Energy, Money, and Wars: history (could) teach us

23 December 2022


As the global economy struggles to avoid recession, the Eurozone faces the risk of collapse, and the Dollar continues to strengthen, geopolitical tensions with China and Russia appear to worsen day by day. Therefore, I believe examining the ongoing crisis from a historical and material perspective could be useful to contextualize the situation beyond current news.

This war, primarily economic in nature, has all the hallmarks of a clash between powers in a world pushing towards multipolarity. But why such heightened conflict right now? One of the most logical explanations appears to be linked to the energy and technological transition, as the shift from an economy based on fossil fuels to one relying on clean energies is not without consequences. Quite the contrary! In order to sustain current growth while gradually phasing out the most polluting sources, there will be a significant demand for other types of raw materials, which we’ll call “critical.” These materials are not always free from environmental impact issues but are crucial in reshaping global geopolitics. For the European Union to become climate-neutral, energy-efficient, and more competitive in the digital age, it will need critical raw materials such as lithium, cobalt, as well as copper, zinc, neon, and rare earth elements – a group of 17 chemical elements essential for constructing chips and electronic devices, which are not readily available within its own territories.

In large part, these metals are within the control of countries that are not exactly “friendly,” and this is certainly one of the main reasons for contention. These raw materials enable the development of various strategic sectors, such as renewable energies, electric vehicles, and all digital and cyber technologies. In short, everything required for the transition to the “Smart,” “Digital,” and “Green” world.

Global supply chains, the famous supply chains, have long been struggling due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and they have suffered a severe blow from the current geopolitical tensions, leading to an endemic shortage of critical raw materials. This situation has left numerous industrial sectors facing epochal challenges to secure access to the resources necessary for their operations, and it has also driven prices upward across the board. What is needed is a shield. And no, I don’t mean one made of armor, but rather a tectonic shield, which in geology is nothing more than a stable, crystalline rock area formed over 500 million years ago, rich in all these metals.

These rocks have been minimally affected by subsequent geological events, and today these shields are relatively flat regions due to the leveling effect created by long erosive processes they have undergone. You can imagine which areas I’m referring to.

The Special Report on Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions, published by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), addresses the emerging challenges if sustainable solutions are not found. The quotas required to meet the demand for new technologies will exponentially increase the overall demand for many minerals. Fortunately, not all conflicts escalate into broader wars, but as noted by the most authoritative global agencies, in all countries where significant disputes occur, the primary cause is invariably attributed to natural resource scarcity or their excessive exploitation.

But is this something new? Absolutely not! It’s just that after a long period of stability and peace in the Western world, we have forgotten about it. In fact, throughout history, there have been many instances of attempts at unconventional wars that have shifted conflicts from battlefields to the more complex and ambiguous economic arena. Jurist Carl Schmitt, in his masterpiece, wrote: “Whoever controls the sea controls the world’s commerce; and whoever controls the world’s commerce controls all the riches of the earth and the world itself.” Keeping in mind this premise, which dates back to the conflict between Athens and Sparta, it is clear that controlling raw materials has always been the primary means to impose power over others, using weapons built from these materials, both yesterday and today.

For example, the ancient Greeks called their currency “Nomisma,” which, through custom, transformed into “imposed by law,” once they managed to attribute a higher exchange value than the precious metal it contained. This was all thanks to the silver mining resources found in Mount Laurion, Greece. It was the first example of leverage in history that convinced many city-states, especially those in Southern Italy, to accept this innovation, perpetuating Hellenic dominance in the Mediterranean for centuries.

This new and standardized money facilitated trade, enabling the transfer of wealth between generations. It also contributed to the rise of a new affluent class of merchants and professionals, sparking one of the most culturally and technologically vibrant phases in ancient history. The Romans, in particular, made currency and its unconventional use pivotal to the strength of their empire, primarily through control of gold and silver mines in conquered territories. Initially using gold only for high-value exchanges outside their national borders, they later introduced the silver Denarius for most transactions. They also imposed tariffs in precious metals on newly acquired provinces, preventing the emergence of any “purer” competing currency, somewhat akin to the Dollar in modern times.

More recently, drawing inspiration from ancient Roman myths, Napoleon attempted a frontal economic war against the United Kingdom through the Continental Blockade. After conquering extensive territories and celebrating victories with coins styled after the Roman Empire, Napoleon advanced his strategy by involving economic warfare. The “blockade” referred to the Emperor’s decree on November 21, 1806, prohibiting English-flagged ships from docking in any port of countries under French dominion, effectively boycotting goods from across the English Channel.

Despite England’s reliance on imports for much-needed manufactured goods at the time, the blockade proved more challenging than anticipated due to England’s superior naval fleet and maritime expertise over France. Napoleon was thus forced to enforce a complete severance of ties between his controlled territories and subjects of the British Crown, justifying this blatant violation of international law as a matter of state necessity. However, the blockade backfired as anyone engaging in trade with the English reaped substantial profits by demanding significantly higher prices.

The situation deteriorated to the point where even the Russian Tsar swiftly disentangled himself, and Napoleon’s trusted lieutenant, Joachim Murat, who had been loyal since his days as a young general and was also his brother-in-law, betrayed him. Murat opened a lucrative black market with the English upon becoming King of Naples. Ultimately, the sanctions rebounded against Napoleon himself, prompting his bizarre decision to embark on the disastrous Russian campaign, which ultimately led to his exile to Elba and later to his final exile and death on the remote island of St. Helena.

From these early examples, it becomes clear that war is a political decision that, beyond any pseudo-scientific or religious explanations, invariably entails disastrous consequences for both the defeated and often the victors themselves

Victor Hugo’s insight in 1859 foresaw a future where “there will come a day when there will be no other battlefields than markets opening to commerce.” Essentially, economic warfare is the continuation of military operations through different means, involving state intervention in capital markets to distort competition in their favor, capturing activities, investments, and talents. Protectionism is the primary form in which this covert war is waged through legal, fiscal, accounting, social, or environmental norms. This essentially defensive strategy has evolved in recent decades to include more offensive tools such as seizing cutting-edge technologies and dominating even more strategic domains like space and cyberspace. This progression extends to more clandestine activities like counterfeiting, the black market, and supporting compliant governments through veiled or overt coercion.

Whether concerning money or power, wars almost always share a common denominator: the dominance over “critical” raw materials. To avoid retracing the disastrous paths of the past that inevitably lead to bloody conflicts, an effective strategy for peaceful resource procurement through diplomacy and long-term agreements is crucial. This must be coupled with a transition to a more circular and localized economy. Otherwise, as noted by the American journalist Sydney Harris, history will repeat itself, but with a disguise so cunning that we may not recognize its similarity until the damage is done.

Alex Ricchebuono

Alex Ricchebuono, with over 24 years of experience in Asset Management and significant roles in leading European companies such as Credit Suisse, Janus Capital, American Express, and BNP Paribas, provides these insights. He co-founded the Italian Private Banking Association and served on its inaugural board. Based in Milan and London, he is a Partner at New End Associates, an English platform distributing major international alternative asset managers. Alex is a prolific writer on financial history and economics, passionate about the evolution of money, and has produced educational content including the documentary series “Money Art” for RAI 5, exploring the intersections of finance and art. His expertise and collection of historical documents related to economic history and money underscore his deep engagement in these topics.

Taken from Green Company Magazine (Volume 8) – see all magazine issues

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