Image credit: Harper Collins
"The End of the World Is Just The Beginning"
by Peter Zeihan
Harper Business/June 2022
Reviewed by Abby MacDonald
One of the dominant features of global affairs the past few years is that the global world order is changing. This notion is usually discussed alongside concerns about the re-emergence of great-power conflict as the usual suspects – the United States, China and Russia – compete for influence. The End of the World is Just the Beginning goes a step further than acknowledgment, delving into what a future world order could actually look like.
Peter Zeihan’s book is a pessimistic look at where the world is going, balanced with enough humour and analysis to keep the reader engaged. Zeihan, a geopolitical strategist, focuses heavily on geography and its influence on a country’s success. He suggests that much like in the aftermath of the Second World War, the U.S.’s unique geography positions it to succeed in the new world order. This may be comforting to some in some respects, but unfortunately this does not mean that things look great anywhere else, or that the U.S. has the will or capacity to continue leading its own world order as it has done since 1945. It may strike a reader immediately as American-centric, but Zeihan does not address the significant reasons the U.S. cannot uphold its order – including serious internal divisions and populism –as he describes how the country’s various regions could co-operate to their own benefit.
The United States was the dominant architect of the world from 1945 onwards. It created the circumstances that resulted in some of the healthiest and wealthiest humans who have ever existed, the fastest and most impressive boom in innovation humanity has ever seen and the most peaceful, interconnected world there has ever been. It is now as well-positioned as it can be to succeed in a different system. It took massive effort for the U.S. to create and maintain the globalized world we’ve known since 1945 – an effort that it no longer keeps up, and that no other state or bloc of states can take on. Perhaps the effort may need to be internal now. While this book’s message is not positive, it’s an honest one that many prefer to deny. As Zeihan puts it, “the good times are over.”
Zeihan begins with a brief historical overview culminating in the post-Second World War world order, which resulted in an unusually peaceful, stable and prosperous time that is now ending. The book looks at the upcoming changes to the major interconnected sectors of transport, finance, industrial materials, manufacturing and agriculture, speeded up by the circumstances of COVID-19. Each section gives a fast-forward of history, leading up to the extraordinary circumstances that made up the globalized age of the past several decades, which Zeihan refers to as The Order, and the book describes how that Order is currently splintering. The threads tying the globalized system together began with peace, a necessary prerequisite to our current global shipping and financial systems, which led to complex multinational supply chains, the rich world’s upside-down demographic structures, climate change and the scramble for materials to fuel the energy transition and manufacturing technology.
One of the most significant factors changing the global economy is the mass retirement of baby boomers around the Western world. The boomers have the most wealth and pay the most taxes, and there are not nearly enough people to replace them. This is tied to the previous seemingly endless supply of capital, which was required for a similarly endless supply of goods and services, which we’re already seeing disappear with disrupted supply chains, shortages and inflation.
Zeihan sees a world characterized by conflict, shortages of supplies and food leading to famine and stagnated economic growth, energy crises and demographic collapse. The impact will be uneven, of course, with some countries less affected than others. Zeihan particularly sees the United States as having unique advantages, including a larger replacement generation (Gen X) for the boomers, limited impact of climate change on agriculture, vast land with various geographies that allow it to produce most of its own needs internally, and interestingly, the degree of inequality that results in the wealthiest boomers maintaining their investments and other financial activities even in retirement. While the U.S. certainly has unique geography and demography, the country’s significant internal political problems were not factored into the analysis, and as Zeihan notes, the global outlook could radically shift at any time given the current political and economic climate around the world.
Canada gets few mentions in this book, although some of its geographic and natural resource strengths are highlighted. The fragmented new world order has implications for Canada: it needs to start taking action to ensure its own success. It can no longer passively support the global system but must actively leverage its strongest relationships to maintain allies and trade partners, most importantly stabilizing relations with its southern neighbour. With these relationships reinforced, it must also leverage its unique geography, capitalizing on its advantages in agriculture, food and rich supply of materials for the energy transition and manufacturing, and ensure that it can help supply a world that is struggling to produce these commodities.
This book was not, as Zeihan concludes, written as a call to action, or an attempt to analyze how countries should prepare for a bleak yet unpredictable future. It is rather an honest take on the world’s current situation. It is a must-read for the next generation set to lead in an uncertain future, so that they can begin to think about how these challenges may be managed as they take up the mantle of a new world order.
Abby MacDonald received her Master's in International Affairs from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, where she specialized in security and defence policy, in 2021. Before that, she earned her B.A. in International Relations from Western University in 2019. Her research interests include cybersecurity policy, the impact of technology on conflict, artificial intelligence, and conflict economics. Abby has worked as a research assistant studying national economic security and geoeconomics, and has worked in information security policy and information management.