Perhaps because no place makes us more anxious than the future, there’s a bottomless appetite for predictions about what happens next. Last year Peter Zeihan broke from the usual pack of prognosticators with The End of the World is Just Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization, a thick but very readable book about the world-changing crisis he says has already begun, and which we neglected to avoid over a decade ago.
Zeihan was raised in Iowa and began a career in diplomacy before joining Stratfor, a “geopolitical intelligence firm” based in Austin, Texas, in 2000. I probably began reading him there without knowing his name, during the months and years after 9/11 when I was desperate to understand what was happening and why.
Zeihan left Stratfor to found his own consulting firm in 2012, and he became a regular on the corporate speaking circuit while writing books like Accidental Superpower (2014) and The Absent Superpower (2016), focusing on America’s rise to global hegemon and gradual abdication of that role, and Disunited Nations (2020), about the collapse of postwar globalism – what Zeihan calls the Order, an unprecedented explosion of trade and technological advance guaranteed by America’s protection of the world’s sea lanes.
If you haven’t read those books, don’t worry – much of Zeihan’s new book is taken up with summarizing their theses and arguments to foreground his message that America is done with being the international Coast Guard. The world we are about to enter, like the rollercoaster ride cresting its highest point before plunging downward, is going to range from uncomfortable to terrifying to catastrophic, depending on where you live.
Zeihan has a breezy and glib tone that probably helps make him a hot booking on the speaking circuit, and it’s duplicated so closely in The End of the World that the book feels like transcriptions of his top twenty talks. He’s a natural Ted talker, and his appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast had the air of being the smartest person in the room (though that’s not really a tough job on Rogan’s show).
The nut at the centre of Zeihan’s argument is simple: We have, since the end of World War II, become used to unprecedented decades of peace and prosperity. It might seem like we have, as what might have seemed like minor problems in times past cause panic attacks in societies where past luxuries have become commonplace.
Nearly everyone alive today has lived through an era where “more” was the rule, and we are about to enter a time of “less,” or in Zeihan’s words: “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.”
Zeihan’s areas of focus are demography and geography, and he tends to be far less interested in politics, business, and cultural matters than anything that can be explained with a chart, graph, or map. Which is why, in a hastily inserted note written between submitting his final manuscript and the book’s publication, the Russian invasion of the Ukraine early last year doesn’t seem to have made him alter his timeline or predictions.
(On YouTube, where he can be timely, Zeihan does say that, based on historical precedent, we probably haven’t seen Russia apply its full capabilities in Ukraine yet, and in any case, he’s unwilling to make any firm predictions about the conflict until at least May and the end of the spring thaw. Even an oracle must be prudent.)
There are three basic conditions that give Zeihan the confidence to make such confident assertions about the next few decades. One is the decline of China, which he says has already begun, and is altogether consistent with that nation’s tendency to rise, overreach, and collapse at almost predictable intervals.
China has failed to manage its rise to a great technological power (achieved mostly through theft of intellectual property) without capturing the highest value-added levels of industrial production, and has thus failed to make itself irreplaceable. Added to the unstable cult of personality it builds around its leaders, massive corruption, and unsustainable hyper-financing of infrastructure and real estate, Zeihan is supremely confident that the collapse of China is happening as you read this.
The other pillar of his book is that America is embracing its isolationist tendencies, and the withdrawal of its armies from overseas bases will be followed by its navy returning to patrol only the shipping routes of the U.S. and its allies – essentially Mexico, Canada, Colombia and much of South America as well as the United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan (which will itself be at the centre of its own trade zone) – as supply chains shrink and the United States reindustrializes; a period of adjustment that Zeihan says won’t be without some pain within that trading bloc, but will be much, much worse elsewhere in the world.
If this sounds inconsistent with the stories about Chinese interference in everything from Hollywood to Canadian elections we’ve been reading, Zeihan notes that the Biden administration has maintained the trade war with China that began under Trump. China’s imminent ascent to hegemon, it turns out, was as overhyped as Japan’s in the 1980s (albeit for very different reasons).
As for Canadians, Zeihan doesn’t bother discussing our current prime minister’s infatuation or party entanglements with the CCP; as America’s neighbour – though of junior importance to Mexico in NAFTA – the gift of geography will help us ride out the coming storm under the umbrella of the U.S. sphere of influence. No matter what scandals or political attitudes emanate from our ruling class, the truth is that Canada simply isn’t very important.
The third pillar is demography, and more specifically the collapse of the birth rate in nations all over the world. Zeihan describes it as an almost inevitable by-product of industrialization and the mass movement of population from the country to the cities, where children lose their utility as cheap labour and become – in his description – loud and expensive lifestyle accessories. We were, by his reasoning, always going to arrive at this point the moment we invented the steam engine.
Why this was so inevitable is harder to explain. Both China and South Korea have the same birth rate, well below replacement levels, but while China implemented the cruel and tyrannical “one child policy” to achieve this – an ill-conceived government program that led to sex-selective abortions and, now, a rapidly ageing population – South Korea managed to do the same thing without any official incentive or threat.
“In most countries,” Zeihan writes, “the point of no return passed around 1980. That’s when masses of twenty- and thirty-somethings simply stopped having children. Fast-forward four decades to the present and this childless generation is now retiring. Most of the developed world faces imminent, simultaneous consumption, production and financial collapses. The advanced developing world – China included – is, if anything, worse off.”
For much of the world, the next few decades will be horrible, even apocalyptic, even by Zeihan’s rather bloodless metrics, which only occasionally hint at political chaos, riots, and regional wars. (He does, however, devote a whole section of his book to famine.) For those lucky enough to live near the centre of the new trading blocks, it will only be unpleasant if you considered the last seventy years of increasing abundance “normal.”
The U.S.-led Order that brought us “everything from quick mortgages to smartphones to on-demand electricity has not only filled 8 billion bellies, it has done so with the odd out-of-season avocado. That’s now largely behind us … Just past the horizon looms a world of lower and less reliable agricultural yields, marred by less variety. A world with less energy or fewer manufactured goods is the difference between wealth and security or poverty and conflict.”
This might be unendurable for some people, but, what Zeihan describes, reminds me of growing up working class with a widowed mother in the ‘70s: more soup; one phone; fewer screens.
Of course, the future Zeihan predicts will look very different if, say, China doesn’t collapse on cue, or if America decides it doesn’t want to retreat into itself. The only thing he can predict with any certainty is a world with more old people and fewer children, though I’m sure he lacks the time or temperament to analyze the moral, social, and spiritual cost that many people – all well outside his definition of trusted authorities – predicted long ago.