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.


  1. My thoughts are as follows:

    1. With people everywhere becoming so used to a way of life that's fully dependent on fossil fuels and with the (economically accessible) fossil fuels running out, no party will dominate the scene anymore once the West exits the center stage, because no party CAN dominate the scene. The long railroads that make up the new Silk Road require fossil fuels to run and to maintain, don't they? Thus there can't and won't be a new center, at least not for a while yet; instead people everywhere are going to be desperately busy relearning the preindustrial life skills of their forefathers so they can put food on the table. We'll have lots of small, highly localised villages, not a new global or even regional order.

    2. If one of the main reasons for learning a language lies in the access to secular wealth and power provided by learning it -- including the material power provided by the applied sciences, which may happen to be taught mostly in this language -- then as the fossil fuels required to maintain the said wealth and power are depleted, the said reason to learn the language may likewise become invalid. Even the applied sciences require fossil fuels for their application, so learning them might likewise become pointless as the fuels run out.

    3. It's interesting to note that, whereas in ancient Greece and the Christian West man could never hope to reach the divine through his own efforts -- indeed he could never hope to reach the divine at all in ancient Greece -- in India and China man is (considered as being) in a sense already divine, it being merely a question of rediscovering this divinity.

    4. I'd be quite surprised if solar power could move something as massive as a train.

  2. The diesel and coal-powered "New Silk Road", hyping these days on 24/7, is not more than a decision to wipe out what remains of China's coal and the Middle East's Oil reserves, the quickest possible, leaving nothing in the ground - like no tomorrow.

    Why China cannot live without importing oil from the Middle East and Africa in lakes and seas everyday?

    Why China cannot live within its own means, by mainly selling to and buying from China to China - only trading with the rest of the world on the back of a caravan of camels, like it used to?

    When crude oil is no longer available for mass trades with America in the Titanic-style popular since the steam engine, trade over land-routes between China and Europe via ME is now promoted as the way of the future!

    From Jumbo 747s and A380s back to diesel-run locomotives and soon coal powered steam locomotives...

    When humans finally accept the laws of physics, live within their constraints and stop pretending they are bigger and more powerful than what they are?


  3. I see that group as not representing a shift of power to Central Asia, but rather a desperate group grasping at straws in an area of extreme desertification.

    1. Maybe. But also consider how much effort is necessary to put together a research team at the international level -- it takes decades of work. And it is remarkable how in Iran now they have a network of universities and research centers -- maybe not yet at the same level as their Western counterparts, but the gap closes fast!

    2. I hope you're right; the future will undoubtedly be local(or possibly regional)if all the Ugo Bardi I've read over the years is correct.

  4. Surprise!

    In a world-first, a train in northern NSW is running totally on solar power following the conversion and refurbishment of a derelict heritage train by the Byron Bay Railroad Company.

    With plenty of sunlight for its batteries to soak up, the company set about converting a 1940s’ railmotor with the aid of Southern Shorthaul Railroad’s Lithgow Railway Workshop.

    The Workshop custom-designed curved solar panels for the roof of the railmotor along with solar batteries designed to operate all systems – traction power, lighting, control circuits and air compressors. Director Tim Elderton said the technology adapted from electric buses was re-engineered to convert the railmotor.

    For prolonged lack of sunshine, there is a 30 kilowatt solar array on the station roof so the locomotive can be plugged in. A regenerative braking system also recovers around 25% of spent energy each time the brakes are used and the train has zero emissions.

    Built in 1949, the 600 class railmotor was innovatively constructed with aluminium like that for aircraft fuselage, making it lighter than the light rail of today. One of the two original diesel engines has been removed but a single Cummins 14 L NT855-R2 diesel engine, fitted in the 1970s (that reclassified the railmotor as a 660 set) remains. The engine was in use for 16 years during which time it was upgraded regularly. It is on board for weight and balance, and while it is a back-up it is not required for the train’s operation.

    Solar panels on the train and train storage shed over a twelve month period generate the equivalent amount of energy required to operate the train daily plus power 17.5 three person homes for a year.

    Commencing service on 16 December 2017 the 100 percent solar-powered train carried over 10,000 passengers in its first 19 days. One year later in January 2019, the train carried its 100,000th passenger.

    1. Very interesting. It is not really 100% solar powered, it is rather a hybrid. But in favorable insulation it CAN run 100% solar. It is a remarkably efficient vehicle, low cost, and truly sustainable. A great idea to be expanded.

  5. This idea is based than power will be around bulk goods. This just remain to be seen.

    Today, it seems more like the new world will be more based on ideas. Instead of the ancient world, where information was linked to physical travel (like letters, but mostly people wise people and/or erudites), now info travels with low cost. Maybe actual Internet of petabaytes per second is expensive and dependant of technology on risk, but not simple radio/wireless, local copper cable even basic digital communications (even we have make circuits using wood)

    With info communication, bulk production is only linked to scarce resources, where extraction/production outpaces transportation. Instead, most things would be based on precise using of common materials (biotech, engineering, etc.) so most info that raw production.

    If transportation raise its cost, its seems that instead of a material domination will be more about technology/idea domination.

    Well... Africa&Asia will dominate this probably too in the future, just because they have more people. China is showing this. Africa just remains to transition to developing&developed world where good education will be the norm, but when they reach the point, they will transition into a superpower. High probability.

    BUT, medium education level could reflect easily the status level of the future people, so probably Western world will remain as a reference for a time... of course if we don't go through a war or social massive unrest or failure by massive inmigration.

    On long term... who knows? Too many variables.

    So... although I agree with you that seems than in the future, land transportation will probably gain weight against sea transportantion, I don't see that this would be so important like in the past, because most of the power will be linked to knowledge, not material good.

    Western civilization will loose the crown of power too, but not for the same reasons.

  6. I hardly think those people represent a new geopolitical power-centre: Bangladesh?!!! A pretty desperate and hopeless set, not the future.

    The West is weakening, but environmental decay and resource depletion is universal now.

    All civilisations are built upon prosperous agriculture; even the ghastly Turks and Mongols had to have cultivators to exploit, and 'harvest' for slaves and soldiers, as they put it.

    The West will fail, everyone will fail: it is all too obvious.

    It means one need not waste much time in geopolitical speculation, which is a bright thought! Better to go for a walk with the dog, or go fishing.



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)