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I am going to start off by looking at Europe, defined as the region under the influence of Western Christianity and/or the European Union (not Russia or Turkey, which will be covered in a later Eurasia Report).

The Big Questions

  1. Demographic problems: aging, low fertility and Eurabia?
  2. The unsustainability of the modern welfare state?
  3. Cultural decline & reaction against liberal rationalism?
  4. The return of Great Power politics? (e.g. Mearsheimer 1990), & the decline of the EU and growing centrality of Franco-German relations, – or will the EU survive, and if so in what form?
  5. National trends: a secure, “flourishing” France; a troubled but powerful Germany; Poland beset on two fronts; marginalized Britain, Spain & Italy, all in decline; Sweden as preeminent Baltic power; on the outskirts, both Russia and Turkey increase their power – realistic?
  6. The retreat into authoritarianism and militarism? Europe as a Black Continent?

European Trends

Without much exaggeration, demography is Europe’s central issue for the foreseeable future. Just to keep the labor force constant, the EU needs 1.6mn immigrants annually (current population: 500mn); to maintain a 3:1 ratio of labor force to retirees, it will need 3.1mn immigrants yearly to offset the aging of the population. These kinds of numbers are probably unrealistic due to (justified?) European xenophobia, especially in the east and center.

The root explanation is Europe’s post-1970 fertility collapse, especially pronounced in Germania, the Mediterranean (Spain, Italy, etc), and the Visegrad region (East-Central Europe). It is most severe in Germany and Austria (both TFR = 1.3), where the total fertility rate (TFR) fell below the replacement-level rate of 2.1 children per woman in the early 1970′s; since the Germans have not been reproducing themselves for a full generation now (and have no desire to start doing so, as even the desired TFR is at a low 1.8), they will inevitably fall into a death spiral.

The situation is similar in the Mediterranean nations and Visegrad (TFR around 1.3), with the exception that their fertility falls came a decade and two decades after Germany’s, respectively. However, much like Russia, Visegrad still has chances of effecting a demographic recovery, assuming their fertility collapse was primarily a result of “transition shock” instead of “social modernization”. Much better off are France (TFR = 2.0), the UK (TFR = 1.9), and the Nordic countries like Sweden (TFR = 1.7), whose fertility rates are all within a manageable distance of the replacement level rate.

However, conservatives who fear the coming of a Muslim Europe – “Eurabia” – are going to be happy. That theory rests on the assumptions that a) the size of the Muslim minority in Europe is severely underreported, b) the Muslim minority retains its extreme religiosity, c) “reversion” to Islam will increase, and that d) the high fertility rates of first-generation Muslims and e) high levels of Muslim immigration will continue indefinitely in the face of rising European xenophobia. All of these assumptions are very much open to question. The far likelier possibility is that the trans-European Muslim community will be scapegoated by a declining continent rediscovering its old geopolitical faultlines.

Napoleonic France introduced pensions for civil servants, Bismarck’s Germany invented the social security system, and Sweden developed the modern welfare state in the 1930’s – a system that reached its apogee on the European continent on the back of the post-war economic miracle and demographic expansion. Both have come to an end, and so too may the modern welfare state as we know it.

Due to their fertility crises, Europeans will find it increasingly difficult to maintain their generous welfare states. Sweden will likely soldier on with its “social-democratic welfare state”, given that it lies at the heart of its identity (social mobility, egalitarianism, progressivism); a (relatively) youthful France will also find it manageable to retain the extensive perks, privileges, and niceties of its dirigiste system. Though demographically healthy, Britain has an array of other critical problems that will force it to strip down the bloat and return to its traditionally minimal “liberal welfare state”. In low-fertility Europe, raising the retirement age and cutting down the “corporatist welfare state” to the spartan standards of the earlier 20th century is now the only realistic solution, the alternatives being one or two more decades of decay followed by fiscal and social collapse. The rightist wave sweeping the European elections of 2009 may be a subconscious realization that it’s time for taking responsibility.

The wealth, social solidarity, and geography of European nations means that overpopulation, pollution and climate change will not have quite the same critical impact as in other regions like the Middle East or China – though an inundating Holland, desertifying Spain and burning Greece may beg to differ. (This applies to the period until 2030; after that, all bets are off everywhere).

European Regions

Germany has a robust industrial ecosystem manned by a well-educated population, powered by a triad of coal, natural gas and renewable sources of energy, and underpinned by advanced technologies and a potent machine-building sector. It constitutes Europe’s economic and commercial powerhouse. However, it is artificially reliant on exports to provide the savings needed for its rapidly aging population – short of a mortality crisis, an irreversible problem compounded by the most intractable demographic crisis of any major European nation. This reliance is dangerous, given the imminent waning of globalization. Facing a sub-par energy future, the loss of global export markets, and the rediscovery of a conservative nationalism bizarrely married to environmentalism, Berlin will again turn its baleful gaze to East-Central Europe.

In addition to the manifold soft power tools at its disposal, Germany is already beginning to unshackle itself from its post-WW2 military constraints. Though the Bundeswehr is of Cold War vintage with minimal power projection capabilities, Germany has the technologies and industrial potential to once again become a leading European land power. Its status as a “virtual nuclear weapons state” means it has the capability to develop and field a small arsenal of deliverable nuclear weapons within months of commencing a crash program. Thus, Germany has both the dormant potential and the incentives to return to the Reich, expanding into Visegrad to acquire captive markets and to guarantee Russian hydrocarbons supplies – and reigniting its old, paranoia-fueled duel with France for European hegemony.

Unlike in the first half of the 20th century, it is France that will be the more potent competitor this time around. Its fertility rates are the healthiest on the European continent – though its population of 62mn is smaller than Germany’s 82mn, it already has a higher number of annual births. Though they have a restive 10% Muslim minority in the deprived banlieues, French Muslims are culturally more integrated than their co-religionists in Germany or Britain. The French economy is versatile, productive, and robust, suffering little during the 2008 economic crash – though scolded for dirigisme and S&M business regulations that stymie employment, its dirigisme is arguably superior to Germany’s export dependency, the Mediterranean’s fiscal holes, and Britain’s bubble economy.

On the strategic level, France is a powerful independent actor. With 80% of its electricity generation coming from nuclear power, its industrial and residential infrastructure is invulnerable to gas disruptions – be it Russian “energy blackmail” or Ukrainian intransigence. The country is underpopulated relative to the rest of Western Europe. France possesses Europe’s sole fully-autonomous military-industrial complex, producing the whole panoply of weapon classes from helicopter carriers to fighter jets; it has substantial power projection capabilities; and its extensive nuclear infrastructure supports the world’s third largest strategic nuclear stockpile, the bulk of its 300 warheads mounted on MIRVed SLBM’s held on four ballistic missile submarines.

All these factors put it in good stead for a symbiosis with its former North African colonies. Algeria is a major oil and gas producer, while Morocco has 2/3 of the world’s rock phosphate reserves – “a critical component in global fertilizer supply”. Facing a demographic “youth bulge” and shrinking agricultural yields under the stress of global warming and an advancing Saharan desert, the Maghreb nations may feel compelled to offer energy & phosphate supply guarantees to France in exchange for its commitment to a high immigration quota and protection of Muslim rights. Further afield, it has a strong military and neo-colonial presence in energy-rich West Africa. Occupying an enviable geostrategic location from a position of immense strength – demographic, economic, and strategic – there can be little doubt that France will be the predominant European power of the next decades.

On the surface, Britain appears to be a strong contender for European preeminence in the coming decades. It has respectable demographic indicators and, at least so far, a relatively low level of sovereign debt. The island nation occupies the most strategically secure location on the European continent – it has never been successfully invaded since 1066, largely thanks to its efforts to maintain a continental balance of power, spoiling attacks on potential European hegemons, and as a last resort, the English Channel. The island nation hosts significant power projection capabilities and a robust SSBN-based nuclear deterrent (much like France); furthermore, it also maintains a “special relationship” with a United States that shares its fundamental goal of stymieing the rise of a European hegemon. At the same time, London is not averse to profiting from European markets and the pursuit of its neo-colonial interests further abroad, as befits the descendant of an empire on which the sun never set. As the sun sets on Pax Americana, could its British satrapy continue its legacy on the old continent?

The answer is almost certainly not. Despite its ostensible strength and vigor, the United Kingdom faces a set of imminent, interlinked challenges – economic, fiscal, energy, and nationalities – that could not only preclude its rise to preeminence, but put at peril its very existence as a federated state.

Britain has seen accelerating deindustrialization since the neoliberal revolution of 1980′s Thatcherism, culminating in the false boom of the 2000′s driven by construction and finance. At the same time, government spending increased as Britain moved to implement a social-democratic welfare state – partly because of the need to satiate the emerging victims of market fundamentalism, and partly because of a general expansion of state power relative to the citizenry (surveillance, databases, etc). However, it should be noted that unlike in Scandinavia, this development did not lead to higher socio-economic mobility, which remains the lowest in Europe.

Even before the current crisis, government spending (purchases and transfers) was approaching 50% of GDP, with the figure rising to 56% in Scotland, 72% in Wales and 78% in Northern Ireland. With the discrediting of the neoliberal model, soaring budget deficits (12%+ of GDP), plummeting foreign investor confidence, and widespread indebtedness stymying a consumer-led recovery, Britain finds itself locked into a predicament, between the Scylla of inflationary fire and the Charybdis of a painful fiscal retrenchment and deflationary “debt trap”. Though on current trends the former seems to be the more prevalent, the likely triumph of the Conservatives in the 2010 elections may herald a sea change in favor of the fiscal restraint championed by their middle-England electoral base.

This fiscal predicament is compounded by its energy woes, in which the absence of a long-term energy policy, mindless liberalization, and above all the rapid depletion of the North Sea gas and oil fields, may see it enter a period of Third World-style blackouts by the mid-2010′s. Britain’s growing need for gas imports will necessitate costly investments in LNG terminals, put its current account further into the red, and even develop a German-style dependence on Russia. This could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back – forced into buying expensive energy supplies and suffering from power disruptions, the British economy will go into stagnation or outright decline. This cannot be squared with the level of requisitions needed to support the metastasizing British welfare state, and it will have to give.

Finally, Britain’s latent separatist pressures will come to the forefront – no one wants to remain on a sinking ship. Scotland is a viable nation with a substantial industrial base and still significant North Sea hydrocarbons deposits – given independence, it will resurrect its Auld Alliance with France. Similarly, there will be less enthusiasm for maintaining Northern Ireland on the English dole; once ditched, it will inevitably drift to the hearty embrace of the Republic of Eire. Only Wales is likely to remain within the new Republic of England & Wales (the Queen will have moved to Scotland). Though England will retain the vast bulk of the UK’s population, economic, and military assets, their general degradation during this time period will have relegated it to the status of a secondary European Great Power like Italy or Spain. However, its longer-term prospects are slightly brighter due to its relatively healthy (current) demography and preparedness for global warming.

Not even that can be said about the Mediterranean nations, however, which suffer from all the challenges facing Germany, France and the UK – collapsed fertility rates (TFR = 1.3), social immobility, sclerotic economies, unsustainable welfare states, debt traps, and imminent fiscal collapse thanks to the ECB depriving them of the ability to engineer a currency depreciation (their traditional solution to fiscal crises).

Italy is sinking back into political cronyism, the level of corruption is astounding for a First World nation, and its artisanal manufacturing is being destroyed by Chinese competition. There remain huge gaps between the advanced Nord and the Mafia-riddled, poverty-stricken Mezzogiorno – thus, opportunities for domestic tensions abound. As for Spain, it is facing an excruciating bust as the foreign credit flows pumping up its construction-fueled economy subside; furthermore, it faces an uncertain energy future (despite its impressive expansion into renewables, the scale is still far too small), exponentially-rising damage from global warming, and separatist tensions from the Basque region.

The performance of their education systems (both basic and tertiary), spending on R&D, and levels of corruption, are all far behind their north European neighbors. Too preoccupied with their manifold domestic challenges and isolated by the Alps and the Pyrenees from the North European Plain, these two nations have neither the incentive nor the capability to play a major role in future European power politics. They are likely to succumb to an accelerating, self-reinforcing decay, eventually culminating in the emigration of millions of young Spaniards and southern Italians to France and the US (being whites, xenophobia will not play a big role).

Finally, there are two European nations that are currently marginal, but may assume a much more prominent role in future decades – Poland and Sweden. Let us start with the former. Poland has a balanced, protected, and fast-growing economy that was little affected by the 2008 crisis (relatively speaking); a strong sense of national unity; and although it suffered from a sharp fall in fertility from the early 1990′s along with the rest of the socialist bloc, it may have a chance of recovery for the same reasons as Russia, i.e. because there is evidence to suggest its demographic decline was a result of the “transition shock”, i.e. not permanent. However, the likelihood of that occuring is smaller because a) its desired fertility (around 2.1) correlates with those of the low-fertility Med nations, whereas Russia’s is higher (around 2.5), and b) its transition shock was much less pronounced than Russia’s, but unlike Russia from 2006 it has yet to see any firm signs of demographic recovery. And although it does not have Russia’s mortality crisis, the main impact of that will be to put more pressure on the Polish pensions system, on which it already spends more than 10% of GDP (i.e. a figure similar to the rest of “old Europe”).

As such, it is hard to give credence to credence to George Friedman’s (Stratfor) prediction that Poland will become a Great Power any time soon. That said, as the strongest barrier between Germany and Russia – and hence a bulwark against the emergence of a European hegemon – much of the rest of the continent, especially France, England, and Sweden, as well as the US, will find it in their interests to extend technical and military aid. And should the resurgent Russia Empire collapse and wither back into its Muscovite heartlands, the recreation of a modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, encompassing much of Visegrad and western Ukraine, beckons.

With its cold climate and poor internal communication lines, the Scandinavian Peninsula’s population was always concentrated along the southern coasts. This is where Sweden first emerged as a maritime Power based on riverine trade within the Hanseatic / Baltic region – and that is where its modern interests lie. It naturally dominates energy-rich Norway and its maritime traditions enable a flexible military posture in Europe, while Finland serves as an excellent buffer against Russian expansionism. Sweden exerts financial domination over the Baltic nations, maintains friendly relations with NATO, and hosts an advanced military-industrial complex. As such, Swedish power is incommensurate with its small population, though overall it remains, and will remain, a minor player. Global warming will open up more of its lands to sustainable settlement, which coupled with its respectable demography and immigration from climatically-stricken zones from Europe and farther abroad will ensure the continued growth of its relative power. Finding a natural ally in Poland to contain German ambitions and Russian revanchism, the two could prove to be a potent combination.

Demo. Econ. Energy Mil. Clim. Power
England 55+ 4- 3– 4- 4-
France 65++ 4 3+ 4 4+
Germany 80– 5- 2 3+ 4
Italy 55– 3– 2 2- - 3–
Poland 40 2+ 2 2+ + 2+
Russia 140 4+ 5+ 5 ++ 5++
Sweden 10+ 2+ 2+ 2 ++ 2+
Spain 45- 3– 2 2- - 2–
Turkey 80++ 3+ 2 3+ - 3++

Above is a rough table summarizing my view of the current relative strengths (mostly 1-5) and future prospects (+ and -) of the current European Powers in population / demographic structure; economic-technological strength; energy reserves, sustainability and/or security of supply; climate effects; and overall hard power. For obvious reasons these are very rough estimates and subject to a wide degree of error.

Europe’s Geopolitics

Having outlined the general trends and regional idiosyncrasies of the European continent, I am now going to try to bring it all together and paint a picture of how European geopolitics and metapolitics are going to develop in the decades ahead.

First, a word about the European Union. It is the quintessential “end of history” project – as Fukuyama himself noted, its “attempt to transcend sovereignty and traditional power politics by establishing a transnational rule of law is much more in line with a “post-historical” world than the Americans’ continuing belief in God, national sovereignty, and their military”. This utopian pursuit is, however, dependent on social stability, which is what underpins Europe’s historically recent embrace of liberal democracy and rules-based mechanism for resolving disputes.

But considering the interlinked and growing economic, energetic, demographic, and climatic challenges to this social stability covered above – and bearing in mind that for all its pomp and splendor, the EU remains weak and peripheral relative to the twenty-seven European nation-states that will collectively decide its destiny – the EU’s disintegration, “withering away”, or “expansion into irrelevancy”, is almost inevitable. Powerful Eurosceptic elements in Britain, Poland and the small European states do not want to give away their national sovereignty and are suspicious of European federalism, which they perceive to be nothing more than a new, covert hegemonic project. Nor is it likely that it will be replaced by a “Europe of two speeds” based on accelerated Franco-German integration; the interests of these nation-states are simply too divergent for that to happen.

As for NATO, if it can be undermines by an issue as small as Afghanistan now – it has no chance of surviving the coming earthquakes in any meaningful form. Britain, France, and Poland will likely remain closely allied with the US, but beyond that the dominant paradigm will be a return to 19th century-like Great Power politics. Facing a subpar energy future, the loss of export markets in a more protectionist world, a rapid demographic decline, and an unprecedented fiscal crisis, Berlin will again look east, as it usually does in times of national stress. It is in its strategic interests to draw closer to Moscow, given the mutual desirability of setting up a bilateral relationship based on trading Russian commodities (natural gas) for German machine tools and technology, as occurred so often in the past. (For instance, in the Treaty of Rappallo (1922), the two international pariahs signed a peace agreement, forgave each other’s debts and signed a free trade accord. Russia also helped Germany circumvent the Treaty of Versailles by allowing Germany to use its territory to continue military-related R&D and weapons testing, far from the prying eyes of Western observers). Furthermore, Russia could make use of a neutral-to-friendly Germany as a shield to consolidate its power over the post-Soviet space.

Once again, Poland will stand in the way of this Russo-German relationship. Russia is interested in pushing American influence out of East-Central Europe, converting the region into a neutral buffer for its empire. Germany will be interested in 1) furthering its economic penetration of the region, given the losses of many of its other export markets, and 2) in preventively blocking Russia’s further expansion into Europe proper, which in the end would seriously endanger German national security. In addition, there’s also its traditional craving for Lebensraum.

The region of Visegrad will therefore become a vortex of geopolitical competition between Germania, Eurasia, Scandinavia, and the Atlanticists. Poland will be supported directly by France, which has a direct interest in guaranteeing Polish sovereignty in order to prevent the rise of a German-dominated Europe (or of a contiguous Russo-German bloc, which would amount to the same thing). Despite its likely retreat from active Eurasian power politics in the face of mounting domestic crises, the US too will likely contribute to Polish security, since preventing the rise of a Eurasian hegemon will still figure amongst Washington’s priorities. Interestingly, a weakened Britain (or England) will probably try to maintain neutrality and good relations with all sides: its desire to support France and Poland in order to preempt the rise of a united European hegemon will be partially counterbalanced by its growing energy dependence on Russia.

However, the alliance between Germany and Russia will be far from rock-solid, considering that it is based exclusively on shared interests. Germany does not want a Russia that is too strong, and as such will try to maintain a modicum of good relations with the Atlantic powers as a hedge, as well as making geopolitical inroads and alliances beyond Europe proper. Boxed in by seas to the north, a powerful France to the west, the Alps to the south, and an Atlanticist-supported Poland to the east, Germany will push its influence into the Balkans in conjunction with Turkey, a country with which it will resurrect its traditional alliance, and more importantly, a country that will be able to keep Russia’s attention diverted to its unstable south (the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Balkans – areas where Turkey already has substantial cultural and economic influence). Furthermore, Turkey would provide Germany with an additional supply of gas independent of Russian control sourced from Azerbaijan, Central Asia (if they remain outside Russia’s overt control) and possibly even Iran (if it reconciles with the West), and assuming that the necessary pipelines get built. In exchange, Germany will transfer the technologies Turkey needs to build a self-sufficient military-industrial complex that will complement its already formidable military power.

France will seek a close alliance with the Visegrad nations and Sweden to keep Germany and Russia occupied, while focusing most of its energies on securing its regional dominance. Flooded with younger immigrants from Spain and Italy – and perhaps the Maghreb, should it agree on the energy-for-immigration deal mooted above – its population will grow even more rapidly than projected, perhaps reaching 80-90mn souls by the 2030′s. This will result in the division of its electorate into three major groupings – the French conservatives and nationalists; the internationalist moderates; and the hard left, which will include the Islamist groups.

These internal divisions will be the cracks through which its weaker neighbors, especially Germany, will try to undermine it; however, ironically, those same divisions may lead to the long-term survival of multiculturalism and liberal democracy on French soil, even as Germany returns to the Reich, Italy reverts to its regionalistic capo governing traditions, Turkey revives its Ottoman imperial legacy, and Russia reacquires its Eurasian empire. Along with the British isles and various enclaves (Sweden, Switzerland, Czechia, Ireland, Poland?, etc), France will remain a light in a continent rapidly turning black with fascism, militarism, collapse – and perhaps war. War? Yes, I’m serious. Once effective ABM shields are developed and proliferate – and that’s not especially far off – the deterrence power of nuclear weapons will fall dramatically.

As mentioned above, both of the major Mediterranean powers will be too absorbed by domestic affairs to give serious heed to geopolitical jockeying. Though they might try to revive their colonial-era relations with North Africa – Spain in Morocco, Italy in Libya – they do no have the carrots to enjoy sustained success, and will be outmanoeuvred by France. Though Poland holds some promise, it is locked into a geopolitical vice and will remain too weak to play a truly independent role in Europe. And though Sweden is a formidable and growing Baltic power, its population and industrial base is simply too small to play a true Great Power role.

[A possible future European alliance / categorization system. Black - the expansionist Germans, Turks and Russians. Dark gray - France and its allies, Poland and Sweden. Gray - the relatively weak "balancing powers": Britain will lean more towards France, Italy more towards Germany, but none want to see a European hegemon. Light gray - too weak to really matter].

Conclusions

As a result of the epochal shifts in the global balance of power brought on by peak oil and the waning of Pax Americana, within the next decade the geopolitical structure of Europe will experience a profound transformation. The post-historical EU project will die when history returns to Europe. As Britain weakens and splinters into its constituent parts, and as the Mediterranean powers retreat under the weight of their manifold demographic, fiscal, and economic problems, the old struggle between France, Germany and Russia for European hegemony will resume.

This will entail a complex balance of power system. A powerful France will seek to encircle an ailing but still formidable Germany by allying itself with Visegrad and Sweden, while maximizing its own power by asserting itself in its Mediterranean backyard. Germany will make a wary alliance with Russia, and try to break free of its encirclement by threatening Poland, undermining France, and hedging with a Turkish alliance. Meanwhile, Russia and Turkey may come into intense geopolitical competition over the fate of the Balkans, Caucasus and Central Asia; however, should Turkey focus its expansion into the Middle East, their relations will likely be quiescent. (But this issue is for the Eurasia SSR). As the world energy and climate crisis worsens with every passing decade, Europe will return to its future – the Black Continent.

(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.