re all heading towards World War III over resources. As I say, I don’t want to be energy or resource determinist about these kind of things, but it makes the world quite dangerous.

The Mint:                     Presumably, I wonder, you could have a concept where politicians try to tell a story that allows people to deal with the reality rather than in a way being leaders that things happen to them and then they create stories to make people accept the new reality, I suppose. Second World War, blood what’s it and tears that, I suppose, would it be possible that as things become more difficult, and because we’re fighting over resources, resources are limited, structures, supply chains collapse in certain places, our expectations of seeing things on shelves, et cetera, et cetera, reduce, then politicians will always come up with a new narrative to try and justify and find a way through this, which could be a post growth narrative?

Helen Thompson:          Yeah, I mean, I think there’s obviously some weariness about essentially, or around I should say, essentially trying to reframe political expectations downwards to lower levels of energy consumption. And the thing, if you want a politician who did that in the 1970s and was indeed was pretty committed to doing that, Jimmy Carter, his efforts did not end well for him. And I think a lot of politicians in western democracies took the lesson from Carter’s experience and said, “That’s just not something that you do.”

The Mint:                     Yeah, what about an alternative? Because you can look at sort of puritanical movements, which you can see we’ve been having. So rather than saying to people live without energy, you sell something different, spiritual renewal, which happens to mean wearing her shirts. Do you see what I mean? And you could maybe see that the conservatives at the moment, because they lack ideas that a lot of them are actually fighting building culture walls because they think that’s a way of holding onto power while not addressing all the other issues. So could you have a totally change of focus to hide, forget the whole energy problem and say, because we’ve got a whole new space, which is more quasi-religious cultural to fight over.

Helen Thompson:          I definitely think that we should expect sort of cultural religious questions, including in some quite deep forms to assert themselves into politics more as material conditions become more difficult, particularly material conditions for the short to medium-term. I think though that whilst it’s possible for politicians to use in a way the language of spiritual sacrifice, certainly the language of sacrifice around war, that it’s harder for them to do it in the context of essentially peace time politics. And I think it’s quite notable that if you compare the language around the COP climate summit in Glasgow in 2021, so just a few months before Russia’s invasion of Iraq, there it was really quite a gung ho narrative about growth, it was how we were going to do the energy transition and deal with climate change, there wasn’t great much fuel going on to, we might need to consider whether in the short-term, medium-term, we might need first to reduce energy consumption to deal with the timescales involved and the urgency of dealing with climate change.

                                    Once Russia invaded Ukraine, it seemed to be possible for politicians to talk more about sacrifice, but I don’t quite see at the moment that translating into the peace time version of that. And I think there’s another complication as well, is that because the energy transition requires so much new investment, that politicians simultaneously need to be telling a pretty optimistic story about growth in order to drive that investment, because you don’t persuade companies to invest in big new energy projects and infrastructure projects if they think that what’s at the end of it is a post growth society.

The Mint:                     So in a way, because we’ve become hooked and dependent on private finance, it’s got to be that the store is got to be growth.

Helen Thompson:          Yeah, I definitely think that it’s pretty difficult to escape from that if private investment is supposed to be the engine behind the energy transition.

The Mint:                     Brilliant. Well, that’s been a fascinating conversation, Helen. I’m sure we could go on talking much, much longer. I hope we have further opportunities to discuss. Thank you very much for sparing some time to talk through these. I suppose these are the biggest issues that we face as humanity at this point.

Helen Thompson:          It’s been a great pleasure to talk to you, Henry. I really enjoyed it.

The Mint:                     Thank you. Thank you very much.


Helen Thompson

Helen is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University. Her most recent book Disorder: Hard Times in the 21stCentury was published by …

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