Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, October 21, 2019

The West Fades. The Center Quietly Returns: The New Silk Road

An image from the workshop on desalination and mineral extraction from seawater organized by Sharif University in Teheran this week. In the photo, you can see people from Oman (3), Iran (3), South Africa (1), India (1), and Bangladesh (1). It was not only a multi-ethnical group but also a Eurasia-centered one. It gave me some impression of the shifting balance of power in the world, from the West to the Center, and inspired this post. 

If you think about that, it is funny that we tend to define ourselves as "Westerners." Most civilizations and cultures in history have tended to see themselves as the center of the world, just think of China: it is supposed to be "the Middle Kingdom". This idea that we are on an edge is something that we've probably inherited from the ancient Greeks, when everything west of them was seen as a land of mystery, peopled with savages, monsters, and Gods. 

But the fact that we call ourselves Westerners doesn't mean we think we are a periphery of the world, not at all. Most Westerners seem to cherish the idea that we are the real center, the most advanced, enlightened, and powerful area of the world. The rest of is, well, it is mostly inhabited by turban-wearing barbarians, savage tribes, or, at best, ancient and decadent empires on their way to dissolution. These Non-Westerners need our guidance if they have to attain the nirvana as defined here: democracy and economic liberism.

But the world is vast and things change. Empires are born, reach their pinnacle of greatness and then collapse while still claiming that they will last forever. That may be the destiny of that great world empire, the "Western Empire," that started with the British and continues with the Americans. The center of the world may well be returning to what it used to be up to a few centuries ago, gravitating around that "geographical center" sometimes said to be in Egypt, sometimes in Turkey, sometimes in Syria. It doesn't matter where it is exactly: it is at the heart of the gigantic landmass of Eurasia, somewhere in the region we call the "Middle East."

Chess players know how important it is to dominate the center if they want to dominate the game. Not for nothing, indeed, the game of Chess was developed not far from the center of the world: somewhere in Persia. But to dominate the center, you need to be able to move in and out of it and in the real world that takes roads. In ancient times, the center of Eurasia was crossed by the Silk Road: a long and winding road that went through mountains and deserts, including also coastal sea lanes. It was the realm of commercial caravans with their camels slowly marching from one edge to the other of a Eurasian supercontinent and to Africa as well, carrying gold, silver, ivory, spices, silk, and much more.

The Silk Road lost importance and then disappeared with the arrival of the Westerners who monopolized commerce with their ships and power with their armies. The concept of national borders had never existed before but it was the death toll for the old caravans, now confined within states. Commerce was taken over by Westerners with their container ships, crossing the oceans in a gigantic network that created the empire we call sometimes "Globalization." Not just a commercial empire but a military one as well, dominated by the mighty armies of the West.

Empires are run by a combination of commerce and military power and it is the balance of costs and profits that keeps them together. The old Silk Road never turned into a continental empire because it was just too expensive to move armies along it on long distances. But the agile camel caravans provided the link that was needed for the road to remain open: a low-cost system that didn't need a military governance system and couldn't afford it anyway, Instead, the modern sea lanes of the current World Empire are kept together and controlled by the mighty carrier strike groups of the American Navy: nothing and nobody would even dream of challenging their power, so far. But the carrier group is a behemot that needs to be fed, and for how long will that be possible?

Things keep changing, as they have always been doing. The old Silk Road is being revamped with the name of the "Belt and Road" initiative. It is the revenge of the land over the sea: the lanes of the new silk road are nearly invulnerable to the naval power of the Westerners if nothing else just for the sheer vastity of the territory it connects. Think about that: the population of Eurasia and Africa, together, make almost 6 billion people. The rest of the world is a periphery. 

So, the Western domination may be fading and much of what we are reading in the news nowadays is a reflection of this decline. With the depletion of the resources that created the Western Empire, first coal, then oil, the center is returning where it used to be and the great road that links Eastern and Western Eurasia is going to be again the pulsating artery of the world. Maybe Eurasia will be crisscrossed by fast trains powered by solar energy, or maybe the old camels will return: solid, resilient, unstoppable.

And the Westerners? They will return to their ancient role of seafaring pirates: coming and going like storms, leaving little trace. Curiously, though, they'll be leaving a reverberation of their presence with the English language, initially carried into Eurasia by the American Legions, now the tool of choice by Eurasians to understand each other.

Perhaps English is the true reason for the use of the term "The West" since it did originate on the extreme Western edge of Eurasia. But that's just a quirk of history: once, at least four languages were spoken along the old silk road: Mongolian, Persian, Arabic, and Turkish, while Chinese and Greek were spoken at the two ends. English as the dominant language may make things simpler and continue being used during the 21st century, and even farther in the future. Or we may switch to some other language: perhaps "googlish" or some other pidgin language. Who knows? As always, life is a journey, not a destination.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)