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Pomeranz, Kenneth – The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (2001)
Category: economy, history, world systems; Rating: 5*/5
Summary: Brad DeLong’s review; The Bactra Review; Are Coal and Colonies Really Crucial?

great-divergence-pomeranz It’s a rare book that not only vastly informs you on a particular issue, but in so doing overturns many prior conceptions you had on the general subjects. Now, Pomeranz is not a good writer. The text is slow and turgid, and readable only by dint of my interest in the subject. Many potential counter-arguments go unanswered (which is not to say that they sink the overall theory, as I will try to prove in this review). All that said, I have little choice but to give it a 5*/5, as this a truly counter-intuitive and deeply contextualizing work that overturns many of the triumphalist post hoc narratives of Western chauvinism.

This book attempts to answer the big question of world economic history: Why Europe? It does this by systematically comparing Europe with other leading world regions in the pre-industrial age such as Qing China, Tokugawa Japan, and India. The first big finding is that – contrary to the conventional wisdom – there were far more similarities than differences, at least between Britain and the most advanced Chinese region, the Yangtze Delta.

Essential Similarities Between Old World Cores

It is sometimes argued that special European demographic patterns, such as marrying late and a celibate clergy, had the effect of lowering its fertility and mitigating the Malthusian impoverishment held to be prevalent elsewhere. Another, often complementary, view is that European consumption markets were already far more developed than in China, which allowed it to hit the ground running (so to speak) once the preconditions for industrial revolution were fulfilled. However, China also saw fertility postponement, and there is ample evidence that at least until the mid-19th century the average quality of life in China as measured by life expectancy, median incomes, availability of consumer goods, etc. was at least as good as in Europe, probably higher, and as good as Britain in its most advanced region, the Yangtze Delta.

Although Europe was technologically ahead in some spheres – most visibly, guns, clock making, optics – China had a clear lead in irrigation, soil preservation and land management, and medicine (yields per acre in Europe only approached Chinese levels by the late 19th century). This is of no small consequence in pre-industrial societies hewing to the laws of Malthus. As in China, per capita food and fuel availability declined in Europe up until the mid-19th century century; only in Britain was this in significant part mitigated from 1800 by the windfall of “coal and colonies” (much more on this later).

Finally, there’s the argument that European capitalist institutions and markets were better developed and thus kick-started its growth. But again, the evidence Pomeranz marshals convinces that, if anything, China was substantially more “capitalist” (in the laissez-faire sense) than Europe. There were far fewer monopolies, and no internal trade barriers – contrast this, for example, with ancient regime France – and as a consequence, the volume of trade flows (in grains, sugar, timber, etc) were far higher within China than in continental Europe. The civil service was professional and meritocratic, whereas in Europe this only came to be in the 19th century. Markets for labor and products were freer in China; guilds had much less political influence than in Europe. Bound labor and feudal obligations remained prevalent far longer in Europe (and India) than in China, where it had long ago become marginal; for instance, the settlement of Taiwan for the cultivation of sugar – China’s equivalent of the Caribbean islands – was done by free labor. Though credit was cheaper in Europe – or, at least, in Holland and Britain – but to cut a long story short, there is (1) no evidence that this made crucial industrial activities unprofitable or impeded further pro-industrial mechanization, and (2) the credit system was more developed in India relative to China and Japan, although it was far more backward in general.

One major factor that Pomeranz glosses over is the impact of the Scientific Revolution. Though Chinese scientific achievements are under-appreciated – for instance, it matched Western mathematical achievements up to and including those of 16th century Italy – it is undeniable that Europe took a commanding lead from about the mid-16th century. There was to be no Chinese Kepler or Newton. But impressive as it was, you do not need calculus or laws of planetary motion to produce coal and iron (“as late as 1827 and 1842, two separate British observers claimed that Indian bar iron was as good or betterthan English iron”), and you certainly don’t need them to more efficiently produce textiles. As first textiles, and then coal and iron, constituted the first stages of the Industrial Revolution – up to the 1860′s or so – the European scientific base was almost entirely incidental to the initial industrial takeoff. Now obviously this scientific base did become vastly more important by the late 19th century, which saw the flowering of the electric, chemical, and international combustion engine industries; and those countries with particularly powerful research establishments, such as the US and Germany, did very well, catching up to Britain. However, by then China was already hugely behind.

Addendum 7/31: I almost forgot to mention this. This is probably obvious, but Pomeranz says nary a word about the contribution of cultural differences to the Great Divergence (in contrast to people like Landes who make it a centerpiece of their analysis, waxing poetic on the influence of the Renaissance, the Reformation, distinctive Western values of separation of church and state, etc). And rightly so. Culture is an intangible, and has very little explanatory power; furthermore, such explanations are frequently contradictory in time and place (for instance, whereas “Confucian values” may be cited as holding Chinese society back, they are now frequently invoked to explain the meteoric rise of the Asian tigers; you can’t have it both ways, folks).

The European “Miracle”: Coal and Colonies

Why then did Europe, and more specifically Britain, industrialize while China fell into an ecological impasse in which food production barely kept up with population growth? Pomeranz argues (convincingly, IMO) that the crux of the matter was a fortunate conjunctures and contingencies that overwhelmingly favored Europe.

First, colonies. Many recent scholars have dismissed their contribution; according to one article, overseas coercion could not have been responsible for more than 7% of gross investment in late 18th century Britain (and far less in Europe). But this neglects the vital role of the New World colonies – with their near endless land and natural resources – at relieving ecological bottlenecks in Europe, and in particular Britain. These included sugar (which acted as an additional source of calories as well as a hunger suppressant) and cotton (for clothing, and indirectly relieving pressure on pastures and timber for heating), and later in the 19th century, massive grain exports. All this “ghost acreage” allowed the British isles to support a far larger population than its existing carrying capacity could have, a highly urbanized one and relatively comfortable too (hence no Malthusian stress as in late Qing China, with its debilitating effects on political and social cohesion).

(Furthermore, even the aforementioned 7% figure could have been significant in a pre-industrial world. Due to high rates of capital depreciation, the net accumulation in capital stock then was only a small fraction of the overall savings rate. For instance, according to one calculation, that hypothetical 7% in “super-profits” – an increment to gross savings not purchased at the expense of consumption – could have significantly increased an otherwise minimal rate of net capital accumulation.)

And these goods – cotton, sugar, etc. – could be imported at very favorable terms of trade, because of another set of favorable conjunctures. The decimation of Native Americans due to European epidemiological superiority cleared the way for settlers, who supplied the Caribbean colonies with food and Britain with timber (thus relieving its Malthusian stress). Furthermore, the slave labor on the Caribbean islands – apart from the implicit coercion (and “super-profits” it enabled) – prevented them from developing their own proto-industrial sectors that could undercut British exports.

This is in contrast to what happened naturally in China, largely by dint of its free labor markets (as opposed to New World slavery or East European serfdom). The inner provinces began to expand their handicrafts and textiles industries, thus undercutting the (more advanced) proto-industrialization of the Yangtze Delta. This was a form of “import substitution,” and economically natural in those times because of far higher transport costs than is the case today. This was accompanied by a growing population in the inner regions. Unable to increase its industrial exports, and facing declining imports of rice, timber, etc., the most advanced Chinese regions, the Yangtze Delta and Lingnan, had to increase the labor intensity of their agriculture so as to keep food production abreast of their own population.

Obviously, the conditions did not exist for a Caribbean turn towards import substitution. The slaves themselves had no choice, and neither did the owners; they needed to produce commodities for export in order to pay for replacing slaves. And this all provided a growing (as opposed to declining) demand stimulus for British industry.

One additional New World advantage covered in some length by Pomeranz is the windfall of New World silver – which was, in large part, a free gift to Europe on account of the slave labor and monopolies used in its extraction. This allowed it to easily balance the books with trade in China for silk, porcelain, etc., which in turn could be used to pay for African slaves and New World resources. And Chinese demand for silver was huge, since it was remonetizing its economy to run on silver during the early modern period. Indirectly, it contributed to the formation of the Atlantic economy.

The second great British advantage was coal – that is, as an alternative to wood, located close to its main industrial centers (China too had coal, but it was far away from its main industrial centers, and transport costs were prohibitive). Coal relieved pressure on woodlands, which were in rapid decline, and – due to its virtually limitless nature – unbound the production possibilities of iron. Steam power was crucial to this expansion, not only by powering other processes but by permitting a huge expansion of coal-mining itself. “The Chinese had long understood the basic scientific principle involved – the existence of atmospheric pressure – and had long since mastered (as part of their “box bellows”) a double-acting piston/cylinder system much like Watt’s, as well as a system for transforming rotary motion to linear motion that was as good as any known anywhere before the twentieth century. ll that remained was to use the piston to turn the wheel rather than vice versa.” So the relevant technical skills were not unique to Europe. In fact, northern China had a huge coke and iron complex as early as the 11th century under the Song dynasty, though it was brought low by the multiple perturbations of the 12th-15th centuries (Jurchen and Mongol invasions, etc). The rest is worth quoting in extenso:

However, a number of factors militated against widespread Chinese (re)adoption of coal as a major fuel source. First, the reorientation of the center of Chinese development to the east and south meant by the Qing dynasty meant that its industrial cores were now located far from the big coal deposits in the north-west; the advantages of linking these regions by transport are only evident ex ante. Second, the best artisans were concentrated in the (low coal) Yangtze Delta or along the south-east coast, and serving a huge public demand for clocks and other mechanical toys. Third, “even if mine operators had seen how to improve their mining techniques, they had no reason to think that extracting more coal would allow them to capture a vastly expanded market.” Finally, and most importantly, the technical nature of extracting Chinese coal was profoundly different from that of extracting British coal; in fact, it made the deep extraction that enabled Britain to boost its output all but impossible.

English mines tended to fill with water, so a strong pump was needed to remove that water. Chinese coal mines had much less of a water problem; instead they were so arid that spontaneous combustion was a constant threat. It was this problem – one that required ventilation rather than powerful pumps – that preoccupied the compiler of the most important Chinese technical manual of the period… Even if still better ventilation had ameliorated this problem—or if people wanted coal badly enough to pay for this high level of danger – ventilation techniques would not have also helped solve the problem of transporting coal (and things in general) as the steam engines that pumped out Britain’s mines did. Thus, while overall skill, resource, and economic conditions in “China,” taken as an abstract whole, may not have been much less conducive to a coal/steam revolution than those in “Europe” as a whole, the distribution of those endowments made the chances of such a revolution much dimmer.

In contrast, some of Europe’s largest coal deposits were located in a much more promising area: in Britain. This placed them near excellent water transport, Europe’s most commercially dynamic economy, lots of skilled craftspeople in other areas, and – to give the problems of getting and using coal some additional urgency – a society that had faced a major shortage of firewood by 1600 if not before. And although timber and timber-based products were imported by sea, this was far more expensive than receiving logs floated down a river, as the Yangzi Delta did; the incentives to use (and learn more about) comparatively accessible coal were correspondingly greater.

Much of the knowledge about how to extract and use coal had been accumulated by craftsmen and was not written down even in the nineteenth century… Harris shows that French attempts to copy various coal-using processes foundered, even when they reproduced the equipment, because the production of, say, a heat-resistant crucible required very detailed knowledge and split-second timing acquired through experience – and the financial losses from making a mistake could be very large… Only when whole teams of English workers were brought over (mostly after 1830) was the necessary knowledge effectively transferred.

Thus we see that technological expertise was essential to Europe’s coalbreakthrough, but the development of that expertise depended on long experience (and many failures along the way) with abundant, cheap supplies. This experience was possible because artisan skill, consumer demand, and coal itselfwere all concentrated near each other. Without such geographic good luck, one could easily develop lots of expertise in an area with a limited future (e.g.,in using and improving wood furnaces) and not proceed along the track that eventually led to tapping vast new supplies of energy.

Furthermore, the adoption of the steam engine – whose synthesis with coal was what really generated the Industrial Revolution – was also highly contingent. It was the result of 200 years of use on British coal fields, which was both economical (free coal due to zero transport costs) and proximate to mechanics-minded artisans which could offer improvements. Nonetheless, it took until 1830 for the costs of energy per unit of power for steam-run textile machinery to decline precipitously; until then, water remained competitive with steam engines!

Take away some of the incremental advantage conferred by skill transfers from nearby artisans in other fields, the learning by doing made possible by the application to nearby coal fields, and the low cost of coal itself, and – as incredible as it seems to us today – the steam engine could have seemed not worth promoting.

So, in conclusion, Britain enjoyed two major advantages that the Yangtze Delta, the Lingnan region, and Japan did not: (1) a colonial system that allowed it to massively increase its effective carrying capacity while simultaneously stimulating its industrial production, and (2) conveniently located coal reserves in damp places.

Apart from Britain, Europe as a whole was nowhere close to an industrial takeoff at the dawn of the 19th century; and though the relative inefficiency of its land usage – and the gains from ameliorating that – allowed it to avoid a crisis for a few decades after 1800 (what Pomeranz calls the ecological “advantages of backwardness”), it was nonetheless approaching an an ecological bottleneck as in China (the 1840′s in particular are known as a time of dearth). This was at a time when the Industrial Revolution had scarcely began on the mainland, and if it had continued it would have required the diversion of more and more labor to working the land intensively, instead of industry. Could industrialization then have been sustained without coal, New World surpluses, and the already existing industrialization of Great Britain?

The general impression one gets is that not only was the “European miracle” in fact just a matter of fortunate conjunctures and contingencies, but that there was nothing especially preordained about the Industrial Revolution. No colonial surpluses; no easily-reachable coal or mechanical culture; perhaps, even no slavery (to enhance the efficiency with which colonial surpluses were extracted) – no industrial revolution. At least, not a few more centuries.

Additional Thoughts for Consideration

(1) Needless to say, I now largely reject my previous theory Walled Off By Complexity: Did China Stagnate Because Of Its Writing System? I don’t think the hieroglyphics system did China any good, but they certainly can’t explain The Great Divergence.

(2) One important factor that I didn’t see Pomeranz mention – the Atlantic is much narrower than the Pacific! China was building ships as advanced as that of the European Golden Age of Navigation as early as the 15th century, and in huge numbers far exceeding the capacity of any single European state. Navigation itself wasn’t a problem either (note that it was China that invented the compass, topographic maps, etc). But it didn’t practice overseas slave-trading, and those Chinese that settled new lands – be they in Taiwan, or the inner provinces – tended to develop their own proto-industrial economies, which in the presence of conditions of free trade and free markets for labor and products eventually undermined the volume of trade.

(3) The “rise of the West” was in large part built on systems – mercantilism, military-fiscal competition, etc. – that universal Western ideology now condemns. Ironically, the BRIC’s (including most prominently China) are the ones using mercantile strategies to catch up to the West.

(4) What’s even more curious is that it wasn’t only Britain, and then the rest of Western Europe that overtook China; so did Russia. Now Russia was undoubtedly far, far behind both China and the West practically since its inception until (relative to China) about the late 19th century. It had serfdom, very small urban class, a very de-commercialized economy, with luxury consumption being indulged in by a tiny elite, etc. Nonetheless, despite this backwardness – an inevitable one, due to ecological reasons I have written a lot on this blog about – the state did nonetheless successfully leverage what meager surpluses it had to maintain a rough military parity with the West and play the role of a Great Power. So, yet more evidence that strict adherence to neoclassical economic development isn’t all that it’s hyped up to be.

(5) An interesting counter-factual to consider – what if there had been no easily accessible coal in Britain or the Rhineland, and if Columbus had found no New World and instead sunk somewhere in the middle of a globe-spanning World Ocean? Could there have been an industrial revolution? Is industrial revolution contingent on “coal and colonies”?

Or would Europe instead have become something like Qing China in the 19th century, increasingly politically debilitated, and economically stagnant – any improvements in land management and increasing labor intensity swallowed up by an inexorably growing population? Could it, indeed, have collapsed, perhaps after it grew critically weak and was invaded by the Russian Army much like China was by the Jurchens, the Mongols, the Manchus, etc., and pillaged by British pirates much like Japanese pirates preyed on a weak China in the 17th century Ming twilight? Indeed, could it eventually have collapsed into yet another Dark Age as followed the Roman Empire, in which much of the vaunted knowledge of the Scientific Revolution would be lost to memory, with the 18th century to early 19th century coming to be seen as a bygone “Golden Age”?

PS. H/t to Doug M. for bringing this book to my attention in the first place.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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If I could recommend just one book to someone with a business-as-usual outlook, someone who believes human ingenuity and free markets will always bail us out of any resource scarcity or environmental problem, it would be Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (henceforth LTG). After reading it, you may never look at the world in quite the same way again. This post contains a summary, but I really do recommend you go and read it all. It is well argued, eminently readable, and pertains to issues central to our common future.

Meadows, Donella & J. Randers, D. MeadowsLimits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (2004). BUY THE BOOK!
Category: world systems, resource depletion, pollution; Rating: 5*/5
Summary: wiki; synopsis; WSJ story.

The first book was published in 1972, commissioned by a circle of statesmen, businesspeople, and scientists called the Club of Rome. The LTG models, using the latest advances in systems theory and computer modeling, suggested that business-as-usual economic growth on a finite planet would eventually lead to stagnating and then falling living standards, as ever more industrial capital has to be diverted towards mitigating the consequences of growth, e.g. soil degradation, resource depletion, and runaway pollution.

Cornucopians and establishment “experts” have tried to discredit LTG by claiming that its predictions of global apocalypse failed to materialize; instead, hasn’t the world seen remarkable economic growth since 1972? These criticisms are unfounded. First, the LTG modelers did not make any concrete forecasts, but merely a range of scenarios based on varying initial conditions (e.g. global resource endowments) and future political choices. Not all the scenarios led to collapse – a reasonable global standard of living is preserved under scenarios in which humanity makes a transition back below the limits towards sustainable development. Second, none of those scenarios projected a collapse before 2015 at the earliest, so the claim is invalidated even if you treat the worst case scenario as a prediction. As such, we can only conclude that these critics are either liers or haven’t actually read the book.

In this 30-year update, the authors note that their more pessimistic conclusions are already coming true – for instance, in per capita terms, global grain production peaked in 1984 and the marine catch reached an all-time high in 1988. Both have been on a slow, downward plateau since. (This finally culminated in the global foot riots of 2008 and rising “food protectionism” on the part of agricultural net exporters). Contrary to the hype surrounding globalization, the “new economy”, the flat world, etc, global GDP growth rates peaked in the 1960′s, and have since settled down to a lower level practically everywhere outside emerging Asia (and they may yet go into outright stagnation in the 2010′s due to the convergence of peak oil, geopolitical stresses, and the decline of the West). Furthermore, this slowdown was accompanied by rising inequality, between and within countries. Overall, the authors believe that humanity’s ecological footprint overtook the carrying capacity of the Earth sometime around 1980, ushering in “overshoot”.

A few things we should note before going further. LTG is not about particular phenomena, such as peak oil – though in itself very important, it is but a symptom of much deeper, underlying trends (the limits to growth). Second, the models indicate that growth will only begin to really falter once the system is in severe overshoot, so for the 1970-2010 period the LTG authors did not expect any major divergence between the unending growth predicted by neo-classical macroeconomics, and their own biophysical / systems dynamics models which account for the vital role of energy and ecological factors to sustaining growth. As the authors note, “we must all wait another decade for conclusive evidence about who has the better understanding” (and so far the economists are off to a bad start).

Exponential Growth, Limits, and Overshoot

 

The human population naturally exhibits exponential growth. Whenever total fertility rates are substantially above the 2.1 children per woman needed for simple population replacement, the population will usually grow very rapidly. In Malthusian, pre-industrial societies, this population growth typically exceeded the rate of growth of the carrying capacity; when the two drew level, population growth ceased as lower wages, elite predation, and food dearth raised mortality rates and lowered fertility rates. This increasing brittleness of the system, which made it vulnerable to shocks like poor harvests or peasant uprisings, is the single most convincing explanation for the cyclical emergence and collapse of empires.

In modern industrial societies, the effects of exponential population growth are modulated by the demographic transition, the tendency for fertily rates to transition to or below population replacement rates with increasing wealth. However, the effects of these gains on reducing the human impact on the environment is more than balanced out by the growth of the stock of industrial capital. This growth is inherently exponential, because the machine tool building sector that constitutes the base of the industrial ecosystem essentially reproduces itself, i.e. you need machines to build more machines. Labor and capital factor inputs, in their turn, are the motors of exponential growth in all other spheres of the human economy – food production, goods production, resource extraction, pollution emissions, services provision, etc.

Therefore, population and industrial capital can be said to have “an inherent system structure to produce the behavior of exponential growth”, which in turn drive increases in the food, energy, goods, and services needed to sustain that same growing population and industrial system. This increases the system’s level of physical throughput, the “continuous flows of energy and materials needed to keep people, cars, houses, and factories functioning”. However, both the materials-providing planetary sources (hydrocarbons, metals, minerals, etc) and the pollution-absorbing planetary sinks (soils, oceans, air, etc) needed to sustain a certain level of physical throughput are limited (the former can be depleted, the latter can be overfilled). There are hard planetary limits to the “rate at which humanity can extract resources (crops, grass, wood, fish) and emit wastes (greenhouse gases, toxic substances) without exceeding the productive or absorptive capacities of the world”. Once those limits are breached, development becomes unsustainable and we enter a state of overshoot.

To overshoot means to go too far, to grow so large so quickly that limits are exceeded. When an overshoot occurs, it induces stresses that begin to slow and stop growth. The three causes of overshoot are always the same, at any scale from personal to planetary. First, there is growth, acceleration, rapid change. Second, there is some form of limit or barrier, beyond which the moving system may not safely go. Third, there is a delay or mistake in the perceptions and the responses that try to keep the system within its limits. The delays can arise from inattention, faulty data, a false theory about how the system responds, deliberate efforts to mislead, or from momentum that prevents the system from being stopped quickly.

Although the planetary sources usually appear large on paper, only a small fraction of them tend to be economically recoverable due to the law of diminishing returns. All the low-hanging fruit are picked first, such as “supergiant” oil fields, rich copper ore deposits, etc, or in other words energy sources with high energy return on energy invested (EROEI), thus leaving only remoter, deeper and more dilute resources such as polar oil, unconventional liquids, etc. Their extraction costs soar exponentially and requisition an ever greater share of the industrial base, leaving less room for consumer products (vital for political stability), the agricultural base (to prevent starvation), investment in capital stock renewal (to prevent the depreciation of the industrial base), and environmental mitigation (to prevent runaway pollution from wrecking other sectors).

Due to the dropping EROEI of newer energy sources, ever greater volumes have to be excavated and processed just to keep standing in place (e.g. coal’s gross energy content peaked in 1998 in the US, despite that volumes have continued increasing since). These diminishing returns per unit of capital employed towards resource extraction lead to rising pollution, which negatively feeds back into the agricultural base and human health. We could divert resources from other sectors to combat this pollution, e.g. through emissions reductions or geoengineering. Alternatively, rapid climate change coupled with declining oil and fertiliser output may lead to catastrophic falls in agricultural output, which could only be mitigated for a time by diverting capital and energy into this vital sector – but which would hurt the long-term prospects for renewal in the energy extraction and industrial sectors! And so goes our Faustian trap…

Below are four examples of these phenomena in action.

An example of diminishing returns / lowest fruit being picked first. The quality of copper ore being mined is falling, and more and more energy needs to be expended to get the same quantity of copper. Eventually, the returns may become so low that mining it will no longer be at all profitable, at which point the system collapses to a lower level of complexity and salvage becomes an attrative strategy.

PS. Note the counter-intuitive spike in the early 1930′s, correlating to the Great Depression. Economic retreat forces the shutdown of the least efficient mines, because the efforts they have to expend on extraction now surpass what they get back in profits. Unless the state takes increasingly coercive measure to maintain physical output at all costs, requisitioning labor and capital in a last-ditch Stakhanovite effort to prolong industrialism in a game of “last man standing”, the end of the industrial age will see the same general pattern.

As the ore grade falls, more and more material has to be extracted and processed to get the same amount of copper. This naturally results in soaring pollution emissions, which will put increasing stress on regional and global biocapacity.

An explanation for the drastic improvements in air quality, river health, fuel economy, etc, in advanced industrial nations in the 1970′s-1980′s – picking the lowest-hanging fruit is pretty cheap. But beyond a certain point, reducing pollution becomes without a direct fall in physical output becomes prohibitively expensive.

One more example of limits (the main ones, resource depletion and CO2 pollution, are covered elsewhere in this blog) – arable land availability. The amount of land devoted to agriculture has remained constant in recent decades, though its quality has decreased as good land becomes exhausted and more marginal lands were brought into exploitation. Crop yields have risen and continue to rise, but 1) they are overly dependent on the intensification of farming, e.g. using (natural-gas dependent) fertilizers that mask the decline in natural soil fertility and 2) as noted above, they have not kept up with population growth since the 1980′s.

The graph shows possible food futures: if no more land is lost and crop yields double, then the world’s 8bn people can be fed on a comfortable West European diet. If on the other hand “erosion, climate change, costly fossil fuels, falling water tables… reduce yields from present levels”, then there will be a global Malthusian crisis. Possible solutions: “farming methods that conserve and enhance soil – such as terracing, contour plowing, composting, cover cropping, polyculture, and crop rotation”, and in the tropics, “alley cropping and agroforestry” – all methods that achieve high yields, improve the soil, and don’t require prodigious fossil fuel and fertilizer inputs.

Basically, LTG gives one a valuable sense of how interconnected all these global systems are, about just how universal the law of diminishing returns is, and how the failure to move decisively towards a sustainable economy now will lead to collapse further down the road (and the later we postpone this transition, the greater will be the eventual collision).

The most important thing is to make the human industrial ecosystem a closed loop, in which population ceases to grow, and a recycling sector feeds back wastes as inputs into the system instead of continuing drawdown to maintain an unsustainably-high “phantom” carrying capacity.

Why recycling matters: “undiscovered reserves” (sources) and the sinks for “solid waste” are both limited; hence, a high standard of living can only be preserved by 1) redirecting most wastes back within the loop and 2) directly reducing material throughput by technological innovation (energy efficiency, ecotechnology, informatics).

The World3 Scenarios

All of these are feedback loops that I’ve described form the basis of the World3 computer models that the LTG authors used in making their scenarios. They are reproduced below, in concise detail.

The central feedback loops of the World3 model govern the growth of population and of industrial capital. Two positive feedback loops involving births and investment generate the exponential growth behavior of population and capital. The two negative feedback loops involving deaths and depreciation tend to regulate this exponential growth. The relative strengths of the various loops depend on many other factors in the system.

Some of the interconnections between population and industrial capital operate through agricultural capital, cultivated land, and pollution. Each arrow indicates a casual relationship, which may be immediate or delayed, large or small, positive or negative, depending on the assumptions included in each model run.

Population and industrial capital are also influenced by the levels of service capital (such as health and education services) and of non-renewable resources.

The “initial conditions” and assumptions are overall rather optimistic, for instance, the ones dealing with the power of the environment to clean up toxic pollution. The model leaves out corruption, military expenditures, wars and political disruptions – although vital, they are too hard to model with any degree of rigor (I write about these in my posts on Collapse Ethics and Ecotechnic Dictatorship). Chronic food and energy shortages will lead to civil unrest and political instability, necessitating greater expenditures on law enforcement and assorted populist gimmicks (e.g. the tinpot dictatorships that will rise up in the pre-Collapse period), taking away industrial capital and managerial resources from the industrial base, agriculture, and other critical sectors.

Statistical bodies will manipulate inflation and GDP growth figures to preserve an image of stability, even as creeping normalcy converges to an ever darker reality. There will be a scramble to secure the world’s remaining sources of high-density resources, which will lead to a greater share of the industrial base being devoted to (unproductive) military production. Elites will mobilize support for permanent war and surveillance by citing the moral imperative of fighting freedom-hating terrorists, evil empires, and/or maintaining global peace, security and stability. And so on.

Basically, by excluding these political and geopolitical variables, the World3 model presents the uppermost possibilities for the “real” world, even in the standard run which leads to collapse. This standard run is reproduced below.

As you can see, it leads to overshoot and collapse. Why? Because signals and responses to problems are delayed, and limits are erodable.

Examples of erosion – 1) as hunger returns, resources are concentrated into intensifying agricultural exploitation at the cost of preserving longterm soil fertility, 2) as more industrial capital is needed to maintain a certain level of resource extraction, pollution abatement, and agricultural production, less is left over to counteract the depreciation of the industrial capital stock, which begins to wither away, 3) worst of all, increasing pollution can erode the pollution absorption mechanisms themselves, thus increasing the rate of pollution buildup – this is already evident in the reduced ability of the biosphere (forests, oceans, etc) to soak up human carbon emissions.

Symptoms of overshoot, many of which are already becoming self-evident:

Primary Physical Symptoms – Resource stocks fall, and wastes and pollution accumulate.

  • Capital, resources, and labor diverted to activities compensating for the loss of services that were formerly provided without cost by nature (for example, sewage treatment, air purification, water purification, flood control, pest control, restoration of soil nutrients, pollination, or the preservation of species) – AK: In the worst case scenario, geoengineering would mean that the most basic function previously performed by Gaia, maintaining planetary homeostasis, becomes a human responsibility.
  • Capital, resources, and labor diverted from final goods production to exploitation of scarcer, more distant, deeper, or more dilute resources. – AK: See the declining EROEI of oil sources, talk of seabed mining, the increasing emphasis on unconventional & remote energy sources like tar sands, deep-sea, polar oil, shale gas, coal seam gas, etc…
  • Technologies invented to make use of lower-quality, smaller, more dispersed, less valuable resources, because the higher-value ones are gone. – AK: See greentech (greenwash?), the “hydrogen economy”, electric batteries, etc.
  • Failing natural pollution cleanup mechanisms; rising levels of pollution. – AK: See climate change.

Resulting Physical Symptoms – As resource stocks fall and wastes accumulate the behavior of natural systems may change with consequences for ecosystems and human communities.

  • Growing chaos in natural systems, with “natural” disasters more frequent and more severe because of less resilience in the environmental system. – AK: More heatwaves, droughts, hurricanes, etc, are already observed.

Resulting Social Symptoms - Society tries to live with, compensate for, and adapt to the primary physical symptoms (note: these symptoms do not include responses that address the decline of the resource base in the first place, such responses are catalogued in Signs of Life Within Limits).

  • Capital depreciation exceeding investment, and maintenance deferred, so there is deterioration in capital stocks, especially long-lived infrastructure. - AK: See US infrastructure problems, paralleling that of the late Soviet Union.
  • Growing demands for capital, resources, and labor used by the military or industry to gain access to, secure, and defend resources that are increasingly concentrated in fewer, more remote, or increasingly hostile regions. - AK: See resource wars, of which Iraq 2003 is one of the first in a long series to come; the US, China, and Russia have all ramped up military spending since about 2000.
  • Investment in human resources (education, health care, shelter) postponed in order to meet immediate consumption, investment, or security needs, or to pay debts. - AK: We’ll see plenty of that in the next few years as Western states fall into insolvency like dominoes.
  • Debts a rising percentage of annual real output. – AK: Debt levels have exploded throughout the developed world since 2000, and went into overdrive following the 2008 economic crisis & bailouts of politically-connected corporate groups.
  • Eroding goals for health and environment.
  • Increasing conflicts, especially conflicts over sources or sinks. - AK: Conflicts over sources = resource wars (see above), over sinks = “ecological warfare” (PLA colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui wrote about this in their prophetic book on Unrestricted Warfare).
  • Shifting consumption patterns as the population can no longer pay the price of what it really wants and, instead, purchases what it can afford. – AK: That is basically another way of saying people will become poorer.
  • Declining respect for the instruments of collective government as they are used increasingly by the elites to preserve or increase their share of a declining resource base. - AK: Predatory elites always become a heavy burden on the peasantry and middle classes during times of imminent Malthusian dearth. Applied to the modern world, see the rise of the “surveillance state”, the emphasis on waging a (by definition endless) “war on terror”, the creeping militarization of internal security forces, universal databases, etc… Meanwhile, internal inequality has risen in every major region of the world – the US, Eastern Europe, Japan, China, India, etc – since 1970.

Do you observe any of these symptoms in your “real world?” If you do, you should suspect that your society is in advanced stages of overshoot.

Finally, here are the central assumptions in World3 that give it the tendency to overshoot and collapse: 1) growth in the physical economy is considered desirable and central to our socio-political systems; this growth tends to be exponential, 2) there are “physical limits to the sources of materials and energy that sustain the population and economy, and there are limits to the sinks that absorb the waste products of human activity”, 3) the world system receives signals about these physical limits that are “distorted, noisy, delayed, confused, or denied”, and responses are hence delayed and non-optimal, and 4) the “system’s limits are not only finite, but erodable when they are overstressed or overused”, and furthermore, there are “thresholds beyond which damage rises quickly and can become irreversible” (e.g. see tipping points in climate change). The authors note that if you want to refute LTG, you will have to show that one of the statements above is invalid.

Markets and Technology to the Rescue?

Maybe not. Here are three explanations. First from one of my older posts.

The criticisms from markets and technology also fall flat on their faces. Markets are implicitly modeled in World3 as resource allocations are typically automatically transferred to the sector of most pressing need. (Actually, if anything the models are more market-driven than our own world, since we don’t have perfect information and instant responses in the real world, as opposed to the model). As for technology, unless concrete steps are taken to reduce material throughput, improvements are simply soaked up by the Jevons paradox. Unless technological progress is extremely rapid (e.g. as envisioned by singularitarians), there will sometime come a tipping point when efficiency improvements no longer make up for decling agricultural and resource yields and soaring pollution, and world population and human welfare collapse.

Second from Limits to Growth synopsis.

The most common criticisms of the original World3 model were that it underestimated the power of technology and that it did not represent adequately the adaptive resilience of the free market. Impressive —and even sufficient— technological advance is conceivable, but only as a consequence of determined societal decisions and willingness to follow up such decisions with action and money.

Technological advance and the market are reflected in the model in many ways. The authors assume in World3 that markets function to allocate limited investment capital among competing needs, essentially without delay. Some technical improvements are built into the model, such as birth control, resource substitution, and the green revolution in agriculture. But even with the most effective technologies and the greatest economic resilience that seems possible, if those are the only changes, the model tends to generate scenarios of collapse.

One reason technology and markets are unlikely to prevent over shoot and collapse is that technology and markets are merely tools to serve goals of society as a whole. If society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature, enrich the elites, and ignore the long term, then society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment, widen the gap between rich and poor, and optimize for short‑term gain. In short, society develops technologies and markets that hasten a collapse instead of preventing it.

The second reason for the vulnerability of technology is that adjustment mechanisms have costs. The costs of technology and the market are reckoned in resources, energy, money, labor, and capital.

Third from my post on ecotechnic dictatorship to criticize the technology element of Korotayev’s cliodynamics model, but which happens to apply somewhat to LTG as well.

However, a closer examination shows that 1) their models of technological growth are flawed – they do not account for the diminishing returns seen for technological progress in recent decades, nor 2) do they note that in most cases post-industrial technology has not been in the form of low-maintenance knowledge, but embodied in the (fossil fuel-dependent) machines of industrial civilization.

I.e., 1) to get technological growth, you have to divert resources from industrial capital and services to sustain it, 2) many spheres of technological growth themselves show diminishing returns on investment, e.g. electricity-generating turbine efficiency has more or less plateaued, electric batteries are showing signs of plateauing, etc, 3) a lot of the technology we did create in the fossil fuel age is not even at all suitable for sustainable development and are thus essentially worse than useless, i.e. only ecotechnologies can be sustainably supported, and 4) technology requires a electro-industrial base for its very sustenance: if the latter gives way, so will technology, and we will see a collapse in spheres like energy efficiency, made even worse by the fact that the available energy sources would be increasingly depleted and low-EROEI.

Conclusion. Since technology itself relies on a material base for its sustenance, which in turn requires energy inputs to sustain itself. Thus, it will probably be one of the first things to be downsized when physical limits start pressing down on the economy. The hen that lays the golden eggs will probably be the first to get cooked. Second, there may be sudden and catastrophic increases in pollution. Climate change may be abrupt and catastrophic. A collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet would raise sea levels by several meters and wipe the world’s ports and more importantly, much of its prime agricultural land. The Amazon is increasingly vulnerable to a conflagration that will turn it into desert, releasing more CO2 than I care to look up in the scientific literature. Increasing temperatures may unleash uncontrolled methane emissions from melting Siberian permafrost and oceanic clathrates.

Past the point of irreversible decline a controlled retreat to sustainability becomes ever more and more unlikely, because of a) the inertia of past pollution emissions and capital investments, b) political crisis in a society predicated on permanent growth will lead to short-term thinking and ever more exclusively stopgap solutions and c) eventually institutional collapse will make it impossible to fund and implement new energy-efficiency or pollution-control technologies on any sufficiently large scale or even maintain already existing infrastructure devoted for those purposes.

Further Reading:

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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After two hundred years of global ascendancy, the West is in rapid relative decline to (re)emerging Asia, which is mounting a steady “Great Reconvergence”. Likewise, the legitimacy of today’s “neoliberal internationalist” order promoted by the West is being questioned by the more statist, neo-Westphalian visions of the leaders of the Rest, the so-called BRIC’s. This has already led to the emergence of a “world without the West” – a parallel international system based on the principles of state sovereignty, hard power, and bilateral trade relations.

The most powerful and influential member of this new world is China, which has become the “workshop of the world” since its graduated opening up from the late 1970′s. Accounting for half of global steel and cement production, China has built up an enormous infrastructure of roads, railways, and ports to support its mercantile expansion. In 2009 it became the world’s largest automobile market. Furthermore, China is now advancing higher up the ladder of added-value industries by expanding into hi-tech areas such as commercial aircraft, renewable energy, and supercomputers.

One of the most important factor making China’s rise all the more significant is that it is concurrent with the accelerating decline of Pax Americana that is spurred on by the end of cheap oil, US economic weakness, and regional threats to American hegemony from the “challenger Powers” (e.g. Russia, Iran, and China itself). Should the current international order suffer a “cascading collapse” – which is not unlikely, given the brittleness of the world financial and energy system – then it is possible that China will emerge as an equal, or even superior, pole to the US superpower as soon as 2020.

The Inevitability of China’s Return to Hegemony

Critics aver that ordinary Chinese remain much poorer than Americans, but they miss the obvious fact that with its 1.3bn+ population, China needs only a Romanian level of per capita economic output to equal the US; should they reach Portugal’s level, China’s economy would be double America’s size. (Economic power underpins military power). Nor is there any reason for supposing that China’s growth will soon falter due to social and regional inequality, environmental degradation, bad loans, population aging, or social unrest (though it may well experience a Malthusian collapse along with the rest of the world by 2050). For a refutation of the major concerns, see my old post A Long Wait at the Gate of Delusions, or in summary:

  1. Regional disparities. The sharp divide between the affluent coastal and poorer internal regions is not new in Chinese history. In the absence of firm central control, this has in the past led to fragmentation – coastal administrations orientating themselves to foreign commercial interests, the interior sinking beneath a morass of poverty and corruption. However, modern China is not the ailing China of the 19th century in the throes of Malthusian stagnation. It is now a proud and rising Great Power, its regional separatist movements are quelled, and it is under the firm control of the CCP. As such, the chances of a jaded Japan or declining USA successfully exploiting this divide are very slim.
  2. Income inequality. There is also a great deal of inequality between China’s urban and rural, between its new oligarchs and itinerant indigents, and between the privileged and non-privileged. However, this is entirely typical of capitalist societies at the height of the industrialization drive, and levels of inequality tend to fall once a more affluent state decides on expanding social welfare schemes to contain labor unrest. As will be covered in a later, related post on China’s internal debates, the ideological underpinnings for such a shift are already coming into place with the concept of the “Harmonious Society“.
  3. Environmental degradation. A major problem. An innovative attempt to start measuring economic performance with “Green GDP” (accounting for pollution costs) was quietly squashed when it indicated that China had almost no real growth. That said, localized pollution per se, like city smog or collapsed ecosystems, won’t bring about China’s fall just as they haven’t led to the fall of any other post-agrarian society. The same certainly cannot be said for anthropogenic climate change, whose effects will become devastating to China by the 2030′s (floods, droughts, desertification, dust storms, etc). The most ominous prospect is the melting of the Himalayan glaciers, though some point out that this may be a centuries-long process. Nonetheless, these potential disasters won’t come in time to prevent China’s assumption of its superpower mantle, which I predict for 2020.
  4. Bad loans. A valid point, but they only tend to result in – or more accurately, contribute to – long-term stagnation by the time high growth rates falters, such as when a developing society nears convergency with the rich world (e.g. Japan in the early 1990′s). South Korea got a severe economic shock in 1997 stemming from its structural weaknesses, but respectable rates of growth continued up until the 2008 economic crisis. Speaking of which, Western critics should be doubly cautious now when criticizing China for its bad loans. As recent history might have proven, investing in industrial overcapacity may be rather less useless than building suburbs with no future, printing money under euphemisms like quantitative easing, or whatever the latest bondoogles are.
  5. Will China get old before it gets rich? The concerns over aging are ridiculous because 1) China’s TFR is at a respectable 1.8 (OK, more like 1.6-1.7 if one accounts for their skewed sex ratios, but still…), 2) its labor force will continue growing until 2030, and 3) it still has massive labor armies locked up in the countryside which can be drawn into higher-added value economic sectors. The real problem cases in the aging department are Central Europe, the Mediterranean, and Japan. See Will China Grow Old Before Getting Rich? (Goldman Sachs) for a more comprehensive analysis which reaches the same basic conclusion.
  6. Excessive export dependency. Frankly, I’ve always thought the image of the heroic American consumer saving the world by kindly consuming much of what the the world produces to be somewhat ridiculous – and this image is already being revealed for the hallucination it really is, thanks largely to US fiscal profligacy, imperial overstretch and peak oil. But I digress. First, China’s export dependency is nowhere near as high as suggested by the official figures because much of its exports are merely assembled in China from parts made in and imported from Korea, Japan, etc. Whereas gross exports are near 40% of GDP, net exports are at just 7% of GDP. In 2008, China clocked up a respectable 8% GDP growth rate (albeit, one only enabled by prodigious credit infusions), even though its exports fell by 20%. Second, the main reason for Chimerica – Chinese saving / production – American dissaving / consumption – in the first place was it allowed China to acquire the foreign currency to pay for resource imports, build up its industrial base, and acquire advanced technologies, while the US got back cheaper goods to cushion its rising inequality and industrial stagnation. But China interest in this deal is flagging. It already has by far the world’s largest industrial base by volume and it has bought up, or stolen, most of the key technologies needed for advanced industrialism. From now on, growth will be slower as it is curbed by stagnant world demand, accumulating bad loans, diminishing returns, etc, – it will likely be around 5-7% a year in the 2010′s, rather than the 10% typical of the 1980′s to 2000′s. Nonetheless, growth should continue at a fast enough rate to soak up the new landless labor, ease social tensions and enable China to launch a geopolitical breakout. The inevitable transition from a centrally-weak, disbalanced and commercialized nation-state, to a more centralized, balanced, hegemonic empire will not be smooth, but China’s forward momentum is simply too large to derail its rise to superpower status.
  7. Social unrest. Unlikely to happen in a big way as long as fast economic growth continues, which it likely will for the next decade. China still has plenty of room for economic convergence, and its investments in human capital are going to be paying off handsomely in this period – “during the past decade, China has produced college and university graduates at a significantly faster pace than Korea and Japan did during their fastest-growing periods” (Goldman Sachs). Nor are resource or ecological limits to growth likely to intrude in the next ten years. Of course, this situation won’t last forever and by 2030 at the latest, China will be forced to radically reform its model to hold together, e.g. to nationalist expansionism or ecotechnic dictatorship.
  8. China’s monolithic and non-democratic nature. Though the CCP projects an image of internal unity on the world, under its placid exterior there is a flux of dynamic debates about how China should reconcile growth with environmentalism, capitalism with socialism, democracy with stability, and cultural influence with military strength. The necessity of liberal democracy for success is a figment of the Western end-of-history mentality, and will be recognized as such by the time the West realizes history doesn’t end.

In conclusion, China has the tools at its disposal to become the world’s last industrial superpower (the US and Japan are in relative decline, Russia has too few people, India is coming to the party too late). The creeping dissipation of the global financial system will remove the US from its position as the system’s intermediator, and with it will go a key pillar of neoliberal internationalism. This will clear the foundations for the emergence of a new symbiosis between the oil-exporting nations of the Middle East and a China which can provide them with cheap consumer goods and security guarantees in place of a deindustrialized, unpopular, and increasingly insular America. These trends will become the conventional wisdom by 2020.

China and the World: Coal, CO2, and Geopolitics

By that date, the age of scarcity industrialism will be in full bloom. Three issues will come to the forefront of all discussions about China’s global significance.

First, the impact of 1.3bn people enjoying rising levels of personal affluence on the global environment. Its electricity generation fueled almost entirely by coal, China has recently overtaken the US to become the world’s biggest CO2 emitter. Today, given the absence of any egalitarian, spiritual, or ultra-nationalist ideology keeping the country together, China requires rapid growth to prevent spiraling unemployment and social unrest. The CCP wants to remain in power, and for that it needs stability, and that needs growth, and that needs more and more coal plants every year. Hence the reason for China’s unwillingness to agree to any but the weakest CO2 emissions targets – i.e., a non-binding resolution to a 45% reduction in Co2 intensity per unit of GDP by 2020 from the levels of 2005. However, since China’s GDP is expected to treble or even quadruple from 2005 to 2020, its emissions will grow by 50-100% even if it achieves this non-binding target. Needless to say, this will be catastrophic for our efforts to contain climate change to a global temperature rise of below 2C, at which point runaway dynamics are expected to become predominant. As the last superpower, I expect China to take the lead in any global or national “final gambit” at geoengineering our way out of runaway climate change.

Second, China’s ability to generate industrial growth from its own resources is shrinking. It is already a major oil importer and its grain production is on a slowly dipping plateau, thanks to increasing urbanization and environmental damage (desertification, salination, depletion of fossil aquifers, etc). It is already restricting exports of the strategic Rare Earth Metals that constitute key components of hi-tech devices such as hard drives, wind turbines, and electric cars. This is a major problem for the world outside China, since China accounts for a stunning 95% of global REM production. It will take a decade to reopen the old mines, and in the interval the West could experience a severe “tech crunch”.

Since the bulk of Chinese electricity consumption comes from coal and its geo-economy is not structurally dependent on cheap oil on the same massive scale as the US, China will not be as hard hit by peak oil as the Anglo-Saxon world; besides, its manufacturing prowess and foreign currency reserves will allow it to outbid most competitors for the black gold. However, the downside to using coal is that it too will peak – in China’s case, perhaps within 10 to 15 years, after which it will go into a rapid decline. As such, China can be expected to “lock in” foreign energy supplies with long-term contracts, increase exploitation of unconventional fossil fuel sources such as coal seam gas, and accelerate its current attempts to force through a renewable transition. In 2009, China became the world’s largest producer of both wind turbines and PV panels; however, they have made nary a dent in its CO2 emissions, and are unlikely to do so any time soon. Coal is much cheaper and more importantly, provides the vital base load power that intermittent wind and solar flows cannot.

Third, China’s military power and neo-colonial influence is set to increase in the coming decades. After suppressing military spending from the late 1970′s to the early 2000′s in order to free up its energies for rapid economic growth, the People’s Liberation Army is now being paid back handsomely for its patience. A prescient quotation from the Economist in 1986, from the days when the magazine was still worth reading:

For China’s military men with the patience to see the economic reforms through, there is a payoff. If Mr. Deng’s plans for the economy as a whole are allowed to run their course, and the value of China’s output quadruples, as planned, between 1980 and 2000 (admittedly big ifs), then 10 to 15 years down the line the civilian economy should have picked up enough steam to haul the military sector along more rapidly. That is when China’s army, its neighbors and the big powers will really have something to think about.

That time is now. Defense spending is now rising faster than GDP, as China intensifies military modernization and acquires new capabilities in electronic, information, and anti-satellite warfare. The overall strategic balance has also changed. The dissolution of the Soviet Union meant that the old Chinese fear of a tank invasion from the north has dissipated; coupled with the growing importance of maritime trade and foreign energy supplies, this has produced a reorientation to coastal defense and broader power projection to the south and east. China’s most ambitious military project is its decision to embark on the construction of a real blue-water navy, a vital tool in the renewed “gunboat diplomacy” we are likely to see in the years ahead.

In the short term, this has extended to China acquiring Russian weapons such as four Sovremenny-class guided missile destroyers, twelve Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines, and advanced anti-ship missiles and supercavitating torpedoes such as the Sunburn, Sizzler, and Shkval. Domestic production of naval vessels is expanding rapidly: whereas US shipbuilding is withering away, China now accounts for a third of global shipbuilding and “is in the midst of a shipbuilding and acquisition craze that will result in the People’s Liberation Army Navy having more ships than the U.S. Navy sometime in the next decade”, including four aircraft carriers by 2020. China’s military modernization has already tipped the regional balance of power. A recent RAND study indicates that China is already be able to establish air superiority over Taiwan in the event of a hot war over the straits, and on current trends it will probably be able to conquer it outright within the decade.

In tandem with its military modernization, which is mostly geared to fighting and winning possible local wars in south-east Asia (Taiwan, Spratly Islands, Vietnam), China is pursuing a far-sighted “string of pearls” strategy of naval base construction on its outlying coastal islands and friendly nations such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. They will host radar stations and anti-ship batteries, and will form logistics hubs for naval operations. The underlying strategy is to reinforce China’s coast against foreign encroachment and to protect its sea lines of communication (SLOC) – especially the vital energy routes supplying it with Middle East oil.

Finally, the broadest form of China’s projection of influence is its rush to buy out mines, arable land, oil field concessions, and foreign national elites, from Australia to Brazil to Ukraine to Angola; indeed, Africa is a focal point of interest, with up to half a million Chinese already working on building up the continent’s industrial infrastructure and tapping its energy and mineral wealth. Closer to home in South-East Asia, most nations are both appreciative and fearful of China’s rise, bandwagoning with the US on security while engaging with China economically. The fact of America’s accelerating decline means that this state of affairs is not permanent. Any future “downsized” US empire will have minimal interests in East Asia, and will concentrate its energies on the Americas, Africa, and perhaps the Middle East (though it will be largely displaced by Turkey and China there).

The second greatest East Asian Power, Japan, will have neither the will to mount a serious challenge to China’s emerging hegemony, nor the strategic foundations. Japan is almost entirely reliant on foreign supplies of energy, and as soon as the PLA Navy surpasses the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, it will be utterly eclipsed by China. Why struggle, when Japan can instead exist as in a comfortable symbiosis with a China whose post-1978 growth it actively nourished – spats over their wartime history to the contrary? Japan is capital-rich, China is labor-rich; both share Asian values based on paternalism, state capitalism, and national sovereignty… Japan has two choices. It can try to construct an encircling alliance encompassing Russia, Korea, India, and the US to contain China, but this is a truly ambitious undertaking because 1) Russia has – and by that point the US will have – no overriding reason to confront China, 2) the “pan-Asian” appeal of China, 3) Japan has territorial disputes with Russia, whereas Russia in turn has close if suspicious relations with China through the SCO, and 4) as argued by the late Samuel Huntington, Asian societies have a tendency to bandwagon with the leading regional power – now it’s the US, in the future it will be China. The other alternative, and I would argue the likelier and more natural one, is for Japan to acknowledge Chinese regional hegemony. Once Japan takes this plunge, every other nation in in the region will follow.

Conclusion

It is no exaggeration to say that whither goes China goes the world. It is already the world’s greatest industrial power, at least as measured by physical throughput, energy consumption, and pollution emissions. Though still technologically backward, it is much less so than 10 years ago. China’s purchases of foreign technology, copying, and industrial espionage are rapidly closing the gap, and China’s rapidly expanding R&D workforce will be able to successfully hit the ground running once there arises the need for indigenous innovation.

The extent to which China will be able to solve its energy, minerals, food, and water problems will have major impacts domestic and international, and its success or lack of at reducing – or mitigating – its greenhouse gas emissions, is probably going to determine whether the world as a whole will be able to wriggle out of its Limits to Growth predicament. Finally, China’s cultural, economic, and neo-colonial influence is going to metastasize – in the process transforming it into an East Asian regional hegemon and primary pole in world geopolitics.

China’s greatest challenges lie in geopolitics (how to manage its own rise?), coal (how to power growth?), and CO2 (how to grow, or just stay still, sustainably?). The answers to these questions will determine its future political, social, and economic trajectory. It is therefore vital to to find out how its elites are planning to stand up to this panoply of perils and opportunities, which will be the subject of my next post on China.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Smil, Vaclav – Global Catastrophes and Trends (2008)
Category: futurism, climate change, geopolitics, catastrophes; Rating: 5/5
Summary: Google Books

Vaclav Smil, an energy theorist and language connoisseur, brings his talents to bear on this idiosyncratic, incisive and balanced book on the global future. From the outset, he outlines his skepticism in universal theories of history and attempts at quantifying current trends to make point forecasts (e.g. predictions that nuclear power would make energy too cheap to meter in the halcyon days of the industry). Instead, he emphasizes the role played by the sheer complexity of human systems and their discontinuities – for instance, who could have imagined that a generation after the death of Mao, China would be the workshop of the world helping underwrite US military dominance?

Having established “How (Not) to Look Ahead”, Smil introduces his method – analyzing key variables categorized by a) unpredictable events – “catastrophes”, b) powerful trends (the effects of globalization, global demography, the energy transition), and c) the shifting balance of power between the Great Power (the marginalization of Japan, an unstable Islam, Russia’s partial resurgence, the uncertain rise of China and an increasingly faltering United States). It is one a method I highly favor and I agree with most of the arguments he makes in his book, albeit there are a few major exceptions.

Fatal Discontinuities

First, he classifies the catastrophes or “fatal discontinuities” into: 1) known catastrophic risks (asteroid strikes, earthquakes, super-eruptions), 2) plausible catastrophic risks (nuclear war, pandemic) and 3) speculative risks (“grey goo” or takeover by machines). [There is another classification of existential risks by Nick Bostrom].

The likelihood of world-changing natural disasters occurring is vanishingly small. Though floods and earthquakes killing up to 100,000′s of people happen about once or twice per decade, their global effects are very limited. An asteroid capable of terminating industrial civilization will need to have a diameter of about 2km+ (by darkening the sky with micro-particles and destroying the ozone layer), but the chances of such asteroids striking the Earth decrease exponentially with greater size. In any case the majority of large Near-Earth Objects have already been identified and identified as safe. Predicting super-eruptions is much harder, though again based on the geological record the chances of an unprecedented catastrophe are minimal – which would have to be on the scale of the Toba, Sumatra event 72,000 years ago, which ejected 2,000km3 of ejecta and reduced the world human population to 10,000. An example of a modern threat is a super-eruption of Yellowstone, which is about due though we’d have to be extremely unlucky to have it blow up during our lifetimes. Another possibility are submarine landslides forming tsunamis, such as at La Palma, the Canary Islands, where a 500km3 slide would create a mega-tsunami with repeated walls of water up to 25m striking Florida.

The second category includes pandemics and mega-wars. During the last generation, the onslaught against disease stalled and went into partial reverse, with a growing list of contagious diseases (the most significant of which is HIV / AIDS), failures in eradication (e.g. polio) and antibiotic resistance (multi-drug resistant TB – which now finished off many AIDS sufferers). There also remains the specter of an influenza pandemi c, which will be deeply disruptive and potentially highly virulent. Though a repeat of 1957 or 1968, or the current swine flu for that matter, aren’t going to have much effect, the consequences of the return of a Spanish Flu-like pandemic (1918) will be devastating. Arising out of the natural disease reservoir of South China, the flu can spread more rapidly (air transport, globalization, greater urban populations) and a mortality profile hard on the younger cohorts (15-30 years) will have devastating effects on aging European societies. Globalization will shut down as countries close borders, with highly disruptive effects on national economies. However, we are much better prepared for handling a pandemic today than in 1918 due to better nutrition and technological advances such as mechanical respirators, antibiotics for treating secondary infections, antivirals, and math models for optimizing quarantines and vaccinations.

Just as another pandemic is almost certain to happen, so there will continue to be violent conflict, terrorism, genocides, perhaps even another large-scale democide or mega-war with tens to hundreds of millions of casualties – despite that the incidence of violent conflict fell by 40% since the early 1990′s and the agreed reductions in the US and Russian nuclear arsenals. Some may be transformational and fundamentally change the course of world history (Smil identifies the Taiping Rebellion, the American Civil War, WW1 and WW2 as transformational). The risk remains of an accidental nuclear war between the US and Russia killings hundreds of millions, or the rise of an revisionist, expansionist power unleashing WW3. The potential deaths accruing to war are several OM’s (orders of magnitude) higher than for all natural catastrophes.

Smil points out that terrorism is 1) nothing new, having gone through four “waves” – a) Russia’s narodnaya volya assassinations, b) decolonization, c) PLO, IRA, Basque ETA, and Western left-wing groups favoring bombings and aircraft hijackings, and d) modern Islamic terrorism beginning with the Iranian Revolution / Hezbollah, later extending to the Palestinian intifada and al-Qaeda, at the symbolic start of a new century (1400) by the Islamic calendar, 2) has rarely been effective with a few exceptions like 9/11 (and even there its value lay mostly in symbolism – [the spirit of terrorism], disproportionate public fear and official overreaction), for the chances of dying from terrorism are extremely low. Since producing mass casualties is extremely difficult, terrorists have to settle for “mass disruption” instead of “mass destruction”.

His final category of fatal discontinuity are “imaginable surprises”, such as annihilation of the Earth by exotic particle experiments, unforeseen climatic shifts (e.g. a drastic cooling), grey goo eating the biosphere within a few days, etc. He correctly doesn’t put much stock into these sci-fi scenarios.

Unfolding Trends

Smil makes some general observations about trend analysis. First, they tend to follow a pattern of incremental engineering process (cheaper, more efficient) and gradual diffusion, yet are sometimes marked by profound discontinuities, e.g. fertility transitions, the continuing failure to control nuclear fusion. Surprises can occur because a) long-term trends aren’t recognized in time, such as the Soviet Union’s post-1965 stagnation, b) can’t predict which trends will become embedded in society, and which ones will veer off course, c) their unknowable effects on human society (e.g. will the oil peak be moderated by a smooth transition to gas or renewables, or does it herald the end of industrial civilization?). With that said, Smil now focuses on three things: 1) the coming energy transition, 2) Great Power dynamics and 3) the future of globalization.

Smil now moves into his forte – global energy systems. The first point he makes is that the basis of today’s industrial system was formed a long time ago and that improvements since then paled in significance. “The most important concatenation of these fundamental advances took place between 1867 and 1914″, when engineers realized electricity generation, steam and water turbines, internal combustion engines, inexpensive steel, aluminium, explosives, synthetic fertilizers, electronic components, thus laying the “technical foundations of the twentieth century” [much like men like Marx, Bismarck and Garibaldi laid its ideological foundations]. A second Golden Age occurred in the 1930′s and 1940′s, which saw “the introduction of gas turbines, nuclear fission, electronic computing, semiconductors, key plastics, insecticides and herbicides”.

This technological base requires huge, uninterrupted supplies of energy for its existence. The sources of energy remain constant for long periods due to the difficulty of substitution, which involves discarding old infrastructures and building anew. As a share of world total primary energy supply (TPES), coal went from 95% in 1900 (excluding phytomass), to just 28% in 2005, while crude oil rose from 4% in 1900 to 27% in 1950 and 46% in 1975, but dropped to 36% by 2005. Natural gas expanded significantly since the mid-century, reaching 24% of global TPES by 2005. All together, fossil fuels supplied 88% of global TPES in 2005, compared to 93% in 1975. Despite all the talk about environmentalism and energy security, there has been no walk; ours is still a predominantly fossil-fuel based civilization.

In the future, Smil foresees that a) there will be no oil peak, b) coal is unlimited except by concerns over climate change and c) gas will rise in importance because of its relatively low carbon per unit of energy ratio and advances in LNG technology.

Though I am in qualified agreement with b) and c), Smil ridiculing of the oil peakists in a) is singularly unconvincing. He claims the Hubbert model is “simplistic” in that it is “based on rigidly predetermined reserves” and ignores “innovative advances or price shifts”. The first point is flat out wrong. It applies to Hubbert’s first model, but in his later work he devised a method that did away with the need for guesstimates of URR (ultimately recoverable reserves) – and which gives pretty much the same results, indicating that the effects of technology and higher prices are limited. Taking the case of the US, despite the discovery of oil off Alaska and the Gulf, despite there having been more exploration in the country than in the rest of the world combined, despite the periods of high prices during 1973-1986 and 2002-2008, despite its light regulatory environment and access to cheap credit – American oil production has declined relentlessly since the early 1970′s. Quite simply, the evidence indicates that the power of depletion will eventually defeat ever greater and smarter extraction attempts. Read one of these overviews from 2007 or 2009 for a more indepth explanation of peak oil.

However, I agree with Smil that the transition to other non-fossil fuel sources will be a drawn out process, considering that most of the “prime movers” in our society are oil-based (the steam turbines that generate 70% of global electricity output, the gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine, the diesel engine, the gas turbine, and the induction electric motor). [I would note that these difficulties are going to be aggravated by peak oil].

Addition difficulties include a) the scale of the shift, b) lower energy density of replacement fuels, c) substantially lower power density of renewable energy extraction, d) intermittence of renewable flows and e) uneven distribution of renewable resource extraction.

1) Global civilization uses fossil energy at a rate of 12 TW, a twenty-fold increase from the late 1890′s (total world TPES is around 13 TW). Only solar power has a significantly larger than current TPES is solar flux at 122 PW, which is 4 OM greater; otherwise, wind (<10 TW), ocean waves (<5 TW), and today energy / geothermal (<1 TW). Though Earth’s net primary productivity (NPP) / terrestrial photosynthesis yields solid fuels (biomass) at the range of 55-60 TW, exploiting it will further degrade vital ecosystemic services, and besides humanity already appropriates 30-40% of global NPP as food, feed, fiber and fuel (with wood and crop residue accounting for 10% of current TPES).

2) Coal and oil are far more energy-dense than wood and in general biomass cultivation will take up 4-5 OM more space than conventional oil / gas infrastructure. “In order to energize the existing residential, industrial and transportation infrastructures inherited from the fossil-fueled era, a solar-based society would have to concentrate diffuse flows to bridge power density gaps of 2-3 OM”. As an example, even using Brazilian ethanol from sugar cane to replace all current gasoline, diesel and kerosene used in transport would require the subjugation of 1/3 of the world’s cultivated lands – or all agricultural land in the tropics. Corn ethanol has half the power density of sugar cane ethanol. Large-scale adoption will have catastrophic impacts on food self-sufficiency.

[source]

3) Renewables don’t satisfy base load power requirements of an industrial society. Load factors are 75%+ for coal-powered power stations or 90%+ for nuclear power stations, whereas wind power is just 20-25%.

4) Renewable flows are also unevenly distributed, just like 60%+ of easy hydrocarbons are locked up in the Persian Gulf Zagros Basin. Jakarta has as little sun as Edmonton (shared with equatorial zone). Many areas are either too still or too windy, i.e. will be heavily damaged by hurricanes.

5) Costs won’t necessarily decline. To the contrary, protovoltaic silicon prices have more doubled; prices of steel, aluminium, plastics, etc, for wind turbines also drastically increased due to the underlying rise in oil prices.

Smil reiterates some pretty standard arguments on nuclear and hydrogen. The nuclear industry expanded quickly until the 1970′s, but stalled at that point because it previously hadn’t included costs like state-subsidized nuclear R&D, decommissioning costs and waste disposal (and later negative PR like Chernobyl). Hydrogen is not a realistic option barring the mass spread of cheap solar power. Concludes that this energy transition will be fundamentally different from previous one, which was driven by declining resource availability (deforestation), higher quality of fossil fuels (energy density, easier storage, more flexibility) and lower cost of coal and hydrocarbons. According to Smil, none of these factors apply to the fossil economy – though he expresses some concern over its contribution to climate change.

Having outlined his idea of the main trend of the next fifty years, Smil turns to a standard analysis of the shifting balance of international power between the US, China, Japan, Russia, Islam, and Europe. He cautions against subscribing to the conventional wisdom, pointing out that a) the Soviet collapse and Japan’s post-1980′s stagnation were largely unforeseen, b) the tendency of the US to surprise, going from decline / deindustrialization in the 1980′s to a vigorous “new economy” in the 1990′s before becoming fiscally and militarily overstretched in the 2000′s.

Geopolitical Trends

Smil does not believe Europe holds out much promise, unlike some delusional commentators. It is in long-term, centennial economic decline relative to the rest of the world and its economies are mired in inefficiency, unemployment and bureaucracy, and are less technologically dynamic than Japan or the US. Both Britain and Spain face separatist challenges and are economic basketcases. France is over-regulated dirigisme and has problems with integrating its 10% Muslim population (remember the burning banlieues?), but is at least demographically healthy – unlike Italy and Germany, which are rapidly aging and about to depopulate rapidly with very negative economic effects (they might be in a fertility trap, in which ever smaller generations need to pay higher tax burdens which limits their reproductive freedom). In particular, Italy is sinking back into corruption and Mafia influence, its artisanal manufacturing is being destroyed by Chinese competition and there remain huge gaps between the Nord and Mezzogiorno. He reiterates Mark Steyn’s Eurabia theory arguments (crudely summarized as lots of under-reported young, fertility, fanatical Muslims simmering in ghettoes), which has a number of holes in it. Finally, the EU structure itself is disconnected from national electorates and reality in general, and has no inspiring sense of mission; further expansion will just weaken it further. [Agreed with most things - I believe the EU by 2020 will be a much less significant institution and European nations will be tottering, preoccupied with trying to solve their own internal problems].

After a period of euphoric hubris in the 1980′s, when it seemed Japan would be number one, the country crashed into a long, ongoing period of stagnation marked by crippling deflation, the fall of the Nikkei from a peak at 39,000 in December 1989 to below 10,000, and the appearance of the NEET generation (not in employment, education or training). Though it remains rich, well-off and technologically advanced, there is a moral anomie as long-term jobs vanished and fertility plunged to around 1.2 children per woman. Smil is pessimistic on Japan due to a) its ingrained conservatism [though would the recent electoral win by the Democratic Party of Japan later be regarded in the same vein as the Meiji reforms?], b) the continued hostility of neighbors reinforces its security dependence on the US, especially to counter challenges from China and North Korea, and c) the start of depopulation in 2005, retirement wave in 2010′s as the 1950′s baby boomers retire, and the prospective massive aging of the population (medium age 50 by 2025, more 80+ than 0-14 year olds by 2050). Japanese culture does not accept immigrants and it will not be saved by robots.

The author sees Islam being in a fractured state (secular / spiritual, Sunni / Shia / others, etc) in a difficult relationship with modernity, fighting the same internal civil war that charactered early modern Christianity. His short exegesis of the Koran finds that there is support for many interpretations of just how restrictive Islam has to be, and this forms an ideological battleground between the extremists and moderates. Signs of this backwardness include the Iranian fatwa against Rushdie, the prevalence of bizarre conspiracy theories on the Arab street, and Islamic countries accounting for just 2% of the world’s scientific publications. [To this we can add the Mohammed cartoons controversy and the 2003 UN Arab development report that produced the astonishing statistic that more books are translated into Spanish per year than have been translated into Arabic in all history]. There are several inequalities within the ummah (e.g. oil-rich Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) and internal instability, in part cased by the demographic explosion [usually in water-stressed environments, I'd add] which results in youth bulges – young men with no job prospects who are susceptible to joining violent groupings. Even as the region simmers, the outside world will be forced to take an interest due to its stranglehold over the world’s oil supplies (the five Persian Gulf nations produced about 1/3 of the world’s oil in 2005, and this figure is projected to rise substantially).

It is evident he knows his stuff when talking about Russia, or at least is well-read on it. Contrary to most analysts, he believes it is resurgent in a real way, even though its longer-term prospects are uncertain. He lists its strengths as being an energy superpower (especially with respect to gas) with a big intellectual capacity and a formidable military that is being rearmed with newer-generation weapons. However, he foresees significant challenges in the form of its cyclical, hydrocarbons-based economy [as confirmed by the 2008 crisis, though the deeper problem is dependence on foreign credit], its unstable democracy, the Islamist insurgence in the Caucasus, and above all its negative demographic trends [I've written a lot about this, just search the site].

China is gradually returning to its old position of global economic predominance, its growth helped by Deng Xiaoping’s economic liberalization, FDI, the one-child policy, a cheap, disciplined and relatively skilled labor force, mass urbanization and migration to the coasts, and a certain degree of innovation (state-funded research facilities, as well as flouting of IP and large-scale industrial espionage). It is “a Communist government guaranteeing a docile work force that labors without rights and often in military camp conditions in Western-financed factories so that multi-national companies can expand their profits, increase Western trade deficits, and shrink non-Asian manufacturing”. It is economically mercantile, seeking resources around the world and if current growth trends continue, China could match US military spending by 2020. However, there are substantial problems with a) the population (severe 118:100 male-female imbalance, rapid aging and undeveloped pension system), b) the economy (huge rural-urban inequality, high taxes on peasantry and violent expropriations by business-state symbiosis), c) the environment (deforestation and soil erosion from Maoist era, little arable land per capita that is shrinking from salinization, desertification and urban expansion, needs more food but irrigation is constrained by water shortages and crops are already very intensively fertilized, falling water tables and toxic rivers, very poor air quality and now leading CO2 emitter), and d) cultural mediocrity (not as much soft power as the US).

India is nowhere near as powerful as China, and the same factors limiting the latter militate against India. It’s GDP is twice smaller; though its Gini index of income inequality is better (35 versus 45), this is a product of its underdevelopment, besides its deep social stratification / de facto caste system persists; malnutrition, immunization rates and adult illiteracy are all much worse in India; China has 3x the electricity-generating capacity and 17x the container port capacity. Though democratic, it is likewise deeply corrupt, bureaucratic and ecologically degraded. It faces a nuclear-armed Pakistan and the prospect of tens of millions of Bangladeshi refugees spilling over once their country sinks under the rising seas.

Smil is an all-round pessimist, believing the United States may go the way of the Roman Empire. According to him, its woes include increasing economic and foreign policy challenges [see Shifting Winds], uncontrolled Hispanic immigration that threatens its long-term territorial integrity and Protestant “work ethic” values, and perennial budget deficits (in particular the structural nature of the current account deficit, formed due to its reliance on oil imports to sustain the suburban arrangements and the collapse of its domestic industrial base – mundane manufacturing, the auto industry, and now even aerospace and the food industry. It has a poor education system (see results of PISA international standardized tests), retiring baby boomers about to cash in on state obligations and their savings, obesity and a general cultural decline. However, the possibility of open discussion of these failings is a persistent American strength.

He then proceeds to make the argument that “US leadership is in its twilight phase” and that the “coming transition will be unprecedented” due to the global nature of its hegemony. He plausibly affirms that no nation is strong enough to replace the US as the sole superpower, meaning that there will probably be more chaos, instability and wars. Smil predicts that in sum the world will regret its passing.

Smil concludes with an analysis of globalization, making the points that it is an ongoing historical process originating in the 16th C and blossoming from the 1950′s with the arrival of the tanker revolution, now blossoming in the intricate production chains and JIT system exemplified by Wal-Mart’s relation with China. There is a stabilizing force, interdependence, which expands the economic scope of every globalized nation far beyond the limited autarkies of history, but at the same time makes them ever more vulnerable to disruption of these links; the destabilizing force is the growing inequality between nations (e.g. failed states), though a caveat is that when calculated by population there is an improvement mainly thanks to China (but nullified when taking into account the intra-national growth of inequality – which increase since 1970 in all the major countries like the US [35 to 47], Japan [25 to 37], China [25 to 50], Russia [25 to 40]. There is now no global “middle class”, according to Smil, which makes the system unstable. [Here I disagree - East-Central Europe, Latin America and even China fit the bill here].

Environmental Change & Conclusion

This next long section is a detailed analysis of the likely course and effects of global warming. Most of the stuff is pretty basic and I’ve already summarized in my reviews of Six Degrees (Mark Lynas) and The Last Generation (Fred Pearce).

His most interesting discussions are of human influence of the nitrogen cycle (which they’ve affected to a far greater degree than the carbon cycle) and the spread of antibiotic resistance. “Losses of nitrogen from synthetic fertilizers and manures, nitrogen added through biofixation by leguminous crops and nitrogen oxides released from combustion of fossil fuels are now adding about as much reactive nitrogen (c.159 Mt N/year) to the biosphere as natural biofixation and lighting does” (in contrast human interference in carbon cycle through land use changes and fossil fuel burning amounts to 10% of annual photosynthetic fixation of the element and sulfur is equal to 1/3. This leads to mass leaching, eutrophication, growth of algae and phytoplankton, and the subsequent decomposition deoxygenates water and kills bottom-dwelling aquatic species. The worst hypoxic zones are the Gulf of Mexico, the lagoon of the Great Barrier Reef, the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the North Sea. Nitrogen oxides formed during combustion contribute to photochemical smog in urban areas around the world and acid rain. It’s use will increase as Asia demands higher crop yields and Africa needs to stop its increasing nutrient mining.

The other worrying trend he discusses at length is the rise of antibiotic resistance on the part of pathogens, as peniccilin and its descendants become increasingly less effective. This is inevitable, but is much facilitated by widespread self-medication, over-prescription and poor sanitation in hospitals. If these negative trends continue, influenza deaths will sky-rocket due to the inability to treat bacterial pneumonia, and treating tuberculosis and typhoid fever will become very difficult. A nightmare scenario can arise if this is accompanied by increasing malnutrition and AIDS, which make people far more susceptible to these secondary diseases.

In the last chapter, “Dealing with Risk and Uncertainty”, Smil sums up and embellishes his ideas, asserts the necessity of properly quantifying risks, cautions on the fallacies of linear extrapolation of current trends, and notes that even during a collapse there are silver linings, using the construction of the basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome (422-483) during the waning years of the Roman Empire (ended in 476) as an example.

In conclusion, this is a very good and entertaining book. There are some East European-style grammatical mistakes and perhaps a bit too much personal boasting, but otherwise it provides a realistic appraisal of the real potential catastrophes facing humanity (i.e. big wars and pandemics, not terrorism, earthquakes or “grey goo”) and the dominant trends of the next fifty years (geopolitical flux / non-polarity, climate change & pollution, the energy transition). He approaches the subject very rigorously-scientifically so one gets a good perspective of possible futures, my only major disagreements with him being on his disbelief in the oil peak theory and paying too little attention to the social and geopolitical ramifications of climate change (he doesn’t really consider the catastrophic possibilities, sticking to the middle-of-the-road consensual IPCC forecasts).

(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.