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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From North Pole to Growth Pole

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

Breaking Ice For Shipping

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

- Northwest Passage song, Stan Rogers, 1981.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the new Arctic merchants will be making a killing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Speech by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, 2007.

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

- Speech by Russian President Medvedev in September 2008.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Towards an Arctic Civilization?

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

- James Lovelock, inventor of the Gaia hypothesis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Soviet GULAG song, 1947.

O Canada!

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

- National Anthem of Canada.

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Scandinavia (and Nordic)

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

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

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

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

The Arctic when all the ice melts.

From an Ultimate Dim Thule…

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

- Dreamland by Edgar Allen Poe.

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

- The mystic H. P. Blavatsky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There will arise an Arctic ecumene.

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

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

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
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In a recent post at Streetwise Professor, in reply to a Russophobe commentator, democracy activist* and net-buddy Mark Sleboda compiled a damning indictment of the real state of Western freedom. Newsflash: for the world’s (self-appointed) moral arbitrators, it’s nothing to write home about! It’s well worth reading, which is why I’m reprinting it here with his permission.

… Andrew you cherry-picked the one single example of Western pre-emptive arrests of protesters out of those that I have previously provided where the police in the UK have at least gone to the trouble of making false accusations and spread misinformation in order to provide justification for their crackdowns on peaceful protesters (UK, EU, USA 1, 2).

Here is an article in the British newspaper, The Guardian, discussing such manufactured police false-flag operations against peaceful climate change protests (1). The police harassment and false statements about peaceful climate protesters in the UK has been well documented. Here is the “equipment” that the police confiscated and were using as false justification for harassment and arrests of climate protesters at the Kingsnorth protest previously mentioned (2, 3). And here is the damages the police were eventually forced to pay for their harassment a in a rare victory in the courts (4).

However, even where police violence against protesters has resulted in deaths, like Ian Tomlinson, the police have routinely used internal tribunals to “investigate themselves” and thereby gotten away without any punishment or cost. The system and society look the other way

This unfortunately has become standard practice in the UK where the police system has redefined all protesters as “domestic extremists”, as the political consensus over climate change caused by consumer capitalism is starting to collapse. This follows a discernable trend in the West where protests involving the Western conception of liberal rights is usually tolerated, but any protests that challenge the dominant socio-economic paradigm (such as climate change protests) or question capitalism and its externalities (such as the G-8/G-20/WTO protests) is often harassed or brutally suppressed (5, 6).

Police have even established units for routine police spying and infiltration of environmental protest groups. Britain has become an Orwellian police state with Big Brother video surveillance on every corner, and where all political dissent against the socio-economic status quo is suppressed. Much like the US that has established a police state that spies on peace groups that dare to protest against America’s aggressive imperialist wars (7, 8, 9).

Police brutality towards peaceful climate and ant-capitalist protesters has become the standard in the UK. You can watch for yourself (10, 11). The same is evident in the US (12). In Canada police have even been repeatedly caught infiltrating peaceful protest groups with agents acting as provocateurs to start violence and riots in order to provide justification for cracking down on protests (13). Even during protests against the Olympics! But even when official ethics investigations are conducted nothing is done and the mainstream media largely ignores it.

That is because in the West we have constructed a false and comforting narrative about “freedom” and “democracy” in our societies. We have come to believe this myth at all levels of our society from the government to the media and the general public, so that even in the face of direct contradiction the totalitarianism becomes self-propagating.

*** If you watch one piece of evidence I have provided here to justify my accusations about rhetorical hypocrisy of the West towards the orchestrated Strategy 31 protests in Russia – watch this one. This video shows the true face of protests and “freedom of assembly” in the West – at the Copenhagen Climate Conference of which all of the world’s leaders attended. I can attest because I was there – as an official delegate inside the conference, and then when it became obvious that the world’s leaders would do nothing except presenting a desperate face-saving measure instead of taking any substantive action to change our unsustainable consumption-based capitalist economies that are destroying our planet in a hurry – I and many other delegates walked out and joined the protesters on the street. This is what we saw – and as cynical as I am, I was shocked and mortified at the level of stormtrooper-like violence used by Western police against peacefully protesting youth in order to enforce the existing political and economic consensus. ***

This is a personal concern for me as I have been an occasional protester in the US, UK, EU, Canada, and Russia, mostly concerning climate change issues and I can tell you that the country with the most civil treatment towards legal and peaceful protesters is, surprisingly, Russia. The police in Russia are doing nothing of this sort of sustained and systematic brutality against peaceful protesters. If they were – it would be all over the world’s press in an instant. But when it happens in our own Western countries – the mainstream media looks the other way and ignores it. It is a double standard in a Self/Other dialectic defining Russians as the Other for the purposes of continuing our self-deception about the nature of our societies and governments.

The police violence and harassment at the protests that I have shown – including the last one at Copenhagen was at legally sanctioned and registered protests. The Strategy 31 protests were civilly broken up by police because they were protesting illegally without permit. They were issued permits to protest at other locations in downtown Moscow every time – but they refuse them. Why? It is because protesting is not their aim. Provocation is. Their acts are not directed at Russian society where they have no support (The Russian liberals have an ill-disguised loathing for the Russian people as a whole because they are not “Western” enough for them) but at the Western press.

That is why the protests draw a hundred or two hundred protests at most – and twice as many foreign journalists and camera’s to cover it and observe the Russian police arresting the liberal celebrity ringleaders. There is no “torture” involved against protesters in Russia. This is an utterly false accusation without any evidence to back it up. The liberals would be crying all over the Western press in a second if it were so. The Strategy 31 protests in Russia are a staged spectacle – and those that they have detained have been released every time after only a couple of hours and been home safe in bed in time for milk and cookies.

There is also the fact that the handful of perennial liberals in Russia, now rebranded as Strategy 31, are protesting for some senseless reason alongside Eduard Limonov – presumably because the National Bolsheviks are capable of drawing more support and protesters (no matter how miniscule that is) onto the streets than themselves. The National Bolsheviks are a very real violent terrorist and anarchist group; Limonov having done prison time for admittedly trying to start a Nationalist Russian military insurrection in Kazakhstan. The National Bolshevik anarchists have been responsible for repeated violent and destructive actions. So in Russia, the police actually have reason to be cautious with Strategy 31 as long as the National Bolsheviks are involved.

* EDIT: An accidental misrepresentation on my part: see Mark’s comment on his political convictions.

(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.


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.