Demographics is Destiny

Posted: October 15, 2022 in History, Industrial Collapse
Tags: , , , ,

A friend put in my hands a copy of Peter Zeihan’s book The End of the World is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization (2022) with instructions to read (and return) the book. Without a moment’s pause, I exclaimed “oh, that guy!” Zeihan has been making the rounds of various podcasts and interview shows hawking his book and its conclusions, so I had gotten the bullet, so to speak, a few times already. This is frequently and understandably the case with authors doing the promotional circuit and repeating the same talking points with each appearance. Some fare better in that regard, some worse. Zeihan is among the worse, partly because he has recently entered the doomosphere (or collapse space, if one prefers) publicly, whereas I’m not an ingénue on the subject so not easily led. Thus far, I’ve only read the introduction, so rather than book blogging, let me instead admit a few of my biases openly, mostly based on what I’ve learned about collapse over the past decade and a half, without any expectation that Zeihan will dispel or overcome them in the course of 475 pp. (not counting acknowledgements and index).

Measurement. As a demographer, Zeihan repeats one of the most basic conceptual errors in science, namely, that by taking the measure of something one can reveal its secrets. With human population trends in particular, measurement is unambiguous and easily mistaken for staring into a crystal ball — so long as history remains basically continuous. Thus, the phrase demographics is destiny gets batted around (sometimes disputed — do a search) as though the prophesied future is as inevitable and inescapable as the rising and setting sun. Well, demographics is in fact pretty reliable until the appearance of one or more metaphorical black swans. Flocks of them have been circling around the early 21st century.

Totality. The term globalization might be properly limited to use in economics, but it describes industrial civilization as well. When one collapses, so, too, does the other. They’re inextricably linked and form a unity or totality. No doubt different regions and/or geographies will collapse differently; that’s not in dispute. However, the title suggests grievous loss followed (immediately?) by opportunity. As I’ve understood various collapse scenarios (those parts that can be reliably anticipated), none permit a quick restart or global reset. Rather, the bottleneck will be severe enough, the loss of habitat and resources so egregious, that what remnants manage to survive (no assurances) will be tiny, barbarous, and extremely localized (including the bolthole billionaires, but then, calling them barbarous is a tautology) compared to the nearly eight billion global citizens now alive in the short-lived Age of Abundance. The beginning of what, exactly? After most species succumb just as in previous major extinction events (usually an extensive process but this time sped up by orders of magnitude), it will be a very quiet Earth for tens or hundreds of millions of years if it bounces back at all (no assurances).

Terraforming. Like it or not, human activity and ingenuity have essentially terraformed the planet, but not intentionally or for the better. Sure, we have skyscrapers, giant transportation and energy networks, enough archived knowledge and entertainment to sate even the most insatiable intellects consumers, and all the manifold material glories and know-how of the modern era. But on balance, our own refuse is littering literally every place around the Earth (air, water, soil, in orbit), a mixture of plastics and toxic waste in waterways and soils make water (beyond headwaters) undrinkable and many foods unhealthy, lacking in nutrition, and even carcinogenic, and subtle alterations in atmospheric chemistry are changing the climate. These are catastrophes so big and diffuse they might as well be invisible; many people simply can’t grok them. The terraformed planet is now a sacrifice zone, exploited and despoiled ruthlessly for short-term gain leaving no future worth living. Global supply chains are already breaking down and will not be able to adjust fast enough to avoid a megadeath pulse.

Hubris. Zeihan is a geopolitical strategist. Even if he’s correct in his analyses and prognostications, even if leaders heed his advice and prepare responsibly, even if all of humanity pulls together somehow to address cascade failure and eventual collapse, there is no reason to expect that history writ large can be steered toward desired outcomes to avoid worst case scenarios now barreling at us. That’s simply not the way history unfolds, and experience demonstrates that those who try to exert god-like influence over human affairs become maniacs, despots, and tyrants who generally manage to make matters worse. The world is already experiencing diasporas from politically, socially, economically, and ecologically destabilized regions, and the obvious, humane response (i.e., take them in) has been limited because those countries regarded as lifeboats (true or not) can’t haul them all aboard. The book’s Table of Contents doesn’t indicate consideration of that demographic effect and the index doesn’t list the term diaspora. Yet Zeihan’s got everything figgered well enough to offer strategic advice?

I support the idea of studying history to better understand ourselves in the present. But that can’t be the limit of a book with the tease “… just the beginning” right there in the title. Macrohistory is going to roll over all of us no matter what, and it’s wishful thinking to believe much can be done at this point to redirect the terrible consequences and momentum of past centuries. Although academics can recognize in hindsight major influences, technologies, ideologies, and inflection points that delivered us to this point in history, and perhaps even see how some near-term developments will break good or bad depending on fortuitous circumstance, no one planned, directed, or chose any of the epochal shifts of the past. Rather, human societies and civilizations muddle through and adapt continuously until — at last — they can’t anymore. Then they collapse. It’s happened over and over but never before (that can be ascertained) at a global scale. Yet Zeihan promises a new beginning. I, OTOH, can offer no assurances.


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