“Mapping the collapse of globalization. Seriously, that’s the subject of the book you’ve been reading?”
I had a chance to connect with Vaughn Thompson, long-time friend and past president of the AAPG Pacific Section, at IMAGE’22. We have known each other since I was a youngish professional and he a graduate student at the University of Utah. And every time we catch up, one of us asks the question: what have you been reading lately?
Vaughn’s recommendation to me this time was Peter Zeihan’s new book, “The End of the World is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization.” I was aware of Zeihan’s work as a few years back, former AAPG Foundation Chair Jim Gibbs had sent me a copy of one of his previous books, “The Accidental Superpower.”
The Past is Prologue
My first encounter with futurist thinking like this was reading George Friedman’s 2010 book, “The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century.” Early on, Friedman answers the question that the title conjures in readers’ minds: how can you possibly forecast what’s going to happen in the next 100 years?
We are at a point in history where everything is changing. But, a transition to what? That’s the question we must answer. That’s the future we need to envision.
His response is twofold: he’s not trying to predict events with date specificity – he doesn’t claim to be Nostradamus – but rather is analyzing trends. And following those trends into the future, applying a basic level of rationality, does not lead to an infinite number of plausible future scenarios. Usually, just a few of them make sense.
It turns out that Zeihan used to work for Friedman and applies a similar approach in his analysis, focusing on the intersection of two key trends:
- Geopolitics and the global social order that arose after World War II
- Global demographic trends that emerged from that social order
His conclusion is that “the world of the past few decades has been the best it will ever be in our lifetimes,” and that “the crux of the problem we all face is that, geopolitically and demographically speaking, for most of the last seventy-five years we have been living in that perfect moment.”
While he begins the story at the beginning – charting the evolution of society from prehistoric times to the present – the trends that are affecting us now began with the end of the second World War.
The shattered European continent was rebuilding, with the support and assistance of the United States, which opened its own markets to these highly skilled economies. In return, these previously warring nations came together under a U.S.-led security umbrella, sharing defense responsibilities and balancing the emerging power of the Soviet Union and its satellite states.
During the Cold War, Western economies expanded global trade with each other and across the world, secured by the U.S. Navy, and setting the stage for what would occur after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
Since the late 1980s, globalization accelerated as the United States guaranteed the free flow of goods, transportation systems expanded, economies began to specialize, creating expanding opportunity and ability to serve a growing global marketplace. Most countries were eager to be a part of this new world, with both developed and developing economies benefiting from this regime and creating the world we see today.
Worldwide, nations became wealthier, more integrated, more dependent on each other. And for the past three-quarter century, we’ve reaped the rewards of this system.
‘Parties Weren’t Meant to Last’
But, Zeihan explains, “a central factor in every growth story that accompanies industrialization is that much of the economic growth comes from a swelling population,” and that party is coming to an end. The predictable outcome of the global increase in wealth we’ve enjoyed is a dramatic reduction in birthrates worldwide – and that’s what has occurred.
“The halcyon days of 1980 to 2015 are over. The collapse in birthrates that began across the developed world in 1960 and across the developing world in the 1990s now has decades of steam behind it.”
As global populations decline, the foundation for global economic growth weakens, at least based on the economic systems we currently recognize.
Zeihan predicts a three-decade period of de-globalization, and in some cases, de-civilization.
This unraveling will be pervasive, affecting transport, finance and capital, energy, industrial materials, manufacturing and agriculture. It will cause a cascading breakdown of the trade and commerce that underpins the modern world. But the impacts will not be equally distributed across the planet – favorable geography and demographics will allow some nations to insulate themselves from the worst of the impacts.
For those of us caught up in these changes, it will be uncomfortable. As someone born in 1970, I have lived most of my life in these “halcyon days.” This is what I know. This is my normal.
But if you back out from daily experience and look at a longer time horizon – something that we as geoscientists should be adept at doing – you see “that our particular point in history – the unwinding of globalization – is a momentary transition period.”
Zeihan’s analysis indicates we are at a point in history where everything is changing.
But, a transition to what?
That’s the question we must answer. That’s the future we need to envision.
What are you reading these days that we might all benefit from in preparing to create this future? Drop your suggestions in the comments online.