These highlights are from the Kindle version of The End of the World is Just the Beginning by Peter Zeihan.
During the past seven decades, as a percent of the population, fewer people have died in fewer wars and fewer occupations and fewer famines and fewer disease outbreaks than since the dawn of recorded history. Historically speaking, we live in an embarrassment of riches and peace. All of these evolutions and more are tightly interwoven. Inseparable. But there is a simple fact that is often overlooked. They are artificial. We have been living in a perfect moment. And it is passing.
Geographies of Success are not immutable. As technologies evolve, the lists of winners and losers shift with them. Advances in harnessing water and wind eroded what made Egypt special into history, providing room for a new slate of major powers. The Industrial Revolution reduced Spain to a backwater, while heralding the beginning of the English Imperium. The coming global Disorder and demographic collapse will do more than condemn a multitude of countries to the past; it will herald the rise of others.
Moving stuff around isn’t all that easy. Assuming you have access to an asphalt or concrete road—the sort of road that didn’t even exist until the early twentieth century—it takes about twelve times as much energy to move things on land as compared to water. In the early years of the first millennia BCE, when a top-notch road was gravel, that energy disconnect was more likely in the neighborhood of 100 to 1.
Waterwheels were the original labor saver. At first nearly all that savings was simply folded back into the backbreaking work of irrigated agriculture, bringing more land under cultivation, enabling larger and more reliable yields. But with the farm-to-table process becoming somewhat less labor intensive, we started generating food surpluses for the first time. That too freed up a bit of labor, and we had inadvertently come up with something for them to do: manage the food surpluses. Bam! Now we have pottery and numbers. Now we need some way to store our urns and keep track of the math. Bam! Now we have basic engineering and writing. Now we need a way to distribute our stored food. Bam! Roads. All our stuff needed to be kept, managed, and guarded in a centralized location, while all our skills needed to be passed on to future generations. Bam! Urbanization and education.
Too open a frontier and groups like the Mongols tended to ruin your life. The Chinas and Russias of the world tended to do pretty badly. Too rugged an interior and you could never achieve enough cultural unification to put everyone on the same side. No one wanted to be Persia or Ireland, constantly struggling with internal discord. The goldilocks geographies were those with solid, crunchy outsides and gooey centers: England, Japan, the Ottoman Empire, Sweden.
The new Geographies of Success weren’t places that excelled at building ships or training sailors, but instead were those that weren’t overworried about land invasions and had the strategic space to think over the horizon. The first deepwater cultures sat on peninsulas—Portugal and Spain to be specific. When armies can only approach you from one direction, it is easier to focus your efforts on floating a navy. But countries based on islands are even more defensible. In time, the English surpassed the Iberians.
The Greater Midwest by itself boasts 200,000 square miles of the world’s most fertile farmland—larger than the total land area of Spain. Midwestern soils are thick, deep prairie soils, laden with nutrients. The Midwest is squarely in the temperate zone. Winter brings insect kills, which keep pests under control, limiting pesticide costs as well as forcing an annual soil regeneration and decomposition process that limits fertilizer needs. The full four-season experience all but guarantees ample precipitation—including snow in the winter—which typically supplies adequate soil moisture and relegates supplemental irrigation to the region’s western fringes.
Midwestern growth also nudged the South into cash crops. Growing indigo, cotton, or tobacco is far more labor intensive than growing wheat or corn. The Midwest didn’t have the labor to pull it off, but courtesy of slavery, the South did. Each region of the country specialized in outputs based on its local economic geography, with water transport enabling cheap and omnipresent intrastate trade, generating economies of scale heretofore unheard-of in the human experience.
The post–Cold War era is possible only because of a lingering American commitment to a security paradigm that suspends geopolitical competition and subsidizes the global Order. With the Cold War security environment changed, it is a policy that no longer matches needs. What we all think of as normal is actually the most distorted moment in human history. That makes it incredibly fragile. And it is over.
Globalization didn’t simply empty the countryside; it also gutted the world’s smaller communities, forcing everyone into the major cities. And as true as this was in Nebraska or New South Wales, it was wildly more true in places like the Brazilian Cerrado or Russia’s Black Earth region or China’s rice belt.
Nearly all the population gains in the developed world since 1965—overall a greater than 50 percent increase—are from longer life spans.
No matter how you crunch the numbers, China in 2022 is the fastest-aging society in human history. In China the population growth story is over and has been over since China’s birth rate slipped below replacement levels in the 1990s.
China is amazing, just not for the reasons most opine. The country will soon have traveled from preindustrial levels of wealth and health to postindustrial demographic collapse in a single human lifetime.
Deglobalization doesn’t simply mean a darker, poorer world, it means something far worse. An unraveling.
The American-led Order (big O) did more than change the rules of the game; it institutionalized order (little o), which in turn allowed industrialization and urbanization to spread everywhere. That shifted the global demographic from one of lots of children to lots of young and mature workers, generating a sustained consumption and investment boom the likes of which humanity had no previous experience with.
Under the Order and this magical demographic moment, we have become so specialized and our technology has advanced so much that we have become totally incompetent at tasks that used to be essential.
Electricity shortages gut manufacturing. Food shortages gut the population. Fewer people means less chance of keeping anything that requires specialized labor working. Say, things like road construction or the electrical grid or food production. That is what “decivilization” means: a cascade of reinforcing breakdowns that do not simply damage, but destroy, the bedrock of what makes the modern world function. Not every location had the right geography to make a go of civilization before the Order. Not every location will be able to maintain civilization after Order’s end.
By most measures—most notably in education, wealth, and health—globalization has been great, but it was never going to last. What you and your parents (and in some cases, grandparents) assumed as the normal, good, and right way of living—that is, the past seven decades or so—is a historic anomaly for the human condition both in strategic and demographic terms. The period of 1980–2015 in particular has simply been a unique, isolated, blessed moment in time. A moment that has ended. A moment that will certainly not come again in our lifetimes.
The Columbus expeditions around the turn of the fifteenth century set off a runaway chain reaction of interconnectivity. Deepwater navigation enabled first the Spanish and Portuguese and later the British and, well, everybody to reach out and interact with every piece of land that touched ocean.
In 2019 the Earth for the first time in history had more people aged sixty-five and over than five and under. By 2030 there will be twice as many retirees, in relative terms.
We aren’t simply looking at a demographically induced economic breakdown; we are looking at the end of a half millennium of economic history.
Everything that capitalism and fascism and the rest were designed to balance or manage—supply, demand, production, capital, labor, debt, scarcity, logistics—isn’t so much contorting as evolving into forms we have literally never experienced as a species. We are entering a period of extreme transformation, with our strategic, political, economic, technological, demographic, and cultural norms all in flux at the same time. Of course we will shift to a different management system.
By 1980 the demographic pipeline was already running dry . . . and then the bottom fell out. The trauma of the Soviet collapse was economic, cultural, political, strategic—and demographic. Between 1986 and 1994, the birth rate halved while the death rate nearly doubled. Russia today is deindustrializing at the same time its population is collapsing.
Japan’s population is the world’s most homogeneous, with more than 98 percent of the population being purely ethnically Japanese. That unity enabled social and economic transformations that would have triggered mass upheaval in more diverse populations.
COVID is the most infectious disease to break into the general population since measles, and COVID’s fatality rate is five times higher. At the time of this writing (February 2022), over 300 million people globally have been diagnosed with COVID, with 6 million of them perishing.
At the time of this writing, COVID already has disrupted the consumption-led part of the world for over two years. The export-led part of the world was going to slide from export-led to postgrowth in the 2020s regardless, with most of said sliding occurring in the decade’s first half. COVID weakened the connections between export-led and consumption-led economies; this hived most consumption-led economies off into their own partially sequestered worlds, while simultaneously denying the export-led economies of the export sales they needed to fuel their systems and the transition time they needed to adapt their systems to whatever comes after globalization.
The United States has more high-quality, temperate-zone, arable farmland than any other country and its entire agricultural supply chain is contained within North America. This makes the United States the world’s largest agricultural producer and exporter.
Courtesy of the shale revolution, not only is the United States the world’s largest oil producer, enabling it to be net oil-independent, but by-products of its shale oil production have granted it the lowest unsubsidized electricity costs in the world.
The United States has not faced a security threat from within the North American continent since the 1840s. Deserts and mountains make an invasion from the south simply impossible.
Very few countries have any vessels that can even cross an ocean unaided. Should anyone want to take a crack at America, they’d have to first get past the U.S. Navy, which is ten times as powerful as the combined navies of the rest of the world.
There were so many Baby Boomers that when they entered the market they outcompeted each other for wages, suppressing labor costs. This forced many Boomers to decide that two-income households were the only way to scrape by. That not only depressed labor costs more, but introduced considerable stress into interpersonal relationships, resulting in the Baby Boomers’ high divorce rate.
The United States is one of the world’s four settler states, which is a pseudo-technical term indicating that most Americans can trace their lineage to folks who aren’t from what is currently American territory.
The dominant ethnic group in Mexico originates from Spain, while the dominant “ethnic” group in the United States is white Caucasian. In Mexican eyes, that isn’t all that different. Mexicans of Spanish descent somewhat look down on Mexicans of indigenous descent, and they feel more or less the same way about Central American migrants as Americans do. Once Mexicans migrate to the United States, they assimilate quickly.
The dominant ethnic group in Mexico originates from Spain, while the dominant “ethnic” group in the United States is white Caucasian. In Mexican eyes, that isn’t all that different. Mexicans of Spanish descent somewhat look down on Mexicans of indigenous descent, and they feel more or less the same way about Central American migrants as Americans do. Once Mexicans migrate to the United States, they assimilate quickly. It’s fairly common for second-generation Mexican-Americans—and nearly reflexive for fourth-generation Mexican-Americans—to define themselves as white.
The demographic in the United States that consistently polls the most anti-migration is not white Americans, but instead (non-first-generation) Mexican-Americans. They want family reunification, but only for their own families. Never forget that anti-migrant, build-the-wall Donald Trump carried nearly every county on the southern border when running for reelection in 2020.
Most of the world (China included) imports the vast majority of its energy as well as the inputs used to grow its food. Most of the world (China included) is dependent upon trade to keep its population not simply wealthy and healthy, but alive. Remove that and global (and Chinese) mortality levels will rise even as baked-in demographic trends mean birth rates will continue to fall.
Consider the contemporary smartphone. It’s a flashlight, a music player, a camera, a game console, a fare card, a remote control, a library, a television, a cookbook, a computer—all in one.
Between 2000 and 2020, moving a container across the Atlantic or Pacific averaged out to about $700 per container. Or put another way, 11 cents per pair of shoes.
If you wanted a train that could compete in capacity with ships designed to just barely squeeze through the recently expanded Panama Canal, you’d need one more than forty miles long. Alternatively, you could go for a fleet of sixty-five hundred trucks.
The first of these soon-to-be-crazy geographies are the territories on and coastward of Asia’s First Island Chain, a region that includes Japan, China, Korea, and Taiwan, and to a lesser degree the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore. What resources exist gradually peter out as one travels from south to north, while the value and volume of manufacturing tend to follow the opposite gradient. It is a natural area of intense competition characterized by concentrated resource demand, the longest supply lines on Earth, and massive export dependency. The result? Intermediate goods everywhere, with all of them being shipped by water.
Chinese fascism has worked to this point, but between a collapse of domestic consumption due to demographic aging, a loss of export markets due to deglobalization, and an inability to protect the imports of energy and raw materials required to make it all work, China’s embracing of narcissistic nationalism risks spawning internal unrest that will consume the Communist Party. Or at least that’s what happened before (repeatedly) in Chinese history, when the government could no longer provide its people with the goods.
A large number of conscious decisions were made by European leaders to remodel their systems with a socialist bent so their populations would be vested within their collective systems. This worked. This worked well. But only in the context of the Order with the Americans paying for the bulk of defense costs and enabling growth that the Europeans could have never fostered themselves. Deglobalize and Europe’s demographics and lack of global reach suggest that permanent recession is among the better interpretations of the geopolitical tea leaves. I do not see a path forward in which the core of the European socialist-democratic model can survive.
The days of long-haul transport are largely over. With the notable exceptions of Japan and the United States, no country can consistently project naval forces a continent away, and even for the world’s top two naval powers, patrolling sufficiently wide swaths of ocean to enable escort-free cargo trade is beyond them. The Order worked because only the United States had a global navy and everyone agreed to not target ships. That world is gone.
Modern manufacturing—and especially modern tech manufacturing—can only function in a world in which gajillions of intermediate products can frictionlessly scuttle about. Only blocs in which manufacturing supply can be colocated with manufacturing demand won’t suffer from catastrophic disruption.
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.
The bigger the urban conglomerate, the greater the risk of catastrophic failure.
Only half of America’s international trade and less than 3 percent of its domestic trade—which collectively accounts for just 10 percent of GDP—floats at all. Most trade with Mexico and Canada is carried out via rail, truck, or pipeline.
Everything about modern China—from its industrial structure to its food sourcing to its income streams—is a direct outcome of the American-led Order. Remove the Americans and China loses energy access, income from manufactures sales, the ability to import the raw materials to make those manufactures in the first place, and the ability to either import or grow its own food. China absolutely faces deindustrialization and deurbanization on a scale that is nothing less than mythic. It almost certainly faces political disintegration and even de-civilization. And it does so against a backdrop of an already disintegrating demography.
At the time of this writing, in early 2022, every country in the world has experienced financial crises and market meltdowns multiple times in the post–Cold War era. If you think this is symptomatic of deep structural issues, you are right. If you think it’s all wildly unsustainable, right again!
By 1900 the United States had already displaced the entirety of the British Empire as the world’s single-largest economy. Furthermore, the Americans didn’t even join World War I until three years in, and so were able to serve as creditor to the Europeans rather than needing to debase their currency to keep fighting. The British pound wasn’t as debased as the franc or deutschmark or ruble, but the dollar wasn’t debased at all.
The commencement of the Order meant that peoples who had been at each other’s throats for the entirety of their histories were not only at peace but were forced to be on the same side. All at once, local economies once hardwired to support a distant imperial sovereign could reinvent themselves on the basis of local development and expansion.
Something similar occurred in Japan in the 1980s with real estate, when for a brief and bizarre moment a square mile of downtown Tokyo was supposedly worth more than the entire U.S. western seaboard. The Japanese immediately recognized that this was not a sign that things had gone radically right, but instead that something had gone radically wrong. The Chinese have yet to register such a dark eureka.
Some of these new innovations you’ve undoubtedly heard of: horizontal drilling provided access to new sources of crude that conventional production techniques could not, pressurized water injection fractured the source rock, enabling trillions of packets of crude oil to flow to the well shaft, better recycling techniques reduced the volume of water required by more than 90 percent, better fluid management removed toxicity from the system, and improved data management enabled drillers to fine-tune their operations to strike only the very specific spots that held hydrocarbons. The world knows these collective advances as either “fracking” or the “shale revolution” and collectively they made the United States the world’s largest oil and natural gas producer.
The last American president to even pretend to care about fiscal prudence was Bill Clinton, a dude not known for . . . prudence. On his watch, the U.S. government did indeed balance the federal budget. Then along came George W. Bush, who ran some of the largest budget deficits since World War II. His successor, Barack Obama, doubled those deficits. The next guy, Donald Trump, doubled them again. At the time of this writing, in early 2022, the next dude in line, Joe Biden, has bet his political life on multiple spending plans that if enacted would double those deficits again.
Since 2007—the year everyone started talking about the Chinese taking over the planet—the supply of yuan has increased by more than eight hundred percent.
The Americans used the Order to extend globalization and stability to the entire human family, China included. Every country started down the path toward industrialization and urbanization. The latecomers were able to jump over entire phases of the industrialization process, progressing directly from iron to steel, from aluminum to fiberglass, from copper pipes to PVC to flexible tubing, from landlines to cell phones to smartphones. The later a country began the urbanization process, the faster that urbanization process unfolded and the faster that birth rates crashed.
Between 1990 and 2020 this broad convergence of factors brought us the cheapest capital supplies and fastest economic growth in the history of our species. On top of the general craziness of the fiat age. On top of the hypergrowth of the Order era.
Credit is the lifeblood of a modern economy. If you’re a company, borrowing helps you meet payroll, fund expansions, purchase machinery, and build new facilities. Every Jane or Joe uses credit every day: college loans, car loans, mortgage loans, home equity loans, credit cards. It is the lubrication that makes pretty much everything possible. Without credit, one of the few methods of purchasing goods is with cash, up front and in full.
Add the extravagances and exaggerations of the fiat era to the excesses and eruptions of the demographic moment and we have experienced the largest credit surges in human history.
Brazil’s constitution and currency only date back to the 1990s. Not only is this modern Brazil’s first true political and economic crisis, but it is a full-blown constitutional crisis that hits at the very bedrock of everything that makes Brazil Brazil.
Inflation occurs when costs rise, and can be caused by any sort of disconnect in supply and demand: supply chain disruptions when someone hijacks a container ship, a young and/or hungry population that needs more housing and food, fads where everyone must have a Cabbage Patch doll, or when a monetary authority expands the money supply to deliberately increase demand. Inflation levels below 2 percent are generally considered okay, but anything above that becomes less and less enjoyable.
For many (most?) countries, a depression lasting a decade or two is pretty much baked in at this point. Between deglobalization, demographic collapse, and the coronavirus, most countries will never recover to where they were in 2019.
Without oil, the American-led global Order would have never had a chance. Nor would have passenger cars. Or global food distribution. Or global manufacturing. Or modern health care. Or the shoes most of us are wearing.
One of the common dangers in coal mines is methane, a gaseous substance that we know alternatively as natural gas, cow farts, and coal gas. Managing coal gas is a constant challenge for coal miners, since every time a miner cracks into a seam, there’s a chance of releasing some hidden pocket of the stuff. Common outcomes are asphyxiation and explosion.
Thirty-three years on at the time of this writing, Russia still hasn’t gotten back to its Cold War production levels. Only during the oil-ravenous stability of the post–Cold War period of the American-led Order is the current iteration of Russia’s internationalized oil complex even possible. And with the Ukraine War, it is already over.
In essence, shale operators drill down as per normal, but when they reach a petroleum-rich rock strata they take a sharp turn, drilling horizontally along the entire layer. Then they pump water and sand at high pressure into the formation. Since liquids do not compress, the rock cracks apart from within, freeing untold trillions of tiny pockets of oil and natural gas that would otherwise be far too small to harvest with conventional drilling. The sand suspended in the frack fluid props the cracks open, while the now-freed oil provides reverse pressure that pushes the water back up the pipe. Once the water has cleared, the oil continues flowing. Voilà! A shale well is born.
With improvements in everything from water management to drilling apparatuses to data processing to seismic imaging to pump power, it is now common to have individual wells kick out in excess of 5,000 barrels of oil a day—a figure that puts individual American shale wells on par with some of the most prolific oil wells in Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
Venezuela used to matter. It used to be among the world’s most reliable producers and exporters. By many measures, decisions made in Caracas ultimately broke the Arab Oil Embargos of the 1970s. Those days are long past. Two-plus decades of horrific, deliberate, and increasingly creative and violent mismanagement all but destroyed the country’s energy complex. Output is down by more than 90 percent from peak, extraction and transport infrastructure is crumbling, and internal government leaks suggest irreparable damage to the country’s petroleum reservoirs.
No two crude oil streams have exactly the same chemical makeup. Some are gooey and laden with impurities, most commonly sulfur, which can make up to 3 percent of the crude oil by volume. Such crudes are called “heavy sours.” Some, like Canada’s oil sands, are so heavy that they are solid at room temperature. Others are so pure they have the color and consistency of nail polish remover and are called “light sweets.”
Russia is the world’s largest natural gas exporter, in large part due to legacy infrastructure left over from the Soviet era. But the Kremlin feels (not without merit) that piped natural gas generates geopolitical dependencies, and has extended its natural gas networks into Germany, Italy, Turkey, and China with an eye toward manipulating those countries’ strategic policies.
The eastern two-thirds of China, the vast bulk of India, and nearly the entirety of Southeast Asia—home to fully half the world’s population—have so little solar and wind potential that a large-scale greentech buildout would emit more carbon than it would ever save. Same for West Africa. And the northern Andes. And the more populated portions of the former Soviet Union. And Ontario.
Consider America’s Megalopolis, the line of densely packed cities from Boston in the north to the Greater DC area in the south. Collectively, the coastal cities of this line comprise roughly one-third of the American population on a tiny footprint. They also happen to be positioned on patches of land with very low solar and wind potential. The idea they could generate sufficient volumes of electricity locally is asinine. They need to import it.
Evenin the geographies where greentech works well, it is at best only a partial patch. Greentech only generates electricity. Wind and solar might theoretically be able to replace coal in some specific locations, but electricity of any type is not compatible with existing infrastructure and vehicles that use oil-derived liquid fuels.
From 2014, when the solar boom began, until 2020, solar has only increased to become 1.5 percent of total energy use.
Part of what makes the modern world work is on-demand electricity. This requires something called dispatchability: the idea that a power plant can ramp its power output up and down to match demand. Not only can wind and solar not do this; they are also intermittent. Power levels vary based on that most mercurial of forces: the weather.
Part of what makes dispatchability so attractive is that there are peaks and troughs in normal electricity demand. Specifically, in most locations peak electricity demand is between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m., with higher demand rates in the winter. However, peak solar supply is between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., with higher supply profiles in the summer.
Fully 95 percent of humanity sources its electricity from power plants less than fifty miles away.
World War II was in many ways a fight over inputs. Most of us have at least an inkling of the strategic competitions that took place for agricultural land and oil, but battles over industrial materials were just as front and center.
The German invasion of Russia in June 1941 obviously marked the end of the German-Russian alliance, but the first big wedge in the relationship had occurred nineteen months earlier, when the Russians invaded Finland, threatening German access to what had been the Nazi war machine’s primary source of nickel, a critical input into high-grade steel.
The in-progress demographic bust threatens to reduce the human population writ large over the next few decades by as much in relative terms as the Black Death effect.
Courtesy of the shale revolution, the United States already has the world’s cheapest electricity. Add in some of the world’s best greentech potential and power prices in large portions of the country are likely to go down in the years to come. The biggest competitive advantages will likely be felt in Texas, where the shale-related and greentech power generation trends overlap with plenty of port capacity to site a smelter or five.
As of 2022, cobalt is the only sufficiently energy-dense material that even hints that we might be able to use rechargeable batteries to tech our way out of our climate challenges. It simply cannot be done—even attempted—without cobalt, and a lot more cobalt than we currently have access to, at that. Assuming all else holds equal (which is, of course, a hilarious statement considering the topic of this book), annual cobalt metal demand between 2022 and 2025 alone needs to double to 220,000 tons simply to keep pace with Green aspirations. That won’t happen.
More than half of commercially usable cobalt comes from a single country: the Democratic Republic of the Congo (a near-dictatorial place that is neither democratic nor a republic nor all that far from being outright failed).
Let me smack you with some dirty Green math. A typical 100-kilowatt-hour Tesla lithium-ion battery is built in China on a largely coal-powered grid. Such an energy- and carbonintensive manufacturing process releases 13,500 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions, roughly equivalent to the carbon pollution released by a conventional gasoline-powered car traveling 33,000 miles. That 33,000-miles figure assumes the Tesla is only recharged by 100 percent greentech-generated electricity. More realistically? The American grid is powered by 40 percent natural gas and 19 percent coal. This more traditional electricity-generation profile extends the “carbon break-even” point of the Tesla out to 55,000 miles.
Lead only had one downside: it makes you CRAZY! Lead’s toxicity generates no end of health complications in the brain, up to and including encouraging dissociative and violent behavior. In the United States we began purging lead from our systems in the 1970s, systematically banning its use in product after product. Over the next half century, the ambient level of lead in our air dropped by more than 90 percent. At the same time, instances of violent crimes subsided from record highs to record lows. Correlation? Definitely. Causation? Let’s go with a strong maybe.
In 2021 some 90 percent of global rare earth production and processing was in the PRC. Chinese environmental regulations would make Louisianans blush, while Chinese hyperfinancing and subsidization schemes mean that no production elsewhere in the world can compete on the numbers. The Chinese started producing rare earths en masse in the late 1980s, and had forced pretty much all other producers out of business by the 2000s.
From some points of view, the Chinese have done us all a favor. After all, they have sucked up all the pollution and all the risk, while providing the world with refined rare earth metals at roughly one-quarter of the pre-1980 cost. Without those cheap and ample supplies, the Digital Revolution would have taken a very different course. Computing and smartphones for the masses may have never occurred.
Rare earths are used in almost everything in the modern era, from sunglasses to wind turbines to computers to metal alloys to lights to televisions to petroleum refining to cars to computer hard drives to batteries to smartphones to steel to lasers.
The refining process requires hundreds—and in some cases thousands—of separation units, a fancy term for vats of mostly acid, to slowly encourage each individual element to move away from its similar-density siblings. Beyond being, you know, incredibly dangerous, even if everything works well, refiners will be left with a lot of waste product.
Because the ore isn’t rare and because the processing isn’t a secret and because the first Chinese threats were more than a decade ago, there are already backup mining and processing facilities in existence in South Africa, the United States, Australia, Malaysia, and France. They just don’t see a lot of activity, because the Chinese stuff is still available and still cheaper. If Chinese rare earths were to vanish from global supplies tomorrow, processing facilities on standby would start up right away and likely be able to replace all Chinese exports within a few months. A year on the outside.
Rare earths are a great example of the world just waiting for China to fall, and for once actually being ready for it.
Since some of the newer semiconductors are shaped at nearly the atomic level, the silicon must be 99.99999999 percent pure.* No way that gets done in China. Once some first-world company makes this ultra-rarified, electronic-grade silicon, it is sent on to somewhere in the East Asian Rim to be melted into a clean-room vat and grown into the crystals that form the foundation of all semiconductor manufacture.
Some 80 percent of the world’s high-quality quartz that ultimately makes up electronic-grade silicon comes from a single mine in North Freakin’ Carolina. Want to remain modern? You pretty much must get along well with the Americans. They will soon have something they have never had: resource control over the base material of the Digital Age.
In a post-Order world, uranium is likely to become more popular as a power fuel. While running a 1-gigawatt coal power plant for a year requires 3.2 million metric tons of coal, a 1-gigawatt nuclear power plant requires only 25 metric tons of power-fuel-enriched-uranium metal, making uranium the only electricity input that could theoretically be flown to its end user.
What’s unique about zinc isn’t that it will not corrode—it corrodes very easily—but instead how it corrodes. The outer layer of a zinc object oxidizes quickly, forming a patina that prevents oxygen from penetrating any deeper. Voilà! Corrosion generates protection! In some applications, the zinc only needs to be present rather than actually bonded to the entirety of the metal object. Bolt or wire a disc of zinc onto a ship’s rudder or buried propane tank, for example, and the zinc will corrode away to nothing while protecting the tank or rudder. I know! Freaky! Fast-forward to the electrical and chemical understandings of the Industrial Age and we’ve upgraded our use of zinc into a wide range of products. The same electrical characteristics that protect the aforementioned propane tank make zinc a preferred component in alkaline batteries. We still use a lot of zinc-heavy brass, as it is easier to work and stronger than copper, while maintaining zinc’s magical corrosion-management characteristics. It’s useful in everything from cellular towers to plumbing to trombones. Zinc isn’t only fuss-free in merging with copper, making it a perennial favorite in products that are cold-rolled into sheets or die-cast. We also like to coat it on steel and other industrial metals. Once we decided we wanted as little to do with lead as possible, zinc stepped in as a safe, reliable substitute. The biggest use—where we put roughly half our zinc—is in galvanization processes where we add that zinc patina. It’s a step that is particularly effective at shielding metals from the corrosive effects of weather and seawater. Such uses are in pretty much all the metal you can see every day: car bodies, bridges, guardrails, chain-link fencing, metal roofs, and so on.
As of 2022, the largest suppliers of denim to the United States are China, Mexico, and Bangladesh. Go back a step and the fabric was likely dyed in Spain or Turkey or Tunisia using chemicals developed and manufactured in Germany. This is to say nothing of where the yarn for the denim cloth comes from. That would be India or China or the United States or Uzbekistan or Brazil. Go a step further back and the cotton was probably sourced from China or Uzbekistan or Azerbaijan or Benin.
There are also copper and zinc rivets and buttons. They’re probably from Germany or Turkey or Mexico (although, honestly, that sort of stuff can come from anywhere). The ore required to forge those bright bits is probably sourced from mines in Brazil, Peru, Namibia, Australia, or, again, China. What about zippers? Japan is the go-to if you want one that won’t snag. Three guesses where the snag-prone ones come from. Then there’s thread, which phbbbbt . . . probably comes from India or Pakistan, but that’s another one of those products sourced from shoulder-shrugging ubiquity. Finally, there’s the location where workers sew on the “made in” tag. Typically, nothing is actually made there. It’s more an assembly thing. The average pair of jeans is touched by hands in at least ten countries.
And that’s for something made out of cloth that doesn’t have to do anything more than be draped across your frame. The average computer has ten thousand pieces, some of which are themselves made out of hundreds of components.
The technical term for what has made all this and so much more possible is “intermediate goods trade.” It is quite literally globalization given physical form.
As big and important as the British, German, and American systems were, geopolitics restricted their economies of scale to within their own borders. It took the end of World War II to merge the entire planet into a single system and transform the global ocean into one gigantic safe, navigable waterway. With the United States guaranteeing security for all international commerce and preventing the alliance members from either going to war with one another or having colonial empires and opening the American consumer market to all interested parties, countries that could have never even dreamed of industrializing suddenly could.
The German river system—in particular the Rhine-Ruhr system of western Germany—is the densest network of naturally navigable waterways in the world. It is perfect for industrialization. In particular, the Ruhr region had some of Europe’s best coal deposits (and none of those pesky water table problems that so hindered the Brits).
The supply chains of U.S. auto maker Ford are among the most complex of any firm in existence, tapping more than sixty countries and 1,300 direct suppliers that together have more than 4,400 manufacturing sites.
The products China makes—as opposed to assembles—tend to be on the lower end: steel and plastics and anything that can be die-cast or injection-molded.
By many measures, China is going backward. The country’s manufacturing output as a percent of GDP has been falling since 2006, which, judging by corporate profitability figures, was probably China’s peak year in terms of production efficiency.
The successive waves of hypergrowth—concentrated on the coastal zones where the world can see them—make China’s rise seem inevitable. The reality is China has borrowed from its interior regions and its demography in order to achieve what, historically speaking, is a very short-term boost. Never let anyone tell you the Chinese are good at the long game. In 3,500 years of Chinese history, the longest stint one of their empires has gone without massive territorial losses is seventy years.
Having a billion workers to throw at things and heavily subsidizing everything makes China the King of the Low End and the Emperor of Assembly.
Having a billion workers to throw at things and heavily subsidizing everything makes China the King of the Low End and the Emperor of Assembly. If you want an Internet of Things meat thermometer that can tell your smartphone how hot your roast is, a cheap chip from China will do just fine.
The per capita income variation in the United States between the richest and poorest states—Maryland and West Virginia—is just under two-to-one. In China the variation between richest and poorest—between ultra-urban coastal Hong Kong and ultra-rural interior Gansu—is nearly ten-to-one.
Italian manufacturing is local, and viewed less as an industry and more as a point of artistic pride. Italians don’t do assembly lines, or even regional integration. They don’t manufacture. They craft. As such, any products that come out of the Apennine Peninsula are either absolutely, shockingly ridiculous in their quality and beauty (think Lamborghini) or absolutely, shockingly ridiculous in their lack of quality and beauty (think Fiat).
What the Germans are exceptionally good at is building the machines that manufacture other things. The bulk of the expansion of China’s industrial base since 2005 has been possible only because the Germans built the core machinery that made it happen.
America is a big place. In terms of flattish, usable land, it is easily twice the size of either Europe or China, both of which have vast swaths of nigh-useless territories that are mountainous or desert or tundra. Both have built up about as large a population as they can manage, while the Americans could easily double their population and still have loads of spare land (which is precisely what’s likely to happen by the end of the twenty-first century).
Austin operationalizes Silicon Valley’s ideas. Dallas–Fort Worth leverages its banking center to turn Austin’s brain work into mass manufacturing. San Antonio mixes lower costs than even the Texas average with the tech of Austin to blow out anything that can be put on an assembly line. But the real star of the Texas game is Houston. It plays with Austin in tech and Dallas–Fort Worth in automation and San Antonio with mass manufacture and it is a financial capital and it is America’s energy hub and it is in the Gulf Coast region and it is America’s biggest port by value and it is really good at moving around big chunks of metal.
The four Northeast Asian economies do not get along. Only America’s two largest overseas military deployments—in South Korea and Japan—keep the locals from being at each other’s throats. Only the threat of American naval power prevents the Chinese from trying something cute.
The One Child Policy had depressed China’s birth rate for long enough that China is now running out of twenty-somethings, and twenty-somethings are the people who have the kids. Generate fewer young adults and the new generation cannot have many kids. Cram them all into urban condos and even those who can have kids don’t want to.
Formally, China’s birth rate isn’t simply the lowest since 1978, birth rates in Shanghai and Beijing—China’s largest cities—are now the lowest in the world. At the time of this writing we are still waiting for finalized 2021 data, but anecdotals from throughout China are beyond horrid for the dominant Han population.
China imports more than 70 percent of its 14 million barrels of oil it needs every day; Taiwan, Korea, and Japan import more than 95 percent of their 1, 2, and 4 million barrel needs, respectively.
Perhaps the biggest problem for the Chinese will be . . . the Japanese. China’s navy is coastal and near coastal, with only about 10 percent of its surface combatants capable of sailing more than 1,000 miles from shore. Very few can sail more than 2,000 miles.
The secret sauce of the Asian manufacturing model is the region’s highly variant labor markets, combined with the American-provided and -subsidized security environment and global trade network. Demographic collapse is upending the former, while the American withdrawal is ending the latter.
In high-value sectors such as semiconductors, telephony, and aerospace, China has published national plans to become the global leader in all, but it has proven broadly incapable of manufacturing high-value-add components like low-nanometer chips or jet engines on its own.* Items most of us just assume the Chinese dominate in—household electronics, office equipment, and computers—actually have more than 90 percent of their value added outside of China. For ships the figure is 87 percent. For telecom gear and the guts of most electronic gadgetry it is 83 percent.
The entire concept of the Order is that the United States disadvantages itself economically in order to purchase the loyalty of a global alliance. That is what globalization is. The past several decades haven’t been an American Century. They’ve been an American sacrifice. Which is over. With the American withdrawal, the various structural, strategic, and economic factors that have artificially propped up the entire Asian and European systems are ending.
The African continent is composed of a series of stacked plateaus, which all but prevents the various states from linking themselves together with infrastructure and achieving regional economies of scale. Nor do very many of them get along. Nor do any of them enjoy the sort of rich capital structure that might enable them to build much infrastructure on their own.
American manufacturing—especially in the information technology space—is exceedingly high value-add. It can, and does, participate in the mass manufacture of high-end chips that are used in servers, laptops, and smartphones. So much so that even at the height of hollowed-out globalization, the United States remains responsible for roughly half of all chips by value despite producing only about one-ninth of chips by number.
Advances in automation now mean that most yarn, thread, cloth, and clothes can be made via machine in a developed country more cheaply than by semiskilled human hands in Bangladesh. Expect cloth and clothing made from natural fibers to relocate to where the wool and cotton are harvested: in particular, look to the American South, Australia, and New Zealand.
Whether the country in question is Bolivia or Laos or Congo, the risk is not of devolving to a world that predates 1939, but to one that predates 1800.
Far more governments have fallen due to food failures than war or disease or political infighting combined. And it almost seems like a sick joke, but food is perishable. The one thing we absolutely must have is the one thing that can rot away in a matter of months, even if we are careful. Days if we are not.
In the sixth century BCE, the Persians of the Achaemenid Empire, led by Cyrus the Great, conquered their Mesopotamian predecessors, initiating the Mesopotamian-Persian rivalry, which continues to the current day.
The industrialized Order hasn’t simply enabled us to increase the total calories grown by a factor of seven since 1945; it has enabled vast swaths of the planet to have large populations when geography alone wouldn’t previously support them. Populations in North Africa are up by over a factor of five since 1950, Iran over six, while Saudi Arabia and Yemen have increased by over a factor of ten.
The average size of a Chinese wheat or corn field is typically about one acre, less than 1/350 the size of its American equivalents.
Roughly two-thirds of the human population lives in the temperate and near-temperate zones of the Northern Hemisphere. This hemisphere is a net food importer. About the only good news is that the Southern Hemispheric temperate zones—regions highly resistant to the coming geopolitical storm—are very lightly populated compared to the Northern Hemisphere.
Under the globalized Order, most countries specialize in producing nonfood products of various sorts—for example, light manufacturing for Ireland, cotton for Uzbekistan, oil for Algeria, electronics for Japan—and then use export sales to purchase internationally traded foodstuffs. For most countries these sorts of swaps will no longer be nearly as available.
The country that will certainly face the biggest declines in agriculture output will be China. Not only do the Chinese grow pretty much everything at scale, but Chinese soil and water quality is so low that Chinese farmers generally use more fertilizer per calorie produced than any other country—five times the global average in the case of nitrogen fertilizers.
The never-ending process of selective breeding to generate bigger, more productive, and tastier meat products requires a never-ending effort to secure the perfect stud. In the pre-COVID low-inflation days of 2019, a basic stud sheep easily set back a rancher $600, while a run-of-the-mill horny bull went for $1,500. In the everything-shortage economy at the time of this writing, those numbers have doubled. Should you want something special, top-notch Black Angus breeding stock can easily set you back seven grand at auction. Growth inputs. These include fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, and possibly irrigation for plant crops, and silage, grazing rights, and medical inputs for animal husbandry. Such expenses are not once-and-done. Whether you are engaged in plant or animal husbandry, pretty much everything but wheat requires a degree of attention—and inputs—all season long. Equipment. A modern combine will set a farmer back a cool half million. Dairy cows not only must be shielded from the weather, but they require facilities capable of milking them multiple times a day. Most of the newer, low-labor, mostly automated facilities have installation costs in excess of $10 million. As global demographics age and labor costs rise, orcharders have even invested in labor-saving machines that spray trees, automate irrigation tasks, and pick, separate, clean, and even pack fruits. All of this is in addition to more baseline costs such as fuel and labor. A typical 200-acre corn farm in Minnesota can expect input outlays of about $85,000 every year. A typical 5,500-acre family corporation wheat farm in Montana can expect that annual figure to top $1 million.
The never-ending process of selective breeding to generate bigger, more productive, and tastier meat products requires a never-ending effort to secure the perfect stud. In the pre-COVID low-inflation days of 2019, a basic stud sheep easily set back a rancher $600, while a run-of-the-mill horny bull went for $1,500. In the everything-shortage economy at the time of this writing, those numbers have doubled. Should you want something special, top-notch Black Angus breeding stock can easily set you back seven grand at auction.
A typical 200-acre corn farm in Minnesota can expect input outlays of about $85,000 every year. A typical 5,500-acre family corporation wheat farm in Montana can expect that annual figure to top $1 million. None of that would be possible unless everything was financed. Disrupt that finance and the entire system collapses.
There will be no shortage of famines in the post-Order world. Likely in excess of 1 billion people will starve to death, and another 2 billion will suffer chronic malnutrition. Some two-thirds of China’s population faces one of those two fates. And remember, China is also history’s most quickly aging society. The people who will be called upon to manage—or suffer through—mass malnutrition and famine are going to be old.
As the Imperial Age wound down in the early twentieth century, Myanmar, then known as Burma, was among the most technologically backward of the Europeans’ Asian colonies. It was largely unindustrialized when the Japanese seized it from the British during World War II. The British never really went back. Formal independence came in 1948. Then a coup in 1962 ejected the democratically elected government. The new junta decided that people without electricity and cars would be less likely to revolt, and so purposefully followed a policy of deindustrialization. A brief resurgence of democracy in the late 2010s was squelched with another coup in 2021. Simply put, if the world falls apart, it will end up looking a lot more like 2021 Myanmar, while Myanmar will look . . . more or less the same.
In agriculture the emerging use is for a tractor-mounted computer to individually evaluate every single plant as the tractor rolls through the field, first to identify it, and then to determine what should be done to or for it, and finally to signal an attached apparatus to take action. Is the plant a weed? Squirt of herbicide. Is the plant infested with bugs? Squirt of pesticide. Is it yellow? Squirt of fertilizer. No longer will farmers have to use broadcast sprays over their entire fields, one pass per spray type. Now they can simply reload a bunch of canisters with the various inputs and make a single pass giving customized, on-the-fly attention to each individual plant via a rig that more or less drives itself.
That corn on the cob you buy for grilling or steaming is not the stuff that blankets the never-ending fields of Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois. The stuff you eat is called sweet corn; it makes up less than 1 percent of the corn grown in the United States. What you see across the Midwest is something called field or dent corn. Via a process called nixtamalization, which uses heat and some sort of alkaline solution, field corn can be turned into a food like masa, but for most people, corn has different uses than direct consumption.
The post–Cold War expansion of the Order to, well, everyone, accelerated emissions increases. It was bad enough when the world’s major industrialized systems included France and Germany and Japan and Korea and Taiwan. It was quite another when Indonesia and India and Nigeria and China joined the club. Countries that couldn’t even consider beginning the industrialization process before World War II are now responsible for more than half of current emissions, with total emissions seven times what they were in 1945.
But what about those temperature increases? So far they have been a . . . positive. Illinois’s topographic layout makes it humid. Wetter air heats more slowly and holds its heat longer. Most of Illinois’s temperature increase, therefore, manifests as higher nighttime temperatures. That reduces the number of nights with crop-damaging frosts, increasing agricultural potential. If warming trends hold, at some point in the 2020s most of Illinois will experience so many frost-free nights that farmers will be able to plant two crops a year.
The two most important crops for humanity are the ones facing the gravest danger: rice because of disruption to water cycles, and wheat because it is grown in already-dry areas that are about to become drier.
The Little Ice Age was a period from about 1300 to 1850 CE in which temperatures dipped by roughly 0.3 degrees Celsius compared to the earlier era (and about 0.8 degrees C cooler than 1900). The greatest pain was felt in zones that were already cool. There are plenty of (relatively recent) historical records chronicling the difficulty of life in places like Scotland, Sweden, Russia, China, Korea, and Japan. Documented instances of entire regions suffering years “without summer” abound. You can guess how well everyone ate. One of those summerless years in particular—1816—was abnormally cold even for the time. Locales as far south as Connecticut dropped into the low 40s in August, while London received six inches of snow in July. Mary Shelley spent her days locked inside to shelter against the endless cold rain, sleet, and snow while pounding out that airy, buoyant tale we know today as Frankenstein.
Most of the developed world faces imminent, simultaneous consumption, production, and financial collapses. The advanced developing world—China included—is, if anything, worse off. There, urbanization and industrialization happened much more quickly, so birth rates crumpled all the faster. Their even-faster aging dictates an even-faster collapse. The numbers tell us that it all must happen in this decade. The numbers tell us it was always going to happen in this decade.
We called the twentieth century “the American Century” because the United States emerged globally predominant in 1945. In the coming age, the gap between North America and the bulk of the world will be, if anything, starker. Never before in human history has the premier power from the previous era emerged so unassailably dominant at the beginning of the next.