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Book Review: "The End of the World is Just the Beginning"
Peter Zeihan gives us his vision of the collapse of globalization.
“Uh-oh, overflow, population, common food/ But it'll do, save yourself, serve yourself/ World serves its own needs/ Listen to your heart bleed” — R.E.M.
This past year, a ton of people have been asking me to review Peter Zeihan’s The End of the World is Just the Beginning. Well, readers, I am nothing if not your humble servant. So I read it — well, OK, I listened to it on Audible, which I would definitely recommend, since Zeihan narrates his own book in a highly entertaining manner. But anyway, here is the review people have been requesting.
This is a big, sweeping book about the economic, geopolitical, and technological history and future of the world. It’s written in a breezy, conversational style somewhat reminiscent of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens — Zeihan throws out a stream of big, dramatic, simple assertions about how the world works, one after another (though he does it with more levity than Harari).
I have to admit that as a detail-oriented, critical sort of writer, this type of book has always bothered me a bit, because it’s pretty much impossible to cover so much ground this quickly without getting at least a few details wrong. Zeihan is obviously incredibly well-read about history, geopolitics, and technology, but no one can ever read enough to master every area of all of those subjects. Sometimes I notice a howler (Japan still secretly wants to conquer China?? Fiat money is necessary for massive speculative debt bubbles??), and it makes me wonder how many others I missed. And because the style is so fun and banter-ish, it can be hard to tell whether each howler is a real mistake, an intentional oversimplification for entertainment purposes, or simply a joke.
But you know what? I’ll get over it. I just had to get that off my chest.
Essentially, The End of the World is Just the Beginning predicts the imminent, rapid, catastrophic reversal of globalization, and the economic and geopolitical hardship and chaos that will result. It’s an incredibly bold, incredibly extreme prediction. In my assessment, it will probably end up being mostly wrong. Three or four decades from now, I predict, we will not find our world shattered into a pastiche of isolated regional economies, separated by oceans full of pirates and marauding neocolonialist empires. Nor will we see the collapse of global food trade cause a massive die-back of the human population. Europe will not recolonize Africa and battle it out with an imperialist Nigeria for regional hegemony and so on. These are all things that Zeihan forecasts, and I predict that very few of them will come to pass.
Which is not to say I think this book isn’t worth reading. In fact, it is worth reading, for two reasons. First of all, there’s a decent likelihood that many of Zeihan’s predictions are what businesspeople euphemistically call “directionally correct” — i.e., vastly exaggerated, but containing important seeds of truth. Second of all, the book functions extremely well as a disaster scenario — a vivid picture of what could happen if the human race allows globalization to collapse.
A fundamental fact of globalization is that there is only one world. If the world economic system fails, there will be no buffer — no external source of trade or bailouts or (probably) new frontiers to explore and exploit. A second fundamental fact is that the system of globalized trade and supply chains that we’ve constructed over the past few decades is extremely complex and finely tuned. If that system has been over-engineered to the point of brittleness, then a big shock could cause a catastrophic collapse with no redundancy. We got a preview of such a shock when Covid threw global supply chains out of whack, and a war between the U.S. and China would provide another shock. Eventually the whole thing might just collapse, in a way similar to what Zeihan describes.
So I think the best way to read The End of the World is Just the Beginning is as a cautionary tale — a detailed explanation of why it would be very very bad to allow globalization to collapse.
Because Zeihan does think that the collapse will essentially be one of our own choosing. His predictions of doom stem from two factors — demographic decline, and America’s withdrawal from the world system. The first of these is probably unavoidable, and Zeihan is on by far the most solid ground when he describes the changes that will result from having aging, shrinking populations in every region of the world. But demographics end up being fairly marginal to his analysis; the factor that dominates most of his forecasts is an American-led security collapse that destroys the world trade system.
Zeihan is never very clear about why he thinks America will simply withdraw from the role it has played as guarantor of global trade and security. Yes, sure, we had a little protectionist, isolationist spasm under Donald Trump, but Joe Biden has worked quickly and diligently to defend Ukraine from Russian aggression and shore up alliances in Asia. Of course the U.S.’ relative power vis-à-vis China is much less than it used to be. But there’s the possibility that U.S. hegemony could simply be replaced by a hegemony guaranteed by a coalition of states — the U.S. plus India, Europe, Japan, South Korea, the UK, and so on.
There’s also the strong possibility that China — the only state capable of overthrowing U.S. power by force — will choose to cooperate with the U.S. to keep the sea lanes open, simply because of the catastrophic consequences to China of not doing so (which Zeihan vividly describes). Ultimately, Zeihan’s predictions of global anarchy rely on countries collectively making decisions that are utterly disastrous for themselves. That’s always possible, of course — cough, World War 1, cough — but it doesn’t seem like we should just assume that that kind of utter stupidity will prevail. That’s why I think Zeihan’s book would have been better phrased as a warning than as a forecast. (On the other hand, who knows; maybe forecasts, especially dire ones, get more attention than warnings. It sure worked for John in the Book of Revelation!)
It’s also not clear that even a partial collapse of globalization would be as dramatic as Zeihan claims. In the 1930s, world trade fell by half as a fraction of GDP, and in the 1940s, violent new empires successfully disrupted global maritime trade for years. But except for the areas hit directly by WW2 fighting, humanity did not revert back to a pre-1870 standard of living, as Zeihan predicts could be a consequence of global security chaos. A Depression/WW2 scenario would be pretty catastrophic in the modern day, but it wouldn’t come close to the sort of massive famines, population shrinkage, and complete deindustrialization that Zeihan claims some regions will undergo.
In general, Zeihan assumes that a whole lot of things in the global economy are unable to adjust. For example, he places a lot of emphasis on the preeminence of U.S. naval power. But naval power can change very quickly. China has been engaged in a massive buildup in recent years. Its navy overtook the U.S.’ in terms of number of ships almost a decade ago. Now you can say that the U.S.’ ships are still much better, and would defeat China’s in a confrontation (and maybe you’d even be right). But that would miss the point. China’s navy is certainly already powerful enough to crush international piracy, which Zeihan predicts will be a major force in disrupting international trade after America’s withdrawal. Also, Zeihan argues that Japan will be economically better off than China after the predicted collapse, because Japan has a navy capable of securing overseas supplies; but China’s navy is now almost certainly even more powerful than Japan’s, and the gap grows every day.
Nor is naval power the only thing that Zeihan seems to think is more or less set in stone. He talks about Chinese dominance in metal processing capacity as one reason other countries will struggle with manufacturing after a collapse of trade. But other countries know how to process metals — it’s a fairly unsophisticated technology. Other countries will do more if China does less.
Technologically, too, Zeihan seems to assume less substitutability than we’ve seen in real life in recent years. A big example is batteries. Zeihan declares, in no uncertain terms, that cobalt is absolutely essential to the production of electric car batteries, and points out that there are few places that have a lot of cobalt, and that they tend to be politically unstable. But electric vehicle makers like Tesla have recently been switching to lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries, which contain no cobalt, and also no nickel. So much for that global bottleneck! That sort of technological substitution is commonplace, but Zeihan often talks as if the current way we do things is the only way we ever could.
Essentially, Zeihan tends to assume that each and every part of our modern globalized system is fragile and lacks adaptability. As a result of this basic outlook, the adaptations he foresees are not technological fixes, shifting geopolitical arrangements, or economic substitutions — they are dramatic, desperate backstops like resurgent colonial empires and hyper-localized production chains. But some parts of our modern economy are resilient, flexible, and adaptable. Whether they all are isn’t clear. But if we start relaxing Zeihan’s assumptions of fragility for one system after another, at some point the scenario has to shift from total collapse to painful and complicated adjustment. The question is simply whether enough of Zeihan’s pessimistic assumptions are true to drive a worldwide system collapse.
I’d bet strongly against that outcome. But at the same time, I think Zeihan's book is very useful, because it forces us to think about how many things would have to go wrong in order for the global economy to collapse. And it forces us to think about how we might make each element of the modern globalized system more resilient. And it forces us to think about how to deal with the consequences of deglobalization, even in a modest form.
The latter is surely going to be important. Even if we never see global trade collapse, we’ve already seen it plateau, and many indicators of globalization are in slow retreat even as we speak. Even if China doesn’t collapse, it’s in a major slump, and the risk of war is driving a lot of companies to reevaluate their China-centric supply chains. We need to think about how to deal with this, and many of Zeihan’s suggestions seem directionally correct. For example, his prediction of a Japan-India partnership as the foundation of a new non-China economic bloc in Asia is very reminiscent of the “Altasia” concept that some of us have been writing about.
Anyway, being forced to think is good. So I do recommend checking out The End of the World is Just the Beginning. Just remember to take the apocalyptic forecasts, as the saying goes, “seriously, but not literally.”