The Twilight of Abundance: Why Life in the 21st Century Will Be Nasty, Brutish, and Short by David Archibald, visiting Fellow Institute of World Politics.
Not quite the end of the world.
I am a curmudgeon, which is to say, a realist. Curmudgeons get a rough deal from society. Most think us permanently grimaced gloomy sourpusses whose only pleasures come from yelling at kids to get off our lawns and from contemplating the various awful ways the world will come to its inevitable and well-deserved end.
This is unfair. We are all those things, yes, but we are also healthy, robust souls. The inner peace which is a natural consequence of being right all the time—”I told you so” is ever on our lips—is why we live so long.
David Archibald is one of us, long may he live.
The good times, says he, the times of plenty and unbridled optimism, the times of cheap energy and unlimited economic growth, the times of warm summer afternoons and surplus crops, are over. What can we look forward to? Intemperate, possibly much colder, weather, failed crops, localized starvation, demographic collapse, mechanized theological disputes, increasing tribalization, wars of territorial conquest, societal conflicts, inflation, governmental encroachment—in other words, a return to normalcy. The End of History is not yet.
What can we do about it? Not much.
There is where Archibald excels. In the same manner as John Derbyshire’s classic We Are Doomed, Archibald sees no simple—read “ideological”—solutions, or, indeed, any solutions. He never, not even once, is tempted to say if only. If only everybody believed X, the world would be saved. If only the government acted, the world would be saved. If only if only. The closest he comes is to softly plead for government to get out of the way and let people figure things out for themselves. Which none of us think will happen.
Derbyshire showed us how Western culture will die (suicide), and Archibald outlines how the rest of the world will fare in the areas of climate, food, and political relations.
The frenzy that was Global Warming, which Archibald rightly calls a “millenarian cult”, is on its last legs. The notorious Climategate emails convinced all but bug-eyed zealots that the “peer-reviewed” “science” was largely a political concoction (Archibald provides a nice summary). The reason global warming was so eagerly embraced is because supporters loved the consequences—government should grow to handle the “crisis”—and because of religion—Gaia was pure until the cancer Man infected it, etc., etc.
Climate models have predicted temperatures that would go up, up, and away! Too bad for the models that the actual temperatures went the opposite direction (for almost 20 years now). Normally scientists abandon models which give failed predictions. When they don’t, which they haven’t, we’re right to suspect they’re not doing science.
Belief in manmade global warming depends on acting as if the laws of physics are suspended and we are living in a special time in which the climate is changing apart from the hand on man. In a sense we are actually living in a special time relative to the last 3 million years. The special time we live in is an interglacial period—a temporary respite in that ice age.
Archibald thinks the cool weather is caused by the sun, particularly the sunspot cycle, which has been shown to have a correlation with global temperatures. Periods with high numbers of sunspots are on average warmer: the last peak coincided with an increased temperature in the late 1990s, early 2000s (also the height of global warming panic). Periods with low numbers are on average colder. The correlation has proved regular and historically consequential.
We’re in a low period now, and, sure enough, it’s been a long cold winter. This low period is expected to last (according to reasonably good forecasts) for another one to two decades. And did I mention that another glaciation is on the way because of the earth’s orbital changes? It’ll be some time before it gets here, but the trend is down. Don’t put away the snow shovels.
Update [I goofed and mixed up volcanoes: Laki was in 1783 and caused grief, but the real ones was Tambora.] Then there was the Year Without A Summer, caused in 1816, eruption of Tambora. The dust blocked the summer sunlight and it never did get warm in the Northern hemisphere that year. Volcanoes do what volcanoes do, even in the presence of beneficent governments. The danger is that, if the sunspot-cold weather forecast is right and a volcano pops off, we could be in some pretty deep kimchee. The chance of this happening nobody knows. But even without the volcano, we should see colder weather.
That means smaller crop yields. Not such a big deal for countries like Canada (Archibald is never flustered and recommends they shift to winter wheat), USA, China, Russia, and a few others which provide enough for their citizens. But for a whole swath of nations which buy much of their food, there will be trouble. Here is a list of countries which import about two-thirds or more of their food: Afghanistan, Egypt, Yemen, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Israel, Iraq, Iran. No curmudgeon worthy of his title will need more information than this. Readers who are still progressives will have to buy Archibald’s book to learn the exciting details.
Archibald reminds, “The world’s last major starvation event was the Indian drought of 1967, which killed about 1 million people.” He means the last weather-caused event. China holds the record, with Russia right behind, of killings by government; a good order-of-magnitude guess is 100 million slaughtered in the name of Equality (about these countries, more in a moment). Ireland also had notable troubles due to crop failures, and everyone knows about Africa. The takeaway point is the curmudgeon’s rule-of-thumb: if it happened before, it will happen again, and it’ll probably be worse.
When country A has something country B wants, like food or land, and country B doesn’t want to part with it, country A, if sufficiently emboldened, might try and seize the thing against country B’s wishes. Right, Vladimir? Or it could be that country A simply hates country B, or that country A wants to build up his street cred.
If shortages of energy and food appear, which is a good bet at least at regional levels, then troubles will begin. Add to that Iran’s hatred of Israel, China smarting from what they see as a hundred-some years of taking it in the neck from the world (Opium Wars, foreign support of Chiang Kai-shek, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, etc., etc.), Japan still feeling its oats (one last hurrah before the nurseries close forever?), Pakistan displeased with India and Afghanistan (“In what [in 1971] was called Operation Searchlight, the Pakistani army duly killed 3 million people in what is now Bangladesh”; if it happened before…), and don’t let’s forget Africa and the recommunisation of South America. Venezuelans are already forced to stand in food lines.
Archibald outlines various scenarios for the fun which awaits us, including an eleven-page Tom-Clancy-like account from Wing Commander Peter Mills (Royal Australian Air Force) of how China might unleash its inner dragon. It’s even money whether Iran or Pakistan is the first to use nukes, though it would be foolish to count the Middle Kingdom out.
How much oil is left? Nobody knows. A hint might be that production peaked a few years back. One reason is the old wells, of course, must eventually run low, and even dry. A second is an amok environmental movement which has put a halt to new drilling, has frightened governments into believing coal and natural gas will cause catastrophic global warming, has effectively barred investments in coal-to-liquid and natural gas technologies, and so on.
How about nuclear—boo!—power? Environmentalists can’t even hear that word—nuclear: boo!—without shivering out of their socks. Fukushima didn’t help proponents, either. I happened to be in San Francisco right after the plant popped off and witnessed a run on iodized salt in Chinatown. Blue cans of salt were rolling down Stockton street as people tore into boxes of the stuff. The frenzy was the direct fault of this country’s Surgeon General warning people that radiation—boo!—was on its way and that taking iodized salt was a good precaution. Too bad the statistics show radiation isn’t as harmful as Hollywood thinks, and is probably even beneficial at low levels.
The best route to energy “independence” is a government which gets out of the way of innovation. Good work is being done with thorium reactors, but you rarely hear of it. Instead we get an EPA (which arms its agents) which, while protecting puddles as “wet lands”, touts wind farms (Bye Bye Birdie) and electric cars. We also turn a good portion of our food into “clean” fuel.
A nice touch of Archibald’s is opening each chapter with a quotation from the Revelation of St John. This puts the reader in the right frame of mind—melancholy. This is the curmudgeon’s natural state, and so we find ourselves nodding when he concludes, “The age of abundance is now long over, and a much darker future awaits the unprepared.”
Will we, now suitably warned, thus prepare ourselves?
Of course not.
Update Lest the state sink its icy claws into me, I hereby inform you that Archibald kindly gave me a copy of his book.
Update Archibald an alarmist? Good grief! I would have thought regular readers would have been the first to agree that all is not well in the world.