ISBN 978-1846688935. “The New North – the world in 2050” was published by Profile Books in 2012 (hardback published in 2010) and written by Laurence Smith. The paperback is 322 pages long consisting of Prologue, ten chapters in three parts, maps, photos, tables, Notes, Credits, Acknowledgments and Index. Smith is a professor of geography and earth & space sciences at UCLA. This is his first book but his UCLA colleagues (including Jared Diamond) clearly are impressed. As will you. His writing style is easy-going. He makes his travels around frozen wilderness seem exciting and tosses in the odd anecdote – including how he met his wife.
Although an easy read it is also not highly memorable. It just isn’t as exciting as all that. His colourful anecdotes don’t quite warm up his largely unoriginal conclusions: global warming will heat up the Arctic, ice will melt, oil companies will invade and plunder, lots of people will get rich, it will change trade in the North, etc, etc. There isn’t much that will surprise you if you have been paying attention to world events in the last ten years. Smith has simply filled in the details in glorious technicolour. At the end of each chapter Smith will give you his views of 2050 (he calls it “Imagining 2050”) but it seems the world in 40 years time is much like the world of today. Sci fi and fantasy fans will be disappointed. There is no speculative fiction here. The story is told pretty straight.
So, how does he imagine 2050? In fact it looks much like the “business as usual” scenario followed by Jorgen Randers in his book “2052“. It lacks the sense of impending doom but it has the same elements: depletion of mineral resources, rising sea levels, moving populations, people moving to the city in ever larger numbers, the rise & rise of the new economic superpowers in Brazil, Russia, India, China, and so on. (Smith has taken the generally accepted path in predicting global human population at around 9 billion whereas Randers expected a decline.)
“Many places are water stressed, uninsurable, or battling the sea. Some have abandoned irrigated farming altogether; their cities rely totally on global trade flow of energy and virtual water to event exist”
So no peak oil or climate change driven collapse. Indeed Smith is at pains in his “imagining” to point out that there will be no “silver bullets”, ie, no sudden solutions to energy problems and no likelihood of extreme events such as World War III. He does push the boat out a little in the final chapter to talk through some of these extreme events but they are not part of his main dialogue. Smith lays down the “Four Global Forces” that will shape the New North of 2050 (note they are not presented as the four horsemen of the apocalypse). These will be population, pressure on natural resources, globalisation and climate change.
So, what is Smith’s conclusion in all this? Well he generally expects the North to become a new hub of economic activity. It will be peaceful and generate vast wealth for anyone wishing to relocate there and for the indigenous peoples who already do. It is the last wild frontier:
“…a better envisioning of the New North today might be something like the America in 1803, just after the Lousiana Purchase from France. It, too, possessed major cities fueled by foreign immigration, with a vast, inhospitable frontier distant from the major urban cores. Its deserts, like Arctic tundra, were harsh, dangerous, and ecologically fragile. It, too, had rich resources endowments of metals and hydrocarbons. It, too, was not really an empty frontier but already occupied by aboriginal peoples who had been living there for a millenia.”
Probably the only bizarre outcome seriously entertained by Smith is the idea that Russia could cede its Far East to China. It no longer fits the westward-looking European style of the new Russia and would benefit from being swallowed by Asia. Then it can look towards the wealth of the East. Smith goes on to imagine:
“…the high Arctic – a landscape nearly empty but with fast-growing towns fueled by a narrow range of industries. Its prime socioeconomic role in the twenty-first century will be not homestead haven but economic engine, shoveling gas, oil, minerals and fish into the gaping global maw.”
The new wealth will empower many aboriginal groups which could, in turn, inspire other such groups around the world to seize their own destiny. In the end it all seems like a happy ending. This ain’t no “Age of Stupid” vision of 2050. Of course it will be happy, for some. Happy until it all ends. And it could end disastrously. What Smith doesn’t ask is ‘what about 2100’? What then?
All that Smith asks of the reader is this: “What kind of world do we want?” We have a choice. But we will have to choose.