The Geopolitics of Saudi Arabia

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. This is less even than in densely populated states like India, though it is 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.

Saudi_Arabia_population_density_2010
Population density of Saudi Arabia by Region

On the Yemeni side of the border the population density is also high. Nearly all of Yemen’s population of 27 million lives within 400 km of this border. Many Yemenis live within just 200 km of the border, in the capital and largest city Sana’a or in the mountains north of Sana’a.

yemen_pop_2002
Yemen

This populous border region is inhabited by a non-Sunni majority on both sides of the border, in stark contrast to Saudi Arabia as a whole. It has created challenges for the Saudi rulers. In recent years the Saudi military has been engaging directly in the ongoing Yemeni civil war, for example.

M.-Izadys-Arabian-Religion-Map
Shiite groups live on both sides of the Saudi-Yemeni border

(Another product of Yemeni-Saudi relations was 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, who went on to become one the richest non-royals in Saudi Arabia).

saudi-map
Of Saudi Arabia’s 13 Regions, Ar Riyadh, Makkah, and Eastern Province (Ash Sharqiyah) are by far the most populous. Jizan in the southwest, meanwhile, is much more densely populated than any of the others, followed by Bahah, Makkah, and Asir which are also much more densely populated than the others

saudi regions graph

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). 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.

ethnic-iran-map

One of the only significant exceptions to Saudi Arabia’s borderland permeability  is in its southeast, where 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.

Saudi-Arabia-road-map

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.

Saudi Arabia

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.

topographic map

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.

mid-east-religion

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.

Hejaz

Rashid

ottoman arabia

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.

Saudi Cities Lines Map

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 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.

Saudi_Arabia_Topography

map-saudi-toppography
the stronghold of Ta’if

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.

Egypt .png
Al-Qusayr to Quena

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.

port sudan.png

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.

Conclusion 

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 estimated to be 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 external powers like the United States.

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Some notes, taken from Wikipedia:

The Rashidis 

“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.”

Morocco the Outlier

As a result of the conflicts in Syria and Libya, Morocco has become the only state in the Middle East/North African region that is not or does not border a failed or semi-failed state.

Morocco’s next-door neighbour Algeria, in contrast, borders two or three such states, namely Libya, Mali, and Niger. Algeria might also be standing on politically shaky ground itself, as its economy is highly dependent upon exports of oil and gas and as its leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has governed the country since 1999 (since the Algerian Civil War, which lasted from 1991-2002), has now reached 79 years old and has very serious health problems but no clear political successor.

Tunisia, meanwhile, in sandwiched narrowly between Libya, Algeria, and the depressed economy of southern Italy. Egypt borders Libya and Sudan and Gaza. Saudi Arabia borders Iraq and Yemen. Iran borders Iraq and Afghanistan. Turkey borders Iraq, Syria, and the economy of Greece. Sudan borders several troubled states and also remains troubled itself. Jordan borders Syria and Iraq. Lebanon borders Syria. Kuwait borders Iraq. Oman borders Yemen.

The West Bank Palestinian Territory, like Morocco, does not have failed-state neighbours: it is directly bordered only by Israel and Jordan. Still, Palestine cannot be said to be on this list with Morocco, since it is not independent and since it includes the more troubled Gaza Strip. Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, meanwhile, are no longer truly majority-Arab economies, as non-Arab foreign workers now significantly outnumber their own citizen labour forces.

Morocco is an outlier also in terms of its economy (it is a significant net importer of fossil fuels, unlike most other Arab economies) and in its geographic location at the outer edge of Africa and Europe. Though Morocco has not been able to capitalize much on these traits in the past – the country’s per capita GDP is under $4000 –  there are reasons to think that it will begin to outshine most other nations in the coming years.

Here are 5 factors to keep an eye out for:

1.  Ties to the Americas

Morocco has closer connections to the Western Hemisphere than do most other countries in the Arab world, for a number of reasons. One is geography: Morocco is an Atlantic country, and most people in North and South America live within the Atlantic basin. Marrakesh is 5900 km from Manhattan, 6900 km from Miami, and 4900 km from the easternmost edge of Brazil. By comparison, Marrakesh is 5400 km from the Saudi capital Riyadh, 4900 from Baghdad, and 3700 km from Cairo.

Another is language: millions of Moroccans can speak French, Spanish, or  (increasingly) English, which along with Portuguese are the languages spoken most often in the Americas.

Another is history: Morocco was not a British colony, so it does not have the same resentment against the English-speaking world that many other countries do. Also, it was liberated by the US and Britain relatively early on in the Second World War (insert Casablanca reference here).

And another is politics: the US wants at least one stable, large, non-Wahabbist political ally in the Arab world, and as a result it is views Morocco favourably. In addition, the US and British navies continues to require passage through the narrow Strait of Gibraltar between Morocco and Spain in order to access the Mediterranean.

(Morocco and the US struck a Free Trade Agreement in 2006. Outside of Canada, Australia, South Korea, Israel, Jordan, Oman, and some countries in Latin America, Morocco is the only country to have such an agreement with the US)

As the economies of Europe, East Asia, and most of the developing world are simultaneously struggling at the moment, whereas the economy of the United States remains relatively vibrant, Morocco’s linkages to the US and other countries in the Americas could provide it with a significant advantage over its peers.

2. Oil and Food Imports 

Falling commodity prices in recent years have left most Middle Eastern countries panicking, depending as they do upon energy export to maintain their economies. Morocco too could be hurt by the falling price of energy, as it has benefited in the past from tourism, investment, and financial transfers coming from oil-rich states like Saudi Arabia. Still, Morocco is not a net commodity exporter itself. Quite the opposite, in fact: as a share of GDP Morocco is one of the world’s biggest net oil importers among countries with significant-sized populations, and it is also one of the bigger food importers.

Morocco does not even trade much with its energy-exporting neighbour Algeria, as the two have been rivals of one another because of Morocco’s ongoing control of Western Sahara. Morocco does trade, however, with Spain and with Portugal, both countries that could benefit significantly should cheap oil and gas prices persist.

(Source: The World Bank; Wall Street Journal)

3. Spain’s Economic Recovery

Spain and Portugal have been in a very deep economic recession since the “global financial crisis” hit. The southern regions of Spain, meanwhile, have been in a Depression in which as recently as 2015 they had formal unemployment rates of well over 30 percent, higher even than in Greece. This has not been good for Morocco at all, which sits just 14 km across the Straits of Gibraltar from southern Spain. The two Spanish “ex-claves” in Morocco, Cueta and Melilla (which have a combined population of 165,000), have similar unemployment rates.

Since the beginning of 2015, however, Spain is thought to have been the fastest growing significant economy in “Western Europe” apart from Sweden or Ireland, and Portugal has also been doing much better than in previous years.  Meanwhile the heart of the “Eurocrisis” seems to have moved to Italy, which could be very bad for neighbouring Tunisia and so make Morocco even more of an outlier in terms of being a stable economy within the Arab world.

(Source: Eurostat)

(Morocco exports slightly more to France than to Spain, however given that France’s GDP is more than twice as large as Spain’s, this indicates Morocco’s closer economic ties to Spain)

4. Modern Communications

Morocco is a semi-rural country. According to the World Bank, 40% of Morocco’s population live in rural areas, compared, for example, to 57% in Egypt, 33% in Tunisia, 30% in Algeria, 31% in Iraq, 27% in Iran and Turkey, and just 17% in Saudi Arabia. Morocco is also the most mountainous country in the Arab world outside of Yemen, making many of its inhabitants – in particular its rural inhabitants –  somewhat isolated from one another as well as from the outside world. Morocco’s population could benefit from Internet and mobile phone access helping it to overcome this isolation, then.

Morocco might also benefit from modern communications because of its unique linguistic abilities: its population speaks four different prominent languages, namely Arabic (which is spoken not only in Arab countries, but also by at least tens of thousands of people in almost every Muslim country), French, Spanish, and (increasingly) English. Morocco is in fact one of the few countries outside of Spain or the Western Hemisphere in which significant numbers of people are capable of speaking Spanish. Moreover, if Spain and Portugal benefit from being able to forge closer connections with Spanish and Portuguese speakers in the Americas as a result of the Internet, Morocco could benefit indirectly from their success.

The Internet could be particularly useful in helping Morocco to connect usefully with the rest of the Arab world, which until now Morocco has been somewhat cut off from as a result of its faraway location – it is a five hour flight from Morocco’s biggest city Casablanca to Cairo, and nearly an eight hour flight from Casablanca to Dubai – and as a result of its poor political relationship with its next-door neighbour Algeria. Given that most of the Arab world’s population and almost all of the Arab world’s economic activity occurs in the Middle East (including Egypt) rather than in North Africa (excluding Egypt), the distance-shrinking effects of the modern Internet could be of special assistance to Morocco.

(above: Population by country; below: The Moroccan diaspora)

5. Self-Driving Vehicles 

Morocco is located at the front door of Western Europe. It has to cross just one border to reach Spain, two borders to reach France, and three borders to reach Germany, Britain, or Italy. (By comparison, Turkey has to cross at least five borders to reach Germany or Italy by land, six to reach France, and seven to reach Britain or Spain). Still, Morocco cannot yet seamlessly access these countries.

It is, for example, 2350 km from Casablanca to Paris by land, a route which crosses the Strait of Gibraltar as well as a number of mountain ranges in Morocco, Spain, and southern France. This can make transport difficult, particularly by train. Trains cannot easily drive on and off of ships like trucks can, and they cannot handle steep inclines and sharp curves in mountainous areas as easily as trucks (particularly small trucks) can.

Indeed Morocco has only the 71st largest railway network in the world, according to the CIA World Factbook, smaller even than Tunisia’s. Spain has a much larger rail network, of course, just not once you account for Spain’s economic size. Moreover, few lines cross the Pyrenees Mountains on Spanish-French border, and Spain’s railways mostly use a different rail gauge as France’s, so the two systems to do not always link up quickly.

Smarter cars and trucks — and, eventually perhaps, self-driving cars and trucks — would be a boon for countries in the mountainous Mediterranean region, notably Morocco but also Algeria, Spain, Italy, southern France, Greece, Turkey, and the Balkans. They could make it safer and cheaper for cars and trucks to navigate difficult mountain roads. For Morocco, they could also make it easier to manage the long delay trucks typically face in crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, a body of water that is often too stormy to cross. If this happens, then the lack of national borders separating Morocco from large economies in Western Europe could become a significant economic advantage.

Over the longer-term, self-driving vehicles could also help Morocco to leverage its location as the sole land bridge between Western Europe and the huge region of Western Africa.

Economies in Western Africa often have a difficult time reaching European markets by sea. Either they are landlocked (approximately 70 million people live in landlocked countries in Western Africa, and many more are part of landlocked groups within non-landlocked countries, like the nearly 60 million Hausa or Fulani of Muslim-majority northern Nigeria), or they have to sail all the way around West Africa to reach Europe (most notably in countries like Nigeria — see map below — where most of the population of Western Africa lives), or they lack access to good natural harbours and ports (in the Nigerian megacity of Lagos, for example, “the [shipping] terminals are both practically in the city centre, so it can take an entire day for a lorry to get [through traffic] from the terminal to a warehouse“, according to the Economist), or their ships are subject to piracy.

(http://blog.crisisgroup.org/africa/nigeria/2015/12/04/nigerias-biafran-separatist-upsurge/)
The alternative to maritime shipping is to cross the Sahara Desert. That is, of course, far easier said than done: the routes across the Sahara are long, difficult, and dangerous. Still, they have a shot to become economical, given the challenges involved in the the sea route. Driverless trucks, which are both safer and cheaper than having a human driver risk crossing both the Sahara Desert and Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, could perhaps tilt the balance (in some cases, at least) between the land and sea routes. If this occured, it would reverse the process that began in the 1400s, when it first became easier to reach this region by ship than by caravan.

Finally, self-driving vehicles could perhaps make it easier for Morocco to access markets in Latin America. Most people in Latin America live in southern Brazil,  around Sao Paolo, and in neighbouring northern Argentina, around Buenos Aires. (The state of Sao Paolo alone accounts for an estimated 32% percent of Brazil’s GDP, without even taking into account neighbouring Rio de Janeiro). Yet this is a long sail from Morocco. It would instead be much quicker for ships to land somewhere around the eastern tip of Brazil and then drive overland to cities like Sao Paolo (see map below). Thus far it has been difficult to drive the more than 2000 km that this route is made up of, however, as it crosses long distances through Brazil’s eastern coastal mountains. Brazil’s traffic jams and road conditions are notoriously difficult to deal with; this route could certainly use a big boost from technology.

A similar thing would be useful for Morocco if for self-flying (or at least, “smarter”) aircraft were become common.

Political Dynasties and their Discontents

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Political dynasties have always been a big part of human civilization, and today is no exception.

In the United States, the rise of Donald Trump was at least partially a reaction to the dynastic, Clinton-vs-Bush election that only last year most Americans were expecting to get.

It was, after all, Jeb Bush’s candidacy that split the Republican establishment in two, preventing it from coalescing around a politician like Marco Rubio early on and thus leaving an opening for Trump to force his way into. Hillary Clinton’s high disapproval rating, similarly, could even leave the door open for Trump to become president, however unlikely and unappealing that may be.

Canada

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Former Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien and Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau wave at supporters at the University of Toronto, February 15, 2015 (William Pitcher)

North of the border, Canada has just elected Justin Trudeau as its Prime Minister, the son of Pierre Trudeau who was prime minister for fifteen years during the late 1960s, 1970s, and first half of the 1980s. One of Trudeau’s two opponents in the election had been NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, whose ancestors include the first and ninth Premiers of the province of Quebec.

Mexico

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Enrique Peña Nieto, presidential candidate for Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, waves to supporters in the city of Torreón, June 18, 2012 (Flickr)

South of the border, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto,who came to power in 2013, “is the nephew of two former governors of the State of México (the state in which Mexico City is located): on his mother’s side, Arturo Montiel, on his father’s, Alfredo del Mazo González“, according to Wikipedia.

East Asia

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) and General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping (right)

In China, the current General Secretary Xi Jinping, who is now thought to have amassed more personal power than any Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, is the first to come from the “princeling” class. He is the son of a prominent political figure, Xi Zhongxun, from the first generation of the Communist Party leadership. This distinguishes him from the other General Secretaries in the Communist era, including Mao Tse-Tung, whose parents were not prominent politicians and in some cases were actually quite poor.

Other top members of the current Chinese leadership are also “princelings”, most notably Yu Zhengsheng, who is the fourth-ranked politician on the 7-man Politburo Standing Committee (which is generally considered to be China’s top political body), and Wang Qishan, who is ranked sixth on the Politburo Standing Committee and may be one of the most powerful figures in China at the moment as he has been leading Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign . Wang is a princeling by marriage only: his wife is the daughter of Yao Yilin, who was a former Politburo Standing Committee member in the Communist Party.

In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is arguably the most powerful politician the country has seen in at least a generation as well. He too comes from a political dynasty. According to Wikipedia, “his grandfather, Kan Abe, and father, Shintaro Abe, were both politicians… Abe’s mother, Yoko Kishi,[3] is the daughter of Nobusuke Kishi, prime minister of Japan from 1957 to 1960. Kishi had been a member of the Tōjō Cabinet during the Second World War”.

Meanwhile the President of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, is the daughter of South Korea’s third president, Park Chung-hee. (Update: Park has since been impeached). (And in North Korea, of course, the Kim family’s rule is now into its third generation). In Singapore, the prime minister since 2004 has been Lee Hsien Loong, the son of Singapore’s modern founding father Lee Kuan Yew who served from 1959 all the way to 1990.

India

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Hillary Clinton, then America’s secretary of state, poses for a picture with Indian Congress Party leaders Sonia and Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi, July 19, 2009 (State Department)

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his often fanatically right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP party became in 2014 the first party in over three decades to win a majority government in a national election. Modi is not from a political dynasty himself, rather he is the reaction to the modern world’s most prominent political family of all: the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

The Guardian wrote in 2007 that “the Nehru-Gandhi brand has no peer in the world — a member of the family has been in charge of India for 40 of the 60 years since independence.” The dynasty (which by the way is not related to the Gandhi) began with Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first post-British prime minister from 1947-1964. Nehru was himself the son and nephew of significant political figures in pre-independence India. Nehru’s dynasty then continued with his only daughter Indira Gandhi (née Nehru), who was India’s prime minister from 1966-1977 and from 1980-1984, but was assassinated in 1984 by two of her own Sikh bodyguards in the wake of Operation Blue Star.

The dynasty was then followed by Indira’s sons Rajiv Gandhi, who was prime minister from 1984-1989 before being assassinated by the Tamil Tigers in 1991, and Sanjay Gandhi, who was expected to become prime minister but was instead killed in a plane crash. Rajiv’s wife Sonia Gandhi, meanwhile, is the leader of India’s powerful Congress Party and the mother of Rahul Gandhi, who lost to Modi’s BJP in 2014 but still finished with more parliamentary seats and far more votes than any other candidate in the election. Sonia likely would have run for prime minister herself, but cannot because she was born in Italy.

(Sanjay’s wife Maneka Gandhi, on the other hand, has jumped ship from the historically Gandhi-dominated Congress Party and joined the BJP instead; she is currently a cabinet minister in the BJP-led government. Maneka’s son Varun has also gone over to the BJP, serving as the youngest National Secretary in the history of the party and a member of the country’s parliament. However, Maneka and Varun both remain less prominent than the Congress side of the family, which is led by Maneka’s sister-in-law Sonia and Varun’s first cousin Rahul).

Arguably, frustration with the Gandhis directly paved the way for Modi, a man who was not even allowed to enter the United States prior to becoming president because he was allegedly involved in “severe violations of religious freedom” while serving as governor of the important Indian state of Gujarat.

Philippines

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President-elect Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines speaks with his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, in Davao City, March 6, 2013 (Malacañang Photo Bureau/Ryan Lim)

You may have also heard about the election of the Philippines ridiculous new president Rodrigo Duterte last week. Rodrigo’s father Vicente was a provincial governor of Davao province and a mayor of Cebu, one of the largest cities in the country. Rodrigo’s cousin was also a mayor of Cebu, in the 1980s.

The Duterte’s are hardly alone in their political dynasticism: according to Public Radio International, “in the Philippines, elections in 2016 will be dominated by dynasties. About two-thirds of the outgoing Congress are heirs of political families. The outgoing president is the son of Corazon Aquino, who led the uprising against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos after Marcos had her husband whacked for being a prominent political opponent. But the Marcos clan is back in the picture, with Ferdinand’s wife, son, daughter and nephew all running for different offices. Also running is the grandson of another president.”

Thailand

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Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra addresses the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, September 9, 2013 (UN/Jean-Marc Ferré)

In Thailand too there has been a political reaction against a political family, that of Thaksin Shinawatra (who was prime minister from 2001 to 2006 before being exiled by a military coup) and his younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra (who was prime minister from 2011 to 2014 before being removed by decree of the Constitutional Court during the Thai political crisis in 2013-2014). According to Wikipedia, the father of Thaksin and Yingluck “was a member of parliament for Chiang Mai. [The Shinawatras are] a descendant of a former monarch of Chiang Mai through her grandmother, Princess Chanthip na Chiangmai (Great-great-granddaughter of King Thammalangka of Chiang Mai).”

Europe

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Prime Ministers Matteo Renzi of Italy and Mariano Rajoy of Spain speak during a European Council meeting in Brussels, June 25, 2015 (La Moncloa)

Europe, at least in contrast to Asia, does not have many political dynasties at the moment. This is, perhaps, in part because European political history was reset to a certain degree following the fall of the Soviet Union. Europe’s leading politicians, including Merkel, Putin, and Erdogan, do not come from political dynasties. Neither does Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron (though his ancestors were extremely wealthy) or France’s President Francois Hollande. Italian Prime Minister Mattio Renzi’s was a municipal councillor, admittedly, but that does not really count. (Angela Merkel’s grandfather was, similarly, a local politician in Danzig). Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy’s family was fairly prominent, on the other hand.

That said, Europe is far from dynasty-free. According to the Economist, “in Europe family power is one reason why politics seems like a closed shop. Fifty-seven of the 650 members of the recently dissolved British Parliament are related to current or former MPs. François Hollande, France’s president, has four children with Ségolène Royal, who ran for the presidency in 2007. Three generations of Le Pens are squabbling over their insurgent party, the Front National (see article). Belgium’s prime minister is the son of a former foreign minister and European commissioner. The names Papandreou and Karamanlis still count for something in Greece.”

Syria and Egypt 

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Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad and his family in the 1990s (Wikimedia Commons)

The Arab world remains full of political dynasties and reactions against dynasties, in contrast. In Syria both of these factors can be seen at the same time, as the civil war threatens to unseat Bashar al Assad, son of thirty-year ruler Hafez al Assad. (Bashar’s brother Bassel was initially supposed to take over from his father, but died in a car accident in 1994). In Egypt, meanwhile,the military government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is in some ways a response to the presumed attempt by an elderly Hosni Mubarak (diagnosed with stomach cancer in the same year he was deposed) to pass on power to his son Gamal, who had not served in the Egyptian military as Hosni Mubarak and previous rulers Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdul Nasser had done.

Saudi Arabia 

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Prince Muhammad bin Nayef speaks with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh while Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir looks on, January 27, 2015 (White House/Pete Souza)

In Saudi Arabia, which is by far the largest Arab economy, a half-shift from one Saudi political dynasty to another may just be getting under way. Thus far in the history of the modern Saudi state (beginning around 1930), the country has been ruled either by founder Abdulaziz ibn Saud or else by one of his 45 or so sons, six of whom have become king, most recently King Salman who took the throne in January of 2015.

Last year, however, Salman removed his half-brother Muqrin (another son of Abdulaziz) from the office of Crown Prince, replacing Muqrin with their nephew Mohammad bin Nayef,  who would become the first king in the next generation of Saudi royals if ever takes over. He might never take over, though: many people now believe that is Salman’s own son Mohammad bin Salman, who is the Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister, who is the likeliest to become the next king when Salman (who is 80 years old) steps down or passes away, even though Deputy Crown Prince is formally a lower-ranking position than Crown Prince – and even though Mohammad bin Salman is only 30 years old, which would be an extremely young age for a modern Saudi king.

If Mohammad bin Salman does become king over another prince like Mohammad bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia could in effect be moving from a dynasty of Abdulaziz to a dynasty of Salman. There are now fears that the political situation in the country could become quite messy if the other branches of the huge Saudi royal family try to avoid becoming sidelined from power as a result.

Iran

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Iranian president Hassan Rouhani speaks as parliament speaker Ali Larijani, Chief Justice Sadeq Larijani and the chief of the supreme leader’s office, Mohammad Golpayegani, attend a ceremony in Tehran, October 3, 2015 (Reuters)

Across the Gulf, in Iran, dynasties are not too big a factor within the current religious government. Recently the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini even was blocked from participating in elections. One big exception to this, however, is the powerful Larijani family, made up of five brothers in key positions in the government. It includes Ali Larijani, who is the Speaker of the parliament and a former member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and Sadeq Larijania, Iran’s Chief Justice.

Israel

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Labor party leader Isaac Herzog (left) and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid (right)

A number of leaders in Israel hail from political families as well. Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, who has now spent more time as prime minister (from 1996-1999 and now again since 2009) than any politician in Israel’s history apart from Israel’s founding  prime minister David Ben Gurion (who Netanyahu will soon overtake), is the son of Benzion Netanyahu. Benzion was a professor of history at Cornell University, an influential Zionist activist and magazine editor, and personal secretary to one of Israel’s most prominent founding fathers, Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

Bibi is also the younger brother of Yonatan Netanyahu, who was the unit commander of and only person to be killed during the famous Operation Entebbe raid in 1976, when 100 or so Israeli commandos rescued 102 hostages of a Palestinian airplane hijacking (compared to 3 hostages killed) from where they were being held in Idi Amin-era Uganda more than 3000 km south of Israel, and returned them safely to their homes in Israel and France.

Israel’s Labour Party leader Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, meanwhile, who won more than twice as many votes as any other Jewish party apart from Netanyahu’s Likud Party in the most recent elections of 2015, is, according to Wikipedia, “the son of General Chaim Herzog, who was the Sixth President of Israel from 1983 to 1993, and the grandson of Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, was the first Chief Rabbi of Ireland from 1922 to 1935 and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1936 to 1959″.

The next largest Jewish political party after Labour and Likud is the Yesh Atid Party, led by Yair Lapid. Lapid is a former news anchor who is the son of Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, a former government minister, parliamentary leader of the opposition as recently as 2005, and radio and television personality.

Brazil 

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Brazilian Social Democracy Party leader Aécio Neves answers questions from reporters, May 28, 2015 (Agência Senado/Pedro França)

Leaving the Middle East, Brazils’ Aecio Neves, who in late 2014 very narrowly lost a presidential election to Dilma Rousseff (who may now be on the verge of being impeached herself), is the grandson of Tancredo Neves, who would have been President of Brazil in 1985 if he had not passed away before taking office. Roussef and her influential predecessor Lula da Silva are not from prominent political families, however.

Peru

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Peruvian presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori campaigns for the 2011 election, December 7, 2010 (Flickr/Keiko Fujimori)

In Peru, the country is in the midst of a presidential election, which is a two-round system that began in April and will end on June 5.  Its leading candidate is former First Lady Keiko Fujimori, a daughter of former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori. Alberto exiled himself to Japan following corruption and human rights violation scandals at the end of his ten yeas in power in 2000, but was later arrested in Chile in 2005 and is now serving a prison sentence back in Peru.

Argentina

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President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina speaks in José Amalfitani Stadium, Buenos Aires, April 27, 2012 (Presidency of Argentina)

Argentina, finally, has just recently ended sixteen consecutive years of being presided over by a Kirchner, first by Nestor Kirchner from 2003 to 2007 and then by Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner from 2007 until the end of 2015. The Kirchners were Peronists, a political movement of sorts that has dominated modern Argentine politics, which is named for another power couple, Juan Peron (president from 1946 – 1955) and his second wife Eva Peron, who was a significant political figure in her own right and nearly became Vice President. (Juan’s third wife Isabel Martinez de Peron, meanwhile, was President of Argentina from 1974 to 1976). The incoming Argentine president Mauricio Macri, who is replacing the Kirchners, does not come from a political dynasty, however. His father was just a humble business tycoon.

Complacency over Coal’s Collapse: Five Factors to Consider

American coal companies’ stock prices have crashed in recent years, in response to the triple-whammy punch that is the US fracking boom, the environmentalist movement, and the slowdown in the Chinese industrial economy. As recently as January of 2016, the Dow Jones US Coal Index had lost around 92 percent of its market value since mid-2014, more than 97 percent of its value since 2011, and more than 98 percent of its value since its all-time peak in 2008.

Coal stock index 10 Year
2008 highs over 700, 2011 highs at 500, 2014 highs around 150, 2016 lows at 12, today at 33.87

Now, it may be that coal really is finished as a major industry in the US, but there is no reason to be certain about this. The market’s plunge is arguably more a sign of investor panic than of rational valuation: coal still accounts for around a third of US electricity generation and close to 40 percent of electricity generation worldwide. The economic outlook for the coal industry does not seem to have collapsed to the extent the Dow Jones US Coal index might suggest.

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Energy mix in the US

world electricity production

1. Climate Change 

Burning coal is generally considered to be around twice as carb0n-intensive as burning natural gas. Carbon dioxide, however, is hardly the only culprit where climate change is concerned. Methane emissions are also a crucial component to climate change, for example, and industries like natural gas and meat production can be more methane-intensive than coal.

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US Methane Emissions By Source

Thus far the natural gas industry, food industry, and many in the US government have neatly sidestepped the methane issue, refocusing American public attention toward carbon dioxide. They have done this by using the “we need to protect the planet for the sake of our grandchildren and future generations” approach. Methane emissions, after all,  only contribute directly to global warming for a few years or decades at a time, whereas carbon dioxide can remain in the atmosphere for many centuries.

The truth, though, is probably that this is deliberately misleading. Future generations may be perfectly capable of handling whatever climate change comes their way, or of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The really dicey climate change period is more likely to occur within the coming years or decades, when the world is not yet technologically advanced enough to protect vulnerable human (and animal) populations. Within such a time frame, emissions of gasses like methane can be even more impactful than carbon dioxide.

Today US methane emissions, measured in kilotons of CO2 (carbon dioxide) equivalent, are around ten percent as high as carbon dioxide emissions. Since the impact of each kt equivalent of methane upon global warming can be up to 80-90 times higher than carbon over the course of a twenty-year period, however, the overall effect of methane emissions can perhaps be worse for climate change than carbon emissions can.

Indeed, while the direct impact of methane fades over time, the indirect impact of methane emissions could remain for decades if they help to trigger a global warming feedback loop; for example, if it helps to cause sun-reflecting polar ice to melt, which could warm the planet and so cause even more polar ice to melt.

methane emissions

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Carbon dioxide emissions by country, in 2013. Admittedly, given the speed of America’s shale energy boom in recent years, it is possible that these numbers from two and a half years ago are already outdated to some extent

Thus, methane emissions arguably deserve more public attention and regulation. And if they are regulated, it may weaken the natural gas industry relative to the coal industry, as the gas industry in the US accounts for almost triple the methane emissions that coal does. Just this month, the US federal government has launched its first ever package of methane emission regulations for the oil and gas sector.

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Another greenhouse gas to consider in nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide emissions in the US are roughly 5% of carbon dioxide emissions, measured in kilotons. They only last in the atmosphere for 114 years on average. According to the EPA, though, “The impact of 1 pound of N2O on warming the atmosphere is almost 300 times that of 1 pound of carbon dioxide.” As with methane, it is agriculture, not coal, that is the main culprit of nitrous oxide emissions. Even most of the nitrous oxide emissions that come from the “Energy” sector labelled on this graph come from cars and trucks, rather than from coal-fired power plants.

Methane, which is the main component of natural gas, can also be captured and then stored or used to produce energy. Capturing methane from the natural gas industry, however, is extremely difficult to do, because the gas sector is diffuse, consisting of hundreds of thousands of wells spread across dozens of states as well as in offshore fields in the Gulf of Mexico. Capturing and making use of methane that is released from coal mines could perhaps be easier to do, since coal production is more concentrated than gas or oil. There are only about 1000 or so coal mines in the country, and they are located mostly in Wyoming or the Midwest.

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Another thing to note is that while burning natural gas is only a bit more than half as carbon-intensive as coal, much of the natural gas production in the United States comes  as a byproduct of drillers trying to produce oil. This means that US gas is actually more carbon-intensive than it seems, since it would not be produced as much if the US was not also producing so much oil, and oil (or gasoline) is more than three-quarters as carbon-intensive as coal is.

gas as byproduct of oil
http://www.etf.com/sections/features-and-news/5339-natural-gas-now-a-byproduct-of-oil-drilling-output-to-climb-as-long-as-oil-prices-stay-high
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Most coal in the US is bituminous or sub-bituminous

This also raises the question: will the price of oil in the US remain low? If it does, it is likely to result not only in a reduction in oil production, but also in natural gas production (again, because natural gas is frequently a byproduct of oil), which in turn could cause coal to become more competitive relative to natural gas.

Oil in the US is used mainly for transportation, so it is possible that the revolutions now taking place in the transportation sector – for example, Uber (and companies like Uber), UberPool, Zipcar, electric vehicles, hybrids,  e-commuting and e-commerce, using smartphone apps to make express busses finally become feasible, being able to watch a movie or do work on your smartphone or tablet while you are taking public transit or being carpooled,  and the development of self-driving vehicles  – could lead to such a reduction in oil use.

In the case of electric or hybrid vehicles, this could also lead to a major increase in electricity usage, potentially helping the coal industry at the expense of the oil and gas industry. And while electric cars may not soon be appearing in every driveway, it may not be too long before a widespread network of electric or hybrid Uber-esque vehicles and Zipcar-esque vehicles come into place.

If, moreover, self-driving vehicles do become a reality as well at some point, it could make vehicle-sharing services like Uber and Zipcar even more competitive, and could allow electric Uber vehicles and Zipcars to drive themselves to (and wait in line at) the nearest battery-charging station. This is an important factor, given that fully charging an electric vehicle often takes several hours.

Of course, many people think that coal is likely to lose out not only to natural gas, but also to alternatives like solar energy, which emit relatively little carbon dioxide, methane, or any other type of greenhouse gas. However, it is still not clear when or if industries like solar will be able to compete on a large scale with coal in developed economies like the United States.

Much has been made about the falling cost of solar panels They are often said to have become more competitive as a result of technological improvements, and are expected to continue doing so going forward. In fact there is an alternative plausible explanation about what has driven the falling cost of solar panels: government support in East Asia (especially China), Europe, and to a lesser extent North America. The solar industry may have benefited from attempts by governments in these regions to stimulate their slowing industrial sectors and reduce pollution at the same time.

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above: China’s solar panel statistics, 2004-2012

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If this explanation is true, then it is possible that the cost of solar panels going forward will not continue to fall as much as people now expect them to. Indeed, if China’s economy has the “hard landing” some fear it will, panel prices could even rise a lot as solar panel manufacturing output collapses.

Ultimately, though, climate change threats will continue to hamper the coal industry, unless at least one of two things happen. The first is large-scale carbon capture and storage. Though carbon capture and storage has been over-hyped in recent years , it cannot be ruled out entirely either. We will discuss this further below.

The second is climate change fatalism. If it becomes accepted that we already well past the point of being able to reverse global warming, then the priority could shift away from reducing carbon emissions and instead become achieving rapid economic advances in order to pay for the huge, global effort that adapting to climate change will entail. Ironically, coal could be employed as the cheap, plentiful resource used to spur such rapid economic growth. If this sounds a bit crazy, bear in mind that it is the approach that India and China are already implicitly (and at times explicitly) embracing at the moment. India in particular is still planning on building many new coal plants in an attempt to achieve economic growth.

Bangladesh, perhaps the most climate endangered among the world’s hugely populous nations, has resisted climate change fatalism. However if it runs out of hope that the world’s major economies will take the necessary measures to mitigate climate change, then it could end up getting on board with this philosophy too, since it desperately needs economic growth to lift its population out of the immediate poverty it faces.

Countries like Bangladesh have, in addition, been publicly toying with the unorthodox idea of purposely releasing gasses like sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere in order to deflect sunlight and thus reduce global temperatures. Indeed, certain industries already produce this effect over a limited timespan, due to the sulphur dioxide they emit. Such industries include coal-fired power plants and container shipping.

According to this article from the Guardian, the container shipping industry alone, over a five-year lifespan, may contribute a cooling effect significant enough to offset the warming caused by every car, bus, and airplane in the world combined. Still, this cooling effect diminishes over longer timespans as sulphur dioxide leaves the atmosphere, and, in any event, sulphur dioxide emissions also cause significant local pollution, such as acid rain.

2. Local Pollution

A lot of the most concerted pushback against coal has seemed like it is driven by fears of climate change, when really it is driven to a substantial extent by frustration with more local forms of pollution that the coal industry creates. In order for local anti-pollution activists to gain public support, they often, quite understandably, use climate change as a cover.

The threat of climate change alone, without local anti-pollution activism, has a more difficult time of creating meaningful pushback, because climate change is far less of an immediate and concentrated danger than localized pollution is. Pushback against local pollution, for example, historically played a significant role in causing American industry to outsource to places like China that were more willing to tolerate it. This is also, by the way, one reason why methane emissions have gotten off the hook compared to some other types of greenhouse gasses, including carbon dioxide: methane causes far less local pollution, even though its contribution to global climate change can be severe.

If coal can overcome its local pollution problem, then, it may be able to revive itself to some extent even in spite of the role it plays in global climate change.

There is a way that the coal industry may reduce its local pollution problem: disassemble and reassemble coal-fired power plants and relocate them to more sparsely populated areas, and largely mechanize the operation of coal-fired power plants and coal mining sites.

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The West is wide open
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US population density/major city map

The mechanization of the coal industry is already well on its way (see graph below) and will probably continue in the coming years as a result of the “robot revolution”. Moving coal-fired plants to less populated areas would of course be enormously expensive; it would require not just moving the plants themselves, but also the building of new electricity lines.

WV_Employment_vs_Production

Finding cheap routes to build electricity networks through is no easy task, nor is maintaining such electricity networks once they are already built. Plus, the longer the route, the more electricity is lost in transmission – and the routes would have to be quite long in order to locate the power plants in sparsely populated areas. Still, it could happen, if coal can remain cost competitive with other energy sources. More on this in the next section.

Local pollution is also a major reason why urban and suburban areas may start to use a lot of hybrid, electric, or Uberpool-esque vehicles, since conventional gasoline-powered vehicles create a lot of air pollution (and noise pollution) in areas in which lots of people live. Hybrids, if they can become cost-competitive with conventional cars, are ideal in this regard, as they typically cause air pollution only on rural or ex-urban roads where fewer people live.

If electric vehicles become common, it could boost demand for electricity (helping coal, potentially) and decrease demand for oil (helping coal by causing less natural gas production, potentially).

Finally, local pollution is most harmful in places where there are lots of physically vulnerable people; i.e. in densely populated countries where there are many young kids or senior citizens. The United States does not fit this description, as it is sparsely populated and most of its population is in the prime of their lives. The developing world, on the other hand, is often very young and densely populated, while Western Europe, Japan, and increasingly even China are old and densely populated. Pushback against local pollution in China in particular could cause some industrial activity – and its attendant demand for electricity – to relocate to North America.

land per capita
The countries that are by far the most densely populated on this list, namely India and Japan, have by far the youngest and oldest populations, respectively, among the world’s major economies.

3. Robots 

Robots could benefit the coal industry in multiple ways. First and most obviously, they are likely to cause American electricity demand to soar, because robots are often extremely energy-intensive to use and because they could lead manufacturing that in previous decades has been outsourced to countries like China and Mexico to be brought back to the United States.

The same is true in other developed economies, like  Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, which are already totally reliant upon coal and other fossil fuel imports to power their economies. In 2014, Japan and especially South Korea were the biggest purchasers of US coal, with the exception of the Netherlands (a European trade hub), Britain, and Brazil. East Asia is also the primary destination for more than three-quarters of Canadian exports of coal, which are split about equally between China, Japan, and South Korea.

coal imports
World’s largest coal importers. Source: Index Mundi

Indeed it seems like ancient history now, but prior to United States sanctions on Japan in the 1930s, Japan was getting around 60-80 percent of its oil imports from the United States. It is not totally out of the question that a somewhat similar pattern could re-emerge, with the US exporting fossil fuels to East Asia once again, as the US may want each of these countries to remain strong enough to “contain” China.

relative trade northeast asia
These values adjusted for GDP size; they are not given in absolute terms. In absolute terms, China and Japan would be higher than South Korea and Taiwan in every case. Source: Future Economics

South Korea and Taiwan are particularly dependent upon energy imports (see graph above). And the United States is very approving of its alliances with these two countries because they help to “counterbalance” (to use another geopolitical euphemism) both China and Japan, which by most accounts remain by far the world’s second and third largest economies.

fossil fuel importers

For Japan, robots could particularly cause electricity demand to surge, given that Japan may need to use a lot of them to replace its rapidly aging, high income labour force. Japan’s other alternative thus far has been to outsource labour to countries like China and Thailand, however it is not clear how much Japan is willing to continue becoming dependent on these countries, and meanwhile millions of Japan’s domestic workers are approaching retirement age.

population-pyramid-of-japan-in-2015

A second way robots could help the coal industry is by causing electricity demand to rise overnight. One of the drawbacks of coal power has been that coal-fired power plants, unlike hydroelectric dams or, to a lesser extent, compared to natural gas plants, cannot easily ramp up and down their electricity production. This has meant that, like nuclear plants, they tend to over-produce electricity overnight, when the cost of producing the power is often higher than the price it sells for. However, since robots don’t sleep, they may drive up the demand for electricity at night. In addition to coal and nuclear, this may also help wind power, since it is often windier overnight than during the day. But it could hurt solar power.

Robots could perhaps also help allow coal-fired power plants to be moved to or built in sparsely populated areas where their local pollution will not be as bothersome, since robot-run factories may not need to employ many humans. This could also prevent new, long electricity lines from having to be built and maintained in some cases, as the power plant could be located right next to the robot-run industrial areas.

Robot-run factories and coal-fired power plants could also be constructed next to or near the coal mines themselves. This could be a big help to the industry, as coal has very high transportation costs because of how bulky coal is compared to other resources, for example oil, and because coal cannot be moved by pipeline. (Moreover, the transportation of coal often creates significant pollution next to the railways, roads, or barges it is being carried on).

energy density
Note: coal may be a lot less energy-dense than natural gas in gravimetric terms, as shown above, but not in volumetric terms: natural gas takes up a lot of space, since it is a gas

Lignite, in fact, which is used commonly in Europe, has such a low bulk-to-value ratio that in most cases it transported only extremely short distances, and often by conveyer belt. A lot of sub-bituminous coal, which is very common in the US, is not much more dense in its energy content.

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Given this bulkiness, coal could also benefit from robots that aid in the transportation sector: namely from self-driving trucks. Coal is often mined in mountainous areas, where building railways is difficult and expensive (railways cannot handle inclines or sharp bends easily, compared to roads). Building railroads to reach mines, or trucking the coal to the nearest railroad, can be an enormous expense. In the US and Canada coal mining also occurs in wintry and relatively remote locations, for example in northern Alberta or in the mountains of Montana and Wyoming, which can cause transport costs to be higher still.

rail on trains.png

With self-driving trucks, however, you do not need to pay a driver wages or insure a driver against the event of injury in a mountain-road accident, which saves money, and self-driving trucks can work all night, which improves efficiency. In fact, even large trucks are often too large to use on mountain roads and tunnels (or if there are mountain roads capable of handling them, they are often very expensive to build and maintain), but with self-driving trucks it is possible to use small trucks instead because you don’t have to worry about paying drivers’ wages or insurance. It would otherwise take a lot more drivers to transport coal via small trucks compared to large trucks, since small trucks can carry much less coal per trip.

USA---Energy---Mountainto-008
Welch, West Virginia

Self-driving trucks could be a huge boon for the coal industry, then. Indeed, because many mining roads are privately owned by mining companies, they may be able to begin using self-driving trucks before normal roads do, since the biggest barrier to adopting self-driving trucks elsewhere may be public regulations.

Finally, robots and computer systems could help in the maintenance of long power lines, which could benefit the coal industry a great deal (and also benefit other industries, like wind power). Current methods of doing this are expensive, unwieldy, and often dangerous. This video may seem outdated, but many of the methods it shows are frequently still used today.

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Surface Mining, common in Wyoming

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And of course, there may also be plenty of opportunities for robots to increase efficiency in the actual mining of coal itself.

coal reserves by country.png
America dominates in the most important category, “Anthracite and Bituminous” coal. Some of its main competitors, notably Russia and Australia, have their coal reserves located in extremely remote parts of the planet. Germany and Greece, meanwhile, antagonists of one another in the “Eurocrisis”, have something in common: they are rich in lignite but poor in coal. Germany gets around 25 percent of its electricity from lignite production and another 18 percent from coal. 
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US Coal production: much has moved from east of the Mississippi River to west of the Mississippi, from underground mining to surface mining, and from bituminous coal to sub-bituminous coal

coal vs gas price .png

4. Developing Economies 

Many developing nations have embraced coal because it is cheap, but this process could slow or even reverse in the future. If it does, it could allow the US to pick up some of the coal slack that developing countries give up, since there is only so much carbon that the world can handle, and since in some cases it could lead manufacturing to relocate to the US. It could also cause the developing world to import more LNG or renewable energy sources from the US, pushing up the cost of those energies in the US when compared to coal.

First, as climate change fears rise, developing countries could begin to have to scale back on coal, whether because their own populations become worried (the developing world in general is more vulnerable to climate change than the developed world is) or because the developed world decides to slap carbon tariffs on their exports.

Second, local pollution in much of the developing world has become so intense that it may cause – and in some cases, is already causing – increasing pushback against coal.

Third, as was mentioned earlier in the article, robots could allow developed countries to “reverse outsource” their manufacturing industries, which would sharply reduce demand for energy in the developing world.

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Electricity use in China is dominated by the industrial sector

Fourth, if urbanization slows in the developing world – which it could, because of such “reverse outsourcing” taking away urban jobs, because of the spread of cell phone and Internet access into rural areas, because of urban air pollution becoming intense and undesirable, and because urban temperatures in developing countries are frequently extremely high compared to rural areas (particularly rural highlands) – then the developing world will demand energy sources that can be accessed in rural areas where there are little or no electricity grids: solar panels, diesel generators, small wind turbines, etcetera. But not coal, which is generally burned in big power plants to power cities and factories.

coal by country

Instability in the developing world might also benefit the US coal industry, allowing the US to increase its coal exports. If, for example, China falls into regional chaos like it did for decades prior to the Communist takeover of the country in the late 1940s, then it could put at risk some or many of the energy supply routes that link China’s energy-rich interior provinces (like Shanxi, Heilongjiang, and the “autonomous regions” of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia) to China’s major urban areas on the coast (like Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Beijing-Tianjin, Taipei in Taiwan, and many  others).

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Coal Mining by Province
china coal plants .png
Coal-fired power plants map — the region around Shanghai, which does not mine much coal itself (see map above) dominates

Shanxi and Inner Mongolia combined have accounted for more than 15 percent of global coal production in recent years. If China’s coastal cities cannot secure energy supplies from within China, they may turn to importing coal from countries like Australia and even the US instead. This may not be likely to happen, but it is a “black swan” possibility that is worth taking note of, given China’s historical regionalism and the enormous energy and coal consumption of China’s coastal provinces.

This is also true of other energy sources. China’s natural gas, hydro, and most of its oil production, for example, are also located in interior provinces like Heilongjiang, Xinjiang, Sichuan, and Yunnan. They are in fact often located extremely far in the interior, such as in the Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, which produces a substantial portion China’s oil, natural gas, and coal.

Xinjiang has a deep ethno-religious divide between Turkic Muslim Uyghers and its more recent Han Chinese settlers, and has very difficult terrain that has historically made it prone to separatism, irredentism (with the Turkic Muslim populations of neighbouring, now-independent Central Asia) and “warlordism”. In Xinjiang, mountains cover an area larger than England and regularly reach heights higher than the highest Rockies. Much of Xinjiang is also covered by deserts or semi-deserts, and the region is so far inland that its capital city, Uruqmi, “has earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the most remote city from any sea in the world. It is about 2,500 kilometres (1,600 mi) from the nearest coastline”.

china gas provinces.png

china oil by province
China is the world’s fourth largest oil producer, trailing only Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Russia
china pipelines
China’s natural gas network is not extensive like the United States’ is. If a single line were to be endangered as a result of political unrest – for example, the connection to the cities of Guangzhou and Hong Kong, where much of China’s economic activity is located – China might have to look to imports of energy from abroad to make up the difference. This map comes from the US Energy Information Agency 
ngpipelines_map
Natural gas pipelines in the US

China has, similarly, also pinned hydro hopes on Tibet; a risky proposition given its intensely difficult terrain, remoteness, ethno-religious resistance to Chinese settlement and domination, and position as the source of most of India’s, China’s, and Southeast Asia’s live-giving rivers.

China’s energy imports come mostly, however, from Siberia, Central Asia, or from Oceania, Africa, or most often the Middle East (by way of the Strait of Hormuz, the Indian Ocean, the Strait of Malacca, and South China Sea). Should these supply routes be imperilled, Chinese coastal cities could be forced to import energy across the Pacific from the Americas instead.

indian-ocean-bases

13 percent of China’s oil imports comes from Angola, even, according to the US Energy Information Agency, more than from any country apart from Saudi Arabia (16 percent). Angola, apart from being a formerly war-torn country that remains full of material poverty and ethnic division, is located very far away from China, on the Atlantic rather than Indian Ocean coast of the African continent. For its oil to reach China, it must first round the southern tip of Africa, passing waterways controlled by Angola’s regional rival South Africa.

india-map-coalreserves
A somewhat similar thing could happen, theoretically at least, in India, the world’s third largest coal producer and fourth largest coal importer. Much of the Indias’s oil and gas is produced or processed in states like Gujarat and Rajasthan, while most of its coal is produced in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Odisha, states which account for two-thirds of India’s coal reserves.
India_map_Naxal_Left-wing_violence_or_activity_affected_districts_2013
There is a close overlap between India’s Naxalite-Maoist insurgency and India’s coal producing regions. The exception is Assam-Maghalaya region, but this region, which is connected to the rest of the country by a narrow land bridge between Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan, has its own set of severe problems and insurgencies. Finally, you’ve got the Telangana-Andhra Pradesh complication.

It may also become more economical to have solar power harnessed in the developing world more than or instead of in the developed world. This is because in the developing world, peak energy may increasingly occur at the same time as peak sunlight: in order to power air conditioning for billions of people when its 30-50+ degrees Celsius outside. In the developed world, in contrast, air conditioners are already widespread, and in many places peak energy use occurs when the sun is not bright, for example to power heating units in the winter, or to power perennially overcast places like Britain or Seattle, or to keep the lights on during super-long winter evenings in Scandinavia, or perhaps eventually to power electric cars overnight.

The developing world may also be increasingly likely to use airplanes more often than the developed world does. This is an important point, as airplanes arguably contribute to climate change  more than all the cars on the world’s roads combined (at least, over a five-year timespan), since they emit lots of greenhouse gasses at high altitudes. Developing countries may need to use airplanes more because much of the developing world is located in areas where land-based transport can be difficult: in mountainous or hilly areas, in deserts, in the Tropics, in archipelagos, in rural areas, in conflict-prone areas, and in densely populated cities with terrible traffic jams.

The developed world, on the other hand, may even replace its own airplane usage with land-based transport in some cases, as a result of the technological advances occurring within the land-based transportation sector. Instead of flying from New York City to Florida, Sydney to Melbourne, or even London to Barcelona, people may take the train or bus instead (making use of the wi-fi on the train or the bus along the way, as well as the ability to use services like Uber and Zipcar to get around once they have arrived at their destination) or eventually even take a self-driving vehicle.

5. War

During World War Two, inter-continental weapons did not exist, so US shores were safe from attack (with a few exceptions). During the Cold War inter-continental weapons did exist, but the US was saved from attack by its massive deterrent of nuclear and conventional weapons.

Today, however, precision “smart-bombs” and precision cyber-weapons exist, putting the US at risk (in theory, at least) of a surprise attack on its military and industrial infrastructure. Because a large-scale precision attack would cause very few deaths by WW2 or Cold War standards – a factory could in some cases be destroyed overnight and kill only the night watchman, while cyber-weapons can disable an entire electricity grid without killing anyone – it could mean that an enemy country could be more willing to take the risk of launching such an attack. In other words, the technological advances that are making war less deadly may also end up making war more likely to occur.

The Pentagon is undoubtedly going to spend hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars to defend against and prepare for such a possibility. It has already done this in recent decades with its ballistic missile defence systems; however these might be inadequate on their own, as North America could simply be too big a place to protect in its entirety.

As the precision-weapons era matures throughout the militaries of the world, the Pentagon may decide to take the additional step of shielding US industry by clustering a few “mega-industrial areas”, capable of producing both military and essential non-military goods,  that it can then build more impenetrable defence shields (including “cyber-shields”) around. The idea will be that it is far easier to defend an area the size of a city than it is to defend an area the size of a continent. Other militaries around the world may do a similar thing.

The question is, then, if these military-shielded mega-industrial areas do become a reality, will it be coal that powers them?

It seems quite plausible that it will be. The main alternative, natural gas, is difficult to transport by truck, and natural gas pipeline networks and gas production sites could be vulnerable in the event of war, as could be electricity grids. Coal, however, can be transported by truck, and much of the coal production in the US is already concentrated in just a single state in the heart of the country, Wyoming. Moreover, coal can be stockpiled in enormous quantities, whereas gas is very difficult to store in large quantities.

toptwo

Oil could conceivably be used instead of coal, but the US has few oil-fired power plants, and oil would be needed in large quantities to power the many military vehicles and fleet of trucks the US would need to fight a war, so it would not necessarily be available to use for electricity production.

Other countries too might use coal if they decide to build military-defended mega-industrial areas. Many significant countries in the world have coal mines or coal reserves, yet do not produce natural gas or oil in as significant quantities. These include Germany, India, England, Turkey, Poland, and China, for example. Moreover, countries can build up huge stockpiles of imported coal, which they cannot do with natural gas.

coal production .png
coal production by province

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A mega-industrial region of this kind, backed by the military, could perhaps also allow carbon capture and storage to finally become economically viable. Carbon capture and storage is a key component of mitigating global warming if fossil fuels are not going to be phased out, yet thus far it has been far from economical. But whereas it has not been achievable for a single power plant, if you cluster many power plants together in one area, it could maybe allow for the economy of scale necessary to make carbon capture more affordable.

If, finally, tensions between Russia and “the West” continue to deteriorate, or if the situation in Ukraine continues to destabilize, it might lead to European countries to have to turn to imports of energy from the Americas to make up for the natural gas and coal they would have to stop importing from Russia and Ukraine. This too could help to push up the price of US coal.

Conclusion 

I am just playing devil’s advocate here, of course.  I don’t actually have any idea what the future of the American or global coal industry will be. Still, judging by the fact that the Dow Jones US coal index has nearly tripled since the start of 2016 (though it still remains around 80 percent lower than it was as recently as mid-2014), I may not be the only one to be doing this.

Investors Aloud

Hello! I’ve made a new website, investorsaloud.com. It’s a bit of a work in progress at the moment, but please check it out anyway if you are interested. I hope you like it.

All the best,
Joseph

The Return of the Atlantic

This article was written for an essay contest, so the style is a little bit different from others on this site. It was first written three years ago, when most people had not yet become bearish on the Chinese economy and politicians in the US were still talking a lot about America’s “pivot to Asia”. The essay discusses the possibility that the Atlantic regions – North America, South America, Europe, and much of Africa – will remain at the heart of the international system in the years and decades to come, for better or for worse.

Hope you like it!

Atlantic_Ocean_laea_relief_location_map

The Return of the Atlantic 

For nearly 500 years, the Atlantic Ocean was the unrivalled centre of the international system, connecting Europe to its expansive economic and imperial networks in Africa, Asia and the Americas. Transatlantic trade continued to exceed transpacific trade as recently as the late 1980s, while at the same time the transatlantic alliance against the Soviet Union remained the world’s most important geopolitical partnership. Indeed it seems incredible to recall now, but China, India, Indonesia, Korea, and Australia combined had a smaller economic output than West Germany in 1990.

Today, in contrast, the European Union and United States both import more goods from China alone than they do from one another, and the Cold War has been over for a quarter of a century. The Pacific has in many ways become the new centre of the world: it is home to the three largest economies of America, China, and Japan, is the highway for East Asian imports of commodities and exports of manufactured goods, and acts as a base for nearly 75 percent of US soldiers stationed outside of North America or Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, a majority of economists, politicians, and journalists believe that the continued economic growth of populous Asian countries like China, India, and Indonesia means that the centrality of the Pacific has only just begun.

In this essay we will argue that, even as it remains popular to herald the arrival of a “Pacific Century” (to quote a famous Hillary Clinton op-ed in Foreign Policy magazine), it will actually be the Atlantic that will become once again the centre of the international system, serving as the corridor of an expanding economic network that will incorporate Europe, the Americas, much of Africa, and to a lesser extent even parts of southern Asia. Transatlantic commerce is likely to once again exceed the value of transpacific commerce and, partly by doing so, it will help to serve as an organizing force in global geopolitics. We hope it will serve as a force for good in the world as well.

To be sure, while we view this Atlantic phenomenon as likely to be brought about by economic, cultural, and linguistic circumstances that are already actively or latently in place, we will also argue that, from a policy perspective, the political effectiveness and ethical utility of such a reinvigorated transatlantic relationship will depend on the extent to which efforts are made to reduce carbon emissions in developed economies, as well as on the extent to which efforts are made to provide honest and constructive assistance to struggling countries within the developing world.

The Pacific Moment

The rise of transpacific trade during the latter half of the 20th century occurred as a result of a unique set of circumstances. These were, specifically, the reconstruction of the Japanese economy following its destruction in the Second World War, the emergence of South Korea and Taiwan following their adoption by the United States as strategically-located allies in 1950, and the rapid growth of coastal Chinese states following their devastation during the Sino-Japanese War, Chinese Civil War, and isolationist era under Mao, which occurred in an overlapping succession from 1927 until 1979. These four countries have caused transpacific commerce to soar in recent decades, with help from Southeast Asian success stories like Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia.

While this rising transpacific trade has certainly deserved the widespread public attention it has received, it has nevertheless served to overshadow a number of other key characteristics of the global economy, which instead highlight the enduring significance of the Atlantic Ocean. These include the fact that roughly 65 percent of both the world’s nominal economic output and private consumer spending are located in the Atlantic basin rather than in the Pacific basin; that more than 70 percent of the populations of North America, South America, and Sub-Saharan Africa live within the Atlantic basin rather than the Pacific basin; that the Pacific generally takes 2-4 times longer to cross widthwise by ship than the Atlantic does; that the quantity of transatlantic investment is estimated to be 5-10 times greater than transpacific investment; and that Indian and Pakistani trade and labour crosses the Atlantic, Mediterranean, or Arabian Sea far more often they do the Pacific.

The reemergence of transatlantic interactivity as a defining feature of the international system will simply reflect these enduring realities. In addition, it will be driven by a set of economic evolutions that are beginning to revive transatlantic trade relative to transpacific trade, as well as by the continued spread of modern communications and the emergence of African and Latin American economies, which are helping to increase the political and economic significance of the cultural, social, and linguistic affiliations that bind together the four continents of the Atlantic world.

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Transatlantic Connections

Atlantic regions share a number of important connections with one another. The first is cultural: unlike in Asia, the overwhelming majority of people in the Americas are of European or African heritage. Most have ancestors that arrived within just the past century or two. This could have increasingly powerful political and economic consequences in the future, particularly as the economies of Africa develop and as African populations in the Americas become wealthier and more empowered (most notably the 40 million US African-Americans, 28 million Afro- Caribbeans, 15 million Afro-Brazilians, and 80 million Brazilians who identify as being of mixed ancestry), such that it will no longer just be white Americans and Europeans engaged in the most significant transatlantic partnerships.

The second transatlantic connection is a social one, the result of technology increasingly allowing first-, second-, and even third-generation immigrants in the developed world to maintain relationships with family members, friends, and acquaintances back in their countries of origin. Crucially, immigrants in North America and Europe come overwhelmingly from Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, or the Mediterranean basin. More than half of the foreign-born population in the United States arrived from Latin America alone, and there are about four times as many first-generation immigrants in the European Union from Africa or the Americas as there are from East Asia.

There are, in fact, already 2-3 million Latino-Americans living in Spain, and more than 50 million living in the United States. Africa’s emigration rate to both Europe and North America, meanwhile, has risen at a faster pace than that of any other region since 1980, and is likely to continue to do so as a result of the fact that the average birth rate in Sub-Saharan Africa is nearly twice as high, and the per capita income nearly twice as low, as that of any other part of the world.

Finally, and in our opinion most importantly, there are the transatlantic linguistic connections. Over 80 percent of the world’s nearly 1.5 billion native speakers of Spanish, English, French, Portuguese, or Arabic live within the Atlantic or Mediterranean basins; each of these languages is fairly prominent within at least three separate continents. English, moreover, is far more widespread in mainland Europe than it is in any other continent apart from North America (or Australia). Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Belgium are particularly proficient; according to some estimates, 60-90 percent of their populations are able to speak English In France, Italy, and Poland, meanwhile, the share of English speakers is estimated at 30-40 percent, which is still far ahead of countries like China, Japan, Indonesia, and even India.

In Africa, European languages are also spoken more widely than in most other areas of the world. This is partially the result of to the continent’s colonial histories, many of which ended as recently as the 1960’s or 1970’s. It is, however, also the result of Sub-Saharan countries tending to be linguistically diverse, such that their use of European languages as lingua franca remains common practice. Indeed, despite having the world’s lowest density of accessible schools, televisions, computers, and satellite dishes, English is already spoken by a greater number of people in Africa than in more populous India, both as a native language and as a secondary one.

French, meanwhile, is used by an estimated 90 million Africans, Portuguese by an estimated 20 million Africans, and Arabic as far south as the Sahel.24 In South Africa approximately 20 million people understand Afrikaans, a language that is for the most part mutually intelligible with Dutch. Over 85 percent of Africa’s English-speaking population and nearly all of Africa’s French-, Portuguese-, Arabic-, and Afrikaans-speaking populations live within the Atlantic or Mediterranean basins.

Also important is that over 40 percent of Africa’s population is under the age of fifteen. This makes it the world’s youngest region by a considerable margin: by comparison, only 15 percent of China’s population and 29 percent of India’s population are younger than fifteen. Children possess the ability to learn languages many times more easily than adults can, particularly if they have access to schooling, books, media, and modern communications.

Africa’s current generation of children might become the first to grow up with widespread access to such tools, which might therefore help African economies to develop and integrate with the other continents of the Atlantic world. This is also one reason why it would be wise from a policy standpoint for Europe and North America to immediately support economic development in Africa, since doing so would help African populations gain access to more education and information now while they are still young.

Shifting Trade Patterns

In 2013, Chinese coastal cities had an average nominal per capita income of roughly $20,000, nearly as high as those of South Korea and Taiwan. The median age in China is 37, about the same as in the US; in South Korea and Taiwan the median age is 40. These are no longer really “emerging markets”, in other words. Rather than experience another lengthy period of rapid economic growth that would continue to drive up transpacific trade, they will instead be undergoing various structural evolutions, as all maturing economies tend to do over time.

In the coastal areas of China, this evolution is likely to be from an economy oriented around exports of lower-end manufactured goods to an economy that exports value-added goods and services and is more reliant on the private consumption of its own population. Such shifts are natural for a middle-income economy like China to experience, but they may also reduce the quantity of China’s transpacific imports of industrial commodities and transpacific exports of manufactured goods.

Economic growth in the poorer interior provinces of China, meanwhile, or in the even poorer Indian subcontinent, is not certain to bring about the continued rise of transpacific commerce either. The emerging provinces of the populous Chinese interior are likely to trade mainly with coastal Chinese provinces and other countries in Asia, rather than with economies overseas. Today, for instance, in Sichuan and Henan, the two largest inland Chinese provinces, exports account for around just 4 percent of provincial economic output, almost nothing compared to the 47 percent of economic output that exports account for in coastal China’s two largest provinces, Guangdong and Jiangsu.

In addition, given the crowdedness of China’s coastal cities and ports, the interior provinces of China may also increasingly avoid using the Pacific in favour of the more direct “Silk Road” routes to Europe, or in favour of using Myanmar’s commercially navigable Irrawaddy River to directly access the Indian Ocean.The economic emergence of the Indian subcontinent, meanwhile, could perhaps lead transatlantic commerce to rise faster than transpacific trade, as India and its neighbours may partially succeed China in supplying cheap goods or services to consumers in the Atlantic world.

As they emerge, the Indian subcontinent and the Chinese interior will also be importing rapidly growing quantities of oil and gas from the the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, and Russia. Indeed, India and Pakistan already receive roughly 75 percent of their oil and gas imports and an astonishing 30 percent of their imports of goods in general from the Persian Gulf. China’s interior provinces, meanwhile, get around 75 percent of their gas imports from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and 30 percent of their oil imports from Russia and Kazakhstan. These imports are likely to increase, not only because of India’s and China’s continued growth, but also because of their shared desire to consume less coal, on which they rely for an average of about 65 percent of their energy consumption.

This need to import large quantities of energy could lead to competition, rather than cooperation, between regional powers like China, India, and Japan, potentially undermining Asia’s ability to cooperate as a more coherent political unit. (In contrast, the Atlantic world consists mainly of synergistic relationships where energy is concerned: Europe is a net energy importer, South America and Africa are net energy exporters, and North America is not too far from reaching the “energy independence” it has long dreamed about). Moreover, because the European Union itself currently receives around 60 percent of its oil and gas imports from Russia, the Persian Gulf, or Central Asia, the increasing energy consumption of Asia may force Europe to begin importing much more energy from the Americas or western Africa instead, further boosting transatlantic trade.

Conclusion: Policy Framework

While the renewed significance of the Atlantic is likely to occur mainly as a result of the commercial, cultural, social, and linguistic factors discussed above, we believe that specific policy goals are nevertheless required to ensure that such a renewal occurs in a manner that is both ethical and politically effective on a global level. Two policies in particular may be advisable in this regard:

One is the implementation of per capita carbon emissions taxes. Such taxes would likely facilitate transatlantic commerce through the export of European energy-saving and clean energy production technologies to the emissions-intensive markets of North America, whilst simultaneously providing both Europe and America with a more responsible and defensible platform in climate treaty negotiations with industrialized Asian economies that have much lower per capita and historical emissions levels.

The other is increasing political outreach and economic assistance to struggling countries, particularly those within Africa. Africa contains many of the world’s greatest challenges if it is not constructively engaged with, and it also has a youthful and diverse population of more than a billion people, vast reserves of natural resources, and linguistic and social connections with Europe and the Americas. All of these qualities make it a necessary component of any revitalized transatlantic project.

Of course, each of these policies deserves much more focus than we have left to spare in this essay. Yet still we feel confident in saying that, if these two policies are diligently and honestly pursued, then the unexpected return of the Atlantic as the central corridor of the international system would not only become more likely to occur, but will also be much more welcome when it does.

Examining China’s M&A Boom

An article in last week’s issue of The Economist showed that China’s outbound M&A activity[1] has risen sharply of late, up approximately fivefold since the summer of 2015 and eightfold above its average rate between 2010-2015.[2]

The article mentions that this increase could represent a troubling trend of capital fleeing China in response to China’s experiencing slowing economic growth and a gradually depreciating currency in recent years.

It then largely dismisses this theory, however, saying, “rather than sparking a stampede [of money] to the exits, it is more accurate to say that these changes [in China’s economic performance] have alerted Chinese firms to the fact that they are still woefully under-invested abroad. China’s share of cross-border M&A has averaged roughly 6% over the past five years, despite the fact that it accounts for nearly 15% of global GDP[3]”.

Implicit in these words is the expectation that a country’s share of global M&A should not be too different from its share of global GDP. Yet this overlooks several other factors that may determine a country’s propensity for engaging in M&A. These may include a country’s role in international trade, or a country’s proximity to other large economies or foreign financial hubs, or a country’s cultural and linguistic affinity[4] or political relationship with other large economies and foreign financial hubs.

China ticks each of these boxes in a notable way. It is both physically and linguistically isolated from most of the global economy beyond its own borders: East Asia outside of mainland[5] China accounts for only 12% or so of world GDP[6], while the combined GDP of the world’s majority-Chinese economies outside of mainland China is about nine times smaller than that of mainland China itself[7].

China’s political relations are somewhat fraught. 45% of East Asia’s GDP outside of mainland China occurs in China’s regional rival Japan[8], nearly half of the world’s GDP that occurs in majority-Chinese countries outside of mainland China itself occurs in Beijing’s rival Taiwan, and 25% of global GDP is from its potential rival superpower the US[9]. 

China’s propensity toward international trade is, similarly, not pronounced[10]. China accounts for an estimated 11% of international trade, compared to 15% of global GDP.

Finally, apart from Taiwan, the only notable majority-Chinese economies outside of mainland China are business-financial hubs: Singapore and Hong Kong. Such hubs historically tend towards very high M&A activity, and towards being net originators rather than targets of M&A deals[11]. China’s global share of outbound M&A might therefore be higher were these not financial hubs. If, for example, Hong Kong was considered to be part of mainland China[12], China’s outbound M&A would in most years have been meaningfully higher than it has been[13]. 

The value of China’s outbound M&A as a share of global cross-border M&A should perhaps be lower than China’s share of global GDP, then. Yet so far in 2016 it is on pace to be much higher than China’s share of global GDP. The M&A boom could be capital flight after all. 

————

NOTES:

1 — Specifically, the “value of announced outbound mergers and acquisitions including net debt of targets”, according to the article. Notably, however, “announcing deals is not the same as closing them. Between losing out to other bidders and rejection by regulators, China’s investment tally could fall [below what it has announced].” “Nevertheless”, it goes on, “the trend is unmistakable. In recent years China has consistently accounted for less than a tenth of announced cross-border M&A deals; this year its share is nearly a third.”

2According to this article in the Financial Times, Chinese buyers account for an estimated 15% of the value of cross-border M&A that has occured thus far in 2016”. The Chinese offer to buy the Swiss company Syngenta, if accepted, is roughly big enough to eclipse all outbound chinese M&A in any year before 2014.

3- The article goes on to say “…Strategic considerations—acquiring technology and brands that China lacks—are more important [than moving capital out of China] for buyers [of foreign companies], both to bolster their position at home and to speed expansion abroad.”

4 – The following quote is from Clifford Chance and the Economist Intelligence Unit, from 2012: “Despite the growing need for companies to invest in new markets in order to realise their growth ambitions, more than one-half say that they are discouraged from acquiring overseas because of concerns about bridging cultural differences. This rises to 63% for respondents in the US. Many companies admit that they find the softer side of deal-making challenging, with just 44% of companies saying that they are effective at handling cultural integration as part of the transaction process.”

5 — “Mainland China” in this case does not include Hong Kong, Macao, or Taiwan, but does include other Chinese islands like Hainan and Xiamen.

6 – If you also include India, Australia, and New Zealand this figure rises to 18%

7 -By comparison, even the nominal GDP of the United States is only 2.75 times larger than the combined GDP of Britain, Canada, and Australia. France’s GDP is only 3.15 times larger than that of Belgium plus Quebec. Even if you try to count the wealth of the entire Chinese global diaspora rather than just majority-Chinese economies like Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, it is still very small compared to the size of mainland China’s GDP.  If you assume, for simplicity’s sake, that there are 50 million “overseas Chinese” (the figure given, roughly, by Wikipedia), and that each has an average income of $25,000 (similar to the per capita GDP of Taiwan), then the overall income of the Chinese diaspora is $1.25 trillion — still little more than 10% of mainland China’s GDP.

8 – According to this source, “Chinese FDI in Japan and trade relations between the countries have a long history because of the relative cultural and geographic proximity between the countries (Alvstam et al., 2009). Also, China is one of the two most important trade partners for the Japanese economy. All this should, following the mainstream trade theories (e.g., Helpman, 1984; Helpman & Krugman, 1985; Petri, 1994), give favorable conditions for large inflows of FDI. In relative terms, this picture has to some extent been correct. Before the recent territorial row over the Senkaku, or Diaoyutai, Islands located between Okinawa and Taiwan, the Chinese and Japanese mutual cross-border M&As was steadily increasing with 2010 and 2011 as peak years recording 16 M&A deals, respectively (Recof, 2012). However, this trend seems to have been broken, by recording only 6 M&As in 2012, and 5 M&As in 2013.”

Japan was not even one of China’s top 10 targets of outbound M&A between 2005-2015— the biggest target for outbound Chinese and Hong Kong M&A was Britain (14.6% of the total). By comparison, 43.7% of Japan’s outbound M&A over the past 10 years went to the US. (Source: graphs from http://qz.com/465638/charts-and-maps-how-japans-companies-are-beating-chinas-in-overseas-ma/)

9- This is not to say the China’s relationships with Japan, Taiwan, or the US are nearly as troubled as many people think they are or would like them to be. Still, these relationships mean that China may have a very different outlook in foreign affairs than do many other countries.

10 – Indeed, one might expect China to account for a disproportionately large share of international trade, given its role as the ‘workshop of the world’ and its voracious appetite for imports of energy and minerals. But in fact China only accounts for about 11-12% of global trade as far as I can tell (using statistics from MIT’s Observatory of Economic Complexity), regardless of whether or not Hong Kong is included.

11-   In 2014, the largest M&A deal involving an Asian country, whether cross-border or domestic, was the acquisition of China’s CITIC Ltd. by Hong Kong’s CITIC Pacific Ltd., a deal that was worth about three times more than any other involving an Asian country that year. In 2015, in contrast, one of the biggest deals was, according to this article from Bloomberg, “China Cinda Asset Management’s (pending) $8.8 billion purchase of Hong Kong lender Nanyang Commercial Bank.” Singapore’s outbound M&A has been increasing by a huge amount in recent years too and is much higher than its inbound M&A.

12 —M&A statistics, moreso than many other economic or financial categories, tend to consider Hong Kong as being separate from the rest of the territories of the People’s Republic of China. This may be (at least partially) justified, but it can also confuse matters at times.

13 – In 2011, 2012, and 2013, Hong Kong’s outbound M&A was about 25-40% as large as mainland China’s, even though Hong Kong’s GDP is only around 2% as large as mainland China’s. Singapore’s outbound M&A, meanwhile, was 1.5-22% as large as mainland China’s during 2011, 2012, and 2013, while Singapore’s GDP was also only about 2% as large as mainland China’s.  (Source: Global Financehttps://www.gfmag.com/global-data/economic-data/value-of-cross-border-maa-by-region-country?page=2)

M&A Table

I made this chart in order to find correlations between outbound M&A activity (as given in column I, at the right end of the chart) and the factors in the four leftmost columns of the chart. Column I’s closest linear relationships are with columns E and F — though Japan is an outlier in both cases. Admittedly, though, this chart does not include enough countries or enough years of M&A to say much.

Column B is based on the regions Europe, North America, and East Asia. For example, the USA’s figure in column B is equal to the GDP of Canada plus the GDP of Mexico divided by the GDP of the world. Column C is based on two “super-regions”: the North Atlantic (including Europe and North America) and the Indo-Pacific. The US scores much lower than China in Column B – because North America minus the US has a much smaller GDP than East Asia minus China – but scores much higher than China in Column C, because the US is not far from Europe.

Column D is based on countries in which the majority language(s) is the same: China’s figure in column D, for example, is equal to the combined GDP of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore – the only other majority-Chinese economies – divided by the GDP of the world.

Guest Post: Political Turnover Rate in the US

Here’s a guest post from VacuousWastrel, which I enjoyed reading. Hope you like it too.

Political Turnover Rate in the United States 

America is, like a lot of democracies, a two-party country, more or less. There’s one party, and then there’s the other party, and people tend to consistently vote for one or for the other and that’s just how it is and always has been. Nothing special there. As I say, it’s common. It reflects in part the simple plurality (or ‘first past the post’) electoral system, which privileges the two largest parties, but also to a large extent the social cleavages within the nation.

That’s why most countries (not all, but most) with multi-party systems in practice tend most of the time have those parties line up in two blocs – one of the left, and one of the right, although in individual countries local issues may also play a role in defining how the blocs see themselves, and how they compete. [Long-term additional parties or blocs likewise tend to reflect additional cleavages – regional parties that reflect differences in national or ethnic identity, for example]

As a result of parties being based on underlying cleavages, parties tend to be static: the same people, and the same places, keep on voting for the same parties, or their successor parties. There are parts of the UK that have voted Conservative (or, before that, Tory) every election since the 1830s.

But parties aren’t fixed in stone, and the biggest example of that is the US (perhaps in part because historically both major parties were broadly ‘liberal’ middle-class parties, more flexible than the labour parties, agrarian parties or religious parties, or even conservative parties, found in most other democracies). It’s well known that the US has gone through several different ‘party systems’, in which its parties had different names, or drew from different bases of support, or competed on very different issues. What that means on the ground is that areas have gone from supporting one party to supporting another.

And that, excuse the longwindedness, is what I’ve just been intrigued by. How far do you have to go back before all the states in the US voted differently from how they do now? How often has such a complete turnover occurred? How quickly does it occur?

This isn’t an academic study, it’s just me looking at some historical election results. There are ambiguities around the edges, mostly around how you define which parties are the successors to which earlier parties – I’ve taken an inclusive, common sense line on succession, because I’m interested in real changes in voting, not just party rebrandings. And for my purposes here, I’m defining a “turnover” or “transition” as a period of time from Year X to Year Y, inclusive, when every state had been admitted to the union by Year X had voted for two different parties by Year Y – which means that during that time, no states (other than those that entered the union during that period) remained loyal to a single party. And the turnovers that have occurred are:

 

1: 1789 – 1820: the Connecticut / Delaware Transition

This one is nice and clear cut: in 1789, every single state voted for Washington’s Federalists; in 1820, every single state voted for Monroe’s Democratic-Republicans. I’ve called this the Connecticut/Delaware Transition, because those are the only two states that didn’t vote D-R in 1804 – the country was, as it were, kept waiting for those two states to switch allegiance. Because these transition periods are about both change and continuity: change in that across the period all states changed their votes, but continuity because they are defined by the end of a state’s loyalty – in this case, Connecticut and Delaware voted Federalist every election up to, but not including, 1820. This example turns out to be commonplace: often transitions revolve around a big wave election like 1804, with just a few loyal states that are then picked off more slowly later on.

 

2: 1796 – 1860: the Virginia Transition

The one-party state established during the C/D Transition eventually broke down. And by ‘eventually’, I mean the very next election, in 1824, when four different candidates ran, all nominally as Democratic-Republicans – the two new parties, the Democrats and the National Republicans, were only formalised for the 1828 cycle. I’ve chosen to consider the Democrats as the successor party to the D-Rs – the Democrat Jackson was the candidate with the most votes in 1828 (though he lost the election when the House settled on his rival, John Quincy Adams, instead), and the self-declared ‘Old Republicans’, who wanted to restore the perceived traditional values of the party, eventually sided with the Democrats, rather than with the National Republicans.

This transition therefore represents the loss of dominance by the D-R/Democratic Party and the rise of a sequence of new parties – National Republicans, Whigs, and finally Republicans. Virginia was the final hold-out, voting the same way for 64 years, before finally voting for the Constitutional Union Party on the eve of the civil war – it would take until 1872 before they finally went the whole way and voted Republican.

 

3: 1820-1868: the Alabama Transition

This transition can be seen as an extension of the second: it exists because several states entered the union after 1796, including a couple that would prove faithfully Democratic for decades: Missouri and Alabama. Missouri finally voted Republican in 1864, when Alabama was in secession; Alabama joined it the next cycle. The period represents the transition to a Republican-dominant system after the civil war.

 

4: 1828 – 1912: the Massachusetts Transition

The third transition may have left the Republicans dominant, but the Democrats were able to recover, and even to pick off traditionally Republican states. The transition ended with the unusual election of 1912: with the Republicans split into two parties, the Democrats under Wilson were able to make sweeping gains, including finally grabbing the Republican stronghold of Massachusetts, which had voted Republican (and before that Whig, and before that National Republican, and before that for the Adams faction) since 1828.

 

5: 1836 – 1964: the Vermont Transition

In the middle of the 20th century, power swung dramatically backward and forward, with the Democrats scoring crushing victories in 1932 and 1936, and Republicans doing likewise in 1928, 1952, and 1956. But each wave broke against the shores of the same enemy strongholds: the Democrat south and the Republican northeast. The final breakthrough didn’t come until LBJ’s sweeping victory in 1964, which finally knocked out the Republicans everywhere except, ironically, the south, and Arizona.

In the short term, the shift of the southern states to the Republicans looked more striking – but the southern states had already all voted Republican before, mostly in the aftermath of the civil war. The real hold-out was Vermont, which had been loyal to the Republicans (etc) since 1836. Remarkably, the only reason which this transition was so ‘short’ was that Vermont in 1832 had voted for the Anti-Masonic Party – the state had never actually voted Democrat before.

 

6: 1876 – 1968: the Arkansas Transition

Here’s the one that symbolises the loss of the Democrat south. After the initial post-civil-war confusion, the south went back to being soundly Democrat until the time of LBJ. Many southern states flipped in 1964, but Arkansas lasted until 1968, when it voted for Wallace’s American Independents. It went the whole way and voted Republican in 1972, not quite making it to the century mark…

 

7: 1952 – 1996: the Arizona Transition

While all that business with the south and the northeast was going on, something else had changed: Arizona, which had swung to the Democrats with FDR, swung back in the high-water Republican election of 1952. It wasn’t pried out of their hands again until Clinton’s re-election in 1996 (and that was a one-off). It’s actually a slightly bigger deal than it might seem: the most loyal of Eisenhower’s states in the far west (that is, the only one not to vote for Johnson in ’64), even its temporary loss is emblematic of the gradual transition of those Eisenhower states from Republican to Democrat: Washington and Oregon switched in ’88, California in ’92, and Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico have all become active states again. Montana and Arizona have both toyed with the Democrats, leaving only Utah and Idaho as loyal Eisenhower states (since ’64). And I guess Wyoming.

 

8: 1968 – ? : the Western Transition

We don’t know how long this transition will last, but I’m guessing it may take a while. The interesting thing is that the Republican stronghold this time (and this transition will be a matter of eroding Republican support – the current Democratic strongholds weren’t established until later) isn’t, in historical terms at least, the South at all, despite popular perception. The Southern states have already betrayed the Republicans: en masse to vote for Carter, and then piecemeal to vote for Clinton.

Instead, the historical core of Republican support in this transition has been in the west: the Wilkie states (that emerged as a bloc voting for Wilkie and then Dewey against Roosevelt and Truman) of Kansas, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota, plus the remaining Eisenhower states of Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. Plus Oklahoma, which also swung with Eisenhower but doesn’t really fit. Plus Alaska, which didn’t vote until 1960, but can probably be considered an Eisenhower state. All nine states went Democrat for Johnson in ’64, but switched back in ’68 and have never looked back. Not until all nine have voted Democrat at least once will the current transition be complete.

 

Note: due to the way these transitions are calculated, for each starting year after one of the years listed above, there is a complete turnover by the end-point of the last-listed transition. Put plainly: the 1789 and 1792 situations were both completely turned over by 1820; the 1796, 1800, 1804, 1808, 1812 and 1816 situations were all turned over by 1860; 1820 and 1824 were both turned over by 1868; the elections from 1828 to 1836 were all turned over by 1912, and so on. And conversely, because the current unfinished cycle began in 1968, that means that 1964 is the most recent election outside this cycle – that is, since 1964 every state has voted both ways, but that is not the case since 1968.

From this we can calculate the slowest and quickest turnovers. The electoral map in 1836 was not completely overturned until 1964, a record 128 years of relative stability [other strongholds during this time included Alabama and Mississippi (minus some Reconstruction-era elections) and Georgia (minus a flirtation with the Whigs in the 1840s) for the Democrats, and Maine (again, minus some confusion in the 1840s) for the Whigs/Republicans]. At the other end of the spectrum, the quickest total turnover was between 1948 and 1968 – specifically, only 5 states didn’t vote the opposite way in 1956 and 1964, and two of those (West Virginia and Kentucky) flipped twice those eight years (the only three that stayed loyal through that crisis were North Carolina and Arkansas for the Democrats and Arizona for the Republicans). Three turnovers of less than 20 years were only narrowly avoided: only one state (Arizona) voted the same way for every election from 1956 to 1968, and only two states (Arizona and Massachusetts) voted the same way in 1964-1972.

 

Anyway, cut out some smaller overlapping transitions and this method gives you three grand cycles: 1789-1820; 1824-1872; 1872-1964; 1968-now. This takes us back to the beginning of this post, because those line up fairly decently with the 1st, 2nd, 3rd/4th/5th and 6th party systems (though this model has the 3rd starting a little later, once the system really gets fixed in place, rather than when the Republican Party is officially founded). Interestingly, the normal debate is about whether the 5th and 6th are really separate (and if so when the break occurred), whereas under these definitions that distinction is unavoidable, and the questions are really about the 3rd, 4th and 5th systems…

 

Europe’s Mountain Lands — Image of the Day

mountains in europe.png

I’ve made some graphs about Europe’s mountains, using data from this thorough report made by the European Union:

mountain areas

This graph above shows, approximately, the size of European countries’ mountainous areas (in the y axis) and how big their mountainous areas are as a share of their overall territories (in the x-axis). With the exception of Slovenia, the graph does not include any of the mountainous countries of the former Yugoslavia, since the report does not mention those countries. Nor does it mention Morocco, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, or some of Europe’s other peripheral non-EU countries. Norway, though, which is not in the EU either, is included in the report, and as you can see it is by far the biggest outlier on the graph above.

Mountain Areas - 2

This graph above shows that, as one might expect, there is a strong correlation between how mountainous a European country is and how much of its population lives in mountainous areas. Switzerland leads in both categories, followed by Norway, Slovenia, Greece, and Austria.

Mountain Areas 3.png

In this graph above the main outliers are Italy and Spain, which have by far the largest populations living in mountainous areas. Had Turkey, Morocco, and Algeria been included, however, they would have been even further ahead of Italy and its 18 million people living in mountain areas.

m area 1.png

m area 2.png

mount pop .png

m pop 2.png

 

 

 

 

 

Forest and Farm — Image of the Day

Using data from the World Bank , here are the top 15 and bottom 15 countries in terms of per capita arable land, among countries in which at least 15 million people live:

arable land per capita -2

Here’s zooming in on the bottom 15:

arable per capita 3
(rounded to the nearest decimal point)

Using data from Nationmaster (from 2005, so it may be outdated in some cases), here are the top 15 and bottom 15 countries in terms of per capita forest area, among countries in which at least 15 million people live:

forest area per capita

And zooming in:

forest per capita 2 .png

If these numbers are correct, then Canada has 43.7 times more arable land per capita and 10,667 times more forest area per capita than Egypt does.