The end of history is bunk

As Communist regimes were toppling in 1989, a mid-ranking official in the US State Department published a paper titled "The End of History?" which caused something of a sensation in intellectual circles. Expanding on the paper three years later in a book - without the question-mark - Francis Fukuyama advanced the notion that the end of the Cold War marked the triumph of liberal capitalist democracy for all time. Like many intellectual system-builders before him, he was careful to insulate his thesis from verification by events in the real world. Liberal democracy had so far been victorious mainly in the world of ideas, he acknowledged, but it would certainly come to govern the material world "in the long run". So events in the short run, such as a Gulf War or turmoil in the Balkans, should be regarded as an epiphenomenal blip on the chart of progress rather than any fundamental challenge to his thesis.

Fukuyama's arguments were sophisticated. They captured the American mood at the time and underpinned conservative thinking for years ahead. They also proved attractive to some European intellectuals who should have known better. But they were nonsense all the same.

The repercussions of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington will be felt round the world for years ahead. It may not be in many people's minds for the present, but they will make a mark on environmental policy as in other policy fields. Most immediately, as the aviation industry reels under the shock, the prospect of a globally co-ordinated climate change tax on aviation fuel has probably vanished into thin air for years ahead.

The big issues will be in the energy field, with oil to the fore. Global oil demand is dominated by the US, which consumes a quarter of the world's oil supplies and, under the Bush administration's controversial energy plan (ENDS Report 317, pp 21-23 ), would use 33% more than it does today within 20 years. The US is now dependent on imports for 52% of its supplies, and the plan projected an increase to 64% by 2020.

Where will the extra oil come from? Some will be produced in Canada and central and south America. Much will have to come from Saudi Arabia and its neighbours. But the prospect is also of greater US dependence on oil production ever further into the Eurasian heartland - on wells now being drilled in Kazakhstan and elsewhere around the Caspian Sea, and on resources in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan which will remain untapped until Afghanistan is pacified and a pipeline built through to Pakistan and the sea.

These look a great deal less like secure supplies of energy than they did before 11 September. Painted at its starkest, the strategic choice facing the US is to increase dependence on Eurasian oil supplies and reckon with the prospect of future military adventures to secure them against fundamentalist action, or implement policies at home which accelerate the transition away from technologies dependent on oil. As it happens, the latter course, harnessing as it would the enormous innovative capacity of the US, is also what the global community needs if it is to have a chance of staving off damaging climate change.

There is also nuclear power. After 11 September, assessments of the risk of nuclear disasters and assertions about nuclear power's potential contributions to security of energy supplies have taken on a very different perspective. A terrorist organisation which has no compunction about taking lives by the thousand cannot be expected to hold back from dropping an airliner full of fuel on Sellafield or Sizewell. Such an act could make a large part of a small and crowded island like Britain uninhabitable for a very long time indeed, and the nuclear industry and its regulators know it.

Ultimately, the nuclear industry has been predicated on the notion that societies will remain stable enough for centuries ahead for no serious external risk to be posed to its facilities and waste disposal arrangements. A terrible day in history has now shown that to be what it always was - a technocrat's fantasy.

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