What if Peter Zeihan is Right?

Predicting the end of the world is a popular pastime indulged in by generations. My mother used to call this the ‘ain’t it awful’ game. People like to predict the end and those that see good things coming are often referred to as ‘Pollyanna.’ The term itself comes form a 1913 novel about a girl who tried to find something good to report every day.

I became aware of those who predicted doom by way of Mark Steyn, then and now one of my favorite writers. What I noticed, however, was that Steyn and other trenchant writers in publications like the Wall Street Journal could, in fact, see things coming, most often bad things, and file a report. The WSJ editorial page and Steyn’s many musings are often postcards from the future.

Can I now add Peter Zeihan to the list of observers who have pointed out circumstances that are playing out across the world that are dire, to say the least? He certainly wants to be on the list. His 2022 book is titled The End of the World Is Just the Beginning which includes this quote: “The world of the past few decades has been the best it will ever be in our lifetime. Instead of cheap and better and faster, we’re rapidly transitioning into a world that’s pricier and worse and slower.”

I’ve been listening to Ziehan’s YouTube posts and podcast guest slots for days now, and have heard him articulate his positions several times, and they are convincing, if he has his facts right. The driving factors he names as definers of the future are demographic decline and the decision by the United States to withdraw our military forces as the guarantors of globalization.

In his telling, the path to demographic decline is rooted in industrialization. A country that is mostly agricultural and rural will have most of its citizens living in the country and engaged in hard work where there is both the space and the need for additional children. When that society industrializes, most people stop this kind of work and move to cities where kids are an inconvenience, expensive, and mostly, by his telling, unneeded. If this process happens too quickly, the adjustment never comes, and the birth rate falls below the well-defined and accepted 2.1 percent replacement rate. The average age of a nation begins to climb, and eventually, the average age passes the point where women can give birth. The birthing window is relatively narrow and runs from puberty until about age 35. If the average age of all the women in a country is 46, which it is in many nations, there is no way back. Such countries must allow in immigrants and hope they have the kids the natives didn’t have, or their population begins to fall, and they leave the world’s stage and live on only in the history books.

According the Zeihan, many countries of the world are at the demographic point of no return and will go into decline. He is adamant that China is there now and will cease to be a coherent political entity soon, as in less than 10 years. Mark Steyn has been saying the same thing for years, but Zeihan goes further; he says the time is now, that we’ve known this for decades, and that for many nations, the high-water mark of their power, innovation, growth, and power, is right now or has already passed.

Why? Because as more people move out of the 20 to 50-year-old age bracket, they stop consuming, and move into retirement where they consume whatever savings they have. If fewer kids come along behind them as the ‘replacement generation’ year after year, relentlessly, and then the average age goes up and then a lot of things can happen. But no one knows exactly what because we’ve not been here before. As Zeihan points out, there are no economic models for a world of this kind. Our post WW2 economic models were built for the baby boom world, and that window closed 60 years ago. Birth rates have fallen for decades, and now, the world has run out of babies as well as young adults. For many nations, including China, the retirement generations will grow until they are all gone, and only the remnant sibling-free kids will carry on, until such time as they are gone or a new turn of the cultural wheel comes along.

Zeihan’s other contention is that the United States has been growing more and more ‘populist’ as he calls it, and we’re pulling our Navy back. It was freedom of navigation on the high seas that allowed for long and distributed supply chains, and anyone, even countries that had few natural resources, could find something useful to do and start trading goods over the oceans. That day is over, he says, and the consequence will be a world of trade much like it was organized before 1945, where there were powerful producer countries, their colonies, and the very poor.

Zeihan emphasizes that these trends have been coming for a long time, and that they aren’t difficult to see or understand, and he’s certainly right about that. As Mark Steyn has written for over a decade, demographic decline was a rarely reported story and soon enough, it will be the only story. Zeihan credits Covid and the Russian invasion of Ukraine as accelerants on the trends that were already there. Covid took out many elderlies and revealed the weakness of the global supply chains. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has bifurcated a trading world that was already fragmented and getting worse. And now, the United States has decided across both political parties that China will not be our manufacturing workshop and Russia is back to being the enemy.

For the United States, Zeihan has a far rosier picture. Our geographic situation, something bequeathed to us by our wise and shrewd forebears, is a wonderful fortress with two giant moats on both sides, mostly peaceful neighbors above and below, and a wonderful resource rich and navigable space between. The US also has a tradition of being able to absorb immigrants and refresh the workforce and culture. In short, there is a manufacturing boom coming to the Americas as the Old World and Northeast Asia goes into terminal decline.

Is Zeihan just playing the ‘ain’t it awful’ game to shill his books? I don’t know. But his analysis makes a lot of sense, and the demographic facts are confirmed from multiple sources. The world is about to enter a phase such that hasn’t been seen since the Black Death of 1346 that ran for less than a decade. In that short period, populations in Europe contracted by a third and economies were remade. If Zeihan is correct, we’re entered a period of contraction that is far more comprehensive than the Black Death, and society will be remade.

His demographic comments are confirmed here and may other places:

World Data Average Age

World Population Review

Zeihan on Geopolitics