Archives for February 2010

Russia’s Demographic Resilience III

It’s official. Russia’s population grew by 23,300 souls in 2009, for the first time since 1995. The rate of natural increase remained slightly negative for Russia as a whole, though the Siberian and Urals Federal Regions actually saw positive natural population growth for the first time in 19 years. However, this was more than compensated for by immigration. This improvement was in large part thanks to an impressive increase in the life expectancy, which rose to 69 years in 2009 – almost as high as in 1963-68 (before the alcoholism epidemic) and 1986-91 (Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign). Birth rates also increased by 3%, hysterical Russophobe predictions of a crisis-induced “abortion apocalypse” to the contrary.

This of course should come as no great surprise to S/O readers, since back in mid-2008 my projections indicated that Russia will see positive population growth starting from 2010 at the latest. Furthermore, as both Sergey Slobodyan and myself argued, claims that the economic crisis would produce a sharp drop in fertility rates were entirely spurious (instead, the TFR increased to 1.53 children per woman in 2009 from 1.49 in 2008). If anything, the demographic facts on the ground are now actually substantially exceeding Rosstat’s, Slobodyan’s, and my own most optimistic forecasts (not to even mention “pessimists” like Eberstadt, Steyn, etc).

These demographic developments are examined and analyzed in greater detail in the essay by S/O guest blogger Sergey Slobodyan below.

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On Future War

This post is about the future of military technology and war strategy in a world of informatization, resource scarcity, and renewed ideological turbulence. Be forewarned: while some of what I write here corresponds to the conventional wisdom, some is well off the beaten tracks, and some will sound like it’s straight out of a sci-fi dystopia.

The post-Cold War era was, for many, a lovely time. As the Soviet Union imploded, so did the risks of mutual destruction in a global thermonuclear war. At the end of history, the conventional wisdom now regarded rogue states, loose nukes, and transnational terrorists as the main challenges to the brave new world created by globalization. As Thomas P.M. Barnett argued in The Pentagon’s New Map, the primary challenge faced by the US military would no longer consist of planning for a traditional Great Power war with its erstwhile socialist foes, Russia and China. Instead, it would be wiser to focus on policing and “civilizing” the equatorial belt of instability known as the “Gap” – the impoverished, conflicted region stretching roughly from Central America through Africa and the Eurasian Dar al-Islam – in cooperation with fellow stakeholders in stability like Europe, China, India, Russia, and Japan.

However, one of the main assumptions of this blog is that this state of global affairs will not last, if it was ever really valid in the first place. First, many people in the pre-1914 era – an older golden age of globalization and shared international values – also believed that technical progress and increasing interconnectedness had made war obsolete, or at least unbearably damaging if it were to continue for any longer than a few months. They would be disillusioned by the First World War, the genesis of modern total warSecond, the international system today is unstable amidst the shifting winds of change, characterized as it is by a faltering US hegemon beset by challengers such as an expansionist Irana resurging Russia, and a robust China intent on returning to its age-old status as the Celestial Empire. Third, peak oil production, probably reached in 2008, is but one of the first harbingers of our Limits to Growth predicament – in the decades to come, the world’s grain belts will begin to dessicate, high-quality energy sources will become depleted, and ever more human effort under the knout of state coercion will have to be requisitioned to sustain industrial civilization against the mounting toll of energetic shortages, climatic disruption, and system instability.

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Book Review: Donella Meadows et al. – Limits to Growth

If I could recommend just one book to someone with a business-as-usual outlook, someone who believes human ingenuity and free markets will always bail us out of any resource scarcity or environmental problem, it would be Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (henceforth LTG). After reading it, you may never look at the world in quite the same way again. This post contains a summary, but I really do recommend you go and read it all. It is well argued, eminently readable, and pertains to issues central to our common future.

Meadows, Donella & J. Randers, D. MeadowsLimits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (2004). BUY THE BOOK!
Category: world systems, resource depletion, pollution; Rating: 5*/5
Summary: wiki; synopsis; WSJ story.

The first book was published in 1972, commissioned by a circle of statesmen, businesspeople, and scientists called the Club of Rome. The LTG models, using the latest advances in systems theory and computer modeling, suggested that business-as-usual economic growth on a finite planet would eventually lead to stagnating and then falling living standards, as ever more industrial capital has to be diverted towards mitigating the consequences of growth, e.g. soil degradation, resource depletion, and runaway pollution.

Cornucopians and establishment “experts” have tried to discredit LTG by claiming that its predictions of global apocalypse failed to materialize; instead, hasn’t the world seen remarkable economic growth since 1972? These criticisms are unfounded. First, the LTG modelers did not make any concrete forecasts, but merely a range of scenarios based on varying initial conditions (e.g. global resource endowments) and future political choices. Not all the scenarios led to collapse – a reasonable global standard of living is preserved under scenarios in which humanity makes a transition back below the limits towards sustainable development.  Second, none of those scenarios projected a collapse before 2015 at the earliest, so the claim is invalidated even if you treat the worst case scenario as a prediction. As such, we can only conclude that these critics are either liers or haven’t actually read the book.

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The Endgame Begins

A year ago I predicted that there will be a “decoupling from the unwinding“, as “emerging markets” by and large ride out the temporary shocks of declining Western demand for their exports (China) and the interruption of Western credit intermediation (Russia) before resuming growth. This is one aspect of the trends leading to the imminent demise of Pax Americana, which will be replaced by “the age of scarcity industrialism” / “a world without the West“. We are now entering this Empire’s endgame.

After briefly stalling in early 2009, China’s economy roared back to life on the back of massive credit loosening to build (or overbuild) infrastructure and industrial capacity. Though not the most efficient use of resources, it did have the advantage of 1) maintaining growth, 2) forestalling the social unrest that would rise up if it wasn’t, and 3) at least Chinese investments went into building up their real economy (amongst other things, it became the world’s largest producer of wind turbines and photovoltaic panels in 2009), instead of the pork and oligarch welfare programs more characteristic of the US “stimulus”. And though Russia’s GDP contracted by 7.9% in 2009 – far higher than expected by most commentators, largely thanks to the dependence its big corporations acquired on continuous flows of intermediated Western credit – it began to slowly recover from mid-2009, industrial output is now rising at a fast clip, and investment banks are predicting growth of 4-6% for 2010. The other two BRIC’s, Brazil and India, didn’t have too many problems at all since they had neither a big credit nor trade dependence on the submerging Western markets.

In the long-term, I argued that the brunt of the crisis would fall on the “submerging” Anglo-Saxon markets, thanks to their “charades over “quantitative easing” (translation: printing money), transfer of toxic “assets” onto the public account”, and unsustainable fiscal stimuli. Today, the American political system is for all practical purposes broken. Republicans won’t agree to tax increases, Democrats won’t agree to cutting entitlement programs. The legislative process is reverting to that of the 17th century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, when a single veto could (and did) prevent anything being agreed on in their Sejm, or parliament. (Hint: the ultimate consequences weren’t good for Poland).

The inflated hopes and expectations accompanying Obama’s accession to power were indeed, just as I suggested on his election, “greatly constrained by financial and institutional realities”. He is a weakling President, alternating between meaningless populist rhetoric and pandering to the Wall Street oligarchs; scorned by the left as Bush II with gloss, and condemned by the right as a foreign Marxist Islamofascist: his policies and outreaches failing at home and abroad, rejected in his own heartlands, these outcomes are engendered by and in large part made inevitable by his hopelessly pollyannish belief in his own messianic powers of compromise and persuasion.

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China, The Last Superpower

After two hundred years of global ascendancy, the West is in rapid relative decline to (re)emerging Asia, which is mounting a steady “Great Reconvergence”. Likewise, the legitimacy of today’s “neoliberal internationalist” order promoted by the West is being questioned by the more statist, neo-Westphalian visions of the leaders of the Rest, the so-called BRIC’s. This has already led to the emergence of a “world without the West” – a parallel international system based on the principles of state sovereignty, hard power, and bilateral trade relations.

The most powerful and influential member of this new world is China, which has become the “workshop of the world” since its graduated opening up from the late 1970’s. Accounting for half of global steel and cement production, China has built up an enormous infrastructure of roads, railways, and ports to support its mercantile expansion. In 2009 it became the world’s largest automobile market. Furthermore, China is now advancing higher up the ladder of added-value industries by expanding into hi-tech areas such as commercial aircraft, renewable energy, and supercomputers.

One of the most important factor making China’s rise all the more significant is that it is concurrent with the accelerating decline of Pax Americana that is spurred on by the end of cheap oil, US economic weakness, and regional threats to American hegemony from the “challenger Powers” (e.g. Russia, Iran, and China itself). Should the current international order suffer a “cascading collapse” – which is not unlikely, given the brittleness of the world financial and energy system – then it is possible that China will emerge as an equal, or even superior, pole to the US superpower as soon as 2020.

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Collapse Ethics: Anarchy or Coercion?

The reaction to my article on the “ecotechnic dictatorship” garnered a vigorous response on this blog, and more of a vitriolic one elsewhere (see below for a summary). So let’s ask the question outright. Suppose that all your observations and models indicated that business-as-usual would doom the global industrial system to collapse, causing the premature deaths of the many surplus billions it now supports on a “phantom carrying capacity” based on fossil fuel-powered agriculture, industrial fishing fleets, and a stable climate. In this hypothetical scenario (IMO, no longer very hypothetical at all), would it be ethical to support the coming of an “ecotechnic dictator”, a despotic Messiah, who would suppress individual freedoms in order to force an unwilling populace into making the consumption sacrifices needed to avert the Crash?

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