Energy and Empire: The Politics of Nuclear and Solar Power in the United States

Reviewed by: Owen Temby
Categories: Economics - Nuclear - Solar
Energy and Empire book review A\J Energy and Empire \ George Gonzalez

Energy production is as much a political issue as a technical one, as evidenced by current controversies over sustainable loan guarantees in the United States, proposed pipelines from Alberta’s oil sands and nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. After all, energy is pursued as a strategic resource by governments who manage competing interests and national imperatives when deciding where and how to procure their power sources. These decisions have lasting effects on the prosperity of societies and ecosystems worldwide, yet too little scholarly literature provides a big-picture account of how energy policy is formulated and what is at stake. The latest book by George Gonzalez, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami, is thus a welcome contribution to our understanding of the origins and implications of US energy policy.

Despite its title, Gonzalez’s book is not really about nuclear and solar power. It analyzes the political factors that have compelled the US to strategically choose one source of energy over another, and underscores the significance of wealthy elites and their pursuit of hegemonic leadership. The argument, with several nuances and twists, is as follows: the role that energy plays in managing the US economy is not “normal.” The country’s heavy sprawl entails considerable dependence on petroleum to get people to work and retail outlets. In addition, large American homes require loads of energy, not only for heating, but also in the form of consumer durables to fill them.

At the same time, the US began to pursue and develop nuclear energy over solar energy (through research grants) in the 1950s. Gonzalez illustrates that the US counter-intuitively did not pursue nuclear energy in order to satisfy the needs of its urban sprawl. This is partly because sprawl is dependent on gasoline. In contrast, Gonzalez shows that European economies intentionally planned for less gasoline dependency in transportation. Electricity production, which is more flexible than internal combustion in terms of its sourcing, was largely guided in Europe by which forms of energy were most economical at a given time. Thus, when the oil shocks of the 1970s occurred, the continent was in a better position to switch to nuclear than the United States because its energy needs were more readily convertible. Due to its dependency on cheap oil to support sprawling infrastructure and its declining domestic oil extraction, the US engaged in a series of military interventions beginning with the First Gulf War. 

Why, then, did the US subsidize the development of nuclear energy, and how is it that the country is so committed to sprawl? Gonzalez shows that urban sprawl was pushed by American economic elites beginning in the 1920s as a way of increasing land values, promoting industrial development and, later, bringing the American economy out of the Great Depression. Because its economy is so dependent on the consumption of consumer durables, sprawl has become an organizing principle of the American way of life. 

The most provocative point of the book is that the US nuclear program was pursued in order to fulfill its hegemonic leadership role during the Cold War. The political incentive was derived not from academia or the country’s bureaucracy, but from policy discussion groups led by business elites. To detail this point, Gonzalez meticulously traces the membership and publications of two of these groups – the Rockefeller Foundation and the Panel on the Impact of Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy. This analysis provides substantial evidence that a consensus among elites about nuclear energy’s strategic importance was decisive in the country’s decision to pursue nuclear energy instead of alternatives.

Energy and Empire is well documented, clearly written and provocative. It is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand how contemporary American energy policy took shape and what is at stake in current debates about future energy sources. My only criticism is that Gonzalez does not go far enough to explore how his findings have impacted environmental politics, and the US approach should be more explicitly contrasted with existing theories of the domestic (and international) policy process.

Energy and Empire: The Politics of Nuclear and Solar Power in the United States, George A. Gonzalez, Albany: SUNY Press, 2012, 168 pages

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Reviewer Information


Owen Temby, a political scientist, is a postdoctoral fellow at McGill University's Department of Natural Resource Sciences.

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