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The Last Industrial Civilization

By Peter Goodchild

22 January, 2011

Both the US and China seem good candidates for the Last Stand of industrialized humanity, but the two countries have almost opposite problems. It’s a case of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, of whether it is better to suffer from one syndrome or another.

In its favor, the USA has a relatively good ratio of population to arable land: 170 people per km2 (CIA, 2010). On the negative side, it has huge private and public debts, although in the post-oil world defaulting will be an easy matter, until eventually money ceases to be a meaningful entity and there will therefore be no debts. It has an enormous military budget (about $1 trillion annually) spent on enterprises of dubious benefit, an inefficient and dishonest government, and a wasteful bureaucracy. It also has no manufacturing base, although a nation of “service industries” is eventually a nation of paupers.

In some ways, China seems better off. It is a creditor nation, not a debtor. It has an efficient if undemocratic government and an excellent manufacturing base. Perhaps most importantly, it has both the money and the determination to seek control of the world’s remaining oil supplies. On the other hand, China has a severe shortage of water and food. It has a disastrous ratio of population to arable land: 927 people per km2, twice that of the world average (CIA, 2010), which is already bad enough. The water table is falling rapidly, and the topsoil is saline from over-irrigation. Four-fifths of China’s grain harvest depends on irrigation, and the fossil aquifer of the North China Plain maintains half of China’s wheat production and a third of its corn, although a fossil aquifer cannot be rejuvenated when its level is allowed to fall. As a result of the depletion of water, Chinese annual grain production has been in decline since 1998 (Brown, 2008; UN Environment Program, 2007).

China also has a serious problem with domestic supplies of fuel. With about 20 percent of the world’s population, it produces only about 5 percent of the world’s oil (BP, 2010, June). It uses up coal so quickly that its reserves will not last beyond 2030 (Heinberg, 2009; 2010, May). Relying so much on coal, the pollution problems are horrendous.

China has always been a land of famine. The worst famine in history was during China’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), when 30 million died, with lost births of perhaps 33 million. Of course, a bad track record does not in itself prove that China will be unable to create an industrial renaissance, but the fact remains that its fundamental problem of overpopulation has never been solved, even with a tyrannical approach to birth control. Since 1953, the year of the first proper Chinese census and approximately the start of concerns with excessive fertility, the population has gone from 583 million to over 1.3 billion. For that matter, since the official starting of the one-child campaign in 1979 the population has grown by over 300 million (Riley, 2004, June).

The question of whether China can create a “renaissance” or a “new Chinese Empire” is partly a matter of definitions, or rather hairsplitting. An analogy would be the latter days of the Roman Empire: Did the Roman Empire survive until 410, when the city was sacked by the Goths, or did it end much later, in 1453, when Constantinople was sacked by the Turks? It comes down to the rather trivial question of what one means by “survive.” As in the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” one must ask whether losing two arms and two legs constitutes a mere flesh wound. Even if a new Chinese Empire could arise, to what extent would it be able to exploit the rest of the world when everything must be transported to Beijing in wooden carts?

The last industrial civilization will be a bizarre, crowded, dirty, impoverished world, with most of its population squeezed into cinder-block apartment buildings, black smoke curling up from the chimneys in winter. Perhaps at the moment there is no indisputable evidence for the winner, but my intuition tells me I’d do better holing up in Montana than in Beijing.


BP. Global statistical review of world energy. (2010, June). Retrieved from http://www.bp.com/statisticalreview

Brown, L. (2006, June 15). Grain harvest. Earth Policy Indicators. Retrieved from Earth Policy Institute website: http://www.earth-policy.org/index.php?/indicators/C54/

------. (2008). Plan B: Mobilizing to save civilization. New York: Norton & Co.

CIA. World factbook. (2010). US Government Printing Office. Retrieved from http://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook

Heinberg, R. (2009). Blackout. Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society.

------. (2010, May). China's coal bubble . . . and how it will deflate U.S. efforts to develop “clean coal.” MuseLetter #216. Retrieved from http://richardheinberg.com/216-chinas-coal-bubble-and-how-it-will-deflate-u-s-efforts-to-develop-clean-coal

Riley, N. E. (2004, June). China’s population: New trends and challenges. Population Reference Bureau. Population Bulletin, 59 (2).

UN Environment Program. (2007). Global environment outlook 4. Retrieved from http://www.unep.org/geo/geo4/report/GEO-4_Report_Full_en.pdf

Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. His email address is odonatus {at} live.com



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