Review: The End of the World is Just the Beginning by Peter Zeihan, 2022

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. 

The End of the World is Just the Beginning by Peter Zeihan 2022

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. 

Review: In the Shadows of the American Century by Alfred McCoy

One of the points of this book is that America’s imperial decline is largely of its own making. Even well-managed empires eventually crumble (the geopolitical, technological, and political conditions that bring the empire about inevitably change leaving the empire fragile). A well-managed American empire might easily have sustained its dominance beyond McCoy’s projected end in the 2030-40 timeframe. I think Dr. McCoy would agree with me here (though the world’s center of gravity would inevitably return to Afro-Euro-Asia, the center of the globe’s landmass). Except for climate change, America might have managed it all from its peripheral position (the North-American continent) for a couple of centuries (its native geographic resources being less expensive to access) if it hadn’t, instead, stupidly squandered them. My purpose in this addendum to my book review is to review a little of that squandering.

I make no criticism of McCoy’s analysis. Looking at it from a global viewpoint, America’s power is clearly on the decline. He is a little sanguine about China which has, it is true, already eclipsed America on several important metrics, but has fragilities of its own he does not explore. 

If America’s power peaked roughly from the end of WWII to the Vietnam war, it experienced a ghost peak in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. I say “ghost peak” because the objective of American foreign policy from WWII through to that collapse was that collapse! Of course, the Soviets and Americans could not but be competitors, but the singular obsession with destroying the Soviets (it’s beginning in the aftermath of WWII when Western intelligence agencies began employing ex-Nazis in large numbers as strategic advisors – see my review of Blowback by Christopher Simpson) though ultimately successful (at ridiculous cost) was unnecessary and counterproductive. 

The Soviets were never, at any time in their post-WWII history, desirous of or in a real (fiscal and otherwise) position to invade Western Europe, the ostensible justification for all the expense that went into dismantling their empire. There were analysts in America’s intelligence services who understood this, but their views and reports were suppressed by superiors who much preferred the views of the Nazis who lied precisely to whip up anti-Soviet (and anti-communist in general) hysteria. Meanwhile, even in a weaker position than the U.S. and Western Europe, the Soviets did help to keep a lid on terrorist activities throughout central Asia and in great part also the Middle East. 

If in the late 1970s and early 1980s we had let the Soviets dominate Afghanistan (both Carter and Reagan were so advised) there would, today, be no Al Qaida or ISIL, no attack on the World Trade Center, and so on. If you think the liberation of Eastern Europe was worth our bleeding the Soviets in Afghanistan (McCoy mentions Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s secretary of state, in this context) one has only to note that half of these liberated nations are slowly (so as not to jeopardize their EU funds) turning away from liberal democracy towards proto-fascism! Our first Afghan intervention may have helped precipitate the breakup of the Soviet Union, but it isn’t clear this has been a good thing for either the U.S. or the world. 

This is the first lesson American foreign policy experts (in particular intelligence operatives) never learned. Indigenous agents and partisans lie to their benefactors for their own purposes. These purposes are not usually aligned with American purposes (in fact they almost never are) other than on the single matter of defeating communists (or any socialists, American policy wonks have never learned to tell the difference) wherever they might appear. The failure to learn this lesson was in large part responsible for our subsequent involvement in Vietnam, Afghanistan (twice), Iraq (twice), Libya, and Syria. 

The second lesson is even more stark. In a civil-war environment (Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq (the last two the second time around), no matter how well trained or equipped by the Americans, once U.S. forces pull out the more fanatically nationalistic (or religious) side will always quickly sweep our side away. The Korean war was fought to a standstill because American troops remained to the end, and are still there. In Vietnam, we left behind us a well-trained and equipped South Vietnamese army, but the Vietcong and North Vietnamese fought with patriotic fervor while the South’s soldiers fought for a visibly corrupt government. In 1975 the North Vietnamese made the same offer to the South’s soldiers that, thirty-five years later, ISIL made in Iraq, and ten years after that the Taliban made to soldiers fighting for the Kabul government: stand down and we’ll let you live. They all stood down.

President Biden was around (he’s older than me by fifteen years and I was around) to understand this lesson. But quite obviously (as concerns Afghanistan) he didn’t learn it. Why am I not a highly paid policy wonk? I am obviously more qualified than those who have held such positions since the late 1970s! 

Nowhere was American stupidity (a result of cultural ignorance and chutzpa) more obvious than in Vietnam and Cuba. If the election of 1954 (which Eisenhower blocked) had unified Vietnam under the Communist North’s government, they would have happily been aligned (by trade) with us in a few short years (we are culturally blind to the fact that not all Communists are alike. The Vietnamese have been at odds with China for a thousand years). We threw them at China, and yet now, after all that blood and treasure, we are happily working with them notwithstanding they are still Communist. 

In Cuba, Castro overthrew one of the most corrupt governments in the world at the time. Castro was not a Communist but a socialist (as noted above, Americans have never learned to tell the difference). He offered a fair price for the American-owned private companies he nationalized  (based on their own tax-motivated under-reported valuations) and offered to do business with us. Eisenhower and later Kennedy spent years pillaging and murdering, employing known criminals (literally organized crime) and terrorist partisans in Cuba literally throwing Castro at the Soviets. The world’s greatest superpower has ever since (except for a brief moment under Obama) carried on with what the Economist called a “sixty-year tantrum.”

Besides costly overt and covert military and paramilitary adventures (McCoy goes to great length about these), America has wasted its power in ways directly political and economic. Before globalization, America’s power rested on a high-capacity and versatile industrial base paying its workers a living wage. By the late 1970s, the power elite (a congress captured by the very rich) realized that fostering “global free trade” would produce a much larger world economy and about this they were correct. But you cannot “free trade” with nations whose labor costs are much lower than yours without hollowing out your own industry throwing tens of thousands out of work leaving only the wealthy elite in a position to benefit from the expanding global economy. This might not have gone so badly if the elite were properly taxed to subsidize the higher wages of a domestic industrial base. Of course, this did not happen given a congress captive to their interests alone. 

McCoy details many more bad foreign and domestic policy decisions serving to weaken the American Empire even before its time. Most of them (the foreign ones at least) in one way or another come down to American cultural ignorance, the naive belief that if a people want to get rid of a particular government, they must want liberal democracy in its place. I wonder if any other empire in Earth’s history ever rose to its peak while remaining so ignorant of its client’s cultures?  

In the Shadows of the American Century by Alfred McCoy (2017)

This is the first book in my geopolitical musings to “tell it like it is” concerning the doings of America in the geopolitical arena and places us firmly in the position of a declining empire. It is also the first book I’ve read that adds climate change to the list of external forces precipitating not only America’s decline but the rest of the world along with it. Indeed, besides myself, Dr. McCoy is the first author I’ve read who points out that the American collapse might first be economic; mitigation of environmental disaster will be unsustainable.

Dr. McCoy begins by reviewing what other empires looked like in their decline. Turning to America, he points out that we exhibit every single one of those characteristics. Historically, such declines can be seen from the viewpoint of the imperial center or in the way that client states (allies or otherwise) respond. In America’s case, all the signs are visible on both sides from increased repression at home to break-ups in long-established international alliances.

This is a nuanced look at the global situation. McCoy notes for example that America differed from other empires in that it attempted to bolster the economies and political inclusiveness of client states rather than merely exploiting them for resources. This was not done out of altruism, but rather the American empire (and the world in our time) is trade-dependent in ways prior empires never were. America’s client states increased American power by buying from (and not only selling to) America. Such an empire could only succeed if the center helped to enrich the periphery.

Alas, given much of what America has done in the world since the late 1950s (one might say beginning with Vietnam and Cuba, and never learning lessons since) has not only seen our advantages eroding but literally being thrown away (I will have more to say about this in a blog article). The amazing thing is that American hegemony (culturally if not always militarily) has taken this long to dissolve and is not yet entirely gone. China, by contrast (on which McCoy focuses as the present major player with an expanding empire), has already eclipsed America in many fields, with more to come. My only quibble with McCoy is here. China has its own kind of fragility, different from America’s, but surely inhibiting its imperial aspirations. McCoy doesn’t address these matters.

I’ll end this review by returning once more to the matter of climate change. McCoy focuses on America here, while noting some of the impacts rising temperatures (violent weather, rising seas, droughts, large-scale refugee migrations, and so on) will have on other parts of the world. But in this context, he also does not mention China whose coastal cities are subject to rising seas while its interior must suffer from all the same sorts of problems experienced in the United States. China will probably grow the world’s single biggest economy in a couple of years, but it is also a much bigger territory with far more people to feed. Mitigating climate disasters cannot be less of a drag on the Chinese economy than it is (and will become) in the United States.

In summary, a well-researched (the endnotes occupy 50% of the book) and well-written examination of the American empire. The signs of decline are everywhere. Future details cannot be known, but the general trends are unmistakable.

Book Review: Water

This review is not on the blog because of dangling philosophical issues, but to add to a series. “The Uninhabitable Earth”, “The Geography of Risk”, and now “Water”, each in their way tell us (boldly or in hints) about what is about to befall the Earth in the next 20-50 years and beyond. 

Oddly, for me, this all began with Slavoj Zizek’s “The Courage of Hopelessness”. In commenting on that book I pointed out that economic exhaustion precipitated by climate change mitigation will collapse the present capitalist world order long before the left ever has a chance to make a substantial impact. I then stumbled on these other books, reviews and Amazon links all given above. 

Water by Steven Solomon (2011)

A long book methodically drilling down into an important subject. Of all Earth’s resources, air and water are the two most necessary to sustain life, and of the two only water exists in three phases, gas, liquid, and solid, on in and above the surface. There have been other books covering the history of water (particularly freshwater) use since antiquity. Solomon goes the extra mile and looks at water from more than the usual angles. Learning to sail the oceans is a part of the water story as are the world’s inter-continental canals (Suez and Panama) and oceanic choke-points (straights like Hormuz and Malacca) and also the story of the steam engine. He also notes that food is “virtual water”. Not only is water a consumable input in growing crops, but is also a component of the many steps needed to bring the crop to the table. 

Solomon begins with a review of the freshwater situation on Earth and then visits every historical civilization digging into their history of freshwater management. A general cycle is visible everywhere. A civilization arises when its region’s water resources (including bordering seas if any)  are successfully tapped to yield increased food, strategic trade or military advantage, or lower cost, usually all three in one mix or another. Successful water management results in population growth and territorial expansion until the population reaches the limits of its technology’s ability to maintain and expand its water management. Politics plays a role. Even where technology and knowledge exist, a society may become unwilling, politically, to do what is necessary to manage a degrading water system. As water management declines, so does the civilization, and this is so even where the needed water still exists. In the modern age, existing water, at least freshwater, is being increasingly used up or evaporating away as ancient glacial stores melt.

The real problem of course is not exactly water but population. Solomon notes but does not comment on this, rather treating it as an inevitable background to the whole story. On the one hand, an expanding population needs more water, but it also increasingly pollutes and otherwise abuses the freshwater still to be had.  

Having reviewed water history around the world all the way up to the end of the 20th Century, Solomon goes into the modern challenge. He revisits each of the world’s regions and summarizes their present and near future water challenges. Climate change is re-arranging the freshwater balance around the world. Some places become much drier, and others much wetter. Winter snows melt earlier in the season, and summer heat more quickly evaporates stored water. Mitigating water-related disasters, whether larger fires in dry places or bigger, longer-lasting floods in wetter ones, are consuming a larger percentage of the world’s resources. Technological and political success managing these changes is key to the survivability of each nation, and the world collectively. There is no guarantee of success and in fact, the present trajectory does not bode well for anyone.

Review: The Disunited Nations by Peter Zeihan

“Disunited Nations” is a forecast of the world’s geopolitical layout twenty to fifty years from now. The “global order” set up in 1946 (see review included below) is unwinding, but it is not unwound. Peter Zeihan doesn’t fix dates, but it is reasonable to suppose that, as he sees it, the complete unwinding will take another ten-to-fifteen years. Following that, it will be another fifteen-to-twenty-five more years for the dust to settle into some new version of normal. Forty years (to ~2060) and the geopolitical world will stand transformed. Alas Zeihan’s analysis, the status of nations in that future, implicitly takes climate to be a constant. He mentions “climate change” only once, doesn’t discuss it, and misses its implications for the same time-frame. 

“The Uninhabitable Earth” (2018 by David Wallace-Wells) makes climatological projections for roughly the same time-frame, twenty-five to fifty years from 2020. Wallace-Wells goes beyond that, but the near to medium-term climate future contains enough change to alter not merely the geopolitics of the world but the geography and geophysics of it! According to Wallace-Wells, a further two to three-degree centigrade rise in average temperature is now “baked into the system”. If we cease all industrial carbon output now, we will reach two degrees over the 1900 base (we are at one degree and change now) in thirty or so years, three degrees in seventy-five. But we are not “stopping all industrial carbon output now”, nor does it appear that we will even slow it appreciably over the next twenty-five years. As a result, we will hit two degrees in fifteen years and three degrees twenty or twenty-five years later, all of this well within Zeihan’s geopolitical time-frame.

The most direct climatological impact has to do with a weather-related concept called “wet-bulb temperature”, a measurement of the temperature if relative humidity was one-hundred percent. Human beings cannot survive the heat (in the absence of some mitigating technology) if bodies cannot sweat their way to cooling down. At 35C, you will die if the humidity is near one-hundred percent. At 45C, fifty-percent humidity is enough to kill you. A few dozen cities around the world reach lethal temperature and humidity levels on multiple days during their summers. In Wallace-Wells’ view, this condition will prevail over virtually all the tropical and much of the temperate Earth by 2075, possibly by 2050! In between now and then, the next five or ten years, the number of places and the number of days on which people (always the elderly and other vulnerable groups first) die because it is too hot will continue to expand. 

How much difference does a degree or two celsius make? In 2020, Phoenix had a record 50 days hitting 110F (44C), shattering the old record (33 days) set only 9 years earlier. The hottest it got was over 120F! When the climate hits 2C degrees warming, Phoenix will experience one-hundred or more days a year of such high temperatures, and on some days, temperatures will reach 130F (54C)! Phoenix is already pretty hot. In 2030 the outside will be very uncomfortable for a third of the year and, simply put, not survivable on the worst days. The city will require more electricity and water to cool buildings and sustain life. Electricity may, perhaps, be forthcoming. As for water, the Colorado river will by then be a fraction of the present volume (already below levels when the river’s physical connection to Phoenix was made). At three degrees celsius, no one will be able to afford to protect themselves from the heat in Phoenix! 

When does a city, even one well above sea level, become unlivable thanks to heat and humidity? Does it happen when the temperature exceeds lethal levels ten days a year, fifty, or a hundred? In Zeihan’s terms, some of the impacts may be perversely beneficial! Hot weather that kills mostly the elderly might help correct a nation’s demographic decline by rebalancing the age distribution! 

The people of Phoenix, and for that matter, much of the globe, will have no place to go. By 2075 coastlines the world over will be transformed; their megapolises, presently the locus of most economies, will be gone. The rough triangle between Houston TX, Mobile AL, and St. Louis MO, will be a permanent part of the Gulf of Mexico. Large-scale permanent “oceanification” will happen to low-lying places the world over. Bangladesh will be underwater, as will South Florida and a good deal of North-Western Europe.  Today’s productive farmlands in temperate zones will be too hot and too wet (the central U.S.) or too dry (California) to grow many of the crops produced in those regions today. In California, people might retreat to the mountains’ relative coolness, but those places are burning down! A leading wildland fire expert said that every burnable [wildland] acre in California would burn at least once in the next ten to twenty years!   

Zeihan projects a future based on fixed (geographic) and fluid but forecastable (demographics, present requirements for food and energy, resources) data. Like his data, some climate impacts (rising sea levels) are pretty much a sure thing, though exactly how fast this happens remains unknown. The physical geography of the world’s coastal plains (some extending inland hundreds of miles) will be very different. Food and the availability of freshwater will impact demographic trends. Zeihan makes it clear that the world of 2050 will not produce and transport as much food as it now does. He projects famine. Climate considerations suggest that famine will be global and not merely a regional problem. What will Indo-Pakistani populations do when all the Himalayan glaciers melt away, and the Indus and Ganges rivers are a tiny fraction of their present volume? In poorer food-producing (and especially water-scarce) regions, there will be mass starvation.   

Rising water will not cover the Earth. There will always be coasts somewhere. Rivers will empty into the new coastlines; new port opportunities will arise. But some of those places will merge into the regions where it is too hot or dry or wet to survive without expensive infrastructure. Will even a rich country like the United States be able to afford any of this? Longer than others, perhaps, but not by all that much. There is more woe to be had. Will cropland problems (heat, drought, floods, crop-destroying winds)  be as severe as the sea level problem twenty years from now, or will that take fifty years? Either way, the question becomes tangled with Zeihan’s projections for the relative worth of national economies, and American cropland will not alone be negatively affected by climate.   

The answers to how this works out in the near term, say the next ten to fifteen years, lie in the economic intersection between Zeihan’s analysis and climatological effects (see the link to the Wallace-Wells book, and also “The Geography of Risk” for other discussions of it). Coastal populations will fight rising waters; others will wrestle with drought, fire, or floods from storms. All will battle the rising temperature, and at some point, varying in each part of the world, it will become too expensive to do so. We cannot predict exactly when the cost of climate-mitigation will first exhaust a national economy (in the U.S., the barrier islands of the Eastern Seaboard, Florida, and the Gulf of Mexico), or when New York City begins abandoning large sections of itself.  Still, that time is but a few decades away at most. Bangladesh has less time than that! The bottom line is this: Zeihan projects a specific global distribution of wealth and resources fifty years from now. He projects massive refugee migrations because the “global order” that presently sustains many populations by trade will be gone. Thanks to climate change, that wealth (broadly and with possible partial-exceptions in places like Canada, Siberia, and the Nordic nations) will be one-tenth (the money [energy, resources] spent on early climate-mitigation efforts) and the refugee populations ten or a hundred-times what Zeihan projects. 

I haven’t the grasp of details I need to juggle Zeihan’s country-by-country analysis of the world after “the order” has collapsed plus the impact of climate change. I can make two generalizations with reasonable certainty. (1) While climate change will not alter the distribution of resources in the Earth’s crust, it will impact every other parameter Zeihan considers. (2) Everyone will come out much worse off than Zeihan predicts. I can only hope he will read this, and it will give him an idea for a follow-on book.

Dis-United Nations By Peter Zeihan (2020)

This book looks at the future of the Earth’s various nations and their relations over roughly the next 50-75 years. If you read other authors on international relations, you will recognize many of the same notes struck. But Zeihan is less interested in the relations between governments compared to that between physical countries (and regions) situated in specific geopolitical settings, with their particular demographics and economic requirements both on the selling side (outputs), and resources (inputs) needed to produce goods and feed its population. 

Zeihan opens in 1946 when the U.S. economy was half the world’s economy. The way Zeihan sees it, unlike the empires of the past whose conquests were mostly military, the U.S. offered the world a bribe. First, the U.S. would patrol the seas and guarantee freedom of navigation everywhere to all. Second, the U.S. would fight and bleed for any ally when necessary. Third, the U.S. would open its markets to its partners even if they partly protected their own. Fourth, the U.S. would provide financial liquidity to grease all the wheels and make this work. 

This four-part bribe has worked for the most part to grow the economy of the planet, feed expanding populations, and in general, keep any tendency to militaristic conquest to a minimum. The trade relationships and supply chains developed over the last half of the 20th Century, and the first decades of the 21st, are a testimony to its success. It hasn’t been perfect. Not everyone wanted to be on board. But as it happened, the great majority of the world’s economies did get on board (even China since 1972) and have benefitted, over-all (not without hiccups) as a result.

The problem is, the bribe has run its course. The U.S. economy is now about twenty-five percent of the world economy, not half. The five-hundred-fifty ship navy the U.S. had in 1946 is now down to about three-hundred ships, and one-hundred of those dedicated to supporting nine super-carriers. The U.S. can no longer afford to be the guarantor of the sea lanes, nor be an open market to any import. The same is becoming true of standing military commitments around the world. The American people are tired of bleeding, or the threat of bleeding, for others whose interests are not often aligned with our own, and there are not enough dollars to float all economic boats. 

Not only is the “great order” unwinding, but scatter-shot American foreign policy, a policy without any clear direction, is helping dissolve it even faster than it otherwise needs to go (not that other governments are much help). The question is, what happens when all of those U.S. guarantees are gone (the U.S. is, for now, still patrolling the seas). That future is what this book is about. 

Zeihan takes us on a tour of the world by country and region, describing what each will experience when the order is gone. His dominant considerations revolve around internal geography, location in the world, and population demographics over the next fifty years. The parents of that generation, the youth of fifty-years from now, already born. The economics of resources come next. What does a country (or region) produce? What inputs does it need to make whatever it is? How does it feed its population, where do its energy and materials come from, and so on? As it turns out, by Zeihan’s analysis some nations and regions will do better than others. Most end up very badly, and the mix won’t be what you expect. To be clear about one thing though, “better” and “worse” are relative terms as he makes clear at the end of his analysis. No one will be as well off in absolute terms as they are right now!

As refreshing and unexpected as it is, Zeihan’s analysis has a blind spot. It is strange that except in the context of Japan, China, and the Middle East, he never focuses on India and the Indo-Pakistani region. Not sure how he missed that one, but he did. Meanwhile, his projections have a broader problem. He mentions climate change literally one time and says nothing about it. The impact of climate change is noticeable even now, and within the fifty-plus-year timespan covered in the book climatic effects will be much more dramatic. The book Zeihan should factor into his analysis is not geopolitical but geophysical: “The Uninhabitable Earth” (2018 by David Wallace-Wells). Nothing in that book augers against any of Zeihan’s analysis except to make the outcomes for everyone even worse than his broad brush paints them. I will address this intersection in my blog.    

Review: Why Nations Fail

Picture of me blowing smoke

I’m developing something of a sub-section on social, political, and economic philosophy…

I said in the review (reproduced below) that the theory of this book very much compliments that of Francis Fukuyama also reviewed here. There are other books in this arena as well, one by Phillip Bobbitt and one by Henry Kissenger. Each of these books has something to contribute to the same subject, roughly the history of nations on Earth. What I didn’t say in the review is reflected in an early marginal note that appears in this book. I wrote that this theory of Acemoglu and Robinson, given their introduction of it, seemed “trivially true”. What I meant was that given equality of other things, a nation whose political and economic institutions were more pluralistic would, on the whole, do better economically than one whose institutions were less pluralistic. I think the authors mount a powerful argument for the theory. I think they are right. But I still think that on the whole the theory is but trivially true.

To begin, the authors examine and reject a few other theories purporting to explain why some nations are wealthy and others not so wealthy. In particular the “cultural” and the “geographic” theories are of interest here. The authors very much emphasize that the institutions of which they speak emerge through history. The process can and has taken hundreds of years in some cases and the results have always been contingent meaning that only a small difference here or there might have blocked such evolution (as it has in much of the world) or reversed it even once begun (something that has also happened). The authors emphasize that small differences between institutions in different states are magnified by “critical junctures”, events like the Black Death, the discovery of the Americas, or the invention of movable-type printing.

The authors trace these differences and how different nations (in 1600 all “extractive” as the authors term it) responded politically and economically. These responses are all broadly social, and the social fault lines are reflected by culture and in turn rest on geography. In England the Magna Carta was signed in 1215. It gave the nobility a little say over what the King did, but it was hardly inclusive politically as we would understand that today. The plague followed in 1348, 133 years later and shifted things a bit more by pure chance. A greater percentage of English nobility was wiped out than was the case for example in France, Spain, or Eastern Europe.

Four hundred and seventy three years intervened between the Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution (1688), almost nineteen human generations. The book covers much more of the intervening details for example the War of the Roses, the Cromwell experience, and the installation of William of Orange. This history is what set the culture of England and insured that the English response to events would be different from that of France or Spain.

Cultural differences are social and subject to contingent social forces. The only thing contingent about geography (used broadly and into which I am folding climate and mineral resources) is which nation ends up with which territory.  Rwanda, Burundi, and Ethiopia grow delicious coffee, among the world’s best. Their coffee growing potential has nothing to do with culture and everything to do with where they are situated in the world. But none of the three have any coast. To ship their coffee to world markets each must pay transit fees to other nations in order to reach some port. If Ethiopian coffee farmers are to reap the same economic benefit as say producers in Guatemala who also grow superb coffee and do have access to a coast, Ethiopian coffee must sell for a higher price than Guatemalan coffee. Even if Ethiopian and Guatemalan economic institutions were equally inclusive (or extractive) Ethiopian farmers cannot get the same price for their coffee if they (or their elites) want to compete (and so sell for the same price) with Guatemalan farmers.

To wrap it up, nations with pluralistic institutions generally become wealthier than those without and the historical path from extractive to inclusive institutions is contingent. But among the contingencies are the culture as it evolved through many generations, and the location of the nation on Earth which limits, magnifies, or otherwise impacts the cultural contingencies and the possible wealth that might be generated under different institutions.

In my Amazon review (below) I bring up the “other end” of the whole process, something that is not the author’s concern. They are interested in why nations are wealthy (or not) now, and not what happens when even inclusive institutions go on too long. They do note that when new groups become wealthy under inclusive institutions, these become “new elites” and begin to work, politically, to constrain future inclusiveness so as to lock in their new privilege.

In the present day, such behavior in the Western and more inclusive nations has resulted in something of an equilibrium between forces, but at any given time one or the other can be ascendant. It is clear from the flattening of U.S. wages and the increase in wealth inequality since the 1970s that since that time, the push back towards exclusivity is gaining ground; an observation the authors seem to deliberately avoid making.

Why Nations Fail By Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson 2012

When I stumbled on this book I wondered how it would compare to the work of Francis Fukuyama in “Political Order and Political Decay” also reviewed. As it turns out the two works are entirely complimentary, the work of Acemoglu and Robinson riding on top of Fukuyama’s. Like Fukuyama, the author’s here recognize that a prerequisite to the political and economic orders that evolve in modern rich nations as compared to poor ones is a State, with writ over its whole territory, capable of enforcing property rights (whether they do so initially or not) and a relatively broad base of economic interests not tied solely to the land. Another prerequisite for both is the eventual evolution of a polity supporting “rule of law” which is not the same as “rule by law”. The difference is that in the former, everyone (in theory) comes under the law while in the latter the elite typically do not. This prerequisite is, in general, a consequence of the broad based economic coalition.

What begins to drive such nations is a feedback the authors call inclusive institutions, a “virtuous circle” leading to yet broader, more pluralistic political institutions and economic institutions characterized by lowered economic barriers, technological innovation, and competition that drives a broad-based increase in wealth. The authors emphasize that a virtuous evolution is not foreordained. There are always forces working to try and coerce political and economic institutions into an extractive mode in which both political and economic institutions are organized for the benefit of a few. This is, in fact, what was the case over the whole world in 1600 and has remained the case in most of the world. Though specific institutions in these countries (Russia, most of South America) have changed many times, they remain extractive and this tendency, the tendency of elites to preserve their status at the expense of everyone else the authors call a “viscous circle”.

Many nations today labor without even the prerequisite of a State writ. Such nations cannot possibly develop inclusive institutions of any kind. But even extractive institutions can grow an economy if the State writ is present and there are resources in demand by the rest of the world. Extractive societies can grow relative wealth, for example Saudi Arabia, but the authors argue (citing case after case, exploring many individual national histories) that there are severe limits to that sort of growth. Like Fukuyama these authors also recognize that even among the most inclusive nations today (mainly Western Europe, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and a few others with but one, Botswana, in Africa) are not immune from sliding backwards, particularly as concerns economics, into more extractive forms. Fukuyama, explores how this backsliding happens at the political level, while in this book, aside from the recognition that this can happen, such backsliding in the present is not specifically addressed.

This is well written and richly detailed exploration of political and economic institutions throughout the world. No continent (save Antarctica) is ignored. Acemoglu and Robinson make a fine case, and because the actual history of nations sets these outcomes much depends on how small initial differences are magnified by events out of anyone’s control (the Plague in Europe, the discovery of the Americas, the colonial grab for Africa) they recognize the limitations of their theory as well. The historical path taken by every nation or quasi-nation is unique. Emerging into the modern period there are endless variations. China is unusual in that economic institutions appear to be liberalizing while political institutions remain purely extractive. The difference, also the case in Russia, is that the State is compelled to find some solution to competition on the world stage. Chinese and Russian economic institutions remain broadly extractive and their growth will not continue for long.

The author’s point here is well made and well established. They do not, alas, address the gorilla in the room. Even if all the world’s nations were as inclusive as the wealthiest of today’s States, there are limits to growth. One problem with open-ended competition on a level playing field is that greater wealth ultimately comes down to greater resource utilization. There is only so much to go around. But this is not their problem. The goal here is to argue the case for wealth associated with both political and economic inclusiveness. I cannot find any weakness in that argument broadly conceived as the authors portray it.