Archives for September 2009

Book Review: Vaclav Smil – Global Catastrophes and Trends

Smil, Vaclav – Global Catastrophes and Trends (2008)
Category: futurism, climate change, geopolitics, catastrophes; Rating: 5/5
Summary: Google Books

Vaclav Smil, an energy theorist and language connoisseur, brings his talents to bear on this idiosyncratic, incisive and balanced book on the global future. From the outset, he outlines his skepticism in universal theories of history and attempts at quantifying current trends to make point forecasts (e.g. predictions that nuclear power would make energy too cheap to meter in the halcyon days of the industry). Instead, he emphasizes the role played by the sheer complexity of human systems and their discontinuities – for instance, who could have imagined that a generation after the death of Mao, China would be the workshop of the world helping underwrite US military dominance?

Having established “How (Not) to Look Ahead”, Smil introduces his method – analyzing key variables categorized by a) unpredictable events – “catastrophes”, b) powerful trends (the effects of globalization, global demography, the energy transition), and c) the shifting balance of power between the Great Power (the marginalization of Japan, an unstable Islam, Russia’s partial resurgence, the uncertain rise of China and an increasingly faltering United States). It is one a method I highly favor and I agree with most of the arguments he makes in his book, albeit there are a few major exceptions.

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Russia’s Demographic Resilience II

As little as a few months ago, alarmist commentators were forecasting Russia’s demographic doom. They predicted a wave of abortions that would strip down its post-2006 fertility gains, and a prolonged period of fertility postponement that would have longterm effects deep into its dark Putinist future. Meanwhile, there would be a renewed pandemic of vodka binge drinking that would further exacerbate Russia’s already lamentable mortality rates. My April prediction that “the probability that the crisis will have a significant longterm effect on Russian fertility is extremely low” and my May prediction of a “a birth rate of 11.5 / 1000 and a death rate of 14.5 / 1000 this year, changed from 12.1 / 1000 and 14.8 / 1000 in 2008” were dismissed and ridiculed by some (not by everyone though!).

To put it bluntly, they were wrong. In the first half of 2009 (H1), birth rates increased by 4.2% and death rates decreased by 4.0%, which gives a birth rate of 12.6 / 1000 and 14.0 / 1000 for the rest of the year if linearly extrapolated – better even than the “optimistic” variants of my estimates, which are themselves regarded as optimistic by the general commentariat! That is almost certainly not going to happen, because there would have been some fertility postponement during the peak of the crisis (October 2008-March 2009), which means that Q4 is going to be perhaps 5-10% lower than last year. Overall, though, it is reasonably to assume that total births in 2009 will be the same as in 2008, whereas mortality rates are going to continue on their secular decline (in particular, it is telling that deaths from alcohol poisoning fell by 17% in H2 2009 relative to the previous year!, in stark contrast to predictions of mass drunkenness by the new unemployed).

I am reproducing here a very informative essay and data compilation by Sergei Slobodyan of the Untimely Thoughts discussion group – Latest Population Trends – Jan to July, who brings us the latest on this issue.

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Shifting Winds: The End Of Pax Americana

Every once in a while, there occurs a major shift in the international arena. The First World War and its consequences were the seminal change of the last century, collapsing ancient empires and ushering in a new era of ethno-nationalist clashes, political radicalism and emerging powers challenging the established order of Versailles, forces that were fully unleashed in the aftermath of the Great Depression. From the middle of the Second World War, it became clear that the new world order would be defined by a bipolar competition between the USSR and the US. The next major shift occurred with the oil shocks of the 1970’s, when growth throughout the industrialized world, capitalist and socialist alike, declined, and they were beset with increasing social problems, while the beginning of the rise of China and the economic re-emergence of Western Europe and Japan heralded a new, globalizing multipolarity that was confirmed by the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR.

The next two decades saw the triumph of “Western liberal democracy as the final form of government” and the spread of the neoliberal consensus, all underwritten by American military dominance and the new resources unlocked by the opening of formerly autarkic economies. Generally speaking, this was a rather peaceful and prosperous time. Though wars continued and there was the occasional genocide in Rwanda or Darfur, the overall incidence of violence declined sharply in all categories, the sole exception being terrorism. Similarly, the opening up of world trade sharply increased consumer power in the US and Europe as China’s reserve armies of labor set about producing cheap goods, a process lubricated by cheap oil, gargantuan freighters and developments in supply-chain management. And though its flowers still bloom and the politicians smile and exude the air that nothing’s much amiss, the winds of time are shifting, the sun is already setting on this world, and darkness is about to creep in.

Quite literally. The cheap oil that underpins industrial civilization is ending, as the world approaches peak oil production – the point when about half of recoverable reserves have been taken out of the ground. The remaining half lies in remoter places and will be much harder to extract, especially taking into account that the resources for doing so will be significantly more limited due to the collapse of the world credit system, a system that should have died a free-market death in late 2008, but which limps on, zombie-like, sustained by governments whose solvency now hangs by a thread only maintained by investors still naive enough to believe in their credibility.

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The Genesis of Total War

In the summer of 1914, the world was integrated as never before. Despite its simmering tensions and conscript armies, the European continent had open borders, a shared respect for private property and rule of law, and dynastic ties that bound its monarchs together – most poignantly represented by the pageantry surrounding the funeral of Edward VII of England in 1910, the world’s largest assemblage of royalty and rank in history. The expansion of world trade, free labor migration and the rise of a cosmopolitan cultural milieu defined this first great globalization.

It was accompanied by democratization, as many nations acquired parliaments and and widened their franchise: by 1900, some 29% of Frechmen, 22% of Germans, 18% of British and 15% of Russians had the vote. In supposedly belligerent Germany, the anti-war Social Democrats won 34.8% of the vote in 1912. Though there were strident militarist and pan-nationalist lobbies, they were partially countered by pacifist movements and moderated by mainstream politicians, who viewed the prospect of a general war with apprehension: even in Germany, with its reputation for bombastic rhetoric, in July 1914 Chancellor Bethman remarked, “a world war with its incalculable consequences would tremendously strengthen the power of Social democracy… and topple many a throne”. Yet glimmers of darkness on the horizon presaged a gathering storm, and “the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again”.

The First World War ended the first golden age of globalization and history returned to Europe with a vengeance. It killed or maimed a generation of European men, destroyed four great empires and spawned the disillusionment that would find its (apparent) resolution in totalitarian ideologies. This  “war to end all wars” came to be known as the first “total” or “Blochian” war, and as the “Great War” in the British Isles, replacing the Napoleonic Wars which had hitherto fallen under that designation.

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The Struggle between Europe and Mankind

Though Nikolai Trubetzkoy (1890-1938) remains more famous for his contributions to the field of linguistics, his other great achievement was as one of the founding fathers of the Eurasian movement. Riding on the dark wave of disillusionment sweeping the world in the wake of the First World War, he penned the seminal essay Europe and Man in 1920 while teaching at the University of Sofia. You can read Европа и человечество in Russian at the given site (unfortunately I could not find an online English translation).

Which is a pity, because much of what he predicted really did transpire during the 20th C and remains as relevant as ever today. In my opinion, every Kremlinologist, every “Russia-watcher” and indeed every Russian should read it. This was one of the first modern works to seriously question whether Western civilization, or “Europe”, is the culmination of “historical progress” (the other major contemporary challenge was Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West). In this post I will present his arguments and draw on historical hindsight to confirm the historical validity of his theory.

First, Trubetzkoy asks, “Is it possible to prove objectively that the culture of the contemporary Germano-Romans is more advanced than all other cultures that exist or have existed on earth?”

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Book Review: John Scott – Behind the Urals

Scott, JohnBehind the Urals: An American Worker in Russia’s City of Steel (1941)
Category: history, Soviet Union, Stalin; Rating: 5/5

Fear and Fervor under Stalinist Industrialization

The Great Depression of the 1930’s, with its iconic images of well-dressed bourgeoisie in soup lines and gaunt figures with hopeless eyes from the Dust Bowl, challenged the prior American consensus that their system of liberal democracy and free markets was the pinnacle of social and economic organization. Upon graduating from a radical educational program at the University of Wisconsin, John Scott had few permanent job prospects. Coupled with the legacy of his family’s freethinking, non-conformist background, youthful wanderlust and socialist sympathies, he obtained a welder’s certificate at a General Electric plant at Schenectady and set out to discover Soviet civilization – Steffens’ wave of the future, Sloan’s ‘country with a plan’ and in his own pseudonym’s words, ‘the place where there is work to be done is now among the workers themselves’.

The book is a fascinating compendium of observations of Soviet proletarian life in the 1930’s from the point of view of an idealistic but objective American fellow traveler living and working in the model city of Magnitogorsk. He successfully bridged the polar Western views of the USSR of the times, which ranged from the Scylla of the right who claimed it produced nothing but ‘chaos, suffering and disorder’ to the Charybdis of the Communists who held it up as a panacea. His thoughts on this are well worth quoting in full, especially because of their resonance today:

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America’s Liberty Cycles

This is my first follow-up post to The Belief Matrix, in which I attempted to advance a universal model for civilizational responses to subsistence crises (The Malthusian Loop) and the Western challenge (The Sisyphean Loop).  The first country I’ll apply this too is the US, because doing so will allow me to make several important points about the nature of the belief matrix – namely, that even nominally “Western nations” like the US – that archetype of the West – is imprisoned within the Sisyphean loop.

This is because the Idea of the West, as previously defined, is a rationalist absolute, whereas all other human societies are not. Hence the US can never attain full union with it, but only try to. Instead, decade by decade and century by century, it redefines liberty. This is a mostly consensual social activity that rarely veers into large-scale violence, the Civil War being the most vivid exception (though even it was an extraordinarily civilized affair by the standards of the time). This process is so internalized that Americans, along with the British or the French, think of themselves, and define themselves, as “Westerners” with no apparent conflict between it and their national identities. To the contrary, they are complementary.

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