The end of the world is just the beginning…

February 10, 2023

I’m in the final manic editing phase of my little book, and if I don’t get a post out now it won’t happen for a while. So coming right up is my review of Peter Zeihan’s recent book, as per the title of this post. I wrote it a while back and had planned to edit it a bit, but I don’t have the luxury of time for that just now. However, I hope to see readers of thsi blog soon on the other side of my book project. In the meantime, feel free to listen to me talking small farm futures with Manda Scott on her Accidental Gods podcast.

And so to my review:

I’ve recently read Peter Zeihan’s book The End of the World Is Just the Beginning (Harper Business, 2022) and I’d commend it to readers of this blog as an informative complement to the issues laid out in my own book.

Two general points as an opener. First, for those of us who’ve long been saying in the face of much derision that the days of the present global order are clearly numbered, it’s gratifying that a major publisher should bring out a hefty book articulating this very point. It strikes me that you don’t have to peer too hard through the diversionary froth of the day to day news cycle to see this writing on the wall, but it still surprises me how few people are doing so.

Second, Zeihan has different political convictions and analytical concerns from me, but he ends up painting a pretty similar picture of where the world is headed. I find this interesting. It would be easy for me to devote a lot of words to all the points of disagreement I have with him (I do highlight a few below), but I think more interesting to examine the overlaps. I’ll begin by summarizing some of Zeihan’s main analytical optics, then I’ll draw out the links with my own arguments.

Geographies of success: Zeihan offers potted histories of global economic development and political power based on various physical and topographical features that favoured certain areas of the world and rendered others ‘strategically irrelevant’. He argues that the advent of fossil fuels as the motive force of the modern global economy eclipsed these geographies because the easy availability of prodigious power means that more or less anything can now be built more or less anywhere. But this card has an expiry date, after which geographic constraint will return to haunt us – some of us more than others.

Aging societies: Zeihan places a lot of emphasis on demography, and particularly the aging character of most rich and middle-income countries as the postwar boom and following fertility crash works its inexorable logic through time. His main point about this is that capital in the hands of older people does less work, and countries with aging populations will find it hard to sustain the growth that their economic models rely on.

‘The Order’: Zeihan argues that today’s globalized economy has largely been underwritten by the USA, particularly in the form of its hard naval/air power, which is the ultimate guarantor of safe passage for the otherwise vulnerable commercial shipping that makes modern urbanized consumerist society possible. And also in the form of open global markets that have allowed poorer countries to develop their economies. This postwar order – ‘The Order’ – arose in the now defunct Cold War context of superpower rivalry with the Soviet Union, a role the US is increasingly uninterested in continuing to play. In the coming ‘disorder’, there’s likely to be a lot of aggressive jockeying for position and resources by countries and local/regional power centres, while some places will get frozen out altogether.

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Credit: Zeihan emphasizes the huge extent to which the global economy in its present form is dependent on credit, mostly under the aegis of the world’s more powerful governments. This means that a lot gets done. Too much, in fact – overproduction is a constant problem. But it accumulates into a bill that future generations and/or the Earth ultimately have to honour, and probably can’t. Zeihan is particularly sceptical about China, and the extent to which its extraordinary economic development in recent decades has been based on over-easy credit that will soon come due.

Energy and materials: the physical requirements underpinning economic ‘success’, globalized ‘order’ and easy credit are cheap fossil energy and a plethora of materials like copper, cobalt and lithium. Most of these are limited or have difficult geographies of security around them that will make them hard or impossible to source at present prices and quantities. Low carbon renewable energy sources will not bridge this gap. A reversion to the use of widely distributed, high-carbon dirty coal might do, partially.

Labour and localism: whereas in the preindustrial and pre-globalized world, many or most people acquired many or most of the skills needed to furnish themselves with a practical livelihood locally, nowadays this is not the case and, Zeihan says, people largely possess either hyperspecialized skills or few skills to speak of, i.e. they lack skills of practical local livelihood-making either way. Due to supply insecurities, he thinks it’s likely that in the future there will be a lot of local work in machine shops and gardens geared to producing simple things securely, not complex things at low cost for global markets – if there are the people with the skills to provide them.

Zeihan also discusses the geopolitical imbalances between capital and knowledge-rich countries with scarce and high-cost labour costs and capital and knowledge-poor countries with abundant and low-cost labour. While acknowledging the dangers of colonial power relations between the two, he takes a more upbeat view of this as a potential win-win arena of economic cooperation. This leads him to speculate about how the geopolitical map might be redrawn in a post-Order world – for example, a NAFTA area incorporating the UK and Colombia, which stretches the definition of ‘North America’ a bit, but anyway.

Capital- and other isms: Zeihan argues that at their core all economic models are systems of distribution, and the salient ones he emphasizes are capitalism (like, he says, in the USA), socialism (like in Europe), communism (like in the former Soviet Union – but also in early postwar South Korea), and fascism, where he especially emphasizes economic corporatism, whereby businesses are government-linked and directed towards perceived national goals, but are not government-operated. His premier example of a fascist regime in the present world is China.

I’ll pick up from that last paragraph now to start appraising Zeihan’s analysis in relation to a small farm future. And to be honest, his global economic schema isn’t all that great – you’re better off reading A Small Farm Future to understand the way capitalism works and the role of the US and Europe within it, if I say so myself. There isn’t a capitalist US and a socialist Europe so much as a global economy of so-called welfare capitalism where some parts are more redistributive (Europe, generally) and other parts less so (the USA).

However, I do find the way Zeihan invokes the spectre of fascism informative. This nationalist-corporatist model, with business interests subordinated to the nationalist goals of an authoritarian centralized state and civil society policed for enemies within and without, does seem to be the direction a lot of the world is travelling – not surprisingly, since it’s probably the best option available for governments to try to retain power and keep the urban-consumerist wagon rolling in circumstances of economic contraction, collapsing credit and resource conflict. Zeihan is still pinning his hopes on more liberal/libertarian forms of capitalism-as-usual pulling through, but I think these hopes are vain. Away from the pull of fascist political centres, there will probably be areas of what Zeihan calls ‘strategic irrelevance’ where people will develop local agrarian systems to meet their needs, because they will have little call upon resources from elsewhere to meet them. Ultimately, I think the fascist political centres will fail to resolve their contradictions, and I hope that the small farm societies pioneered in their ‘strategically irrelevant’ margins might then take off and plot a more renewable route into the future.

In doing so, their populations will have to reckon with local physical and biological realities that fossil fuelled modernity has allowed most people to forget, or to shrink from. Reckoning with them again may not be as bad as a lot of people – Zeihan probably included – seem to think, but while I don’t entirely buy all aspects of his ‘geographies of success’ analysis, I think he’s right to emphasize that in the future geography and topography will matter again in ways they scarcely now do in urban high energy society that unconsciously colour so much modern thinking.

Part of this new geographical reckoning will involve the noisy regional power politics I mentioned, once the US-backed ‘Order’ crumbles. Now, for the record I think Zeihan paints way, way too benign a picture of US actions and intentions globally, but I’m not sure how much this matters in terms of future implications. He writes of US disinterest in future world affairs: “The Americans can access what they need without massive military interventions. This will generate not the sort of heavy American involvement most countries would find distasteful, but instead large-scale American disengagement that most countries will find terrifying” (p.320).

This strikes me as broadly true, if only because US power has shaped the modern world such that most countries have few options but to attach themselves to the US Order. And US hard power is still prodigious – its military expenditure exceeds that of the next nine biggest spending countries combined, most of which in any case are US allies. I know nothing about strategic affairs of this sort, but Zeihan doesn’t rate the military or economic chances of countries like Russia and China, and on the face of it I’m not seeing evidence to suggest he’s wrong (though I’d find his claims more trustworthy if he’d used the footnotes in his book for references instead of jokes, and if he hadn’t written on page 205 that after Brexit the British left “fell under the control of barely whitewashed neofascists” – huh?)

Anyway, I like Zeihan’s coolly cynical (or ‘realist’, in the jargon of international relations scholarship) projections of how various countries will behave in the disorderly scramble for material resources and economic security that’s upon us. But I think he underplays the extent to which many countries are subject to fragmenting forces that they may not weather in their present form, making the scramble even more disorderly. This, I suspect, applies even to the USA, the big winner in his account. From my admittedly distant vantage point, it seems to me there are political pressures in the country that could easily rupture it, and it may be harder than Zeihan supposes for the US to reshore its manufacturing capacity and ally with low-wage client countries. I suspect the likely end of the US-backed global Order won’t come simply because the US doesn’t want to bear the burden any more, but because it can’t. The same applies a fortiori to many other countries.

Zeihan’s analysis of the fantasy economics behind present credit-fuelled growth, financialization and the inflation of land and property values strikes me as sound, along similar lines to my discussion of the ‘symbolic economy’ in my own book, but much more detailed (so I’ll admit it, on this point you might be better off reading his book than mine). Likewise he has a more detailed analysis of energy and material futures, with similar conclusions – low carbon renewable power is all very nice ‘n’all, but it’s not going to furnish rich, urbanized countries with the abundant, cheap flows of energy and materials we’ve come to rely on. I’ll say more about that in another post soon. For now, I’ll just home in on the implications for urban life, which Zeihan assesses as follows:

“Modern cities – and especially East Asia’s modern megacities – are particularly screwed. All only exist because the Order has made it easy for them both to source the building blocks of industrialized systems as well as to access end markets for their exports. Remove the global system, remove global transport, and cities will be responsible for their own food and energy and industrial inputs.

That is, in a word, impossible. Only cities that are part of a bloc with sufficient reach can hope to keep populations employed, fed, and warm. For most of the global urban population, this leads to the same place: massive deindustrialization and depopulation as people are forced to return to the countryside” p.155

That pretty much aligns with my reading of the runes in A Small Farm Future. Which is why my book has ‘farm’ in its title, because that’s basically what people in the countryside have to do. Zeihan turns to the question of farming in the last part of his book, and in view of his preceding analyses of collapsing capital, trade and inputs unsurprisingly comes to a similar conclusion as me: “large-scale, export-driven monoculture will give way to small-scale, local-driven polyculture” (p.429) – a kind of farming, he correctly concludes, that’s more like gardening and can be “wildly productive”.

Then he goes a bit awry, arguing that the volume of foods produced on Earth in aggregate in this scenario must decline, and that for current food-importing countries like the UK “Gruels, porridges and mush beckon – with a little cabbage on Sundays” (p.430).

I’d say rather that the volume of agricultural commodities produced must decline, but since a large proportion of these aren’t actually food that’s needed for direct human consumption, since local-driven polycultures do a better job of feeding people than export-driven monocultures, and since countries like the UK are net food importers largely out of policy choice, it’s debatable whether the volume of foods produced will decline, or that cabbage will be only a Sunday luxury here in Britain. Barring, that is, drastic climate change or political mismanagement, both of which I concede are pretty likely.

Anyway, let me conclude by trying to meld Zeihan’s intimations of our global future with my own. In the coming century or so, we face a situation where the global political and trading system will disintegrate, and where the strongest political centres will try to hang on to their high-energy urban-industrial lifeways through various coercive and authoritarian means, including forms of neocolonialism and neofascism. Resurgent but fragile nationalisms will loom large, and there will be a lot of boundary policing of enemies within and without. Yet, as their populations age, these power centres will through gritted teeth admit young adults from poorer places, surveilling and discriminating against them all the while. In places of ‘strategic irrelevance’ that aren’t hollowed out by this outmigration or destroyed by climate change, small farm societies more or less thrown back on their own resources will figure out local ways of making their livelihood and building political culture. When the high-energy authoritarian political centres fail, which ultimately they will, my hope is that some of these ‘irrelevant’ places will have forged resilient material cultures and mature political institutions that will enable them to usher our descendants into the next chapter of human history.

It’s not, I regret, a particularly cheery vision, but it’s not an entirely hopeless one. Our modern epoch, like many of its predecessors, will die in the froth of its own contradictions, but – more than Zeihan – I consider that a bittersweet conclusion rather than merely a bitter one. The story from there on gets more interesting, and even perhaps more uplifting.

As I said earlier, it surprises me that more people don’t take a cold hard look at events and come to conclusions similar to Zeihan’s (and mine). Maybe it’s because writers and thinkers are under pressure these days to tell stories with a happy ending or a ‘we can do this’ toolkit. So I find it refreshing that Zeihan lays things out so bluntly. But a doubt remains. The prospects look appropriately bleak in Zeihan’s account for most places apart from North America, where presumably most of his readers are located. So maybe he’s offering a feelgood story after all, at least for the readership that matters. For numerous reasons, I suspect things may not play out nearly as rosily in North America as he thinks. Actually, I wonder if Zeihan secretly thinks that too, but had to speak in code to get his manuscript past his publisher. Otherwise I fear he may be suffering from a touch too much nationalist insouciance. In the coming years, there’s going to be a lot of that about.


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Chris Smaje

After studying then teaching and researching in social science and policy, I became a small-scale commercial veg grower in 2007. Nowadays, when I’m not writing about the need to design low-impact local food systems before they’re foisted on us by default, I spend my time as an aspiring woodsman, stockman, gardener and peasant on the small farm I help to run in Somerset, southwest England Though smallholding, small-scale farming,... Read more.

Tags: building resilient societies, collapse of industrial civilization, de-globalization, Future Scenarios, small farm future