I was recently sent the recent Peter Zeihan book, The End Of The World Is Just The Beginning: Mapping The Collapse Of Globalization. Upon reading it I feel compelled to offer my critique. Aside from the rather dismissive and generally smart-ass style with which the author delivers his doom prophecies, the book is very informative in terms of outlining the complex systems and their interrelationships that currently run the world, and it offers valuable pointers toward highlighting the system’s strengths and weaknesses. At the same time it’s a vivid illustration of the trap of over reliance on statistical data when addressing complex systems. I’ve rarely encountered an argument that rests on so many facts that work against the very case that the book is making. Not only is it full of contradictory and sometimes questionable assumptions, the data that backs the world view the author delivers could equally support the likelihood of continued globalization as it can for its dissolution.
The fulcrum of Ziehan’s argument hangs on two assumptions:
1.) Aging populations and declining birth rates will result in a worldwide demographic collapse that will upset the patterns of production, distribution and consumption that fueled the economic boom times since World War Two.
A 1968 best seller by Paul and Anne Ehrlich,The Population Bomb delivered, in a similarly apocalyptic tone, a revival of the 18th century theory by Thomas Malthus, that the growth of population with the rise of prosperity, particularly among the poor, would inevitably exceed humanity’s ability to grow enough food. While Zeihan’s argument runs exactly in the opposite direction, both prognostications rely on a set of ever-shifting statistics to make their case.1 Food production since the time of Malthus has continually outpaced the growth of population. Problems with global starvation and famine are due less to population increase than to the unplanned consequences of war and the inequitable distribution.
Over the course of my many decades of living on the planet under the constant threat of extinction, I’ve been presented with so many predictions of impending catastrophe that I’ve lost count. From the Rapture to nuclear war to DDT and Y2K and global anarchy, the predictable constant is that in times of anxiety and change these prognostications sell books and provide rich fodder for talk radio. Attempts to reduce enormously complex systems to fit into the terms of one or two basic assumptions invariably fail to meet anyone’s predictive timescales. Demographics are one single factor among countless others that can affect outcomes, leaving aside our ever shifting politics and human resourcefullness, our ever advancing technologies affecting the ways we live and work and talk to one another, and our dawning collective awareness of the effects of climate change, to name a few.
2.) Zeihan’s second assumption is that the American Empire will simply give up on the world ‘Order’ that it has helped establish and maintain since the World Wars. Apparently America will simply conclude that it’s simply too much trouble and expense to continue enforcing the peace and we’ll withdraw into our geopolitical fortress. After all, we’re geographically in a position to grow our own food and make our own shit and let the rest of the world go to hell. Aside from espousing an incredibly arrogant, if not popular view of American exceptionalism, the very fact that our economic prosperity has been fostered by our multicultural ties and the intricate trade and military relationships we’ve constructed over these many decades makes it extremely unlikely that we will or can turn away. Even if we attempted such a thing, undoubtedly other entities or alliances would take our place, and we’d be shuffled a little lower in the deck of international authority.
Which brings us to China2. Having read and listened to a number of accounts from inside China. (I highly recommend the ‘Drum Tower’ podcast from ‘The Economist’ magazine for a more down to earth view of Chinese politics and culture.3) Zeihan spares no opportunity to dump on China, leaving an impression that its the very model of his overall thesis that most of the rest of the world is doomed in economic terms, while the USA and North America will pull through rather nicely. In reality, for anyone that takes a closer look through the paranoid cloud of American propaganda, it appears that China’s problems, both economic and demographic, are practically a mirror image of similar problems being felt in both America and Europe. In many cases the realities in China (the biggest crisis right now is too few opportunities for young people – not too many) are largely distinguished by the fact that, unlike the USA they are actually able to quickly respond in dealing with them. China ain’t going anywhere, and neither is America, or Europe, except perhaps in the fevered ‘click bait’ imagination of people like Zeihan. These major blocks of world power are so inextricably interdependent that the likelihood of any of them being left behind in the foreseeable future is vanishingly small.
For several years I was on the mailing list of ‘STRATFOR’, the organization that Peter Zeihan once worked for. Like Zeihan they have a world view that sticks closely to the ‘geography is fate’ interpretation of world history promoted by conservative scholars like the very prolific Robert Johnson (‘Modern Times’, ‘The Birth Of The Modern’, and histories of America, the Jews, Christianity, Ireland, plus biographies of Churchill, Jesus, Darwin, George Washington and others – a few of which I’ve read and been impressed by.). I agree that, so far, global history has been largely determined by access to the oceans. From the conquest of the great ‘pirate’ empires of the 15th – 16th centuries right up to the rise of ‘globalization’, this view has been accurate. However, we are all now swimming in a different ocean, one that’s linked by the instantaneous communication and management of economics and resources through the ubiquitous ocean of digital media. This is now where business is driven, wars are made, alliances are formed and broken.
I remember Stratfor’s frequent skepticism that Europe could ever manage to hold together. Virtually none of their predictions have held true over the years. The recent Soviet invasion has catalyzed an opposite movement toward increased solidarity rather than further fragmentation. America, meanwhile, is showing increasing signs of weakness as it breaks into regional conflicts and rising paranoia. It has made it almost impossible for the nation to deal substantially with basic problems like poverty, endemic racism and rising political violence. Meanwhile China not only holds together, it exerts increasing global influence as it steps into the weakening breach of American influence in Africa, South America and the Middle East.
Every nation is an ongoing experiment in how to manage growth and change in an increasingly complex web of global relations. Not one gots it completely right or completely wrong, and every error is an opportunity to learn. Peter Zeihan grossly underestimates, in my opinion, the capabilities, creativity and ingenuity of people in general, especially anyone who isn’t living in North America. Unfortunately, in much of his writing I hear echoes of the Trump crowd, mindlessly shouting USA!!!USA!!!USA!!!
The proposition that America will withdraw from the world in some form of neo-isolationism is one that nearly every fact and trend sighted in Zeihan’s book actually makes less, rather than more likely. His theory of collapse, requires a kind of bunker mentality in which every nation stands essentially on its own and only the strongest will thrive or even survive.
History doesn’t tend to move backwards, and the sort of decivilization that Zeihan predicts, in a world as interdependent as the world he describes, no nation, especially one as central to the function of the whole intricate mechanism as the United States, can afford to go its separate way. America’s economy, as much as China’s or England’s or Argentina’s or the Philippines’ or Russia’s, is a ‘global’ economy. Oceans and hemispheres that once divided the world into separate kingdoms and empires are no longer effective barriers against the changes that affect us all.
No one can deny that there will be profound disruptions that will reshape the political, military and economic landscapes in the coming decades. To anyone paying attention, it’s evident that our modes of consumption and governance will be forced to adapt and evolve in ways that we only dimly imagine. We will face wars, famine, pandemics, climate events, natural disasters and shortages of things we’ve taken for granted. Every political entity will be confronted with its own contradictions. In the long run the question is whether these changes and challenges drive us, as global citizens, further apart or force us to recognize our absolute interdependence. Zeihan’s book assumes the former. I don’t necessarily disagree with his statement, “Shortage forces people – forces countries – to look after their own needs.” I would add that history also shows that in the face of shortages and disasters people, and perhaps nations, also awaken to their common needs.
(I have to add that Zeihan’s understanding of global agriculture is particularly weak. Statements like “You can have organic farming or environmentally friendly foods. You cannot have both”, are simply absurd. It’s been demonstrated again and again, in China and America and all over the globe, that the per hectare production of food grown using intensive sustainable methods on smaller scale farms generally exceeds that of the industrialized monoculture farming promoted worldwide and dominated by corporate culture, while leading to much less long term environmental devastation.)
The kind of hair-on-fire apocalyptic messaging delivered by Zeihan and others certainly sells books. Apocalyptic visions have aleways had an appeal in the popular imagination, and are guaranteed to gather attention from Joe Rogan audiences, talk radio hosts, and down various YouTube rabbit holes. The ‘paranoid style of American politics’ 4 has always had particular appeal in uncertain times, when folks are stirred up by the direction things are going.
As for American exceptionalism, that’s so much a refrain in Peter Zeihan’s view of the world, I’m reminded of the Sergio Leone quote:
“I began to understand that ‘America’ in reality belonged to the whole world and not just to Americans. The idea of America had already been invented by the philosophers, the vagabonds, the dispersed of this earth, long before the Spanish ships got there. Those whom we call Americans have only rented it for a time. If they behave badly, we can discover another ‘America’. The contract can be canceled at any time.”
- https://worldaffairs.blog/2022/07/09/debunking-peter-zeihans-shocking-and-popular-china-predictions/ ↩
- https://www.nextbigfuture.com/2023/01/here-is-what-peter-zeihan-got-wrong-on-the-joe-rogan-show.html ↩
- Linkhttps://pca.st/podcast/21f082b0-377d-013b-efb0-0acc26574db2 ↩
- https://harpers.org/archive/1964/11/the-paranoid-style-in-american-politics/ ↩