Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – A daily column is inevitably personal, even if the focus is, as with Informed Comment, on current events. Today I’m going to reflect, not so much on my turning 70 as on the world I confront through these old eyes, and how my experiences help me cope with it and think of eufunctional ways forward into the future.
As I survey the world with seven decades behind me, I see challenges and opportunities. The biggest challenge, far more daunting than wars or politics, is the climate emergency. It is going to be hard on the people living near ocean coasts. A lot of people are going to have to move house, to higher elevations. Some of the moving could be avoided by building in a wiser and more resilient way. People who lived along the Nile in Egypt before the Aswan Dam was built starting in the late 1950s used to put their houses up on stilts. The river used to have an inundation every August-September, and people just let the waters rise under them. We may need a modern form of that architecture in some areas. The OECD notes, “Helsinki, Finland, initiated changes to design standards addressing coastal flooding and SLR in the late 1980s, which resulted in the decision to raise floor levels in the inner-city suburb of Ruoholahti from 1 metre to 3 metres above mean sea level.”
The analogy I just made to pre-Aswan Dam Egypt came to mind because of my discussions, decades ago, with older Egyptians when I was living in Cairo. I was there in 1976-78, 1985-86, summer 1988, and summers of 2011, 2012 and 2013, and February of 2014. Egypt has been a big part of my life. It is a place where people have over the centuries given a lot of thought to how to live with frequent inundations. By the way, the elderly Egyptians strictly forbade me to call the annual rise of the Nile a “flood,” which they thought of as something unexpected. We need to learn from them.
Of course, we will also probably have to designate some areas as out of bounds for human habitation because of the threat of frequent storm surges and flooding.
The positive side of this balance sheet is that the climate emergency is making us turn to renewable energy, which is on the road to becoming cheaper and cheaper. The average household in the US last year spent roughly $2500 on fossil gas heating and electricity and $1,572 on gasoline, That is $4,000 a year. For those Americans, and there are way too many of them, who make $25,000 a year, we could very substantially improve their standard of living if electricity and heating and transportation cost a fraction of what they do today. And that world is rushing at us like an oncoming express train. Some futurists see $6000 electric cars in the near future and $0.0 solar energy. With solar panels on my roof, last May my electricity bill was -$5.00. Yes, that’s a minus sign.
Those who worry about the cost of raw materials, as with lithium for lithium-ion batteries, are in my view not thinking far enough ahead. For all we know in ten years the battery standard will be nickel-iron and lithium will be on the decline. Silicon is also replaceable, with promising experiments being done with perovskites, a plentiful and inexpensive mineral. The pace of scientific and technological discovery in the fields of batteries and renewable energy is breathtaking, and should make prognosticators cautious about categorical predictions.
I am talking about the end of fossil fuels, which are expensive and wreck the planet with greenhouse gas emissions when they are burned.
I first visited an oil state, Iran, in 1976. I was with Iranian and Palestinian friends, and after riding in from Istanbul on the Orient Express, we backpacked all over the country. Iran had nice, modern buses with air conditioning and (somehow) free Pepsi for the passengers.
It was the height of the age of oil. From 1970 to 1980, the price of petroleum quadrupled. When I got my driver’s license in 1968, I filled up my Mazda for $0.25 a gallon. By 1980 the price was over a dollar. In the late 1970s there were occasionally gasoline shortages, where you had to sit in line for hours to fill up the tank. Jimmy Carter is a great man, but the Boomers will never forgive him for presiding over that inconvenience.
The price spike had many causes, among them the decline of US production and growing demand by industrializing countries such as Turkey, which was badly hurt by the price rise. The cartel effect of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries was probably only a small part of the run-up. Political instability also made investors nervous and put up the price. Two years after my visit to Iran, and despite the influx of billions of dollars a year into the country from oil, a revolution broke out that ended in the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran in February 1979. The IRI’s slogan was “neither east nor west.” But its independence of both the US-led capitalist world system and of the USSR-led socialist world system was made possible by Tehran’s petroleum riches. As I steeped myself in modern Middle Eastern history I had to learn something about energy markets, because they were so consequential for both Middle Eastern domestic politics and for US and European interests in the region.
Another big challenge I see is demographic, of which I am put in mind by my own birthday. Over the next century the world will rapidly gray. We geezers will form a larger and larger proportion of the population. You can see it in real time in Japan, the population of which was 128 million or so in 2011. It is now 125 million and change, and heading for 97 million by 2050. Since a lot of the shrinkage is owing to annual births below the rate of replacement, there are fewer youth per elderly all the time.
Countries will have a choice between accepting the idea of a geriatric society or opening up to immigration. The global south itself will stop growing demographically by mid-century, but for the rest of this century there will be young ambitious people there willing to go to work in the declining old industrial centers. The Japanese public, like the British, is resisting the idea of bringing in lots of immigrants. The US has managed to remain a superpower in part because of its 1965 Immigration act, which allowed us to avoid shrinking the way Japan is. Irrational, xenophobic and fascist forces in the US are at work however, to stop immigration in the name of keeping the country “white” (a meaningless concept). If these forces of unreason prevail, they could well tip the US into a downward spiral.
Because the global south is disproportionately Muslim, not only will the gray northerners be bringing in young people from abroad, but they will often be bringing in Muslims. That is a pull factor, of jobs in the North Atlantic. Ironically, both the climate emergency and the energy switch, which the Germans call the Energiwende, will form push factors. The Middle East is heating up twice as fast as the world average, and faces droughts and deadly heat waves and desiccation that will deprive many young people of their livelihoods. As the G20 electrify transportation, heating and air conditioning, petroleum and fossil gas, the mainstays of many Middle Eastern economies, will become worthless. So expect a Muslim wave of new neighbors over the next century, the alternative to which is for major countries to become Lichtensteins.
The self-absorption of the North Atlantic world has left it ill-prepared to deal with a multi-cultural society, and ignorance of Islam, despite 1400 years of close coexistence, is profound. That ignorance was at the root of some of the U.S. failure in Iraq, an imperial misadventure that I spent twelve of the 70 years attempting to understand and explain.
Indeed, about 50 my 70 years have been devoted to explaining Christians and Muslims to one another. That was one of the points of my recent biography of the Prophet Muhammad, about whom I began reading in 1972 when I was 20. But note that it has been translated with alacrity into Persian in Iran, Arabic in Beirut and Algiers, Bahasa Indonesian in Jakarta, and Bosnian in Sarajevo. An Albanian edition is being prepared in Tirana. But my agent was unable to get a nibble among French, Spanish, German and other European publishers, even though they had translated other books by my pen It is obviously not a book that Muslims find offensive, despite being an academic work that does not replicate traditionalist themes. This resistance to knowing about the Other bodes ill for our welfare, since the path to economic and political success for most of the G7 over the coming decades will lie in multiculturalism and immigration.
In the end, the seven decades seem to me to have been, despite missteps and all too human errors, full of worthwhile experiments with reality and investigations of world history, and engagement with the crises of the moment. I am satisfied that it has been worthwhile, and I hope that it has helped. And if I am blessed to live as long as my own father, which if it happens will largely be owing to the efforts of my lovely wife, Shahin, I can promise no resting on laurels. As jazz legend Al Jolson inspired people to say, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.