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Arctic civilization

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Editorial note: This article was first published at Arctic Progress in February 2011. In the next few weeks I will be reposting the best material from there.

The Arctic to become a pole of global economic growth? Image credit – Scenic Reflections.

Behold! Far north along the shores of the Arctic a quiver of upspringing settlements fringes the coast. Boats swarm around canning factories, smoke flutters above smelters, herds of reindeer dot the prairies… And here or there, on every street-corner, glimmer out the lights of theaters where moving-pictures entertain white people through the sunless weeks of the midwinter dancing-time, the singing-time, the laughing-time of Eskimo Land.

- Northward ho!: An account of the far North and its people.

In 2003, Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill wrote the now famous paper Dreaming with BRIC’s, predicting that Brazil, Russia, India and China would overtake the developed G8 nations within a few decades and make astounding returns for faithful investors. The BRIC’s concept entered the conventional wisdom, spawning a host of related acronyms (BASIC, BRICSA, etc) – and if anything, realizing its promise well ahead of schedule. Last year, China’s real GDP possibly overtook America’s, and Russia’s approached Germany’s.

Yet for all their successes, the BRIC’s may not fulfill their expected roles as the stars of the global economy in the 21st century. The level of education is horrid in Brazil and atrocious in India; without the requisite human capital, these two countries will find it difficult to rapidly “converge” to developed world standards. China is much better off in this respect, but its high growth trajectory may in turn be disturbed by energy shortages and environmental degradation. China produces half the world’s coal, which is patently unsustainable given its limited reserves. But since coal accounts for 75% of China’s primary energy consumption and fuels the factories that keep its workforce employed, there is little it can do to mitigate this dependence. Meanwhile, China’s overpopulation, pollution and climate change predicament is so well known as to not require elaboration. Many other countries flirting around the edges of BRIC status – Indonesia, South Africa, Vietnam, etc. – face serious challenges in the form of low human capital, uncertain energy and food supplies and a rising incidence of AGW-induced droughts, floods and heatwaves.

There is one global region that may hold the key to resolving these intertwined problems – and even to become a major pole of global growth in its own right. For the most part, it is now an empty wilderness, but climate change is opening it up as potential living space. Its exploitation has the potential to halve the length of global freight transport routes while increasing their security, uncover sizable to gigantic new sources of hydrocarbons and minerals, and stabilize global food prices through the expansion of arable land. Its experience of management and conflict resolution may inspire a global model of cooperation – or it may degenerate into an economic, legal, or even military battlefield over shipping routes and sub-sea resources.

This global region is the Arctic Rim, and its adjoining ARCS: Alaska, Russia, Canada, and Scandinavia. The ARCS of Progress in the 21st century.

Arctic sea ice extent on September 1, 2010 – both the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage are clearly open. Image credit – The University of Illinois Cryosphere Today.

From North Pole to Growth Pole

The core reasons behind the Arctic Rim’s bright prospects are global macro-trends: climate change; peak oil and resource nationalism; overpopulation in the South. These “push” and “pull” factors will induce a decades-long Arctic boom, starting with shipping, energy and mining, and culminating in a fundamental northwards shift of the center of the world economy. Let’s examine each of these in turn.

Breaking Ice For Shipping

Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea
Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage
And make a northwest passage to the sea.

- Northwest Passage song, Stan Rogers, 1981.

Typically, the cryosphere – the frozen part of the world – remains stable, because its snow and ice reflect much of the Sun’s heat, thus cooling itself. This process is called the ice-albedo feedback.

However, when the high-albedo ice melts, it leaves behind darker-hued earth, flora or sea that absorb far more heat. Local air temperatures soar and inhibit the reformation of the ice during cold seasons. From working to keep the system stable, beyond a critical threshold the ice-albedo feedback begins to reinforce a runaway dynamic of melting and warming.

The ice-albedo feedback largely explains why the Arctic is warming about twice faster than in the world as a whole.

In summer 2007, Arctic sea ice extent fell 38% below average since records began – an area the size of six Californias. The next year saw both the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route clear of ice for a short period in late summer. As of December 2010, sea ice extent was the lowest for the month on satellite record, even surpassing the 2007 melt.

While the relentless fall in sea ice extent over the past three decades is remarkable enough, what’s stunning is the 55% decline in summer sea ice volume. Once the thick, multi-year ice is gone, then it’s really gone – the low albedo of the ocean water will raise local temperatures, preventing all but a thin film of sea ice from reforming during the cold winters. It is thus a near certainty that Arctic sea ice is already deep in its death spiral.

Inland, earlier snowmelts enable the ground to absorb more heat, while dark-hued shrubs and boreal forests encroach on the tundra.

Many of the effects will be negative. The polar bears will probably go extinct, either drowning for lack of sea ice, or starving, or migrating south and merging with their grizzly cousins. Invasive species from the south will drive out Arctic flora and fauna off the top of the world. Global ocean and air currents will be interrupted as the temperature differential between the Arctic and the tropics shrinks.

But the new Arctic merchants will be making a killing.

Shipping routes during ice-free Arctic summer . Image credit – Laurence C. Smith.

In 2010, the Baltica became the first high-tonnage tanker to sail with petroleum products by the Northern Sea Route, steaming from Murmansk to China. This was followed by the voyage of the MV Nordic Barents, the the first vessel to sail from one non-Russian port to another through the Arctic, cutting 5,000km off the traditional Suez route. It carried 41,000 tons of iron ore from Kirkenes, Norway to feed the steel mills of China. One upping them all, the year ended with the first round-trip voyage without icebreaker assistance via the Northern Sea Route. The Norilsk Nickel-owned ship Monchegorsk carried the metal from the north Siberian port of Dudinka to Shanghai, taking just 41 days of steaming (the Suez route would have lasted as long as four months).

The opening of the Northern Sea Route and rising demand for metals and petroleum products from China and other emerging markets is set to continue spurring the development of Arctic shipping. In January 2011, a Sovcomflot executive said the Russian shipping company has already received 15 requests for icebreaker assistance in the Arctic for this year, compared to just four in 2010*. The governor of Murmansk, Dmitry Dmitriyenko, predicts that cargo transport through the Northern Sea Route will increase tenfold by 2020. This expansion will be sustained with private investment funding: both Sovcomflot and the Port of Murmansk are to be partially privatized in the coming years.

Similar trends are in play with the opening of the Northwest Passage across Canada. It has been conquered by cruise ship in 2006 and the commercial ship MV Camilla Desgagnés in 2008. Exploitation of the Northwest Passage will likely go slower than of its north Eurasian counterpart, because of lower demand and the (relative) underdevelopment of Canada’s icebreaker fleet. But there is still a wealth of opportunities there.

Black Gold or Fool’s Gold at the Top of the World?

Use it or lose it is the first principle of Arctic sovereignty.

- Speech by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, 2007.

Our first and main task is to turn the Arctic into a resource base for Russia in the 21st century.

- Speech by Russian President Medvedev in September 2008.

Global oil production has now either peaked or is close to peaking, and will now either continue on its present “undulating plateau” – or begin to decline at an accelerating pace. The specifics are intensely argued over and the debate is far too extensive to detail here. But suffice to say, the “cornucopian” position that technological ingenuity and market forces will always conjure more and more resources out of a finite planet is untenable.

Any number of factors – global production exceeding new discoveries since the mid-1980′s; the world’s inability to significantly ramp up oil production despite soaring prices for the commodity; the rising costs of oil production due to the falling EROEI of the remaining oil sources; massively inflated reserves numbers from OPEC members; growing resource nationalism – militate against a business-as-usual future of increasing production in the oil industry.

These mounting challenges are the reason the big oil majors are pushing into the deepwater drilling that produced the Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, and partnering with Russian state oil companies to develop offshore gas deposits in the Kara Sea, and sinking millions of US dollars on prospecting off Greenland despite no returns to date. They need to maintain their reserves numbers to prevent their stocks from tanking – but to do so, the oil majors are forced into taking escalating financial, environmental and political risks.

The Arctic’s natural resources. Image credit – Global Research.

In 2008, the US Geological Survey estimated that the Arctic may hold as much as 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil (90 billion barrels) and 30% of its undiscovered natural gas. Unsurprisingly, the Arctic is rapidly becoming central to oil exploration. That said, capitalizing on these resources – even assuming they are as big as estimated above – will be exceptionally difficult. For a start, some 84% of these sources are likely to be offshore. Second, according to more recent USGS calculations, developing them will be prohibitively expensive: “Assuming production costs of up to $100 per barrel, only 2.5 billion barrels of oil could be lifted… and only with a 50% probability.” For perspective, an average oil price of $92 per barrel broke the world economy in 2008.

Talk of the Arctic becoming the next Saudi Arabia is unrealistic. Its oil reserves are smaller, more dispersed, more remote, of worse quality, and far more challenging to exploit. But this isn’t to say that its black gold is fool’s gold. Technological progress on Arctic drilling, as well as a lack of better options elsewhere, will draw Western oil majors and National Oil Companies north.

The Arctic isn’t only of interest to shippers and oilmen. Confronted with inexorable rises in demand from China, the global mining industry is rushing to add metals and minerals production capacity wherever they can. Just to take a few Arctic examples, there are plans to start or expand iron ore production on Canada’s Baffin Island, Norway’s Kirkenes and the Kola Peninsula. Coal production is resuming at Svalbard. Just in case the whole oil thing doesn’t work out, Greenland is looking to exploit its potentially vast mineral resources. The Coeur d`Alene Mines Corporation recently opened a gold mine near Juneau, Alaska ahead of schedule. Though volumes remain small, this will change as depletion becomes as evident for minerals as it is now for oil.

Towards an Arctic Civilization?

… Before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.

- James Lovelock, inventor of the Gaia hypothesis.

Beginning with the shipping and energy industries, the influence of the Arctic will eventually come to encompass the entire world. Assuming that efforts to quickly cut greenhouse gas emissions are unsuccessful, and that geoengineering is either not attempted or doesn’t work, then many of the middle regions will become too hot and dry for sustained agriculture (and maybe human survival), and masses of climate refugees will try to migrate north. The center of global economic growth, politics, and perhaps – in the far future – population, will come to rest within the Arctic Circle.

The North Pole may become the spatial center of the world. Image source – Trausti Valsson.

This process will likely be accompanied by mass upheavals, societal collapses, famines, border conflicts, maybe even bigger wars. But as usual misery contains the seeds of opportunity. It is not impossible that the farsighted individuals who are now buying up Hudson Bay territories or Siberian riverside lands are positioning themselves or their heirs for lordships and kingdoms in 2200.

But let’s focus on just the next three decades. The opening of the Arctic by various “push” factors (overpopulation, global warming) and “pull” factors (shipping routes, resources) will create demand for infrastructure, housing, associated services, etc. Buying up strategic lands, routes and infrastructure in the Arctic region offers one of the best, and most overlooked, rates of return in the world today. Take inspiration from OmniTRAX, a Colorado-based company that bought the derelict Port of Churchill and its railway from the Manitoba government for a bargain basement price of $10 in 1998. Now that Hudson Bay has become clear of sea ice during the summer, these assets are receiving tens of millions of dollars of investment from the Canadian government.

How can you benefit from the coming Arctic boom? In the coming years, Russia is going to partially privatize lucrative state assets, such as shipping company Sovcomflot and the Port of Murmansk (which handles 60% of shipping across the Northern Sea Route). New ports, roads, railways, pipelines, mines, dams, oil and gas fields, aluminium smelters, LNG plants, etc. are springing up over the entire region.

Enter the ARCS of Progress: Why Alaska, Russia, Canada, and Scandinavia are Positioned to Dominate the Polar-Centric World

Идут на Север срока огромные,
Кого ни спросишь – у всех указ…
Взгляни, взгляни
В глаза мои суровые,
Взгляни, быть может, в последний раз.

- Soviet GULAG song, 1947.

O Canada!

Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!

- National Anthem of Canada.

Watching the economic news these days is a sure path route to depression. Anywhere you seem to look in the developed world there are awning budget deficits, soaring debts, depressed output, and stagnation. We’ve established that putting your money into the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain) isn’t such a good idea. But the US is the “safe haven,” right? Unfortunately, its fiscal sustainability indicators are actually worse than the PIGS average. In 2009, the US got $0.6 in tax revenue for every $1 of outlays, or a receipt-to-outlay ratio of 0.6; the equivalent ratio for the PIGS was 0.78. Maybe Japan? With a 0.52 receipt-to-outlay ratio, it makes the US look like a paragon of fiscal discipline.

But within all that mess there’s a few, sparkling gems. Not only are they at the heart of the opening Arctic, but they are all excellent investment destinations on their own merits. They are the ARCS countries: Alaska, Russia, Canada, and Scandinavia.

Alaska

In contrast to the rest of the US, Alaska was barely dented by the economic crisis, its GDP declining by just 0.3% in 2009 and recovering 0.6% in 2010. Employment is lower than the US average. While states like California and Illinois flirt with state bankruptcy, Alaska has accumulated $40 billion in its Permanent Fund. Finally, it is – along with Greenland – the most demographically vigorous of the Arctic states, with a total fertility rate of 2.32 children per woman in 2006. It won’t be afflicted by the First World’s looming aging crises any time soon. Alaska is well set to fulfill its motto: “North to the Future!”

Russia

Though the poorest of the ARCS, Russia is also its fastest growing one, with 5% annual GDP growth during 2001-2010. Its high level of human capital (around 70% of Russians continue to higher education, a First World rate), vast resource wealth and decent macroeconomic management set it on a promising path to convergence with developed countries.

Additionally, Russia has a predominant population, economic and military presence in the Arctic. The Murmansk region by itself has more people than all of Alaska, while the Russian Northern Fleet is by far the strongest Arctic force. State policy is to transform the Arctic into Russia’s “strategic resource base” within the next decade.

Criticisms of Russia’s prospects typically center on allusions to its “Zaire with permafrost”-like corruption levels, plummeting population, crumbling infrastructure, “legal nihilism” and Putinist authoritarianism. While each of these has a grain of truth, taking them as gospel fundamentally misrepresents the country. For a start, if Russia really was more corrupt than Nigeria or Zimbabwe – as implied by Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index – then it would still be deep in debt as in the late 1990′s, and its $480 billion foreign currency reserves would be in Cayman Islands accounts instead of the Central Bank’s vaults.

What about Russia’s demographic “death spiral”? A quick glance at Rosstat will show that its population grew in 2009, and that its total fertility rate, at 1.6 children per woman, is now higher than the European average.

One can spend pages upon pages unraveling the double standards, misrepresentations and outright lies which the Western media and political class use to attack Russia. But if you’re unconvinced, and refuse to buy into Russia’s undervalued market on principle, it’s your loss.

As t he professional Russia investor Eric Kraus wrote in Business Week in July 2010, “Russian markets are fashion victims, and are currently both unfashionable and cheap. You can own them now, or wait and buy the next time they surge back into vogue. And I will be selling out just about then.” I’d trust him – that’s exactly what he did in 2008!

Canada

Canada combines the American spirit of free enterprise, with a greater safety net and social mobility. It is also on far better fiscal footing. In 2010, its cyclically adjusted primary budget deficit was -2.7% of GDP (US: -7.0%), and its net debt was 32.7% of GDP (US: 65.2%; Japan: 104.6%). Possessing huge energy, mineral and freshwater reserves, as well as a well-educated and growing population, it is surely one of the better investment bets in the developed world.

Scandinavia (and Nordic)

The Nordic region is one of the richest, most educated and socially cohesive on Earth, frequently coming at or near the top in any global index of freedom, social mobility, environmental sustainability, and technological modernity.

In 2010, Sweden’s GDP grew the fastest in Europe at a blistering 5.2%, while maintaining a balanced budget throughout the crisis. Norway’s fortunes are far more directly tied to its oil industry, but peak oil, excellent state management of reserves and a low population make for bright prospects. Norway is the second richest European country after the banking center of Luxembourg.

Even apparent basketcases like Iceland may be a good investment to buy up on the cheap. While its international banking career might be over, it still has massive freshwater and geothermal energy reserves, that make it an attractive center for energy-intensive industries such as aluminium smelters.

Finally, contrary to right-wing depictions of social democracies as retirement homes full of effete, aging liberals, all the Nordic states have fertility rates that preclude major aging crises (they range from 1.8 children per woman in Finland to 2.2 in Greenland).

The Arctic when all the ice melts.

From an Ultimate Dim Thule…

By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named Night,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate dim Thule —
From a wild weird clime, that lieth, sublime,
Out of Space — out of Time.

- Dreamland by Edgar Allen Poe.

Even in our day, science suspects beyond the Polar seas, at the very circle of the Arctic Pole, the existence of a sea which never freezes and a continent which is ever green.

- The mystic H. P. Blavatsky.

Before the rise of the world economy, spatial perspectives were local, at most extending to the boundaries of their cultural sphere or world-empire: The Ecumene for the Ancient Greeks and Romans; Dar al-Islam for the Muslims; Christendom for the Franks; the Great Wall for the Chinese. Medieval European geographers referred to any lands beyond the borders of the known world as Ultima Thule.

Globalization from the 19th century bound the entire world together, for the first time in history, but its flows and links of labor, capital and commodities passed the Arctic by. Unattractive to sustained private investment, the region’s development was always fitful and unbalanced, from the Yukon Gold Rush that petered out almost as suddenly as it flared up; to the penal camps, subsidized settlements and military bases of the Soviet Arctic, now decaying away except where hydrocarbons extraction has thrown them a lifeline.

But now the world is changing. No longer will opening the Arctic have to be a hubristic project, as with the chiliastic visions of Soviet planners; or a costly and unprofitable strategic necessity, as with the Cold War submarine patrols beneath the Arctic sea ice or the bomber flights over it. Today, it is global macro-trends such as global warming, resource depletion and overpopulation that will ensure the rapid but organic development of the Arctic.

With the growing human presence, the Arctic will inevitably begin to lose its luster of mysticism, foreboding and darkness. As the years turn into decades, and 2050 approaches, the polar-centric view of the world will become increasingly central to human spatial consciousness. The world’s trade, energy and capital flows will have been largely rerouted north.

The ARCS of Progress, their numbers swelled by climate refugees, and their economies bolstered by a flood of capital investment, will be amongst the leading Powers in the world. This assumes they retain their present political configurations. For instance, could an independent Greenland, with just 56,000 people today, retain its own national identity? Facing resource shortages and droughts in the south, would China encroach on the Russian Far East? Would the US try to assimilate Canada?

Whatever the answers to these questions, one thing is near certain. The vision of a northern Ultima Thule is dissipating, and will soon dissolve altogether (thought teh concept may be resurrected to describe a desolate, uninhabitable South many hundreds of years into an extreme AGW future). In its place there will emerge a polar world-economy of open seas, farms and growing cities by 2050.

There will arise an Arctic ecumene.

* According to more recent data, there were 34 transits of the Northern Sea Route in 2011, up from just 4 in 2010; with 820,000 tons of goods transported relative to 111,000 tons in 2010. Volumes are predicted to double again this year. This goes in tandem with record breaking sea ice melt in 2012.

Edit Jan 28, 2013: There were a record-breaking 46 vessels making the transit through the NSR this year.

(Republished from AKarlin.com by permission of author or representative)
 
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The river of time flows on, and empires crumble, leaving behind only legend that becomes myth, while new polities arise to take their place. This process of decay and creation is going to receive a boost from “peak energy” and, above all, climate change – which will redraw the maps of power to an extent unprecedented since the end of the last Ice Age. Throughout recorded history, the centers of advanced civilization have seesawed east and west, but remained constrained within a “band of habitability” that did not extend much further north than Oslo, St.-Petersburg, or Harbin. If the pessimistic scenarios of AGW come true, this band will become inverted: the tropics and mid-latitudes will become increasingly drought-stricken, desolate wastelands, perhaps even uninhabitable by 2300, while the Arctic regions, and a thawing Greenland and Antarctica, will become new centers of global civilization.

In this post, with the help of many maps, I will explore what this will mean in more detail than I believe has been done anywhere else on the Web. Needless to say, I am making the assumption that there will be no technological singularity, or other technological breakthrough, that will enable the continuation of modern high-energy civilization. But not will these be any all-out apocalypse. That part of the technological base that does not rely on high levels of energy inputs for its maintenance will survive, that is, railways, electricity generated by hydropower, radios, even elementary computing. So let us venture forth into the brave new world of 3000 AD!

The Rise of the Poles

The first major transformation that I want to emphasize is that people will stop thinking of the world as they currently do.

world-map

This would make no sense when population levels in the equators and mid-latitudes plummet due to constant drought and heat stress that actually makes mammalian life unviable during the summer months. Let’s start with basics: temperatures under full humidity cannot exceed the body’s if you want to survive.

real-world-heat-stress-map

Today, the entire world fulfills this basic requirement. The same cannot be said of a world that is 11-12C warmer; at that point, a “belt of uninhabitability” will encircle the world.

simulated-world-heat-stress-map

As you can see above, life will become impossible within the interiors of the Eastern US, much of the interior of South America, northern Africa, large swathes of the Middle East, India, eastern China, and Australia. It will also get a great deal more uncomfortable almost everywhere else. Note how Siberia becomes as oppressively hot as the Ganges river plain today.

Furthermore, you need a constant source of water to sustain large-scale agriculture. Where this is impossible, as in the US Great Plains or much of the Middle East, there is a reliance on runoff from mountain snow-packs (the Himalayas, for instance, feed the great Chinese and Indian rivers) or fossil aquifers (as in the US Great Plains, or large parts of the Middle East and India today).

drought-map-2000

The world’s water situation will become a lot worse under extreme AGW, at least until plant life adapts and re-greens the southern regions (but this will take many tens of millennia at the very least).

drought-map-2100

As you can see from the map above, agriculture will become impossible in most of the world’s current breadbaskets. India will be too hot to survive in, despite its plentiful rainfall. Agriculture will largely be confined to what is now Alaska, northern Canada, Scandinavia, Siberia, northern China, and East Africa (as well as newly deglaciated Greenland and Antarctica).

But what’s more, quite a lot of the newly opened up areas will be flooded due to sea level rise. Below is a map of the effects of all the ice melting.

world-ice-free

This shows that two major regions that may have become (or remained) suitable for intensive agriculture will become flooded, such as much of what is now northern Argentina and the West Siberian Lowlands. On the other hand, they may go Dutch and salvage quite a lot of these territories by land reclamation. Also, the Caspian Sea and Aral Sea are obviously not going to expand as shown above, because they are internal and none of the extra water from melted icecaps is going to find its way into them; to the contrary, they will more likely vanish, leaving behind salted, desert wastelands.

But this is not all. A much warmer world will have much stronger storms, such as hypercanes. Originating from locally warmed ocean waters, they feature 800km/h (F9) winds and can traverse the globe several times leaving behind a trail of destruction. This will make civilization in Argentina difficult to achieve, as any dykes the agriculturalists build will be overwhelmed by the 18m storm surges generated by these hypercanes. Same goes for South-Eastern China, Borneo, and Papua New Guinea. On the other hand, the Arctic region will be much safer, because there will not be enough heat energy to sustain the hypercanes that far north; likewise, regions blocked off by mountains, such as East Africa, may also prosper, relatively speaking.

Finally, enclosed sea regions such as the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea, and the Caribbean Sea may become anoxic dead zones due to the shut-off of ocean circulation. But presumably any coastal dwellers will have long since left anyway.

All that said, it will be logical that – with the exception of whatever civilization happens to occupy East Africa, Antarctica, and perhaps Patagonia – the peoples of the world will cluster around the Arctic and will come to think of their world as one that is centered at the North Pole.

arctic-transformation

Indeed, people may no longer even think of world in terms of traditional concepts such as east, west, north or south. They may instead think horizontally (“Let’s go left, to Alaska,” says a traveler in Labrador) and vertically (“I think I want to either go down to see the ruins of Delhi this summer, then go up to the beaches of Novaya Zemlya,” says a rich aristocrat living in a city on the Yenisei flood plain).

Polar Civilizations

What will these post-high exergy, post-AGW civilizations look like? Much will depend on the geographic and climatic peculiarities of the entities in question. Let’s start off by listing the possible centers of powerful civilizations.

  • Scandinavia
  • Ob-Yenisei (West Siberian Lowlands between the Purana and the Urals)
  • Lena (Central Siberian Plain up to the river Lena)
  • Kolyma (maybe includes Anadyr; Kamchatka)
  • Amur (plus Heilongjiang, Sakhalin, North Korea)
  • Lake Baikal; Lake Balkash; Tian Shan statelets
  • Vorkuta (north-east of European Russia)
  • Alaska
  • Greenland
  • Canadian Archipelago
  • Labrador (along with Nova Scotia, Newfoundland)
  • Hudson Bay
  • The Eastern Rockies (to the far north)
  • East Africa
  • Patagonia
  • Antarctica
  • Though they remain cool enough, the regions of North California and the Himalayas will be unlikely to maintain high-level civilizations because they will be in permanent drought.

Below is a map of the Arctic region around 3000 AD, showing risen sea levels and a deglaciated Greenland.

arctic-far-future

The nature of the states and empires that will come to occupy this Arctic world will depend heavily on specific geographies and the patterns that have traditionally been associated with them. For instance:

  1. Massive flood plains and land reclamation, as may be expected in West Siberia, are typically pushed through by bureaucratic, authoritarian states (called “hydraulic despotisms” by Wittfogel). They tend to be populated by many peasants living near the edge of subsistence, feeding a religious, administrative, and military class that works to consolidate the country from internal rebellions and outside invasions.
  2. Bay regions, such as that of the Hudson Bay, and islands, as in the Canadian Archipelago, tend to be more diverse and disunited. Probably no single empire will consolidate them all under its control.
  3. There is a constant historical theme of conflict between lowlanders and highlanders. This may be resumed, though for different reasons. Historically, nomads frequently invaded and enslaved riverine peasant populations thanks to their craving of their material goods, emphasis on martial values, and protein-rich diets. In the far future, the highland nations in places like Kolyma or Alaska will be far more energy rich than in West Siberia or around the Hudson Bay, because they will have an abundance of the major remaining source of electric power: hydropower. Their populations will also be healthier, having access to more calories and being farther away from the diseases flitting across the tropical lowlands. If they can unite, their power will far outclass those of lowland empires, despite their lower populations.
  4. The other major historical enmity relevant to this world is that between sedentary people and desert nomads. Unlike the highlanders, the desert nomads will pose only a minimal threat. Nomads do not have manufacturing bases, and in a world in which guns and heavy weapons continue to be used in warfare, they cannot do anything more than harass border settlements.

Bearing these issues in mind, this is what I expect the geopolitical configuration of the world in 3000 AD to look like.

arctic-map

The West Siberian Lowlands between the Ob and the Yenisei, and the regions around the Lena River, will be an empire with resemblances to that of Egypt: heavily dependent on rivers and irrigation for agriculture in a region that would otherwise be desert, and obliged to support a big elite caste to manage said waterworks. These two river basins may well be united under one mega-empire, for the Central Siberian Plateau does not represent a serious impediment to communications between the West Siberian Lowlands and the Lena valley.

Kolyma will be able to sustain another major hydraulic civilization, and likely a more productive one because its hydropower potential relative to the population its river basin can sustain is greater than is the case in Siberia; and because Kolyma’s mineral base will be exhausted later than Siberia’s because it won’t be exploited as soon due to its remoteness. Kolyma will probably have hostile relations with the empire(s) to its west because of its logical desire to secure the Lena River. Separated from them by mountain ranges, Kolyma is probably unlikely to be united with smaller mountain states such as the ones that will appear in and around current-day Anadyr, Kamchatka, and Magadan.

eurasia

Most states to the south of Kolyma will be poor, being landlocked deep within Eurasia. The major exception is the the Amur region stretching to the origins of the Lena river, and including Sakhalin and modern-day Heilongjiang, which I expect to form the foundations of a respectable Great Power.

We may expect smaller entities to form around Lake Baikal, and the Altai Region, and what are now the countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. They have adequate rainfall, and can raid Siberia’s underbelly for food and slaves. A major Power is unlikely to appear in the Himalayas. It is predicted to be a drought-stricken area, and under catastrophic AGW the mountains will lose all their snow, so irrigation agriculture will also be impossible. Crops may find it hard to grow at such high altitudes.

Already being somewhat settled, any resources in Scandinavia will have long since been depleted in Scandinavia by 3000 AD – with the possible exception of the Kola Peninsula, which has one of the world’s greatest concentrations of Rare Earth Metals. What is North-East Russia will also be similarly exhausted, and in addition will be buffeted by hypercanes coming up from the Atlantic and racing over a flooded northern Europe: not shielded by mountains, as are the West Siberian Lowlands and much of Scandinavia, they will bear the brunt of these fearsome tempests.

greenland

Once it thaws, Greenland will have a geography to die for. Multiple awesome harbors? Check. Internal lake massively lowering internal transport costs, allowing for ease of capital accumulation? Check. Secure from external threats? Check. Many mountains that will provide hydroelectric power (and block hypercanes)? Check. Full of minerals that will take a long time to start exploiting? Check.

I fully expect whoever gets Greenland to develop the Arctic world’s most developed economy and navy, and perhaps even become its predominant superpower.

canada-map

Alaska will presumably go much the way of Kolyma – a set of states, possible competing, possible confederating, all of them rich in relative terms because of the plentiful rainfall, mountains, and resources that will only start getting exploited late in the world’s history. There may be naval skirmishes between Alaskans and whoever wants to challenge them for control of the Bering Strait from the Kolyma side.

Canada will be a relatively poor set of competing entities, divided primarily into four groups: (1) the Rockies states centered around the great Canadian lakes, which try to eke out an existence by whatever they can dredge from any mines still bearing lodes (their north will be buffeted by the remnants of hypercanes billowing through Vorkuta and across the Arctic, and their south will be harassed by nomadic raiders from the desertified Great Plains); (2) the disparate collection of sultanates, slave plantations, foreign naval bases, and pirate strongholds that will claim control over the Canadian Archipelago; (3) the competing lowland states clustering around what is today the Hudson Bay, with no resources or sources of energy, their trade strangled by pirates from the Archipelago and their border settlements attacked by southern raiders; and (4) the state that will appear in Labrador. This state, which may or may not also include what is now Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, will have rolling hill-lands and will likely be the only respectable Power on the American continent apart from Alaska.

antarctica-map-no-ice

Elsewhere, the only region I expect to have a chance of becoming powerful is what is now Antarctica once it melts; however, contacts with the Arctic region will be difficult, passing through a world of desert wasteland on land and sea, so it may technologically regress to a greater extent than is the case in the northern hemisphere. Regardless, despite its formidable extent and industrial potential, it is hard to imagine Antarctica playing power politics in the Arctic from the other side of a long-deglobalized world.

The only two other regions outside the polar regions that may continue to support advanced civilizations are East Africa and, perhaps, Patagonia. However, they are both isolated, and unlike Antarctica, do not have the territorial extent to constitute their own world empires. They will fall far behind, and most of their energies will be preoccupied by the single imperative of arresting civilizational collapse.

Conclusion

In a very real sense, catastrophic AGW truly will create a new world. And it will not necessarily be uniformly apocalyptic in the style of Mad Max and Waterworld (though there’ll be plenty of that). Some regions may prosper, like Kolyma or Alaska, and a few, like Greenland, may even offer their citizens a quality of life comparable to 20th century standards. Others will be populated by peasants eking out a subsistence existence, as in West Siberia and much of Canada. As one goes further south, civilization fades away, and as one ventures into what is now modern Afghanistan or Spain or south of the Great Lakes, even survival becomes impossible during the summer months. Away from the Arctic, civilization will live on live on in isolated pockets if that.

Whereas it is possible to make some informed deductions as to the geopolitics and political economies of certain regions in a warmed world, this becomes an almost purely speculative affair once we move onto national specifics, such as culture, language, ethnicities, or religion. Presumably, the descents of today’s Americans, Europeans (especially Anglo-Saxons and Germanics), Russians, Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese will be relatively well-represented. The same cannot be said of peoples now living in the Middle East, India, or Africa. Even if the northern Powers let in their climate refugees, it is hard to believe they will give them an equal footing with the indigenous inhabitants; more plausibly, today’s ethnic Russians and Canadians will become the aristocrats or military and priestly castes of countries transforming into hydraulic despotisms on the backbones of southern immigrants exchanging survival for serfdom.

It is at this point that futurism ends, and fantasy begins.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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The Arctic is one of the most ignored regions in commentary about global trends. This is unsurprising. The vastnesses of Hyperborea, a semi-mythical world of curdled seas, boreal lights and eternal sunshine, have always been “outside” history. But the fast pace of global warming in recent years is kick-starting Arctic history, bringing with it the promise and peril of industrial civilization: first energy extraction and shipping, then military bases, and eventually farms and cities.

Identifying the opportunities and risks in these exciting new developments will be the main aim of my new blog project Arctic Progress* (which you can also follow on Facebook).

Don’t worry – I’ll continue posting at S/O on “Eurasia, geopolitics and peak oil” (if not as frequently as before). Furthermore, most of the Russian translations and analytical “core articles” on Arctic Progress will be reprinted here, the first one of which follows below.

Introduction – Why Arctic Progress?

1. The Arctic will become much more important in the near future as the melting of Arctic ice opens up circumpolar shipping routes. They are shorter than the constricted passages through Suez, Panama and Malacca, and far less vulnerable to bottlenecks, piracy and terrorism.

2. The Arctic is a once in a century investment opportunity. As the ice and permafrost retreat, the physical infrastructure of industrial civilization will begin to overspread the region: ports, roads, railways, pipelines, mines, oil rigs, housing, farms, schools, shops and military bases. The four major populated regions encircling the Arctic Ocean – Alaska, Russia, Canada, Scandinavia (ARCS) – are all set for massive economic expansion in the decades ahead.

3. Nowhere else is global warming so intrinsically tied to the prospects of a region as the Arctic; it is the force awakening it from its long, cold hibernation into the strange lights and thrumming noises of the modern world. But the Arctic is not passive – how it reacts to higher temperatures will drastically affect the future course and magnitude of further global warming. Global ocean and air currents will be interrupted as the temperature differential between the Arctic and the tropics shrinks. One disturbing possibility is that the melting of the Siberian permafrost will release vast amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that is far more potent than CO2, into the atmosphere, and tip the world into runaway climate change.

4. Many regions of the world are overpopulated and facing resource depletion (e.g. “peak oil”) and rising pollution. The Arctic defies these general trends. As good hydrocarbon and mineral sources deplete, the economics of Arctic resource extraction will become more and more attractive. As the global south sinks deeper into water crises, heat stress and energy shortages, the polar regions will be changing into habitable and rather agreeable places. Exploitation of the region’s plentiful resources – coal in Alaska; minerals in the Russian Far East; hydrocarbons in the oceanic basin off Siberia; etc. – can sustain billions of people for at least a few more decades. That’s enough time to make use of the Arctic region’s plentiful wind and water fluxes to rebuild industrialism on a sustainable basis.

5. The Arctic melt is the kick-start to its own history. Both Russia and Canada are are accelerating their Arctic military buildups. NATO has held yearly military exercises in northern Norway from 2006, in which the (“fictional”) enemy team has a rather uncanny resemblance to Russia. No doubt China and European coalitions will soon take an interest too. The father of geopolitics, Halford Mackiner, claimed that control of Eastern Europe was the key to world power. In the 21st century, the prime strategic asset will become the Arctic Ocean.

6. James Lovelock, the inventor of the Gaia theory, believes that “before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable”. If you think climate-pessimists and doomers like him are correct, more or less, then it might do you good to start planning a “doomstead” in the Far North. The Norwegians already made a start with the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and one day perhaps cities will follow.

7. That few blogs (yet) exist on the Arctic is a good enough reason to start one, no? Besides, I think I can do a decent job of it. First, I know Russian – the other main language of the Arctic apart from English. This blog is about the Arctic, as opposed to just the North American Arctic. Second, my areas of blogging interest, centered around Russia, geopolitics, energy, and futurism, are well suited for an Arctic theme. One can even say that the Arctic brings them all together. …

* Why am I writing about the Arctic on another site? (1) I reckon this blog is crowded and chaotic enough as it is, mixing Russia, geopolitics, futurism, and heck knows what else, (2) I don’t want to drown this blog with short postings about specific Arctic developments which will not be of major interest to many S/O readers, and (3) I want Arctic Progress to develop as a stand-alone hub for Arctic commentary on the interwebs.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.