posted: February 27, 2023
tl;dr: A hopefully overly pessimistic book that nevertheless describes some important changes underway in the world...
As the title suggests, the scope of geopolitical analyst Peter Zeihan’s latest book, The End of the World is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization (TEOTWIJTB) is truly biblical. Zeihan spends perhaps 70% of the book describing the geographic and political reasons the world is the way it is today, and around 30% of the book predicting how the decades ahead will unfold, given the changes that are already underway.
Demographics is one of those undeniable changes: Japan, China, and many other countries either have peaked in population or soon will. Ziehan argues that demographic collapse combined with other factors will ultimately lead to de-civilization, in roughly this manner:
Humanity in general marches forward, but there are plenty of examples of regression just during my lifetime. Countries that have arguably undergone a process of de-civilization, usually due to political change, include Venezuela, Iran, and Afghanistan. Cuba’s communist revolution has left the country stuck in a time-warp. Germany is shuttering its nuclear power plants and reverting to burning lignite coal. Here in the United States we struggle to build nuclear power plants and any sort of major infrastructure project: a proposed extension to a New York City subway line will cost nearly $4 billion per mile. Supersonic passenger jet service disappeared with the demise of the Concorde. We haven’t been to the moon in over 50 years.
Will the world as a whole devolve? As the population declines, economic output will also decline, but so will the needs of the remaining population: per-capita output could still grow. Japan is the first industrialized country to undergo this transition and their standard of living is doing fine, although Zeihan argues that Japan has some unique characteristics that permit this. Some of the things that could go right include:
I learned a lot from TEOTWIJTB, even if I don’t agree with all of Zeihan’s predictions. I gained a greater appreciation for the role of the U.S. Navy in maintaining global order. The Green Revolution that the U.S. and Western European countries have embarked upon does indeed appear to be a Herculean task. The War With Russia is a critical test: can the West overthrow Putin without the conflict escalating into World War III and a nuclear exchange? Zeihan covers so much ground and so many topics that he is bound to make some mistakes: it is impossible to be an expert in every subject. But overall I am impressed with the breadth and depth of the arguments Zeihan makes.
I consumed TEOTWIJTB via audiobook, which was read by Peter Zeihan himself. I had already heard Zeihan speak on several occasions, chiefly interviews he gave on The Grant Williams Podcast, which is still the only podcast for which I pay. Zeihan has a particular way of speaking, with lots of inflection to emphasize his points. He uses jocular phrases that convey the impression that you’d be foolish to disagree with him. To some (many?) who have not heard him speak before, his vocal style will come across as being smug, smarmy, a bit of a know-it-all. This doesn’t bother me at all; I am glad Zeihan read for the audiobook, as his intonations provide further information; also, I found it to be entertaining. But those who read the printed book themselves will certainly have a different experience than I did.