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A few summers ago, while lounging around the Munich Airport waiting for a flight to Reykjavik, I bought a book: “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World,” by Peter Frankopan. Frankopan is a senior fellow at Oxford University, and has written a convincing reassessment of world history. It is also a poignant and extraordinarily well-considered forecast of our possible future as a broader, Western culture.
It’s a good enough read that, while spending the weekend moving horse manure from one spot to another on one of the last American-made tractors, I kept coming back to Frankopan’s ultimate conclusion: that what we are witnessing today, in the realms of business and geo-politics and the obvious confusion and impotence of Western foreign policy, is a dramatic shift in the center of gravity, a return of power to the places it resided for thousands of years — the ancient kingdoms and cultures along the old Silk Roads.
From China to Ukraine, from Russia to Iran, from Uzbekistan to Kygyrzstan, a new center of power, anchored by the availability and abundance of natural resources, the home-grown ability and willingness to exploit them — and with a military parity with the global powers not seen since the collapse of the Ottomans — is poised to reassert itself.
I would argue that power is already reasserting itself, and has been since the Iranian revolution and the fall of the Shah.
I don’t know what this dramatic shift, which I believe is real — and which we can read in the tea-leaves of the world’s headlines every day — portends. I doubt it is good, at least for those of us who have grown accustomed to the ease and convenience of modern Western living.
Which is, if we are being honest, all of us.
We have grown accustomed to having most everything we want, when we want it, and we could afford that luxurious way of thinking because — for better or for worse — we controlled the resources and the energy, and backed that control with unparalleled military might.
Not so, anymore. In regions of the world that may well dominate the future, and how we live in that future, we have wildly, and repeatedly, misplayed our hand. We have misplayed it so badly, and so often — from Kiev to Beijing — we risk becoming entirely irrelevant as a respectable player, incapable of supporting our own interests, and held in perpetual contempt and disdain by entire regions of people who consider us liars and thieves.
Sadly, at this point, it doesn’t even matter if they’re right or if they’re wrong.
At home, we are engaged in endless bouts of moralizing about energy consumption, even as we arrive at the latest protest du jour in our SUVs and $300 puffy jackets, weighted down with laptops and cellphones. It’s no accident of irony that protestors of the Dakota Access Pipeline left behind 24,000 tons of trash, mountains of human waste, dogs, puppies, cars, and dozens upon dozens of propane tanks. Law enforcement officers were even monitoring the garbage collection on the chance there might be dead humans hidden in the refuse. That’s not an unplanned misfortune, excusable because the motives were sound: it’s exactly who we have become, a kind of cultural split-personality, duplicitous to the point of absurdity.
Consider this: the proven crude reserves under the Caspian Sea are twice those of the entire United States. The Karachaganak reserve between Kazakhstan and Russia contains an estimated 42 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, liquefied gas, and crude oil. The Donbas basin in eastern Ukraine has 10 billion tons of extractable coal deposits, as well as 1.4 billion barrels of oil, 2.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and the earth itself in southern Ukraine is so rich they dig it up and sell it to the tune of a billion a year. The Uzbek and Kyrgyz mines of the Tian Shan belt are second only to the Witwatersrand basin in gold deposits. In Kazakhstan are beryllium, dysprosium, and other rare earth metals vital for the manufacture of mobile phones, laptops, and rechargeable batteries — not to mention uranium and plutonium for nuclear warheads.
There isn’t a well-meaning environmental protest in the world that is going to stop those countries from exploiting their resources, growing tremendously wealthy from the pursuit, and wielding the fruits as both hard and soft power in the Great Game. And, disturbingly, they aren’t likely to have even the remotest hint of democratic institutions in place to restrain their considerable ambitions.
Like it or not, the real history of the world has always been, and always will be, about resources.
Last year, in my favorite outback bar in Nevada, I saw a sign hanging over the ranks of bourbon and rye on a dusty shelf. The sign read: “If it doesn’t grow, it has to be mined.” The sign was printed as a kind of sad protest, and pasted up by a disgruntled someone who was about to lose his job at the gypsum mine.
It didn’t matter that the statement happens to be true, because truth in the 21st century has become increasingly obscure and elusive. And it didn’t help either, because the more pressing and indisputable fact remained that he was losing his livelihood to someone on the other side of the world, to some other miner, in the heart of the New Silk Roads.
talking about history and resources, when I went to buy a pack saddle for my b.l.m. burro in the 1990’s, the saddlemaker in phoenix was making high tech pack saddles, under contract with dept of defense, to ship to Afghanistan who were still employing mules for combat! how about a good mule for a resource?!
Craig Rullman says
The Marine Corps spun up a packing school at the Mountain Warfare School in Bridgeport a few years ago. Ran a lot of guys through it.
Bill Valenti says
I agree with you regarding shifting power centers, (our turn at the wheel having been only a few minutes in the grand arc of history), but I think the winners will be those who cross the tipping point on renewable energy — wind, solar, tidal, geothermal — and not those who continue the dirty exploitation of dirty fossil fuels. And, yes, all those folks in the emerging economies along the Silk Road will all want iPhones and iPads, but the resources needed to make these are only a fraction of the resources needed to manufacture a 1980’s PC with a 20-pound CRT. And data storage is about to descend to the molecular level, vastly more energy-efficient and lightning fast.
And I predict that the richest person in the world will be the one who discovers a solution to instantly fry the call centers that generate all the junk calls.(:-)
Craig Rullman says
We’ve had a hard time getting JDAMs dropped on known Taliban strongholds. I think the call centers are strong pointed to the edge of indestructibility. 🙂
Bill Valenti says
So, THAT’s where they are! Nuke ‘em, I say!
Paul McNamee says
Ironic you posted this yesterday. I was in a waiting room yesterday afternoon. The television was showing the Senate trial live on MSNBC. The Trumpers were squirming. One older man stated something along the lines of “most people couldn’t point out Ukraine on a map”–the implication being Ukraine is some podunk country, so who cares? Aside from what the issue was in regards to the trial, my first thought was, “If you think Ukraine is unimportant, you have no idea what is going on in the world.”
But, you know, “America #1”, head-in-sand-syndrome, bread-&-circuses, a move towards isolationism while still believing we’re the bread-&-butter of the world is in full effect right now. It’s hardly a surprising attitude. But it’s an attitude that is directly contributing to our slide off the world stage.
Craig Rullman says
I have mercifully skipped the impeachment theater in its entirety. I don’t care who wins or who loses. I think both parties are full of duplicitous assholes and as far as I can tell this is just another episode of some reality dating show.
And I increasingly believe many of these “national issues” are intractable simply because the country is too big to be governed. One pair of pants won’t fit everybody and yet they keep trying.
I’m mostly interested in the party that doesn’t want to take anything from me — my money, my guns, my freedom to make decisions, freedom to move about, etc…I fear those kinds of freedoms, the real freedoms, are sliding into the bin of history…
Frankie Sharpe says
Exactly Craig! Here in Virginia it seems like they want to take everything. Just leave me alone!
Jim Cornelius says
Or, as Neville Chamberlain might say, “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.”
In fact, he did say that.
lane batot says
Our connection with long past history is always fascinating and relevant–even if so many people nowadays do not(and don’t want to) see the connection. I got a cheap copy of that mini-series documentary “Mankind; The Story Of All Of Us”, that makes an attempt to lay out ALL of our history as a species, which resonates perfectly with this post’s subject(just finished seeing the segment on the Silk Road, in fact!). But here’s another intriguing thought(if somewhat ego-flattening for our species)–If Nature is all about recycling energy in one form or another–according to a very cynical atheist professor I once had–perhaps human evolution and all our high technology was only developed to reach and use up all those fossil fuels that were otherwise out of the energy system–and once that is done, we will go extinct, our purpose to Nature and energy usage complete. Well, it is an interesting and humbling philosophy to ponder, anyway.…..