Last year, the horse American Pharaoh became the first since 1978 to achieve the Triple Crown, winning in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes. Having a single political party win all three branches in Washington, however — controlling the White House and Congress while having nominated a majority of Supreme Court justices — is even rarer. The Democrats last achieved it in 1969, while the Republicans managed it for four and a half years under George W. Bush but before then had not done it since 1931.
With the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia earlier this year, though, both parties now have a shot at the political Triple Crown in the upcoming election: the Democrats if they can somehow retake Congress, the Republicans if they can somehow retake the White House. Both Clinton and Trump, then, have a chance at making history this year. One of them could soon become a political stud, while the other (hopefully Trump) could be sent off to the glue-factory.
Democrats and Republicans
The last time the Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress — but not the Supreme Court — was during a two-year span from 2009 until 2011, at the start of Obama’s first term. Before then, the Democrats had not controlled both branches of government at the same time since 1992-1994, before that not since 1976-1980. They did not manage to control Congress at all between 1995 and 2007, and in 2007 and 2008 only controlled it narrowly with the help of left-leaning Independent senators Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman.
The Republicans, on the other hand, have controlled both houses of Congress since 2015, and did so also from 2003 until 2007 and from 1995 until 2001. (The 2001 streak ended half a year after George W. Bush was elected when, in May of 2001, sitting Senator Jim Jeffords left the Republican party to become a Democrat-leaning Independent). Before then, however, the Republicans had not controlled both houses of Congress simultaneously since 1953-1955, during the first two years of the presidency of Republican Dwight Eisenhower.
For a long time, the Republicans’ bane was the House of Representatives (one of the two houses of Congress, the other being the Senate). For forty years, between 1955 and 1995, the Republicans failed to win the House even once. Yet they have reached the promised land since: they have won the House in nine of the past eleven elections, and today control the largest House majority they have had since 1928. Winning big in the House in the election of 2010 (the first election following “the Great Recession”) was particularly nice for the Republicans, as in 2011 the US had its once-a-decade redrawing of congressional district boundaries, and the Republicans were thus able to redraw four times as many districts as the Democrats could. Taking the House back is by far the main hurdle the Democrats will have to winning the political Triple Crown.
In contrast to the House of Representatives, the Senate and White House have not been kind to the Republicans of late. They have lost the Senate in four out of the past five elections and the White House in four of the past six presidential elections (or four of five, if you count the Bush-Gore-Nader election in 2000 as a wash). That they have staved off a Democrat Triple Crown during this period is only because they have enjoyed a Republican-appointed majority Supreme Courts for decades (until Scalia’s death this year), a legacy of having controlled the White House for 20 out of 24 years between 1969 and 1992 (under Republican presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush). At the start of Bill Clinton’s presidency, in fact, only one of nine justices had been appointed by a Democratic president.
This huge Supreme Court majority was in part a lucky break, though. It was a result of Democrat Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) having been one of just four presidents in US history, and the only one since the 1860s, not to get to appoint any Supreme Court judges. Clinton only appointed two in eight years, meanwhile, whereas Bush Sr. and Reagan together appointed five in twelve years and Nixon and Ford together appointed four in eight years. According to some Democrats, this Court majority was not only unlucky but also, of late, unjust, since it was the majority-Republican Court ruled that Bush defeated Gore in Florida during the 2000 election, which in turn resulted in Bush getting to appoint another two justices to the Court during his two terms in office.
Odds For 2016
According to Nate Silver’s data journalism website FiveThirtyEight, Trump has roughly a 13 or 26 percent chance at beating Clinton (depending on whether you use their “polls-only” or “polls-plus” forecast). While FiveThirtyEight has not released their predictions for Congress yet, they have also explained why they see the Senate race as possibly being a very close one this year. They have said as well that for the Democrats to retake the House will require at least a Clinton landslide victory (defining landslide as a double-digit popular vote margin, which has not happened since Reagan, Nixon, or, for the Democrats, Lyndon Johnson) — and they have the odds of such a Clinton landslide at 35 percent or lower.
It is clear that, in modern times, it usually takes fairly special circumstances to bring about a situation in which one party controls the Congress and White House at the same time. The Democrats did it for two years after the 2008 election because of excitement over Obama, disappointment with George W Bush (and Sarah Palin), the financial crisis in late 2007, and frustration with the Iraq War. The Republicans did it for a few years under Bush Jr. — during which time they also had a Supreme Court majority — but they only achieved this through the narrowest of victories over Al Gore in the 2000 election, and they may also have been bolstered by 9-11, which occured just over eight months into Bush’s presidency.
The Democrats, similarly, did it for the first few years of Clinton’s presidency, in the wake of the 1991 recession and Desert Storm, and with the help of Clinton’s political skills and a unique ticket headed by two Southern Democrats (Clinton from Arkansas, Gore from Washington D.C. and Tennessee). Republicans Reagan, Bush Sr., Ford, and Nixon never managed to have their party run Congress, but another Southern Democrat, Jimmy Carter, did so during all four of his years in office, which he came into in the election following Watergate and the end of the American Vietnam War. It probably also helped that, unlike Clinton’s – and even Obama’s – feigned religiosity, Carter was a devout Southern Democrat.
(It is notable also, by the way, that the past four Democrats who have won presidential elections – or five, if you count Gore – were Southern Democrats. This is counting Obama as a Southern Democrat, which may not be entirely unfair: Hawaii is the southernmost state in the US, Obama was raised by his Kansas mother and grandparents, and African-American society in Illinois is recently rooted in the South. Obama himself has a bit of a southern accent that he is able to turn on and off as required — so, by the way, does Hillary Clinton, who in the past adopted quite a strong southern accent during her years in Arkansas. You have to go back to Kennedy to break this pattern — but not to Truman before him, who was another Southern Democrat).
(On the Republican side, meanwhile, all the recent presidents who have won presidential elections — in other words, all the recent Republican presidents apart from Gerald Ford, who inherited Nixon’s presidency post-impeachment — have had ties to either Texas or California. The Bush family has adopted Texas as their new home during the past generation, especially George W. Bush who served as its governor. Reagan, on the other hand, was a Hollywood actor-turned-governor of California, and Nixon and Eisenhower before him were both born and raised in California. You have to go all the way to Hoover to break the pattern. One could say that Trump would break it if he becomes president, but then again Trump is in many ways a made-for-Hollywood showman/conman, so it is hard to say he has no connection to California whatsoever. Where do you think the Celebrity Apprentice was filmed?)
Before that, though, one party controlling multiple branches of the government used to happen quite frequently. The Democrats dominated Washington D.C. during the eras around WW1, the Depression, WW2, and most of the post-WW2 generation, while the Republicans dominated the post-Civil War generation and the “Roaring ‘20s”, then took office again following Democratic president Truman’s waging of the Korean War and Democratic president Johnson’s massive troop surge into Vietnam. In the twentieth century, the Democrats had the political Triple Crown from 1939-1952 and from 1962-1969, while the Republicans had it from 1921-1931. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency was particularly impactful, not only because of the Depression and War but also because he had personally appointed eight of the nine judges on the Supreme Court by the time he left office.
That is all in the past though. For the 2016 election, going by the odds of FiveThirtyEight and by other predictions that have been made, there is perhaps a 10-20 percent chance the Democrats will win their first Triple Crown since 1969, and also a 10-20 percent chance that the Republicans will get their first Triple Crown since 2006. Clinton or Trump, then, could end up becoming the next American Pharaoh.
If extremely high taxes on greenhouse gas emissions were to be enacted worldwide, which part of Ontario would be poised to lead in terms of population growth and economic development as a result?
My guess would be St Catharines-Niagara, which at the moment is Canada’s 12th most populous census metropolitan area (just ahead of Halifax-Dartmouth), home to approximately 400,000 people.
A low-emissions city should at least a few of the following five characteristics, all of which define Niagara. One, it should be easily accessible by barge, as water remains far and away the most fuel-efficient mode of transportation. Two, it should not have much suburban sprawl. Three, it should be located close to other major cities in order to create urban economies of scale. Four, it should have a mild climate: not too cold or snowy in the winter, not too hot in the summer. And five, it should have an abundant source of clean power — and ideally also the ability to store up its energy in order to assist clean but intermittent power sources like solar, wind, and run-of-river hydro.
1. Water Transport
St Catharines-Niagara is one of only two urban areas in Canada or the US to be situated on more than one Great Lake. (The other is Sault St Marie). It links Lake Ontario to Lake Erie via the Welland Canal, a canal 43 km long and, in most places, 100-150 metres wide. The canal has seven locks on its northern end and one lock on its southern end; it takes ships around 10 hours to cross in full. However it has a lock-free middle stretch that is close to 25 km long, next to the city of Welland (pop. 50,000). It runs perpendicular to the Erie Canal, the longest shipping canal in the United States, which links Niagara Falls and Buffalo to New York City and Lake Champlain via the navigable Hudson River, passing by Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany along the way.
Canals, when they are not frozen in the winter, are in many ways the ideal form of water transportation. They lack the difficulties of rivers (bends, rapids, shallows, etc.) and seas (storms, tides, waves, etc.), and are not too wide to make building bridges or tunnels across them too expensive. According to the New York Times, “one gallon of diesel pulls one ton of cargo 59 miles by truck, 202 miles by train and 514 miles by [Erie] canal barge… A single barge can carry 3,000 tons, enough to replace 100 trucks”.
As recently as the 1890s, prior to the modern age of highways, cars, and trucks, the Erie Canal allowed Buffalo to become the eighth most populous in the US and fourth most populous inland city in the US. And while Niagara never shared in Buffalo’s prominence (in part as it was too close to the US border for comfort; it was captured in the War of 1812, and became the refuge for William Lyon Mackenzie and his supporters during the Upper Canada Rebellion in 1837-38), the adjacent city of Hamilton did. Hamilton was Canada’s fourth most populous city during the 1890s, and was about half as populous as Toronto in 1870. Today, in comparison, Hamilton is only around 13 percent as populous as Toronto.
As land transport became dominant, however, Hamilton found itself blocked in by the Hamilton Harbour (which until then had been the main source of its success) as well as by the Niagara Escarpment. Toronto, in contrast, has been able to expand barrier-free, now reaching to Lake Simcoe in the north, Oshawa and Clarington in the east, and Hamilton’s suburbs in the west.
Admittedly, it is still quite expensive to build bridges across harbours or wide canals; they must be either high enough to let large ships pass below, or else be lift-bridges. The Welland Canal overall has two tunnels and ten bridges, all but one of which are lift-bridges. Given that the population of the region is split by the canal (St Catharines and Hamilton are to its west, Niagara Falls and Buffalo are to its east), these lift-bridges and tunnel crossings could lead to traffic bottlenecks if its population or economic activity were to experience growth.
This canal-crossing problem can be managed, however, by switching over from cars to public transit. Luckily for St Catharines-Niagara, such a switch which would be necessary anyway if greenhouse gas emissions were to be highly taxed.
Public transit, including new transit services like Car2Go, Uber, and UberPool, can allow canals to be crossed more easily via bridge or tunnel, by reducing traffic bottlenecks and by letting its passengers relax rather than drive when there are traffic bottlenecks. In addition, public transit can allow for easier canal crossings via boat, pedestrian bridge, cable car, or even ice-sled, by making transit available upon crossing. For the same reason, crossing canals will also become easier as parking apps like Rover and PocketParker become common (and if cars that come equipped with parallel parking sensors or can parallel park themselves become common), as people will be able to park a car easily on one side of the canal and then take public transit after crossing.
In the St Catharines-Niagara area, public transit will be similarly useful in helping to cross the Niagara River (which is one of the widest and, in places, the most treacherous rivers in southern Ontario), Hamilton Harbour (which has two bridges crossing it at present, and no tunnels), and perhaps even the 45 km Lake Ontario shortcut that separates St Catharines (and Buffalo) from Toronto.
2. Suburban Sprawl
St Catharines-Niagara, as well as the nearby urban areas of Hamilton and Kitchener-Waterloo, are among the cities with the highest population density in Canada. Kitchener-Waterloo and Hamilton have the highest population densities among urban areas in Canad apart from Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, according to the 2011 census, while St Catharines-Niagara has the seventh highest population density (though this does not take into account the 50,000 people living in Niagara Falls, NY). St Catharines has a significantly higher population density than cities like Edmonton, Kingston, London, Halifax, Winnipeg, or Quebec City.
Niagara may be particularly well-placed to benefit if suburban sprawl in general is reversed as a result of eco-taxes. This is because many of the big cities around Niagara have had their suburbs sprawl away from Niagara during their recent generations of suburbanization. As a result, a reversal of this sprawl would bring people back closer to Niagara.
Toronto has sprawled north and to a lesser extent east, away from Lake Ontario and Niagara. Northern Toronto suburbs like King city, Caledon, and Whitchurch-Stoufville tend have population densities that are far lower than in suburbs closer to the lake, like Mississauga, Oakville, and Oshawa — nearly 30 times lower in the case of Caledon compared to Mississauga. Indeed some of Toronto’s lakeside suburbs, particularly to its west (towards Hamilton and Niagara), are themselves among the cities with the highest population densities in the country. Toronto’s easternmost suburbs, on the other hand, like Clarington and Scugog, have relatively low densities too.
Buffalo’s suburbs sprawl away from the border with Niagara, meanwhile, and Detroit’s sprawl away from Windsor (which is 315 km from St Catharines). Cleveland’s suburbs away from Lake Erie, mainly to the south and west. If, then, suburban sprawl gives way to urban re-densification, it could lead to population growth along the coasts of both Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, which Niagara shares, as well as along the Buffalo and Detroit borders with Canada, which Niagara either shares or is at least not too far away from.
Another energy advantage of de-suburbanization is that it frees up land to be re-converted into farmland. This is important, as importing food is highly energy-intensive; food is much more bulky than most other goods, and also often requires refrigeration or freezing while it is being transported. This means that areas that are not suitable to agriculture — areas that include most of Ontario, as the Canadian Shield generally is not farmable in the economic sense — will not benefit as much from de-surbanization in an eco-tax world as areas that are best suited to be used for agriculture. For Ontario, these areas are Southwestern Ontario and adjacent lands of the United States.
3. Proximity to Major Cities
St Catharines is around 50km from Toronto by way of Lake Ontario and about 100 km from Toronto via land. To put that into perspective, Oshawa, Burlington, and Newmarket, all three of which are in the Greater Toronto Area, are around 45 km from downtown Toronto, and Barrie is around 85 km from downtown Toronto. St Catharines is also around 40 km from downtown Buffalo (and Niagara Falls is less than 30 km from downtown Buffalo), 65 km from downtown Hamilton, 120 km from Kitchener-Waterloo and from Rochester, 270 km from Cleveland, 300 km from Pittsburgh, and 320 km from Detroit, and 500 km from New York City and Washington, D.C.
St Catharine’s proximity to the New York City-to-Washington “Megalopolis” is unique and, in an eco-tax world, could be economically significant. If you extend the Megalopolis all the way north to Boston, however, then St Catharines’ proximity is less unique, as Ottawa and Kingston are both closer to Boston than St Catharines is. That said, the population density of the area between New York and Boston is quite a bit less than between New York City and Washington, so it is not clear Boston really should be counted as part of the Megalopolis core. St Catharines is also around 40 km closer to New York City and 250 km closer to Washington than Ottawa is, whereas Ottawa is only around 160 km closer to Boston than St Catharines is. Only Kingston then, among notable Ontario cities, can be said to be closer in proximity to the Megalopolis than St Catharines is.
Niagara, because of its relatively southern location and the temperate effect of the Great Lakes that surround it, has a mild climate compared to most other cities in Ontario. It tends to be around a degree warmer than Toronto in the winter and a degree cooler than Toronto in the summer, and it is much milder than the weather in more northern cities like Ottawa or Thunder Bay. It is also located outside any of the Great Lakes Snowbelts, unlike, for example, Sudbury or Barrie.
Niagara’s position next to the US border may also be significant, as eco-taxes could lead Americans to come north to where the climate is more mild, at least during the summer. The average annual daily temperature highs in Buffalo is 14 degrees celsius, compared, for example, to 29 degrees for Miami or 31 degrees for Phoenix. Cool climate zones may also end up using more eco-friendly energy for heating than hot climates do for cooling, because the weather gets coldest at night when there are typically surpluses of electricity available (including low-carbon sources, like wind, base-load nuclear, and run-of-river hydro), whereas it is hottest during the day when no such energy surpluses typically exist. Admittedly only seven percent or so of American households use electric heaters, but a high eco-tax could cause them to be adopted more widely. Plus, it is possible to stay warm using clothing and blankets rather cranking the heat.
The arid climate and diffuse population settlement in the US Southwest in particular leads to a high energy footprint. Any extended drought in the Southwest, for example, would necessitate water desalination, water treatment, or increased food imports, all three of which are extremely energy-intensive. The most extreme of these, Las Vegas, which is a gambling and tourism competitor of Niagara to a certain extent, relies on long-distance air travel, long-distance food imports, air conditioning during the day, and heating at night (the desert can get cold at night, after all).
Owning, renting, or Airbnb-ing a home or cottage in upstate New York or upstate Pennsylvania, in contrast, will help keep air conditioning costs down in summer. Moreover, because both are located in the Great Lake Snowbelts and Appalachia, these also be used recreationally during the winter. This may be an advantage too, given that eco-taxes will make it far more expensive to fly to the Rockies to ski, and given that aging Baby Boomers are going to be switching from downhill skiing to cross-country skiing. Similarly, eco-taxes could make Canadian vacationers who head south to escape the winter forgo flying to places like Arizona, California, and Mexico, and instead travel by train or bus to the US Southeast (and perhaps from there on by cruise or plane to islands in Cuba or the Bahamas). Such train and bus journeys will usually pass through Niagara.
5. Energy Production
In a world in which greenhouse gas emissions are highly taxed, it would no longer be viable for Ontario to import so many manufactured goods from Asia, since Asia is so far away and relies on burning coal to power its industrial activity. Ontario would instead have to manufacture more products locally, making up for its lack of low-wage labour by using machines, having foreign engineers and other skilled labour e-commute from afar, etc. Such industrialization, particularly as it will depend on machines to assist or replace human workers, will need a lot of low-carbon energy.
Niagara Falls hydro (not counting the American side of the border) accounts for around 5-6 percent of Ontario’s power generation capacity, but more than 7 percent of non-fossil fuel generation capacity and more than 20 percent if you also ignore nuclear power. Niagara accounts for about a quarter of all Ontario hydropower, and its dams also happen to be located far further south than the majority of other dams in the province or country, meaning that the energy and capital used to maintain Niagara’s dams (and to maintain the electricity grid infrastructure that is connected to them) tends to be less than it is for other hydroelectric facilities. Most of Ontario’s other dams are either located near to or north of Ottawa – far north, in many cases – while most of the hydropower in the country comes from central or northern Quebec.
In addition, the hydropower facility on the US side of Niagara Falls produces 25 percent more power than those on the Canadian side of the Falls; it produces more power than all but three other dams in the United States and accounts for nearly 60 percent of New York state’s hydropower (and New York ranks third in hydropower among US states). It also has a pumped storage capability that by itself is larger than the hydropower storage available in all of Ontario outside of Niagara, which is significant since hydro-storage remains the leading method of assisting intermittent energy sources like wind and solar. (Batteries are still not generally up to the job of storing energy in a cost-effective or eco-friendly manner, in spite of all the hoopla surrounding Tesla).
Niagara is, similarly, home to nearly all of Ontario’s pumped storage hydro capacity. Moreover, it is located relatively close to the pumped storage facilities across the United States (apart from the pumped storage in California, but those have been under-utilized in recent years as a result of drought), not just those on the US side of Niagara Falls.
Niagara is also, along with the rest of Southwestern Ontario and the adjacent Bruce Peninsula, home to most of the province’s wind power production and solar power potential.
While 60 percent or so of Ontario’s electricity comes from nuclear, people do not want to live in urban areas that contain nuclear facilities. In addition, more than half of Ontario’s nuclear power capacity is located directly on the coast of Lake Ontario, 30-60 km east of downtown Toronto, which means that, when you combine their output with that of Niagara’s dams (not even counting the US Niagara dams), the coastlands of western Lake Ontario account for more than 40 percent of Ontario’s non-fossil fuel power capacity and nearly 40 percent of Ontario’s overall power capacity.
If, finally, you look at natural gas storage – both underground storage and LNG storage – Niagara is also well-placed. Natural gas could be useful in assisting intermittent sources like solar and wind, because like hydro, but unlike coal or nuclear, a gas-fired power plant can ramp up and down energy rapidly in response to the wind suddenly slowing or the sun suddenly being blocked by clouds. Most US underground storage is surrounding Niagara, in a broad sense.
In Ontario, which in contrast to the US has very little gas storage capability, much of the gas storage is around Sarnia, with potential further development in Goderich, both of which are not too far away from Niagara. Most LNG storage and peakshaving capacity, meanwhile — which, while smaller in scale than underground storage, is better for delivering gas quickly in order to assist wind or solar intermittency — is located mostly on the Northeast coast, much of it within New York state.
The gas pipelines that bring US gas to Ontario also mainly run through or near to Niagara. Ontario used to get its gas from Western Canada, but with the shale boom in nearby US states, particularly in Pennsylvania which has led the shale gas boom, the province has begun to use US gas instead. The shale boom has revolutionized the gas industry, and should it continue it is likely to put the border areas of Ontario in a strong position relative to non-border areas, energy-wise.
The Ontario government recently announced a plan to subsidize electric cars by up to $14,000 per vehicle and pay for them to be charged at night, among other things. Night-time charging is a key factor in electric vehicle ownership, as in most cases it takes several hours to charge an electric car.
This begs the question: what will the price of overnight electricity in Ontario be in the years ahead?
Today overnight electricity is cheap because most nuclear power plants in Ontario and coal plants in nearby states like Michigan cannot easily be turned off at night, in contrast to gas plants or hydropower facilities which can more easily ramp up and down their output to match real-time electricity demand. An estimated 60 percent of Ontario’s power is generated from nuclear, compared to around 15 percent in Canada and 20 percent in the US. Around 50 percent of the power in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois comes from coal, compared to 33 percent in the US as a whole and 10-15 percent in Canada. Ontario and the Midwest are also among the leaders in wind power (which does not turn off at night either), and Ontario, Illinois, and Pennsylvania are by far the top three North American producers of nuclear power.
Going forward, however, there are compelling reasons to think that this overnight surplus of electricity will no longer exist.
The first reason is fracking. In the past few years the US has seen an enormous boom in shale gas production, which has been leading much of the country to begin switching off their coal plants and replacing them with cheap natural gas. The stock prices of US coal companies have already dropped by over 90 percent since 2014, and by over 97 percent since 2011. As more gas and less coal is used to generate electricity, the price of overnight electricity is likely to spike relative to the price of daytime electricity, since gas plants tend to be far easier to shut off at night than coal plants.
This is relevant to Ontario because the biggest gas booms in the US since 2010 have been in nearby states like Pennsylvania, and because Ontario already has the extensive natural gas infrastructure required to import and distribute American gas (especially via Michigan, which has the largest gas storage capacity in the US). Indeed fracking has made gas so cheap in the region that even Ontario might look to it again as a source of energy production, instead of building new nuclear plants or paying for the refurbishment projects needed to keep its existing nuclear facilities operating.
The second reason overnight electricity prices are likely to rise is robots. Machines that combine mobility with computation are highly energy-intensive, but, unlike humans, do not need to sleep at night or relax in the evening. Take, for example, Amazon’s robotic warehouses: they have caused the company’s night-time electricity use to rise substantially since they were introduced, given that before they came along Amazon’s warehouses were either inactive overnight or else employed human workers who ran on food (and overtime pay) instead of electricity. If and when this robotic economy finally goes mainstream, then, such demand for overnight power could be replicated at large. We should expect late-night electricity use to skyrocket: robots are no longer science-fiction.
The final reason is environmentalism. In order to keep greenhouse gas emissions down (which is, after all, the main point of subsidizing EVs), many voters are pushing for more solar panels and wind turbines to be built. Solar and wind are complementary to one another, not only because the sun often shines brightly at different times as the wind blows strongly, but also because wind farms and solar farms usually inspire non-overlapping types of NIMBY-driven political backlash. Ontario already gets 5-6 percent of its electricity from wind compared to less than one percent from solar, so it might be that going forward its solar power growth will outstrip its wind power growth. Of course, solar power will not help to bring down overnight electricity prices. Even the wind, however, tends to blow less strongly overnight than during the day – a fact that runs contrary to conventional wisdom, since the wind can usually be heard more clearly at night.
As solar, wind, and gas replace dirtier coal in the regional electricity network, there will also be environmentalist-led pressure to stop heating homes with fossil fuels and instead adopt electric-powered heaters like those used in Quebec and the Pacific Northwest. This too would be likely to cause overnight electricity prices to rise. Quebec, for example, uses electric-powered heating and so has its electricity demand peak during frigid winter nights, whereas Ontario primarily uses gas-powered heating and therefore has its electricity demand peak during hot summer days. Should Ontario or nearby US states switch over to electric heating in order to reduce carbon and methane emissions from natural gas, the region’s overnight electricity usage will rise.
The need to help support solar and wind power could lead as well to the building of more pumped-hydro facilities, which pump water uphill so it can flow back downstream through a turbine when power is in high demand, such as when the weather is cloudy and wind-less. There has been talk lately of building more pumped hydro in Ontario, in places like Niagara and Marmora, as pumped hydro is the most efficient form of electricity storage. Given that Ontario’s daytime power is not cheap (at least, not by Canadian or American standards), this water would be pumped at night. It is an energy-intensive process, however, requiring 20 percent or so more energy to pump uphill than is gained from releasing back downhill. Thus it would lead overnight prices to rise.
In closing, any electric-vehicle policy approach that assumes that Ontario’s overnight electricity costs will remain cheap is probably a shortsighted one. Ontario’s overnight electricity costs are likely to rise substantially as a result of natural gas replacing coal, robots working slavishly every night, and the move towards cleaner sources of energy like wind power and, especially, solar power.
Without being certain of future electricity prices, the EV subsidy plan is like a leap, or Leaf, in the dark.
This is a guest post from the blog Occasional Mumblings. You can read the original here: https://vacuouswastrel.wordpress.com/2016/03/03/1871/#comment-4180
“I wish I could have written Babbitt” – H.G. Wells
Babbitt is an oddity for me: not only because it’s literary fiction, and social realism at that, but also because it doesn’t really need a review. It’s one of the iconic works of the 20th century. Its title became a common noun – you can still find it in dictionaries – and a word that symbolised one of the great social divides of the 1920s and 1930s. Babbitt was a bestseller: the tenth-best-selling book of 1922, and the fourth-best-selling book of 1923. It was one of five top-ten bestsellers by Lewis that decade, the most by any author of that era (tied with Zane Grey). Two of those novels hit number one, and another hit number two. Meanwhile, in 1930, Lewis became the first American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature; Babbitt was widely considered to be the book that won it for him.
To summarise what Lewis meant in the 1920s, perhaps imagine that Tom Clancy (who, like Lewis, had two number-one bestsellers) and Gabriel García Márquez (who, like Lewis, was a Nobel laureate) were the same person. Or perhaps, given the political nature of Lewis’ writing, a better combination would be Dan Brown (two bestsellers) and Harold Pinter (Nobel laureate).
In other words, you don’t need my review on this one. If you have any interest in literature, whether for historical or for artistic purposes, Babbitt should already be on your to-read list.
But since I’ve read it, I may as well say a few words for those who haven’t read it yet…
Babbitt is a 1922 novel by Sinclair Lewis, a thematic sequel-of-a-sort to 1920s Main Street, the work that had catapulted him to fame (Main Street has been described as the publishing sensation of the century, and ‘not so much a novel as an incident in American life’). Main Street was a dissection of the life of the American small town – so fundamental in its critique that Americans still use its title to symbolise ordinary people and small businesses; in Babbitt, Lewis moved his attention to the big city. In this case, the city is Zenith, a booming Midwestern town, and the focus is middle-aged Republican real estate broker George F. Babbitt, proud upstanding member of the Chamber of Commerce, the Athletic Club, the Boosters Club, and the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.
The plot is, for the most part, non-existent. Rather than following a simple, coherent narrative, Babbitt meanders back and forth, displaying step by step haphazardly the breakdown of Babbitt’s world of certainty and contentment. Babbitt, you see, may be prosperous, successful, blessed with a wife, three children, a business, the respect of the community, and most importantly a motor car, but all is not quite well somehow. At night, he dreams of a beautiful fairy child, and in dark moments, he remembers that he always wanted to be a lawyer and a statesman – just as his friend Paul Riesling always wanted to be a violinist – and wonders how and why that never happened. He is, in short, in modern terms, a man on the precipice of a mid-life crisis.
This core conceit – a picaresque tale of the crisis of a frankly not wholly admirable and yet still pitiably sympathetic respectable man – is highly reminiscent of Cabell’s Jurgen, which I strongly suspect is not a coincidence given Lewis’ admiration for his contemporary. [Cabell’s works are namechecked in Babbitt, and I think a few of the lines are homages, or in-jokes for fellow fans]. But where Jurgen is a timeless flight of whimsy into fantasy, Babbitt is a work of pedantic social realism, rooted obsessively in its place and period. Lewis isn’t writing Babbitt just to tell the story of Georgie Babbitt: he’s telling that story at least in part as an excuse to write the first Great American Novel in the modern sense, a sprawling, encyclopaedic summary of the totality of American life in the 20th century. Or, at least, one chapter of the Great American Novel: later novels by Lewis would reach into areas George Babbitt couldn’t penetrate, such as the medical and academic subcultures of Arrowsmith, the fundamentalist revivalism of the banned Elmer Gantry, and the upper echelons of society (who spend most of the novel on tour in Europe) in Dodsworth.
The realism and observation of Babbitt are remarkable, and are the basis of the reader’s primary reaction to the novel. Most striking is Lewis’ decision to accurately reflect the contemporary patois of the American middle-classes, with a sensitivity that allows us to discern the changes between generations and the gradations between social classes. To the modern reader, however, the effect is nothing like what is intended. On the one hand, the constant barrage of “swell”, “slick”, “fourflushing”, “gee whillikins”, “gosh all fishhooks”, “takes the firebrick necklace” and “pep” is inherently ridiculous in the modern age – it probably was for Lewis too, but in an entirely opposite way (Lewis is writing about cool new slang that sounds silly and uncouth to his paternal ears, whereas for the modern reader anybody who actually says “gee whiz!” is hopelessly antique, quaint, postcard-picturesque). On another hand, the slang is intriguing, magnetic, interesting in the way a crossword puzzle or a mysterious photograph in a family album may be interesting: what in Lewis’ time was unprecedentedly real, lifelike, ordinary, to us has become alien and other (the way that the prefix “he-” is used as an all-purpose indicator of admiration and respect and manliness (sorry, he-manliness) is both disarmingly, charmingly quaint and at the same time subtly horrifying). The interest has been inverted. And there is also the unfortunate fact that between rampant he-slang, gradual but vital shifts in word usage, and changes in cultural and material life, there are occasionally moments of real puzzlement and confusion, and of unintended humour. These may tantalise; they may also distract.
More generally, the impact of Lewis’ he-realism has been blunted by the passage of time: we have nothing but the amazed testimony of contemporaries to reassure us that this picture he paints is indeed an accurate one: Lewis’ mirror of life has become (for those of us who are not professional historians) our only testimony to the nature of that extinct existence. As for the finer points Lewis makes, the subtleties that rely on our contextual knowledge, these are lost entirely in our ignorance of the past, in a way that more stylised, universalised classic he-novels are more able to sidestep. Oliver Twist does not rely on us knowing precisely the relative social status of a syndicated poet and a traction company land-purchaser, nor does it hope to pack a world of import into a short description by saying simply that a man looked like the sort of man who would work as a soda fountain clerk. What is the social significance attached to a 1920s realtor’s decision whether or not to let his manicurist apply protective nail varnish?
Yet after we have struggled through the shock of the old, what really hits us is how modern this all is, or how antique we all are. As Babbitt wanders through his world, from business meetings to domestic arguments, from evangelical preachers to over-eager, over-friendly episcopalian priests and to lectures by new thought gurus on cultivating the inner sun spirit, from derided old socialists to tub-thumping anti-immigrant he-populism, from celebrity culture to industry conferences, from worker’s strikes to the difficulties women have in finding employment, from teenage revellers to over-earnest young activists, to lower-middle-class guys who spend all week waiting to get hammered at the weekend, to ‘phone-fixated
hipsters Bohemians (they have real he-names like ‘Capitolina’), to young girls looking for sugar daddies, from Republican primaries and the need for “a sound business administration” (Warren Harding is duly elected – a real swell he-President) to the way science is corrupted into the service of big business, from advertising jingles to learn-in-a-week-with-this-one-weird-trick-discovered-by-a-Zenith-housewife postal scams, from corrupt real estate deals to torturous suburban dinner parties… the world of Zenith is our world. The paraphernalia may have changed – more people have cars now, and fewer have maids, and these days we don’t have to go through the rigmarole of pretending to observe Prohibition (in the West, at least). But in all the important ways, Zenith feels modern in a way that other writing I’ve encountered of this era and before it just doesn’t.
Part of that may be Lewis’ unromantic realism, and his interest in depicting the way the world was going, rather than the way it saw itself or the way it had been. I think also that some of it is about place, not time. When I have read about the early 20th century, it has usually been the early 20th century of England – as in the recently-read Lady into Fox, for instance – a time and place that feel familiar yet very distant. How much things have changed, I thought. But the contemporaneous Babbitt makes me instead wonder how much that change has less been historical progress and more simply the rise to preëminence of America: the world, or at least the UK, has become part of America, an America little-changed from the America of Babbitt (just as, in fairness, the America of Babbitt still feels like a colony, like a strangely-warped province of the British Empire, still looking to London and its aristocracy for approval and guidance the way that people now look to America).
In fact, it’s all a bit depressing. Sure, some things have changed for the better. The position of women and of African-Americans (and Jews) has improved massively since the time of Babbitt: the treatment of women now reads as unpleasantly antiquated, while the treatment of African-Americans is positively cringe-worthy, to the extent that they’re present at all (Zenith is a northern city before the mid-20th century migration of the black population to the northern cities, and is clearly not very multicultural). That’s intentional – Lewis is writing a satire here – and Lewis would be overjoyed to see how much progress we have made in these areas, which were particular personal passions of his. The plight of women in particular is a common thread throughout his novels, and highlighted in 1917’s The Job (about the difficulties a woman faces in attempting to have it all and juggle both a working career and a family life) and 1933’s Ann Vickers (about suffragettes, progressives, abortion, women’s prisons and so forth). He turned explicitly toward race relations in one of his last works, 1947’s Kingsblood Royal, in which a respectable white man discovers he has African ancestors and, adrift and purposeless in life, begins to adopt an African-American identity and in the process provokes increasing prejudice from his white friends and family: the novel was rubbished as unrealistic by white critics (why would anybody want to suggest that there was still racism in America in the 1940s? Nonsense!), but praised by black intellectuals for its perceptive and honest treatment not only of racial prejudice but of issues of class, identity and ‘passing’ in black America.
[Kingsblood Royal was based on extensive research (all his novels reflect extensive research!) with the aid of the NAACP, and particularly of its president, the blond-haired, blue-eyed, white-skinned black man Walter White. White’s father, born a slave, once collapsed and was taken to hospital, where he received excellent care, because nobody could tell he was black; when they discovered that, despite his colouration he was ‘really’ a black man, they dragged him through a rainstorm to the Negro Ward instead – he died in the process. White would later go on to make use of his flawlessly European appearance in investigating and publicising over forty lynchings in the South: passing as black, he could persuade witnesses to talk to him, but passing as white he could avoid being lynched himself, and even at times joined up with KKK groups as an undercover agent. On one occasion, a lynch mob was indeed sent after him when the KKK discovered that there was ‘a black man pretending to be white’ in the area –he escaped because a helpful lynch mob enthusiast told him about the plan, not realising that White was in fact the black man in question. An acclaimed novelist, journalist, activist, and president of the NAACP for twenty years, he was eventually disavowed by much of the black civil rights movement, and disowned by his own family, for the sin of marrying a white woman (black commentators couldn’t agree on whether the marriage proved that he had always been a white man who had merely been passing as black, or just proved that he was a race-traitor, but neither interpretation was positive; the accusations from black and white alike that White was only ever a man who was, as one commentator put it, “negro by choice”, may be why he, apart from the pun, named his autobiography A Man Called White). None of this really has anything to do with Babbitt, except thematically… it just seemed like something people should mention…]
So, racial and gender issues have improved. It’s also true that the general… well, the babbitry has improved. The extent to which people were entirely and ruthlessly controlled by fashion and by public opinion. The same pressures that confronted Babbitt confront us now, but with more room for mercy and tolerance and heresy (at least, if you don’t count internet progressivism…). Part of that I suspect is the lingering effect of our encounter with fascism. Lewis is also known for his 1935 alternative-history novel It Can’t Happen Here, about an authoritarian regime rising to power in America, and reading Babbitt you can already see the groundwork being laid. In 1920, there already is a totalitarian control of civil society, Lewis tells us… it’s just disorganised. The Elks, the Boosters, the Republicans, the Chamber of Commerce, the Athletic Club, the Episcopalians, the banks, the newspaper barons… they have the power, they just aren’t united enough to use it. The structures are in place, they’re just waiting for a single charismatic leader to take them over (and the modern reader can’t help but be a little worried by the rise of the new Good Citizens League during the course of the novel…), and a dictatorship of optimistic niceness will be enforced… to some extent, I think that the rise of genuinely fascistic states perhaps has helped us be more skeptical of the sort of deeply controlling, deeply (and vacuously) idealistic society that Lewis describes.
So that’s improved. But not entirely for positive reasons. For one thing, civil society now is less powerful because civil society now has collapsed. These organisations, the clubs and leagues and secret orders, that gave support and comfort and a sense of place and belonging to the lost little Babbitts of the world, have largely ceased to be, or at least have lost their size and power. That they can no longer wield the club of public opinion so surgically is good; but we are also now without their potential benefits.
Particularly striking is the rise of income inequality. We don’t tend to see the roaring twenties as a time of equality and fraternity, but even in Lewis’ horrified, condemning satire, his world seems like utopia by modern standards. Babbitt is a man in an exalted position: owner of his own real estate company, a seriously important local businessman. And yet he is constantly aware of his own smallness. He looks up to more connected comrades like Vergil Gunch, or to more educated comrades like the professor Howard Littlefield and the commercial poet Cholmondeley Frink, but more than that he is aware of the profound distance between him and the real success stories, men like the industrialist Charles McKelvey, who owns a string of national enterprises. At one point Babbitt notes that Charles is always friendly to him when they happen to meet, yet never seems to invite him to dinner. At another, he sees Charles’ wife alone in a railway carriage, but she ignores him as though he were not there. At another, we discover that George and Charles went to university together.
The thing is, the depressing thing is, today men like Babbitt would not have gone to university with men like McKelvey. McKelvey would have gone to private school, and then to Harvard or Princeton or Yale or the like, not the local state university with Babbitt. He would not bump into Babbitt at lunch, or at the golf club, or at the chamber of commerce, or at the barber, or the church, or at a meeting of the local Republican party, or anywhere else: he would eat his lunch, play his golf and have his hair cut somewhere altogether exclusive, or at his own home, and he would not go to the chamber of commerce because that part of civil society is almost dead, and he would not have anything to do with the local Republican party but would only send dollars and demands to the national committee or to a superPAC, and he would not go to church, though he might have personal spiritual advisor. His wife would not have to blank men like Babbitt on the train because his wife would not travel by public train, but by private helicopter. Throughout the novel, Lewis wants us to get this sense of there being many Zeniths all living side-by-side, different worlds all lived in the same space, but overlapping; at one time, Babbitt is on a committee alongside the august old-money banker/aristocrat William Eathorne, and at another, prohibition forces him into a low dive to source some alcohol from people from an entirely different Zenith… the worlds of drug traffickers and prostitutes, of business, of high-society, are all just moments away from one another.
Now they aren’t. That’s what’s changed, the idea that these worlds could be permeable to one another: visible, if not attainable. Now, these worlds barely have the slightest material contact. The McKelveys and the Dodsworths and the Eathornes now live on an entirely unrelated planet to the Babbitts. Actually, I’m not sure the Dodsworths and the Eathornes – the pioneer families turned banking oligarchs – even exist anymore, except perhaps in relic form, as curiosities, somewhere in Connecticut, retaining some of their money, little of their conservativism and almost none of their power. Their place in the world has been adsumed by the McKelveys. Except it hasn’t really, because how many industrialist magnates are there now? Some, mostly in tech companies. Mostly we’re ruled by… well, Stanley Graffs, I guess, people even Babbitt would have looked down on, but who have somehow elbowed their way to the top of the pole, and had the morals and manners skinned off them in the process. Babbitt himself is hard to find these days, the Prominent Local Businessman. Most of them have lost their jobs to the growth of the great national and international chain stores, that were no doubt once founded by the McKelveys, but are now run for them by distant Graffs. Babbitt, if he survives at all, is probably a put-upon middle-manager now, come a long way down in the world.
If I sound depressing, that’s the point; because that’s what’s changed, in a way. Lewis’ satire is aimed at the horrors of the modern world, but in particular at modern optimism. The everyday American of Babbitt is relentlessly positive, bursting with pep, committed to boosting, filled with hope and zing. Sure, part of that is a steadfast denial of their real problems, and part of it is a scared façade, nobody wanting to be the one to let the team down. Lewis’ America is a nation of brutally enforced mass happiness, in which to acknowledge pain or discontent is tantamount to treason – only socialists, or worse, those damn long-haired liberal ‘intelligentsia’ speak that way about America. Don’t they know America is the greatest, swellest he-country in the world? U – S – A! (to quote the novel). Gee whiz.
[If you’ve seen Pleasantville… Babbitt is the perfect world those guys in the 1950s were trying to recreate after the horrors of war and Depression. The chief difference in tone is that in the 50s, it was an imitation, and a settling – in the 20s, it was real and it was striving]
And yet… there is also a real sense of hope here, a sense of progress, a sense of a brighter future, a sense of growth (Zenith’s inhabitants keep close count of the city’s population, which is its score in its competition against all the other growing young cities). The very blind optimism that is the chief target of Lewis’ derision seems now… charmingly young. Endearingly, painfully, sincere. You poor saps, the modern reader is likely to think, don’t you know that this is (nearly) as good as it gets? And Lewis may mock it, but he carries it too. Why satirise American society this way, we might think, when there is no alternative? Nothing can ever change, so why bother to complain? Sure, Sinclair, capitalism sucks, but it’s not like there’s any alternative. Seneca Doane isn’t a pioneer of socialist progressivism, he’s a deluded old dinosaur ensnared by the false audacity of hope. Yes, we’ll invent all sorts of technologies and liberating forms of communication, but obviously they’ll just be used to enact, so much more efficiently, the same sort of personalised repressions that they needed Athletic Clubs to enforce back in 1920, and in a more depersonalised way. Bohemianism won’t offer a way out – the respectable, commercial world will simply accommodate it, and sell to it, and market it. Lewis mocks the idea of “competition”… doesn’t he know that that will be unchallengeable dogma for the rest of human history? He puts his faith in the new generation – Babbitt’s daughter, we discover, reads Cabell and Hergesheimer, and Mencken, and the poetry of Vachel Lindsey* – doesn’t Lewis know that Babbitt’s son and daughters will grow up to be the Gatsby generation**, no less facile or less money-grubbing than their parents? Doesn’t he know that the Great War that he fears has indelibly scarred the psychology of the older generation is only going to be reiterated in the lives of Babbitt’s future grandchildren? And doesn’t he know that Cabell, and Hergesheimer, and Lindsey, and to a lesser but still considerable degree Mencken and Lewis himself will be swept aside in a tide of Faulkners and Hemingways*** and Steinbecks – real swell manly he-literature, as Georgie Babbitt would admiringly call it – and erased from public consciousness almost entirely? [Oh, sure, Babbitt and co. would frown and tut about Steinbeck being a dangerous socialist who needed to be kept an eye on, but better a misguided socialist than some punk longair – and Steinbeck did make some real he-sales!] There is an eager earnestness about Lewis, and about his characters, that is at once amusing, embarrassing, and somewhat pitiful. It’s all a bit depressing…
*Lindsey returned the favour by writing a poem all about babbittry.
**Its worth noting how fresh it is to read a story about the parents of the Gatsby generation – to see the famous Roaring Twenties from the other direction, as it were. Lewis, to his credit, despite putting his faith in that generation, allows us to be under no illusions about their virtues, or their general annoyingness…
***Lewis admired Hemingway, called him one of the few truly important, “and almost savagely individual” writers living in their age. He not only mentioned him in his Nobel acceptance speech as a future winner, but went ahead and nominated him. In return, Hemmingway, the true American he-man, mocked Lewis mercilessly for years, in conversation, in journalism and even in his novels, mostly for his physical appearance, which Hemingway found insufficiently he-masculine. He even took a detour in Across the River and Into the Treesto taunt his older cheerleader, through a very specifically-described background character, a compatriot of the American protagonist who has ‘outlived his talents’, specifically with the purpose of mocking Lewis’ skin cancer. The Lewis-stand-in character, Hemingway says, is Goebbels, if Goebbels had ever been trapped in a burning plane. He peers about constantly, as though truth could be discovered through query. His skin is pockmarked, and his soul and heart are pitted in the same way. Where Hemingway’s Mary Sue sits with his adoring teenage sex-toy and thinks about sex, Lewis’ image is trapped talking to a respectable old woman. He looks like a disappointed weasel. He looks like he has been run half-way through a meat grinder and then been boiled, lightly, in oil. Spit runs down his face from the corner of his mouth when he speaks. He drinks too much. He is a waste of time not worth talking about. His face looks like the hills around Verdun after the war. In Italy, nobody bothers to pay attention to him – he arouses neither love nor hate nor fear nor suspicion. He writes rapidly, late into the night – “I dare say that makes marvelous reading” mocks Mary Sue; “I dare say,” sniffs the sock puppet on Hemingway’s second hand, “but it was hardly the method of Dante.” He is a drawing by Goya. He is so ludicrous (surely that’s a wig?) that Mary Sue will hope to have him by to laugh at whenever he feels sad.
The difference in how they speak of their rivals rather encapsulates the difference in approach from the two men; and indeed it can hardly be a surprise, given this, that Babbitt and his fellow he-men soon fell in love with Hemingway, and forgot about old, querying, liberal, effeminate Lewis.
And some of that depression is intentional. Lewis may not realise quite how pitiable his dreams are, but he does realise how pitiable the dreams of the Babbitts of the world are. Babbitt is not a maudlin book – too full of boosting, and he-pep, and zing!!! and zip! and zow! and “LIFE’s ZIPPINGEST ZEST”!!!!– but it has maudlin moments. There is a soul of melancholy and of desperation under the shell of fixed smiles: from the quite moments, driving through the streets at night, to the dreams of a fairy child, to the moments of doubt and dread and existential anger. There is a sense that everybody in the book is perhaps only a few feet from self-destruction – that society itself is walking on ice over a cold abyss. There is at the best moments a suggestion of duality, of ambiguity: are the characters tied up with ropes, constrained, imprisoned… or are they roped to one another, to pitons, are the ropes all that are holding them up?
At times, in its quiet, restless, sad moments, the novel approached beauty.
That, however, was not its selling point. That side of things may have helped it with the critics, but it isn’t why it sold. [And in Babbitt, everything must be evaluated by whether its sells, pulls, and/or earns]. It sold because it’s funny. What Lewis did was write a novel that was not only breathtakingly, precisely realistic, and shockingly, unprecedentedly modern (the novel attempts to capture the era of 1920-1921, and was published in 1922… there can have been few novels that so audaciously combined scholarly attention to time and place and a hot-off-the-press, journalistic recency)… but took that world that people saw around them and mocked it mercilessly, to the extent that even Lewis’ enemies were soon admitting the veracity of its barbs. Even the Babbitts owned up to being Babbitts. And that’s because of Lewis’ combination of ferocious satire with a fundamental humanity: everybody is mocked, but nobody is rubbished. There are many conflicting viewpoints, all are flawed, and none are precisely promoted: the pervading sense, indeed, is one of confusion, of being at a loss as to how to proceed.
It’s the humour that sold the copies. Unfortunately, it’s also the humour that comes close to sinking the whole novel.
Lewis, you see, has all the subtlety of a concrete block to the head. It begins in the prose. Lewis just isn’t a great prose stylist: he imitates Cabell, but does it worse. That’s not to say he’s bad – mostly it’s perfectly adequate, and there are moments, particularly the more sincere, slower moments, when he approaches beauty. He also gets in the odd well-formed, memorable line. But there isn’t the deftness, the subtlety, of a great stylist, so when he tries for deadpan irony, there’s never the slightest ambiguity about it, the slightest consideration for the tone or the context. It’s like the guy who always uses the same ultra-sarcastic voice to make jokes, no matter where you are, whether it’s a wedding or a funeral. It’s not necessarily that he shouldn’t make the jokes, but just…. can’t you try to have a little delicacy about it? It grates. And it’s not just the delivery. Lewis is paranoid that you might not get the joke. So he makes you get it. He makes you get it twice, just in case. When a couple talk about how horrid it is to deal with people of a lower social class than them, or a middle-aged person talks about how boring the elderly are, you can be sure that Lewis isn’t going to leave the interpretation up to common sense, reading ability, and intense sarcasm. No, he’s going to give you word-for-word mirroring scenes, immediately after, when the complainer is complained about in exactly the same terms by someone of even higher class, or who is even younger.
But that’s still sort of implicit, and it also takes time. So Lewis doesn’t stop there. When, for instance, he describes a soulless, perfectly-provisioned fashionable house without the slightest indication of personality or romance… he finishes by explaining that the house is perfectly provisioned except for lacking any personality or romance. “In fact there was but one thing wrong with the house: it was not a home.” Really, Sinclair? That was the point you were trying to make, was it? I hadn’t realised.
Thanks for clarifying that for me!
But although I thank him for clarifying it for me, really I understood it all along, and I was only thanking him sarcastically. Because, you see, he’s explaining his jokes?
Just to clarify that for you.
So he’s the guy who follows you around 24 hours a day, keeping up a thoroughly sarcastic commentary/catalogue of all your actions, and then explaining why he’s being sarcastic and what he really means. In other words, he’s really, really annoying. That doesn’t stop him sometimes being funny, I should be clear. Sometimes he is funny. He’s just really annoying too.
Of course, the cynic may now point out that Jurgen may have been a publishing success, but Babbitt was a publishing behemoth. So maybe assuming a slow audience and spelling everything out carefully was a successful business decision. Certainly, it provides at least a floor of enjoyment for the novel. With something more subtle, like Jurgen, you may worry that a reader might miss the joke; they won’t miss the joke of Babbitt.
Unfortunately it’s mostly the same joke every paragraph for 400 pages, and it’s not a subtle joke the first time.
[Though, to be fair, the sheer violence with which Lewis mocks his readers is in its own way impressive to behold, and is probably not just part of why people liked reading it, but also part of why they were so shock-and-awed by it. In today’s atmosphere, few writers go quite as full-bore in eviscerating readers, critics, and society, even though that pose of contempt has become a fashionable posture for literary authors – in Lewis’ day, that’s not what writers were meant to be for! (more on which in the postscript). You can almost hear the collective gasp, echoing across the decades…]
Where does that leave us? With three different novels. On the one hand, there is an encyclopaedic survey of American society circa 1920. This is fascinating, but rather dry, particularly as large sections seem to be there solely for the purposes of cataloguing an aspect of society, with or without any thematic or narrative motivation. On a second hand, there is a broad satire of social attitudes. This is often annoying, but is sometimes genuinely funny – occasionally very funny – and although it lacks subtlety, if you like this sort of thing it’s better than a lot of other things you could be reading. It’s funnier than a lot of modern comedians. And then there’s our third hand, on which Babbitt is an intense and melancholy psychological novel about ennui, alienation, culture clashes, but also hope, progress, community, and so forth.
Unfortunately, not only do these three novels not quite hit the mark individually, they all seem to be tugging in different directions. Then again, sometimes that’s for the best: when one novel lags, the others can sometimes fill the gaps.
The serious novel is the quietest but by far the best, and it comes increasingly to the fore in the second half of the novel. I fear that many readers won’t make it that far. To be honest, here: many, many readers will quite rightly find most of Babbitt plotless, dreary, irritating and dull.
Personally, my reaction followed a curve: brief delight when I found it much funnier than I was expecting; irritation when the joke just kept repeating and we struggled through a terribly boring Day In the Life of a Boring Man; boredom alleviated by historical curiosity and amused delight at the dated language; the beginning of a feeling that actually things might end up interesting; real engagement and enjoyment near the end.
So in conclusion, it’s a novel with really good material in it, both comic and serious, and I enjoyed it in the end, and don’t regret reading it, and I would recommend it to people who might like this sort of thing. But you’ve got to really like the humour, or else really be interested in the era, or else just be really patient, because it’s 80% filler and it takes a long time to get going. You can totally see why generations of authors were deeply influenced by Babbitt, and why he got the Nobel; it’s got great ideas, great moments, it’s stunningly original for its day (but endlessly imitated); but you can also see why so many authors thought that they could do it better…
In other words, Lewis was an author badly in need of an editor…
Adrenaline: 2/5. I’m being generous. Most of it is a 1/5. But toward the end, the creeping oppression of Babbitt’s society does get quite tense – and the boredom of the book, frankly, is part of that. It leaves you, like Babbitt, frustrated and desperate to escape… overall, however, it’s a book that intrigues rather than excites.
Emotion: 3/5. Much of it is unemotional, intentionally – it’s a sterile world where any real emotion that might exist is concealed. But there are moments where it breaks through to the surface, only more powerful for having been pushed down under such pressure.
Thought: 4/5. Between the historical parallels, the everyman applicability, and the continual puzzle of working out what these people are talking about what is that expression even meant to mean?, it kept my head very active indeed.
Beauty: 3/5. There are beautiful moments… but a lot of other material to wade through to find them.
I’m sorry, did I just give 2/5 for the craftsmanship of a Nobel Laureate? Yes, yes I did. OK, I did, but then I put it up a notch. In some ways, you could argue 2 was deserved. The prose is often too clunky, the structure is too flaccid, the characterisation frequently far too broad, and the jokes spelled out. He does have his moments. But most of the time, it’s not one of those moments. That said, the writing is never terrible, and there are good bits, and moving beyond the prose to the content I do think was able to capture certain characters and moods very well. He also captures the era with a great deal of attention to detail. So… good and bad, I think a par score is fair.
Endearingness: 3/5. I’m conflicted (nothing new there). I enjoyed bits a lot; I… unenjoyed? bits a lot. Will I be rushing to reread it? I doubt it. And yet I’m left with some sort of lingering affection for it. Much like the character of Georgie Babbitt, I guess, who is so visibly stuffed with flaws, much too full of himself, and yet somehow is impossible not to have some creeping fondness for, like a particularly idiotic dog who constantly misbehaves accidentally, and then looks at you with big sad puppy eyes…
Originality: 3/5. Fair’s fair: in terms of the actual novelty of the book, when it came out, this was culturally world-shattering. The problem is, we’ve now had 94 years of flagrant imitators. Thanks in large part to Babbitt, “realistic, witty novel about middle-aged middle-class white guy suffering ennui as he goes about his day-to-day life, occasionally tempted to have an affair” has basically become the archetype for the “literary fiction” genre. If you want a Platonic Ideal of Literary Fiction, this isn’t far off it (except perhaps that it’s more overtly humorous than most). But it does gain some marks for being so pedantically researched, so precisely and pervasively of its time. You may have read about this guy before, and you may know this plot already, but you probably haven’t seen it set in exactly the summer of 1920 in a Midwestern city… there are a lot of imitators, but you’re not going to confuse Babbitt itself with any of them, I don’t think.
OVERALL: 5/7. GOOD.
I originally gave it 4/7 (‘not bad’) and wrote:
…and now I feel embarrassed. Nobel Prize, idiot! Seminal work of 20th century literature! The Guardian rates it in the top 50 novels of the century! How the bloody hell do you wind up giving it the same score as (pulp horror-fantasy undead killfest D&D novel) Dance of the Dead!?
But… is that wrong? I mean, really? I’m not rating Babbitt for its historical significance, which is obviously tremendous, its influential even beyond the bounds of literature. No argument there. And I’m not really rating it for its value as a histeriosociographical source document, although in that regard it’s fascinating, and by all accounts painstakingly researched and true to life. But none of that really makes it a good novel, does it? Novels aren’t just there to tell us about the past in an informative manner (although that’s nice, don’t get me wrong).
Babbitt does show us a window into the human soul. That’s worth something. And at times its funny, and often interesting, if it interests you. But a lot of novels show us a window into the human soul. I can’t honestly say that what Babbitt showed was informative and novel in that regard, nor that it was particularly emotionally powerful, at least when counterbalanced with all the pages that did not display any particular insight into human existence. But Dance of the Dead had zombies, and weremink, and a talking psychopathic rabbit, and Babbittdid not have any of these things, and there is also that to consider.
After letting passions cool for a while, however, I’ve reconsidered and pushed it up to a 5. I stand by the above, in that I do believe the gap between a good pulp entertainment novel and a historical important literary novel can be much less than you’d imagine. Just because something is Important and is read by Cultured People, that doesn’t automatically make it a great work.
But… I think it’s more accurate to describe Babbitt as ‘good’ than as ‘not bad’. It has a lot of flaws, and frankly anybody calling it one of the books of the century on artistic, rather than historical, grounds is either very badly read, or more likely is a weak-willed charlatan reciting a line they’ve been given and don’t dare challenge. In prose, in structure, in themes, in vividity and acuity, the novel is nothing special. And yet Babbitt is genuinely an interesting, moving, funny, and impressive novel.
We live in an age in which everything is either brilliant or terrible – and The Classics, in particular, are either Overrated (probably due to racism/sexism) or else True Immortal Works of Genius. Babbitt… isn’t either of those things. It’s somewhere inbetween – worthwhile, valuable, impressive, worth reading, and yet frankly not all that earth-shattering.
I began by saying that Babbitt should be on your reading lists. I still agree with that, if we mean a list of Books You Ought To Have Read – and if it is on your lists, don’t treat it with dread, there is enjoyment to be gotten out of it. But at the same time, I’m not going to be putting it anybody’s Books You Must Read Because You Will Love Them list – not unless I think they’re really a perfect fit for it.
That said, while critics may still mention it, I don’t think many people are reading it still. And I think that given its quality, and its continued relevance to the modern world, it ought to be read by more people. Because Babbitt is… well, it may be odd and heavy-handed and meandering, but it’s also… actually pretty good.
P.S. Babbitt did not win the Pulitzer Prize. There’s probably a story behind that. I don’t know it, but I do know the stories behind the Lewis novels that flanked it, and those stories, ironically, get to the heart of why he wrote Babbitt in the first place.
You see, Main Street, the preceding novel, was a contender for the Pulitzer. More than a contender: the jury decided to award it the prize. Unfortunately for Lewis, however, the jury don’t get the final say – and the Pulitzer Prize Board overruled their expert jury, choosing to instead hand the prize to a supposedly lesser, but much less controversial, nominee (a little novel called The Age of Innocence, by a certain Edith Wharton). This is probably why Babbitt is dedicated to Wharton, though whether this represents an olive branch or a sarcastic slow-clap I’m not quite sure.
Now, the Prize Board weren’t wholly opposed to Lewis, or else with his continued acclaim they finally saw the light. Because the novel after Babbitt, Arrowsmith, DID get the Pulitzer. Or at least, it won the Pulitzer. Because this time it was the author who wouldn’t coöperate: Lewis refused the prize.
Why does any of this matter? Because Lewis didn’t turn down the award purely out of spite or for revenge. He rejected the award in protest at the Prize’s aims. You see, we may think of the Pulitzer as recognising quality, and that’s how it was thought of at the time as well – but literary quality, like all other virtues, was judged differently in the age of Main Street and Babbitt. In the terms of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, literary quality is defined very straightforwardly and, for the day, non-controversially: the Prize was “for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.”
…I’m just letting that sit there for a moment. That is why novels like Cabell’s Jurgen and Lewis’ Babbitt were written. Because in the capitalist-flavour Soviet Realism of twenties America, good art is art that serves the public morality, and public morality is always best served by accurately depicting America, and America can only be accurately depicted by emphasising its manhood, its manners, and its wholesomeness. It is a view of art that George F. Babbitt and his brethren would heartily assent to, would see even as unquestionable. Of course great he-literature has to boost American wholesomeness and manhood. What kind of punk fellow would use literature to do anything other than boost his country, when it’s clearly the best country on earth? Only a bunch of fourflushing liberal punk long-hairs trying to undermine America, that’s who, and we don’t want anything to do with that bunch! U.S.A.!
Babbitt may seem to modern readers to err on the side of exaggeration… but actually it’s just an early example of Poe’s Law. The parody cannot rival reality.
Nor, for that matter, was this simply an ignored issue, though Lewis suggested it was an assumption that went generally unnoticed. This very question had also confused the 1920 Prize, when most of the Jury wished to recognise Java Head, the popular but controversial novel of miscegenation, drug addiction, suicide, illegitimacy, murder and migration, by Lewis’ role-model Hergesheimer, but were prevented from doing so by a single juror who insisted that the novel failed to present American life as adequately wholesome. No award was made that year, and presumably similar motivations explain the snub for Main Street.
P.P.S. As hypothetical long-time readers know, I mostly read/review SF&F novels – and readers looking for more of the same have probably wondered off long before this point in the review. But if any of you have made it this far, here’s a little reward: Babbitt may be one of the most important novels in the history of Fantasy.
Why? Because of a certain Sinclair Lewis fan named John Tolkien. I didn’t realise until now that he was a Lewis fan – it seems, on the face of it, implausible. Realism and fantasy were much closer back then, however, before the walls of the fantasy ghetto were erected, and it turns out that Tolkien claimed to have read every single one of Lewis’ novels. Given that, you might even imagine a certain similarity in style, particularly in the area of humour – Tolkien doesn’t joke that much, but he does sometimes indulge a deadpan wit that isn’t so far removed from Lewis’. Realistically, this is probably more the result of shared influences, like Cabell and indeed a whole tendency in English writing of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, although Lewis’ use of the style may have contributed to Tolkien’s own employment of it.
The important bit, however, is much more concrete than that. It lies in a pair of words: babbitt and hobbit. The similarity in sounds, it seems, is more than a coincidence. Although Tolkien denied a conscious decision in this regard, saying that the word ‘hobbit’, and the novel that followed from it, were plucked out of the top of his head on a whim, he in hindsight came to believe that his hobbits had subconsciously been formed by his fondness for Lewis, through the similarity of these two words. Specifically, the culture of the hobbits of the Shire, while dressed in the details of the English gentry, were in Tolkien’s mind a recreation of the petty-minded babbittry of the American middle classes… and, in particular, of the well-fed, conventional, adventure-avoiding Mr George F. Babbitt himself.
He does not, however, have hairy feet.
[Lewis also had something else in common with fantasy writers: obsessive worldbuilding. Lewis drew up detailed maps of Zenith (including all its suburbs, population nearly 400,000) and the entire state of Winnemac, not to mention biographies and genealogies even for minor characters. If Babbitt were a modern fantasy novel, it would be dismissed for its excessive reliance on worldbuilding and on travelogue.]
P.P.P.S. As you may have noticed, my reviews have been getting stupidly long. In particular, the review for Jurgen was simply ridiculous. That’s why I’ve decided to begin the year by changing how I write reviews, employing rigid discipline and an iron will to ensure that, starting with this review, every review I write will be brief, concise, and to the….
*looks at wordcount*
With western Canada hit disproportionately hard by the fall in oil and other commodity prices that began last year, Canada’s most populous province, Ontario, has begun to account for quite a large share of the country’s economic growth. Many Canadian economists (most of whom live in Ontario, as I do) assume this economic resilience is the result of Ontario’ economic diversity and size. Ontario’s population is much larger than that of any other Canadian province (see graph below), and its economy is mixed between services (in Toronto), industry (southwestern Ontario), government (Ottawa), and commodities (northern Ontario). Ontario’s economy is also more oriented toward the auto sector than other provinces are, so it may be benefiting more than others from the fall in oil prices.
Still, this may be missing the point to a certain extent. What really sets Ontario aside from other Canadian provinces is the proximity of large population centres in Ontario to large population centres in the United States. This is unique among Canadian provinces (see graph below), particularly if you ignore British Columbia (which, perhaps not incidentally, is the other major province that has decent economic growth right now, in spite of the fact that it is a significant commodity exporter and has close ties to oil-rich Alberta) and to a lesser extent Quebec (which is also separated from the US by a language barrier). Ontario is the only province to have a bunch of cities that straddle the US-Canada border. These include Detroit-Windsor, Buffalo-Fort Erie, Niagara Falls, Sault St Marie, and Sarnia-Fort Huron.
Since the US economy has remained relatively strong in recent years, unlike those of Europe, East Asia, or much of the developing world, Ontario’s ties to the US may be what is driving Ontario’s economic growth. This should make Ontario concerned; the US economy has not had a recession for almost eight years now, so, in a certain sense at least, it is due for one soon.
Below, I have tried to show some of the ways in which Ontario’s proximity to the US is unique. I’ve gathered all the data myself using Google Earth and recent Canadian and American censuses, so if you think you’ve found any errors in the following graphs please let me know.
Ontario’s ties to the US have also meant that it is less dependent on inter-provincial trade of goods than other parts of Canada are: in recent years Ontario has conducted 2.5 times more trade with other countries (led by the United States, of course) than it has with other provinces. This is compared to just 1-1.5 times more for Quebec, Alberta, and British Colombia.
Economists and financial journalists in Ontario need to be more careful than they have been in the recent past. During the 2007-2009 economic crises they ascribed the relative success of Canada’s financial system (which is centred in Toronto, Ontario) to the fact that Canadian bankers and regulators were more prudent and conscientious than their peers in other countries, rather than to the fact that Canada was flush with capital at the time as a result of the sky-high commodity prices that existed just before and just after the financial crisis, and as a result of the fact that Canadian Baby Boomers were then in the prime of their financial lives (as Canada, unlike the younger US or older Japan, is dominated by the Baby Boomer generation).
But instead of acknowledge these facts, much of the Canadian media decided instead to help create a cult of personality around Canadian bankers and Bank of Canada leader Mark Carney — a cult of personality they have since exported to Britain, where Carney has become a figure of great importance (especially since Brexit and the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron) and the first non-Briton to ever become the central banker over the British financial system, a system that is far larger, far more worldly, and far less dependent on commodity sectors than the Canadian financial system is. Similarly, Ontario’s economic resilience is now being described (by some people) as if it was basically an inherent condition of the Ontario economy, rather than a result, at least in part, of Ontario’s unique ties to the growing US economy.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that Ontario is not a resilient place or that bankers and regulators in Toronto and Ottawa are not prudent and wise. And certainly I would like Ontario’s economy to continue growing, since it is my home. However, believing either one of these stereotypes about Ontario too much could be a dangerous mistake for investors or governments to continue to make.
It used to be, roughly speaking, that cheap labour + energy = industrial output = military power.
This made Iran the natural power in the Middle East. Iran had far more energy than countries like Turkey, Egypt, Israel or Pakistan, and far more labour than the Gulf Arab countries or Libya.
The Gulf Arab monarchies have tried to overcome their relative deficit in labour by importing workers from Asia. However there are limits to such immigration, not only because of the fear that the immigrants could cause political instability (they are mostly men, and tend to be poorly treated), but also because it is not cheap to provide food and water in the desert.
The US has often worked to influence or contain this Iranian potential. It pressured the Soviets and British to withdraw from Iran following World War Two, helped to overthrow Iran’s Prime Minister in the 1950s, unleashed the Arabs on Iran in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, and in recent years have opposed the Iranian-allied regime in Syria and played Good Cop-Bad Cop with the Israelis in threatening to carry out airstrikes on Iran’s nuclear and military infrastructure.
Going forward, however, the traditional relationships between labour, industry, and military power may be breaking down.
Labour may no longer be so important to industry, as industrial labour will in many cases be replaced by machines or, in the case of skilled labourers like engineers and computer programmers, may sometimes be outsourced using high-quality digital communications. Having a large labour force may perhaps even limit the ability to industrialize, since countries with large populations could have to deal with robot-caused unemployment, competition for energy between the residential, commercial, and industrial sectors of the economy, and protests against local industrial pollution. This could put the Gulf Arab states at less of an industrial disadvantage when compared to countries with larger labour forces, like Iran.
Meanwhile, industrial output and labour are both less likely to translate into military power than they once were. In past wars, like the Iran-Iraq War or the Israeli-Arab Wars, wars were fought by giving lots of soldiers lots of weapons. This is, for example, one reason why the Israeli-Arab wars never lasted long. Israel did not have a large enough population to run its military and factories at full capacity simultaneously, so it had to end wars quickly in order to avoid running short on supplies. Otherwise it would risk becoming too dependent on US supply lines, as occured when it was attacked by Egypt and Syria during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
In the future, though, human soldiers may be replaced by machines in some cases, rendering population size less important in war. In addition, the quantity of weapons produced could continue to become less significant than their quality, given that weapons can now be destroyed by precise satellite-guided missiles. As a result, if the Gulf Arab states and Iran were to use their oil and natural gas reserves to become industrial powers, it would not have to translate into their becoming military powers. This could make existing Middle Eastern military powers like the US, Turkey, or Israel more likely to tolerate the industrialization of the Gulf.
The machine-driven industrialization of the Gulf Arab states and Iran could make sense for a number of other reasons as well:
— The Gulf region is even less populous than it may seem at first glance. This is because the vast majority of the populations of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent Iraq live hundreds of kilometers away from the Gulf, and separated from the Gulf by mountains and desert. If you count only the provinces of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq that border the Gulf, the entire population of the Gulf region (including the smaller Gulf Arab states) is only around 30-35 million. It is also very hot there during the day, making physical labour difficult.
(Population Density of Saudi Arabia and Iran)
— The Gulf region is rich not only in oil, but also in natural gas. Iran in particular is the world’s third largest producer of natural gas, and is thought to have the second largest reserves (the largest by far if you do not count Siberia). Iran also directly borders landlocked Turkmenistan, which is thought by some to have the world’s fourth largest gas reserves.
Natural gas, however, is very difficult to transport long distances or to store up in large quantities. Qatar has managed to become rich from exporting its gas in liquified (LNG) form, but this only works because Qatar has a tiny population (2.3 million people) and as LNG prices in Asia and Europe have been high. For the rest of the Gulf’s gas, it would be difficult to replicate Qatar’s success. It might make more sense, then, for the gas to be kept within the Gulf, used there to produce energy for industrialization.
Gas-fired power plants tend to be the cheapest types of power plants to build, and have efficiencies considerably higher than coal plants. Gas is also a feedstock in petrochemical industries like plastics. The Middle East already accounts for an estimated seven percent of global petrochemicals production.
— The Gulf region is located at the centre of Eurasian and African trade routes, both by land and by sea. While all of the Gulf’s trade routes are politically fragile, this may actually make industrialization sensible, because it is easier to stockpile large amounts of manufactured goods or industrial raw materials for use during a crisis than it is to stockpile oil or especially gas. Industrialization would also give the region more economic autarky, which would be useful if its trade routes to the outside world were ever imperilled or cut. And the Gulf already possesses large industrial port areas as a result of its energy exports.
— Industrial areas which use machines can be clustered in ways that traditional, labour-based industrial areas cannot. Machines, after all, do not need lodgings, and are not bothered by pollution. Moreover, the Gulf itself could be a mega-industrial cluster, given that it has the world’s largest concentration of cheap-to-produce oil and gas by far. In other words, you might be able to have a bunch of local industrial clusters forming a huge, region-wide industrial cluster.
Industrial clustering could have a number of advantages. First, it could be easier to defend militarily, which, given the enormous expense and difficulty of missile defence systems,
could be significant. In the Gulf, the energy fields, power plants, factories, and ports could all be concentrated in a fairly small, defended area. If you ignore coal, there is nowhere else in the world that comes even close to being able to have this. (Texas is probably the closest…).
Second, clustering could perhaps help to allow for carbon capture and storage. Carbon capture and storage has thus far proven to be far from economical in most cases, and yet it is also necessary if the world wants to limit carbon emissions without ending consumption of fossil fuels. It could be that the way to make it economical is to cluster many power plants together in order to allow for economies of scale to form. Moreover, the only type of carbon capture and storage that has proven economical thus far is when carbon is used in Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), being sent down oil and gas wells in order to increase oil and gas productivity. The Gulf already uses EOR in some cases, and has huge EOR potential as a result of the size of its oil and gas fields.
US Oil Demand
One factor that could help spur the industrialization of the Gulf would be if people in the rich world, particularly in North America, would stop driving alone in their cars so much. By switching to alternative forms of transport — whether carpooling, taking public transport, UberPool-ing, e-commuting, shopping online, taking a self-driving bus or self-driving electric car, etc. etc. — it may leave Gulf oil available for industrial use within the Gulf.
Regional Political Triangle
This article has been a bit of a theoretical ramble, I know. But if we assume for a moment that the Gulf does manage to use its energy resources and robots to become a industrial powerhouse, what would happen to the politics of the wider region? India and Pakistan, after all, are located very close to the Gulf, putting a billion and a half people within its reach.
I think you might see something like a US-Gulf-South Asia political triangle emerge. The US has already been allies with the Gulf Arab states and Pakistan for many decades now (though of course, it is often a tortured alliance), so this would require only bringing Iran and India into the fold as well. India is already well on its way in this regard; Iran may perhaps be following behind it, given the recent warming of relations between the US and Iran during Obama’s second term.
In such a scenario, the Gulf would provide goods and oil to South Asia, South Asia would provide skilled outsourced labour to the Gulf, the US would provide food and military protection to both the Gulf and South Asia, and the Gulf and South Asia would help the US to put a lid on regional chaos and contain any European, East Asian, or Eurasian powers that may emerge over time.
Then again, maybe none of this will end up happening. The Gulf may be ludicrously rich in easy-flowing oil and gas, but translating that energy wealth into industrial success will be no easy feat, with or without robots.
Saudi Arabia has an estimated population of 32 million, the 40th largest in the world and 6th largest in the Arab world. It is barely more than a third of the size of Egypt’s population. Territorially, however, Saudi Arabia is massive. It is the 12th largest country in the world, and the largest country in the Arab world outside of Algeria. Its territory is roughly the size of Turkey, France, Germany and Japan put together.
Of course, much of this territory is desert. Saudi Arabia’s arable land per capita, according to the World Bank, is just 0.1 hectares per person, less than in densely populated states like India or Germany, though still a lot higher than in Egypt, Yemen, and a few other Arab countries.
Most Saudis live in the western part of the country, within 150 km of the Red Sea. The densest concentration of Saudi Arabians live near the country’s mountainous border with Yemen. This is significant, as on the Yemeni side of the border the population density is also high. Nearly all of Yemen’s population of 27 million live within 400 km of this border. Many live within just 200 km of the border, in the capital and largest city Sana’a or in the mountains north of Sana’a.
This populous border region, which is inhabited on both sides of the border by a non-Sunni majority, in stark contrast to Saudi Arabia as a whole, has created challenges for the Saudi rulers. In recent years the Saudi military has engaged directly in the ongoing Yemeni civil war, for example.
Another product of Yemeni-Saudi relations is Osama bin Laden, one of the many sons of the billionaire Mohammad bin Awad bin Laden, a poor Yememite who moved to Arabia’s main port city of Jeddah before the First World War and later became one the richest non-royals in Saudi Arabia. In a certain sense Osama went on to become arguably the most prominent challenger to the Saudi royalty, during the 2000s.
The Saudi-Yemeni relationship is in some ways a microcosm of Saudi Arabian geopolitics in general. Saudi Arabia’s borderlands (the lands on either side of Saudi Arabia’s borders) are much more populous than Saudi Arabia’s heartland (the region in and around the Saudi capital city Riyadh). Moreover while the Saudi heartland adheres mainly to ultraconservative Wahabbi Islam (or, more broadly, to Sunni Islam), Saudi borderlands are often non-Sunni or adhere to more cosmopolitan (by Saudi standards) non-Wahabbist Sunni traditions.
This includes not just the wealthy, relatively cosmopolitan foreign cities of the Persian Gulf, like Dubai, Doha, or Abu Dhabi, but also cities within Saudi Arabia near the Red Sea, like Mecca and Medina (because of the Hajj, which has historically had a worldly influence) and the Meccan port city of Jeddah, which is by far the most populous Saudi city apart from Riyadh.
Within 200 km of Saudi Arabia’s land borders, over 35 million people live (not counting Saudi Arabia’s own population), more than the 32 million people that live in Saudi Arabia. Within 500 km of Saudi Arabia’s land or sea borders more than 230 million people live (not counting Saudis). By comparison, there are just 15 million or so people who live in or within 500 km of Riyadh.
In contrast, in Egypt most of the Egyptian population lives in or within 200 km of Cairo, and very few people in Egypt live within 200 km of Egypt’s land borders with other countries. In Turkey most people live in or within 400 km of the capital Ankara. In Iraq nearly all people live in or within 430 km of Baghdad. And in Pakistan most people live within 500 km of Islamabad.
Iran, on the other hand, does have a somewhat similar geopolitical configuration as Saudi Arabia, if not necessarily to the same extreme. The Iranian heartland (in, around, and between the cities of Tehran and Esfahan) is far away from most the country’s populous borderlands, and its borderlands are in many cases not inhabited by Persians but rather by minority groups like Kurds, Arabs, Azeri Turks, Balochis, and others. The fact that both Saudi Arabia and Iran are potentially fragile in this way has helped, perhaps, to drive their rivalry with one another, as both act aggressively to preempt any perceived threats to their internal cohesion.
The same is true, though to a lesser extent, of Turkey, where some in Ankara worry about Kurdish groups along its eastern borders and about secularists and cosmopolitans in and around Istanbul on its western borders.
One of the only significant exceptions to Saudi Arabia’s borderland linkages is in its southeast, where the The Empty Quarter of the Arabian desert effectively hives off areas within Oman, the UAE, and Yemen from Saudi population centres. You can see the influence of the Empty Quarter (Ar Rub’ al Khali) in the map of roads in Saudi Arabia below: it has almost none. According to Wikipedia, the Empty Quarter is larger in size than entire countries like France, Afghanistan, or Ukraine. It is about five times larger than England.
Looking out from Riyadh, the Saudi leadership sees potential border-region threats in almost every direction. It worries not only about neighbouring countries, but also how they may interact with its own Saudi citizens (and with its foreign-born labourers, who number around a fifth of the people in Saudi Arabia). In the past the Saudis have waged an aggressive foreign policy meant to stave off such threats, for example allying with the US during the Cold War in order to combat the Shiite Iranians (post-1979), the Pan-Arab Nasserites in Egypt (pre-1980), and Ba’athist Iraq (in 1990).
Today Saudi Arabia continues to project influence, in various ways, into countries like Egypt (where it supported ultra-religious Salafist political parties and the Egyptian military against both the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian liberals), Bahrain (which Saudi Arabia invaded, in effect, during the Arab Spring in 2011, in order to prop up the Sunni monarchy against the majority Shiite population), Iraq and Syria (where it has supported religious Sunni groups), Lebanon, and Yemen.
Even along its maritime borders the Saudis are potentially insecure, a result of the narrowness of the Red Sea (250 km, on average) and Persian Gulf (also 250 km wide), as well as the fact that both seas can be potentially closed off because of the chokepoints of Hormuz, Suez, and the Bab-el Mandeb. Indeed, absent support for Saudi Arabia from an outside power like the United States, the most probable leading nation in the energy-rich Persian Gulf is not Saudi Arabia, but rather is Iraq, which occupies a large majority of the arable lowlands in the Persian Gulf basin, or Iran, which occupies most of the arable highlands overlooking the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia’s Gulf region, in contrast, is mainly desert.
In addition, because Iran and Iraq are both majority-Shiite, as is Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and neighbouring Bahrain, the Sunnis and Wahabbists in Saudi Arabia are at a potential disadvantage in the Gulf region from a religious perspective. Indeed, Saudi Arabia is badly outnumbered in the Gulf even just by the Kuwaitis, Qataris, and Emiratis, who together have 15 million inhabitants (led by the Emiratis, with 9.5 million people) and an estimated GDP of 775 billion dollars (compared to around 750 billion dollars for Saudi Arabia). This situation is further complicated by the huge foreign-born labour forces of these rich Gulf monarchies, which tend not to be treated very well yet outnumber the citizen labour forces within most of these countries.
Historically the Persian Gulf was not as important as it is in the modern oil and gas era. The Saudis main rivalries in the late 19th and early 20th century were instead in western Saudi Arabia, with the Hashemites, and in north-central Saudi Arabia, with the Rashidis. The Hashemites, who had been allied with the British and today rule Jordan, were in control of the Hejaz (see map below) until defeated and exiled to (rule) Iraq, Syria, and Jordan by the Saudis in 1924-1925; the Rashidis, who had at times been allied with the Turkish Ottomans, were in control of most of the Arabian interior until defeated by the Saudis in 1921, three years after the end of the First World War. Just thirty-one years before, in 1890, the Rashidis had conquered Riyadh and forced the Saudis into political exile in Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait.
Today most of Saudi Arabia’s population lives in the Hejaz, in lands that have been under Saudi rule for less than a century. The legacy of the rivalry between the Saudis and Rashidis, meanwhile, can still be seen in the M. Izady relgious map (posted higher above in this article), where the area in, around, and north of the city of Ha’il, the former Rashidi capital, is one of the only parts of the Saudi interior categorized as Sunni rather than Wahhabi. The defeat of the Rashidi dynasty has meant that Ha’il is now just the 12th most populous city in Saudi Arabia, in contrast to Riyadh which has become the largest in the country.
Mecca and Medina
Mecca is just the third most populous Saudi city, however because of its religious significance it is more important than any other. It is located close to other large Saudi cities: 65 km east of Jeddah (the second largest Saudi city, with more than twice the population of Mecca), 50 km west of Taif (the sixth largest Saudi city) and 335 km south of Medina (the fourth largest Saudi city). Together Mecca, Jeddah, and Taif, all of which are located in Makkah Region, have a population larger than the Saudi capital Riyadh or the Riyadh Region.
Mecca is located almost exactly on a straight line with Riyadh in central Saudi Arabia (I’ve added lines on the map above to try to display this), with Hofuf and Dammam in eastern Saudi Arabia (the fifth and seventh largest Saudi cities, respectively), and with Manama (Bahrain’s capital) immediately to Saudi Arabia’s east. This line is perpindicular to the line that runs north-south along the western coast and coastal mountains of Arabia. Within these lines, which converge around Mecca, Jeddah, and Ta’if, lives a significant majority of Saudi Arabia’s population, as well as to most Yemenis and Bahrainis. Cities like Medina, meanwhile, are outside but still quite close to these lines, as is Doha the wealthy capital of Qatar. The north-south line also runs roughly parallel to the Nile river valley, where nearly all Egyptians and most Sudanese live.
Historically Mecca and Jeddah were strategically located, at the centre of the regional trade and transport routes linking Asia, Europe, and East Africa. They are situated almost exactly 1200 km from the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean, and Persian Gulf. Because Mecca and Jeddah are located just to the north of the higher elevations of Arabia’s Red Sea coastal mountains (see maps below), and northwest of the impassable Empty Quarter of Arabia, caravan routes between the Persian Gulf and Red Sea could not easily bypass them to the south.
At the same time, Mecca still has a useful foothold in a small northern sliver of these higher-elevation coastal mountains, around Ta’if. Ta’if, where Meccan elites historically would reside during the summer to escape the heat, is at 1879 metres above sea level, compared to just 12 metres for Jeddah, 277 for Mecca, and 332 for Medina.
The relative proximity of Mecca, Jeddah, and especially Medina to Egypt was also significant in the past. Before steamships, it was difficult to travel northward in the Red Sea because of the trade winds blowing south and the rockiness and narrowness of the Gulf of Suez. As a result, ships would often travel instead to the Egyptian port city of Al-Qusayr (population 50,000 today) where a bend in the Nile brings the river relatively close to the Red Sea, then cross 155 km of desert overland to Quena (population 250,000) on the Nile and sail the river the rest of the way to the Mediterranean.
Unlike the Red Sea, the Egyptian portion of the Nile could be crossed easily in either direction; it has no significant rapids or water-barriers to the north of the Cataracts of the Nile (which separate Egypt from Sudan), it has no significant river bends (unlike the very big bend the Nile makes in Sudan north of the capital Khartoum), and even sailing south against the current of the river could be acheived with relative ease because of the south-blowing trade winds. The Egyptian port of Al-Qusayr on the Red Sea is not too far north of Medina, and is likely one of the reasons that Medina became so significant.
In addition, Medina is located near where the Wadi Al-Rummah, the longest valley in the entire Arabian peninsula, arises. It runs from Medina all the way northeast to the Persian Gulf by Kuwait.
Jeddah and Mecca, meanwhile, are across from Port Sudan, which is by far the most populous coastal city on the Red Sea in either Sudan or Egypt (not counting Suez). From Port Sudan a valley leads through the East African coastal mountains to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum (population 5-6 million), where the Blue Nile and White Nile meet to become the Nile. Today Khartoum is perhaps the fourth or fifth most populous city in the Arab world, but gets little media attention.
The routes between Arabia and the Nile were used, for example, during the late 18th century, when the British sent their army from India to Egypt to counter the invasion of Egypt and Palestine by Napoleon, when Napoleon was still a general and not yet France’s ruler. The route was used also by the sons of Egypt’s Ottoman Viceroy Muhammad Ali to overthrow the First Saudi State (1744-1818) and later challenge the Second Saudi State (1824-1891). However as a result of modern shipping and the Suez Canal, the route today is no longer as important.
Saudi Arabia’s geography has heavily informed its history, up to and including the present day. As a result of its desert climate, for example, the Saudi economy is still not very large. Its GDP is smaller than Turkey’s, a third as large as Italy’s, and less than twice as large as those of Iran or the United Arab Emirates. Politically, meanwhile, the strain between the historical Saudi and Wahabbi heartland around Riyadh and its borderlands around the Red Sea and Persian Gulf is perhaps the main factor driving the Saudi state’s aggresivity and extremism, both at home and abroad. This aggressivity and extremism, in turn, could create political pushback against the Saudi leadership from Saudi citizens, neighbouring Middle Eastern countries, or regional powers like the United States.
Some notes, taken from Wikipedia:
“As with many Arab ruling dynasties, the lack of a generally accepted rule of succession was a recurrent problem with the Rasheedi rule. The internal dispute normally centered on whether succession to the position of amir should be horizontal (i.e. to a brother) or vertical (to a son). These internal divisions within the family led to bloody infighting. In the last years of the nineteenth century six Rasheedi leaders died violently. Nevertheless, The Al Rasheed Family still ruled and fought together [against the Saudis] in the Saudi–Rashidi Wars.”
As an aside, Faisal bin Musa’id, a half-Rashidi half-Saudi prince, assisinated Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal in 1975. According to Wikipedia, “Faisal’s father was Prince Musa’id, the step-brother of King Faisal, and his mother was Watfa, a daughter of Muhammad bin Talal, the 12th (and last) Rashidi Emir. His parents divorced. He and his brothers and sisters were much closer to their maternal Rashidi relatives than their paternal Al Saud relatives. In 1966, his older brother Khaled, a Wahhabist, was killed during an assault on a new television station in Riyadh. Wahhabi clerics opposed the establishment of a national television service, as they believed it immoral to produce images of humans. The details of his death are disputed. Some reports allege that he actually died resisting arrest outside his own home. Faisal came to the United States in 1966 and attended San Francisco State College for two semesters studying English. Allis Bens, director of the American Language Institute at San Francisco State, said, “He was friendly and polite and very well brought up it seemed to me. I am really very surprised about this.” While Faisal was at San Francisco State his brother Khaled was killed. In 1969, while in Boulder he was arrested for conspiring to sell LSD. He pleaded guilty and was place on probation for one year. After leaving the United States, he went to Beirut. For unknown reasons, he also went to East Germany. When he came back to Saudi Arabia, Saudi authorities seized his passport because of his troubles abroad. He began teaching at Riyadh University and kept in touch with his girlfriend, Christine Surma, who was 26 at the time of the assassination.On 25 March 1975, he went to the Royal Palace in Riyadh, where King Faisal was holding a majlis. He joined a Kuwaiti delegation and lined up to meet the king. The king recognized his nephew and bent his head forward, so that the younger Faisal could kiss the king’s head in a sign of respect. The prince took out a revolver from his robe and shot the King twice in the head. His third shot missed and he threw the gun away. King Faisal fell to the floor. Bodyguards with swords and submachine guns arrested the prince. The king was quickly rushed to a hospital but doctors failed to save him. Before dying, King Faisal ordered that the assassin not be executed.. Saudi television crews captured the entire assassination on camera. A sharia court found Faisal guilty of the king’s murder on 18 June, and his public execution occurred hours later. His brother Bandar was imprisoned for one year and later released. Following the execution, his head was displayed to the crowd for 15 minutes on a wooden spike, before being taken away with his body in an ambulance. Beirut newspapers offered three different explanations for the attack. An-Nahar reported that the attack may have been possible vengeance for the dethroning of King Saud, because Faisal was scheduled to marry Saud’s daughter — Princess Sita — in the same week.”
The First Saudi State
“After many military campaigns, Saud [the founder of First Saudi State] died in 1765, leaving the leadership to his son, Abdul-Aziz bin Muhammad [who married the daughter of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahabbism]. Saud’s forces went so far as to gain command of the Shi’a holy city of Karbala [in Mesopotamia] in 1801. Here they destroyed grave markers of saints and monuments. [Later they] sent out forces to bring the region of Hejaz under his rule… This was seen as a major challenge to the authority of the Ottoman Empire, which had exercised its rule over the holy cities since 1517. The task of weakening the grip of the House of Saud was given to the powerful viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha, by the Ottomans This initiated the Ottoman–Saudi War, in which Muhammad Ali sent his troops to the Hejaz region by sea. His son, Ibrahim Pasha, then led Ottoman forces into the heart of Nejd [the interior of Arabia]… Finally, Ibrahim reached the Saudi capital at Diriyah [on the outskirts of Riyadh] and placed it under siege for several months until it surrendered in the winter of 1818. Ibrahim then shipped off many members of the clans of Al Saud and Muhammed Ibn Abd Al Wahhab to Egypt and the Ottoman capital, Constantinople. Before he left he ordered a systematic destruction of Diriyah, whose ruins have remained untouched ever since. Abdullah bin Saud was later executed in the Ottoman capital Constantinople with his severed head later thrown into the waters of the Bosphorus, marking the end of what was known as the First Saudi State.”
The Second Saudi State
“The first Saudi to attempt to regain power after the fall of the Emirate of Diriyah in 1818 was Mishari ibn Saud, a brother of the last ruler in Diriyah, Abdullah bin Saud. He was soon captured by the Egyptians and killed, however. In 1824, Turki bin Abdullah bin Muhammad, a grandson of the first Saudi imam Muhammad bin Saud, was able to expel Egyptian forces and their local allies from Riyadh and its environs. He is generally regarded as the founder of the second Saudi dynasty as well as being the ancestor of the kings of modern-day Saudi Arabia. He made his capital in Riyadh and was able to enlist the services of many relatives who has escaped captivity in Egypt, including his son Faisal ibn Turki Al Saud. Turki was then assassinated in 1834 by Mishari ibn Abdul-Rahman, a distant cousin. Mishari was soon besieged in Riyadh and later executed by Faisal, who went on to become the most prominent ruler of the Saudis’ second reign. Faisal, however, faced a re-invasion of Najd by the Egyptians four years later. Faisal was defeated and taken to Egypt as a prisoner for the second time in 1838. The Egyptians installed Khalid ibn Saud, last surviving brother of Muhammad bin Saud, who had spent many years in the Egyptian court, as ruler in Riyadh, and supported him with Egyptian troops. In 1840, however, external conflicts forced the Egyptians to withdraw all their presence in the Arabian Peninsula, leaving Khalid with little support. Seen by most locals as nothing more than an Egyptian governor, Khalid was toppled soon afterwards by Abdullah ibn Thuniyyan, of the collateral Al Thuniyyan branch. Faisal, however, had been released from prison that year and, aided by the Al Rashid rulers of Ha’il, was able to retake Riyadh and resume his rule… Upon Faisal’s death in 1865, Abdullah assumed rule in Riyadh but was soon challenged by his brother, Saud. The two brothers fought a long civil war, in which they traded rule in Riyadh several times. Muhammad ibn Abdallah ibn Rashid of Ha’il took the opportunity to intervene in the conflict and increase his own power. Gradually, Ibn Rashid extended his authority over most of Najd, including the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Ibn Rashid finally expelled the last Saudi leader, Abdul-Rahman bin Faisal, from Najd after the Battle of Mulayda in 1891, ending the Second Saudi State.”