The New North

Book Review / by Fred Pearce /

Human demand on natural resources, globalization, and climate change will dramatically transform the planet in coming decades—mostly for the worse. But global change will have its upsides too. A remarkable new book forecasts an emergent economic powerhouse on the polar frontier.

Credit: Penguin, U.S.A.

The World in 2050 is the best new geography book of the year.  If that sounds underwhelming, it shouldn’t.  Geography is the new hot discipline.  A new generation of geographers is integrating the myriad concerns of the world, whether economic or political, social or environmental. 

They are making sense of the globalisation of economics and environmental concerns in a way potentially as important as the cartographers of the middle ages.  They are charting our limits and firing our imaginations.  In this “thought experiment” into what kind of a world we may face just 40 years hence, Larry Smith shows the power of geography superbly with some literary ability. 

To set the scene, he offers four global forces that will shape the coming decades.  The first is escalating human demand on diminishing global resources, from water to oil to food.  Smith skilfully sums up the global revolution created by the widespread use of fossil fuels in a sentence.  “Packed inside a single barrel of oil is about the same amount of energy as would be produced from eight years of labour by an average-sized man.”

And he poses a central ethical dilemma with similar pithiness, asking: “What if you could play God and do the noble, ethically fair thing by converting the entire developing world’s level of material consumption to that now carried out by North Americans.  By merely snapping your fingers you could eliminate this misery.  Would you?”  He adds:  “I sure hope not.” 

Then there is demography.  He looks forward to the completion of the “demographic transition” and the end of population growth, but wonders how close a stable population may be.  I think he is too pessimistic here.  Fast falling fertility is now a near-global phenomenon that is, to a remarkable extent, independent of social, cultural, economic and even religious factors.  It is extremely likely that we will see peak population by 2050, and thereafter maybe decline.  But we can certainly agree that demography is no longer humanity’s main demon.  Lifestyle, he says, “is an even more potent multiplier of human pressure on the world resource base than is total population itself.” 

Smith’s third global force is globalization itself.  Here he shows himself a skilful analyst of economic history, seeing the origins of this “megatrend” in the aftermath of the second world war, while noting that its antecedents go back to the late 19th century, when for a while trade was almost as today.

Add in his fourth force, climate change, and the outlook seems bleak.  But Smith is no knee-jerk doom-monger.  He points out that there is always a fifth force at work – innovation and advancing technology.  From medical advances to smart grids, nanotech to geo-engineering, technology may have got us into this hole.  But maybe it can get us out, too.

While this book is partly about such global forces, it has a more specifically geographical remit:  the Arctic and the far north.  These regions have been the focus of much of Smith’s academic research.  He has important work to his name on how Arctic ecosystems will be transformed by climate change and how this may feed back to impact the rest of the world – for instance through methane bubbling out of the melting permafrost and adding to global warming.  Now he posits that the far north will become the cockpit of wider global change. 

This is important.  We have for decades focused our global angst around the teeming tropics.  We fear that economic development there is wrecking the rainforests and releasing their carbon into the air.  And we worry that the poor billions in the hottest region of the planet will suffer most from global warming.  But Smith’s “thought experiment” switches to events in the high latitudes of the north. 

His argument is that there will be winners as well as losers from climate change and the other forces shaping our future.  The Arctic rim will be transformed by climate change into a new economic powerhouse.  As the ice recedes, ecosystems extend and minerals and fossil fuels are discovered and exploited, the Arctic will become a place of “great human activity, strategic value and economic importance.”  The eight nations of the Arctic rim – the US, Canada, Russia, Greenland, Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Norway– will become increasingly prosperous and powerful, he says.

Smith does not just crunch numbers and peer into his crystal ball, however. He has been traveling across the Arctic, bringing stories of how his global forces are playing out on this new front line.  While he was writing, Russia placed a flag on the sea bed at the north pole, in anticipation of tapping the mineral and hydrocarbon reserves beneath the ice.  Meanwhile, Pentagon types have been predicting future wars over Arctic resources. 

Smith finds miners moving north.  He discovers that western Siberia, rather than Saudi Arabia, is now the world’s leading producer of oil and natural gas.  And he remembers that the Arctic tundra has as much water flowing through it as the tropical rainforests.  For many years, the Soviet Union planned on tapping Siberian rivers to refill the shrinking Aral Sea in central Asia and to sustain its vast cotton plantations.  California once craved the waters of the Canadian north.  In a water-scarce world, such madcap megaprojects may seem increasingly vital.

Meanwhile other actors are taking an interest in the far north.  Russian Siberia remains all but empty of Russians.  But Chinese entrepreneurs are moving in and taking over timber harvesting in the Siberian taiga.  How long before their work camps become permanent settlements? 

Does Beijing have designs on the Arctic?  Or maybe the small bands of indigenous people native to the Arctic will themselves rise up.  In Tromso, on the Arctic shore of Norway, Smith meets leaders of the Norwegian Sami parliament.  They complained that their traditional knowledge and languages are dying out, but are also launching a new rallying cry.  “We need to have a say in how our natural resources are exploited,” says one.

In future, Smith suggests, the Arctic could cease to be a vessel for other peoples’ ambitions and develop a political dynamic and economic clout of its own.  Sarah Palin may so far be the Arctic Rim’s most visible political export.  She will not be the last.
Smith is a major new writer on the new geography of the 21st century.  He is as fluent and insightful in discussing political power, cultural nuance, and ethical dilemmas as he is in analysing climate models and economic forecasts.  His study of the “new north” is valuable and timely.  Move over, Jared Diamond.


Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He is environment consultant for New Scientist magazine and author of numerous books, including The Coming Population Crash and Our Planet’s Surprising Future, Earth Then and Now: Potent Visual Evidence of Our Changing World, and The Climate Files: The Battle for the Truth About Global Warming.

Originally published October 22, 2010

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