ECONOMY - 07 AUG 2015

Learning from the Fuel Crisis I: Addicted to Power

Learning from the Fuel Crisis I: Addicted to Power
Motorbike rider in Nigeria

This article is Part I of a series. Read Part II here 

Smothered by Comfort

For a brief period this year, the state of Lagos was brought to its knees by fuel and power shortages. To consider that Lagos, the metropolis fronting the socioeconomic revolution of the African continent, could suffer from a problem so primitive and insidious is frightening. Yet for once, this is not merely a Nigerian problem.

The most sophisticated cities in the world would struggle for any extended period without those resources. Anyone who has ever witnessed the chaos at a junction with an inoperative traffic light in a developed country can attest to this. There is definitely merit in the argument that better managed economies would not allow the situation to deteriorate as much but this does not dispel the suspicion that they would be just as vulnerable should it ever arise.

The further along we get on the path to development, the more reliant we must become on energy to function. For example, real access to stable Internet and Telecommunication services can only be achieved with reliable energy sources. And as we adopt capital-intensive farming methods and diversify more into the secondary stage of production, we stand to reap tremendous productivity and lifestyle benefits, but at a cost.

This cost is a type of self-sufficiency that perhaps we no longer seek, the self-sufficiency of an artist whose work is not wholly dependent on external inspiration. It is very likely that this tradeoff is worth it but it does leave us with an unsettling dependency problem.

How to cripple a Nation

The recent Lagosian experience is a gripping illustration. Nigerians have learnt to deal with power supply that can generously be called unreliable but this became a more serious problem as the alternative (personal generators) were rendered near-obsolete by the diesel scarcity. This had a domino effect within the city of Lagos as production took a significant hit. Corporate businesses struggled to function normally, capital-intensive production processes stalled, and productive hours became restricted to those permitted by daylight.

At the same time, the fuel shortage made transportation much more difficult, thus reducing people’s capacity to move around. This restricted people to their immediate surroundings but would have been tolerable had communication services not also been threatened. Not only had production nearly come to a halt, people were suddenly unable to travel or communicate over distances. Lagos had taken a journey centuries into the past.

Changing one particular set of conditions – adding the shortage of petroleum products to Nigeria’s power supply situation, led to a surprisingly quick unraveling of our economic and social system. It requires a brave and inventive imagination to ponder what might have happened had this situation persisted but the blueprint has been laid out. We have always known that power is the key, but perhaps not this type of power.

The difference is not just that our systems rely on these resources and fail without them, but that we have become so unused to the alternatives. In the olden days, they developed enterprising ways of living without these resources. For example, people used to travel great distances with horse drawn carriages. Understandably, such avenues rarely exist now. While we occupy the privileged historical vantage point should we ever need to readopt those alternatives, there is no telling how complicated such a transition might be.

A fool’s bargain?

Clearly self-sufficiency is positively related to development. Economic security, which usually follows development, is vital for people to live economically free and independent lives. Furthermore, social development encourages greater emphasis to be placed on preserving and promoting individual autonomy. A poor man who cannot eat cannot be said to be self-sufficient in any sense. Yet this relationship is not so simple. It is clear that we have become dependent on the resources that drive our economic progress, a habit that has proven difficult to drop. This is a dangerous place to be as all things remaining equal, the problem becomes more acute as time progresses. The bigger we are, the harder we fall.

The last great recession showed us how interconnected and fragile our financial and social systems are. It also showed us the danger of failing to address the fragilities in our systems. The solution is to attempt to build an anti-fragile world. Abandoning our quest for development would be rash and ill judged, thus accounting for what we have to give up - self-sufficiency, is vital.

In the Hollywood Blockbuster “Limitless”, actor Bradley Cooper discovers a mind-enhancing drug that allows him to quickly accumulate wealth and status before realizing that the pill’s side effects are likely to kill him. Using his heightened mental capacity, he finds a way to wean himself off the drug without losing any of his enhanced abilities. The lesson is clear: As we strive for development, we must make up for our lost self-sufficiency along the way.

This article is Part I of a series. Read Part II here 

 

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Kitan Williams

Kitan Williams

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