I have issues with this book (as always the full Amazon review is included below), but none of them involve the author’s contention that the present global civilization is going to unwind back a century or two (possibly much more) starting, well, now. My main problem has to do with Zeihan’s treatment of climate change but in addition, and in general, the problem is his own failure to fully integrate the impact of all the unwinding that will take place along every dimension he explores. I will give one example.
Zeihan says that as the world’s land becomes mostly barren again (shortages of water, fertilizer, and fuel for farm machinery) we might yet be able to grow more food on what remains thanks to genetic engineering. He forgets however that genetic engineering is an incredibly high-tech process demanding inputs (chemicals, plastics, facilities, instruments, electricity, computers) that will no longer be reliably available even in the best-off places. There are parts of the book where he goes to some lengths to illustrate the effect of such overlaps, so it surprises me to find such failures, and the elephant in the room is climate change.
I sent Peter Zeihan an email after reading “The Disunited Nations” suggesting he read Wallace-Wells’ “The Uninhabitable Earth”. I do not know if he took me up on my suggestion and this present book has no bibliography. From what he does say about climate’s impact on his geopolitical subject matter it does not seem that he has. Zeihan thinks the U.S. is in the best position to weather the storm (metaphorically and literally speaking). Even if he is right about the last part, things won’t be nearly as sanguine as even he thinks – and that isn’t very sanguine to begin with.
To set some parameters and be fair to Zeihan, I note up front that his timeframe is a mere 30 or so years beginning now and extending into the 2050s. The Earth is not going to be uninhabitable as soon as 2050. On the other hand, Zeihan thinks that some sort of new geopolitical equilibrium will emerge around that time. That contention is problematic because by then the impact of climate change will have become extreme (and costly) enough to prevent any such equilibrium from evolving and that is the point he misses. As bad as climate-related issues will be in 2050, they will continue to get worse for hundreds (possibly thousands) of years.
By 2050, at least, the Eastern seaboard and Gulf coasts of the U.S. will be fighting for their lives if there is any money left to fight with. Zeihan seems to think there will not be a lot of cheap (or any) financing by then; for example financing to prop up sea walls and harden port facilities. If he is right about that part, then Manhattan will lose its subway system, and the barrier islands protecting our Eastern and Gulf coasts will be gone; if not underwater entirely, then so battered as to be useless to anyone. New Orleans will almost certainly be underwater most of the time as will the southern half of Florida. Port facilities can be relocated to the new coasts at great expense, but cities are not so easily moved at any expense.
The southern half of the U.S. will experience unlivable summer temperatures not for twenty or so days a year as they do now but sixty, ninety or more, as will most of India, Southern Europe, the Middle East, much of China, and so on. Survival will depend on air conditioning, of which there will be much less because there will be much less electricity (gas and oil goes away for lack of transport, solar and wind for lack of critical imported materials, leaving coal as the only option for most including the U.S. which will have mostly exhausted its shale resources). In the winter, the jet stream becomes unstable projecting itself deep into the American south bringing freezing arctic cold. Not such a big deal (except when people in Texas freeze to death), but those icy intrusions move east and come into contact with ever warmer air coming up from the Gulf. The result is an explosion of tornados and torrential rain. The massive midwestern floods (I note in both the summer and winter) of the last few years will be small potatoes by comparison.
A California forest service scientist recently said: “in twenty years every burnable acre in California will burn,” a timespan well within Zeihan’s forecast. Indeed this applies to almost the entire western third of the country and extends into both Canada and Alaska, not to mention drought-plagued Mexico and Brazil.
Zeihan says we cannot predict what will happen climatologically at the zipcode level. True, but we can do better than he does, especially as concerns that part of the world surrounding the Himalyan mountains, the source of water for both greater India and Pakistan, but also China and every country of South East Asia. The Chinese are daming every major river coming out of Tibet and passing through China – which is most of them! At the moment, water (albeit less of it) still flows through the Mekong delta. Soon enough (twenty-five years? Fifty?) it will not and much of that sub-continent will starve. How long before Himalayan ice is gone or irrelevant?
China will have the last of that water, but when the Tibetan glaciers finally disappear, the Chinese dams will do little good, much as the Hoover dam in Nevada which is now so depleted that its ability to generate electricity will soon be curtailed – so much for green hydropower. Southern California’s multi-billion dollar agricultural industry could now suck down every remaining drop of the Colorado River. So could Phoenix, and they are but two of the jurisdictions that have relied on that water for the last ninty years!
This is the big problem in Zeihan’s book; he ignores obvious intersections between climate and his major sub-topics. For example, there is a long chapter on the world’s present capacity to finance mega-projects of all kinds. He gives very good reasons why, in a more disconnected world, such financing, and so such projects, will vanish. But that means money for climate disaster mitigagion (already unaffordable multi-billions a year for the U.S. alone) will be gone altogether.
Even where we see disaster approaching, we will not be able to do anything about it! In my part of the world major highways and coastal infrastructure already begin to flood regularly in king tides – even in the absence of heavy rain. The region (a mere two or three hundred square miles in America’s still-richest State of 164,000 square miles) already cannot afford to address all the problems we see now! Above I noted that ports can be moved to new coastlines. But that takes a lot of money that won’t be available. How will America trade with even regional partners (or berth its mighty navy) with all her ports under water?
That is the sum and substance of the book’s problem in my opinion. For further reference, this review of “The Uninhabitable Earth” by Wallace-Wells is the center of my view on climate geopolitics. Have a look.
This latest by Peter Zeihan is something of a culmination of his last few books. The present interconnected world in which every independent State, even failed ones, can participate in a global market is coming to an end and what will replace it will look much more like 1850 in the “developed” world, and 1500 in much of the rest.
Sustaining the world’s present connectedness rests essentially on three things: safe and cheap transport across the world’s oceans, energy for everything (including said transport), and a population young enough to turn the economic cranks that make it all run. The first of these depends on the Americans who will soon find it too expensive to maintain the practice (and this especially in the face of headwinds put up by two powers otherwise the biggest beneficiaries of American protection of the sea lanes: Russia and China). If bulk transport becomes too expensive, energy supplies dry up. Not everywhere of course but enough places to disrupt every market on the planet. Demographically, most (but again not all) of the world is doomed to experience labor shortages and excessive costs for retirees in this decade.
Zeihan explores the intersection of transport, energy, economics, materials, demographics, technology, and agriculture. He tries to suggest who will be winners, losers, or fall in between in the great unwinding. Before the modern era of protected sea lanes, geography, where your country is on the globe, its climate, resources, and what it looked like, mountains, rivers, etc., made the biggest difference between the winners and losers. True global trade changed all that. It’s going to change back. I think his handling of all this material is superb (though many of the quips sprinkling the book fall flat). He does note that even at its most destructive, the sort of devolution he projects is not the worst that could happen if, for example, someone starts throwing nuclear weapons around.
The shortcoming appears on the matter of climate change (one of the factors increasing the cost of everything and so corroding global interconnections) which Zeihan mentions here and there, but considers more specifically only with respect to agriculture. This is far from enough treatment. I will deal with this further in my blog, but here mention only one issue. Zeihan projects that the really bad stuff, the global unwinding, will begin now, go through its roughest patches by the 2030-40s, and in the 2050s will congeal into something new. Some stability will reemerge, at least in the better-off places.
I think he is wrong about this last part because the climate situation (and he correctly notes many reasons why “green tech” will not save us) is not going to stabilize merely because a reduced human population comes to some new lower energy equilibrium in the 2050s. The climate is going to keep getting more destructive, and more inimical to human life across the entire globe for the next several (possibly more) thousand years!
Finally, I have a technical bone to pick with the publisher. This book is filled with tables and graphs impossible to read on a real Kindle. Yes, I can use a Kindle reader on my phone or laptop and examine the figures, but that is no excuse. There is a way to format embedded images so they can be expanded and read easily on a real Kindle. In this case, the publisher didn’t bother. The result, in the ebook, is less than optimum.