This is a bold and surprisingly entertaining book about the future of the world that you really hope is outright wrong – or at least, mostly wrong. As the name suggests, Peter Zeihan’s The End of the World is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization (Harper Business, 2022), is a gloomy story about the future of, well, everything. As the author himself says towards the end, “I am not known as the guy who brings rays of sunshine and rivers of unicorns to a room”.
Zeihan is a geopolitical strategist who lives in the mountains of Colorado and makes a living variously informing and scaring energy corporations, financial institutions, business associations, universities and the US military. His basic thesis is that 2019 (just before COVID) is about as good as it was ever going to get for humanity, and it’s basically downhill from here. His supporting arguments, backed by abundant numbers and occasional maps and graphs, roughly go:
- The world has enjoyed unprecedented economic growth since the end of World War II because the US wrapped us all in a security blanket that allowed for safe global transport (especially shipping), trade and specialisation. This trend was supercharged by oil.
- But it’s all coming to an end because the Americans were only really interested in keeping the whole world safe because they were worried about the Russians. And Ukraine aside, they haven’t really been worried about the Russians since 1990 when the USSR collapsed. So they’re going home and taking their aircraft carriers with them, which is going to make the supply chain problems we’ve experienced during COVID seem like the good old days.
- Worse, much of the world is getting older at a rate of knots in ways that will exacerbate the slowdown in economic growth, especially in many advanced economies. With all this aging will come changes in how capital is held and invested that will also undermine growth.
- Worse again, the climate catastrophe we’re already headed towards will accelerate in this new world because trade-constrained countries will end up using more of their own energy resources rather than the cleanest fuels they used to be able to buy. That means they’ll burn more dirty coal and even wood in places like China and Europe.
- All of this is super bad for countries that need to import most of what they need to eat or use in manufacturing (think China, Germany and South Korea), and in turn, all the other countries that got used to using cars with 100,000 parts in them. Oh, and more than a billion people are about to starve to death and another 2 billion will suffer malnutrition.
- But there are some winners, most notably the US, which has enough of most things to largely sail on unaffected within its hemisphere while the rest of the world goes to pot. And some outliers like Australia and Southeast Asia, which will team up and survive pretty well.
This list doesn’t really do the book justice so it’s worth a full read. And despite the gist, it may well make a good non-fiction Christmas holiday read for you or a loved one.
My takeaway is that there seems to be quite a bit of merit in what Zeihan says. It also becomes apparent that those corporations he presents to, and the US Government, have been listening to him or people like him, when you look at what they’re doing – such as reshoring manufacturing. Though I also think he glosses over the pretty serious political, social and environmental issues that exist now in North America, so perhaps he has a blind spot when it comes to home.
If nothing else, the book will challenge your thinking and make you consider the possibility that things aren’t about to snap back to some sort of pre-COVID normal. And seriously, despite all of the above, it’s actually quite funny. It also ends on a somewhat positive note with a section that says things might work out okay after all. Though, I think his editor made him add that.
By Grant Butler