Will the 21st century be Asian or Arctic?

A broad consensus has developed, over the last decade or so, that the balance of power in the world is shifting away from North America, Europe and Japan  and towards East Asia, South Asia and Latin America. Liberal economists talk about the rebalancing of the world, conservative historians worry about the decline of the West. Businessmen see opportunities, generals get nervous about the potential military threat. Socialists applaud a more equal world while fearing the rise of repressive anti-union states. The far right lament the collapse of white dominance. The ideological prisms through which these trends are viewed may lead to different conclusions but everyone agrees that the North and West are in decline while the South and East are rising.

Well, almost everyone.

Yesterday evening I went to a lecture at the RSA given by UCLA’s Professor Laurence Smith. He has a different take. Climate change and resource depletion, he believes, will lead to the rise of the NORCS – the northern rim countries – Canada, Russia and Scandinavia. The New North, says Professor Smith, will have access to the energy reserves of the Arctic, a plentiful supply of fresh water and, as the ice thaws, new year-round shipping lanes. As the rest of the world fries, the NORCs will be “among the few place on Earth where crop production will likely increase”.

For much of the world, Professor Smith’s predictions sound grim. Energy and water shortages, combined with climate change, will make the mega-cities of the developing world “hell on earth”.

Just as the temperatures rises, water, air conditioning and food storage will become hugely expensive. As local crops fail, more will need to be shipped in, adding to the cost and the misery.

In contrast, the North will be cool, less crowded and very prosperous. The cities rising to prominence, says Smith, will be Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Seattle, Calgary, Edmonton, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Ottawa, Reykjavik, Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Professor Smith emphasised that he has not discovered any new data. He has simply used existing models on climate, economics, demographics and energy supply. By crunching these together, using best and worst case scenarios, he came up with his prediction. He also points out that he did not start out with this hypothesis. His initial intention was to write a book about climate change. Only when he began to look at the data did the New North scenario begin to emerge.  

Predictions about climate change are even more contentious than those of economists but, if Laurence Smith is even half right, the future of the world might be more complex than that described in the ‘rise of Asia/decline of the West’ scenarios. Most of the predictions about global rebalancing have been based on economic trends. Add climate change to the mix and the power shift may go in more than one direction.

Smith is not the only person making such predictions. Two years ago, climate scientist James Lovelock wrote about “lifeboat islands” – refuges from catastrophic climate change – in the temperate far north and far south of the world. His vision is even more apocalyptic than Smith’s but it has a broadly similar conclusion. If the world heats up, some parts of the planet that are currently growing rapidly, could, in a short time, find themselves almost uninhabitable.

Is this all paranoid nonsense? Well it’s not just academics and tree-hugging greenies that are worried about climate change. Some hard-headed people are taking it very seriously indeed. Military strategists see it as a potential threat and are already watching “the shifting balance of power in the Arctic and the implications of reduced food and water security”. Even if the predictions of Laurence Smith and others are over-stated, generals and admirals, it seems, aren’t taking any chances. And neither is the insurance industry.

That climate change and resource shortages could shift the global balance of wealth and power northwards is, at the very least, a plausible scenario. Economic trends still point to the rise of countries like India and China. Smith does not expect this to change over the next few decades (I know because I asked him), yet, having looked at his projections of temperatures and water shortages, I would not want to live in Southern China or India forty years from now.

Will the next 100 years be Asian or Arctic? According to Laurence Smith’s predictions it will be a bit of both – multipolar and perhaps not quite as much of an Asian Century as we thought.

A summary of Laurence Smith’s lecture and his slides will be on posted the RSA website shortly. As soon as it is, I will add a link. His book is going on my birthday reading list.

Update: The audio of this lecture is now available on the RSA website.

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3 Responses to Will the 21st century be Asian or Arctic?

  1. I could neither argue otherwise, nor would I want to. The theory and the rational and emotional impact of the debate is what makes it all so much fun. At least the predictions aren’t saying distruction in thermonuclear war within the decade any more.
    Always look on the bright side…
    P.S. As we all know, Canadians secretly control the world as it is anyway.

  2. Pingback: Will the 21st century be Asian or Arctic? - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  3. Pingback: Water Scarcity, the World and the Workforce in 2025 | The Reticulum

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