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The End of the World is Just the Beginning book review

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By Andy Douglas

Nobody knows for sure what the future holds. But we can conjure glimpses. In his new book, The End of the World is Just the Beginning, geopolitical strategist Peter Zeihan foresees a rough road ahead. 

He writes about how the current global political order – the United States securing global trade security through its military might – may be coming to an end soon. 

This security order hasn’t served America’s strategic interests since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. It’s only a matter of time, Zeihan believes, before the global system breaks down.

This is because there is nothing about globalization that is sustainable. In addition to a predicted withdrawal of the US from being the world’s policeman, many of Zeihan’s arguments revolve around a collapse in birth rates. A population crash is coming for much of the globe, within this decade, he believes.

China, for example, is the fastest-aging society in human history with a birth rate at 1.3. They’ll see demographic collapse soon. Much of the world’s population faces mass retirements followed by population crashes at roughly the same time, including Russia, Japan, and Germany.

Behind them, another group will face a similar demographic disintegration in the 2030s and 2040s – Brazil, Spain, Thailand, Greece, and Australia.

China will see a collapse of domestic consumption due to demographic aging, loss of export markets due to deglobalization, and an inability to protect imports of energy and materials. All of this may lead to unrest.

The way we’ve set things up, economic development, quality of life, longevity, and health are all subject to the whims of globalization.

Reduced interaction with other countries means reduced access, income, fewer economies of scale, and less labor specialization. Everything becomes less efficient, and less productive. Food shortages gut the population. Electricity shortages gut manufacturing. Fewer people means less chance of keeping anything that requires specialized labor working. 

Modern transport based on containerization, bigger ships, and fewer ports has become the norm. But when this cheap transport gets inhibited, global access falls apart. (Zeihan doesn’t dwell on externalities, like the cost of shipping’s impact on the environment.) Expect state piracy to come back into vogue, he says – especially in the Suez and Mediterranean regions.

In sum, at least half the global population faces the unwinding of decades of urbanization, according to Zeihan.

Much of the book is a wonky analysis of the availability of minerals, materials, and components. It’s not especially interesting reading, but does burnish his credentials as someone who has thought about the micro-impacts of macro-trends.

He’s also not bullish on green technology. Greentech will require a massive transmission infrastructure. If we’re only talking solar and wind, it would need a ninefold buildout to fully displace fossil fuels, he says.

Many countries simply don’t have sunny or windy enough locations. The danger here is that they may go back to coal. Which, as we know, is not good for carbon emissions.

He does see promise in batteries (though lithium supply chains are problematic).

Since inputs are transported globally, agriculture will be greatly disrupted. With shipping delays come loss of crops. 

He doesn’t shy away from grim predictions. There will be no shortage of famines in the post-Order world, Zeihan believes. It’s likely, he writes, that a billion+ people will starve to death, and another two billion will suffer from malnutrition in the coming decades.

Zeihan is a realist, with a skeptical eye. He doesn’t particularly think in terms of positive possibilities opening up. I don’t agree with all his assessments. And he doesn’t offer a lot of data to support his thesis that the global security system is bound for imminent collapse.

However, he does see this state of affairs leading to the strengthening of local economies, something Proutists can get behind. Large-scale, export-driven monoculture will give way to small-scale, local-driven polyculture, he writes. And we’ll all shift from high-cost animal protein to low-cost plant protein.

Certainly, a move toward more decentralized economies, as envisioned by Prout, is one way to offset some of the catastrophic scenarios he envisions.

Zeihan is not the only one predicting societal collapse. No one can say with certainty what exactly is going to happen in the coming years, though we’re already in the midst of rapid and drastic change. Whether we as a species will be able to navigate the coming wave of crises will largely depend in large part on how well we’re able to work together and make serious changes in how we’ve structured our economies and societies.

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