The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future - Laurence C. Smith (2010)

Part II. THE PULL

Chapter 7. The Third Wave

“Canada: A few acres of snow.”

—Voltaire (1694-1778)

Number One ($596 billion per year)

—Rank of Canada among U.S. trading partners (2008)

The preceding chapters imagine a 2050 world in which global population has grown by nearly half, forming crowded urban clots around the hot lower latitudes of our planet. Mighty new poles of economic power and resource consumption have risen in China, India, and Brazil. People are urban, grayer, and richer. Many places are water-stressed, uninsurable, or battling the sea. Some have abandoned irrigated farming altogether; their cities rely totally on global trade flows of energy and virtual water to even exist.

We have a diverse basket of new energy sources but still rely heavily upon fossil fuels. Natural gas is especially lucrative and under aggressive development in all corners of the world. Among these is the Arctic Ocean, where investment capital is flowing north as the peaceful settlement of seafloor claims, diminished sea ice, new maritime port facilities, and specialized LNG tankers have made offshore gas extraction increasingly economic. The NORCs’ relative water riches are envied by all. Milder winters have encouraged billions of southern organisms to press northward, including us. But in remote continental interiors, many small villages and extraction industries have been abandoned, even as new ones flourish along the coast.

These broad pressures and trends portend great changes to the northern quarter of our planet, making it a place of higher human activity and strategic value than today. But history tells us that the pace and pattern of human expansion will not be uniform. There are many differences among the NORC countries, like steep temperature contrasts and an uneven geography of natural resources. Disparities abound in their historical patterns of settlement and infrastructure. Demographic trajectories, and national views on foreigners and aboriginal rights, vary greatly. The decisions of past political leaders on how to develop their frontiers still carry legacy today, as do current attitudes toward economic globalization and trade.

How much do these different preexisting conditions across northern countries matter? Many of the global and regional forces described thus far will be shaped by them. Their contrasts bring finer detail to the broad outlines of the 2050 thought experiment drawn thus far, and are the subject of this chapter and the next.

Quick! Hazard a guess: Of the following six countries, which has the fastest population growth rate out to 2050—China, Brazil, Canada, Iceland, Mexico, or Norway?

If you picked China, Brazil, or Mexico you guessed wrong. In terms of percent growth (not sheer numbers) you may be surprised to learn that none even makes the top three. Canada, Iceland, and Norway are all growing faster with population increases of 20% or more expected by 2050 (see table on page 173). Their base populations are much smaller of course—the sum total of people living in these three countries today is half that of Germany—but there is no disputing their extraordinary rate of growth.

The model projections tell us that by 2050 human populations will be larger in all of the NORC countries except one. The glaring exception is Russia, where falling births, rising deaths, and an aging population promise a precipitous decline of nearly one in five people. Of the NORCs, Russia alone joins Japan, Germany, South Korea, and Italy as a population loser by 2050. But even with 24 million fewer Russians, the total population of the eight NORC countries is still projected to rise by 76 million people (+15%). Most of this will be driven by growth in the United States (+86 million, with perhaps +15 million in northern states389) and Canada (+11 million), with nearly +3 million more arriving in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland.

Some Population Densities and Trajectories 2010-2050

(Source: United Nations Population Division)

Where will all these new people live? Outside of Europe, the NORCs control most of the land areas lying north of the forty-fifth parallel. Excluding the Greenland Ice Sheet, this is over forty million square kilometers of land, more than quadruple the area of the lower forty-eight U.S. states. By my calculations390 roughly fourteen million square kilometers—about one and one-half times the size of the United States or China—are quite livable. Might these be the lands into which new settlements will spread?

The First Waves

Actually, they already have. The forty-fifth parallel does miss Toronto, Canada’s largest city, but captures virtually all of the rest of Canada, plus a row of northern U.S. states from Minnesota to Washington. The cities of Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Ottawa, and Montreal are all contained within the planet’s northern quarter of latitude. Tracing the forty-fifth parallel farther east, we see it snares all of Germany and the United Kingdom, and indeed much of Europe, including the cities of Paris, Brussels, and Budapest. Looking still farther east, it swallows Russia, most of Mongolia, and a good chunk of northeast China, including the city of Harbin.

To the north, we find that even the harshest Arctic hinterlands have long been occupied (albeit thinly). The first people to see the Arctic Ocean were probably Mongolic, reaching the northern coast of what is now Russia by thirty to forty thousand years ago, if not sooner.391 By at least fourteen thousand years ago, their descendants had crossed the Bering Strait into Alaska. From there, groups spread south and east across North America, some reaching eastern Canada and Greenland by about forty-five hundred years ago. A later wave of Mongolic invaders again swept across Arctic Canada to Greenland, supplanting the first. The ancestors of today’s Aleut, Yupik, Inuit, Chipewyan, Dogrib, Gwich’in, Slavey, Cree, Nenets, Khanty, Komi, Dolgan, Evenk, Yakut, Chukchi, Tlingit, and many others migrated and grew. Our circumpolar colonization was nearly complete.

Northern Europe got a later start because it was buried under an ice sheet. But after the glaciers retreated it was invaded and reinvaded many times, beginning about twelve thousand years ago. From genetic studies it appears that its most ancient occupants today are the Sámi and Karelians of northern Scandinavia and northwestern Russia.392 A second clue comes from linguistics: Today’s Sámi and Karelians (and Finns and Estonians) speak derivatives of Finno-Ugric, predating the arrival of Germanic (Swedish and Norwegian), Baltic (Latvian and Lithuanian), and Slavic (Russian) Indo-European languages in the region. This is why Swedes, Norwegians, and Icelanders today can sort of understand each other whereas Sámi and Finnish sound like pure gibberish to them and also to Russians. The last bits of undiscovered land—Iceland and the Faroe Islands—weren’t colonized until the Vikings found them in the ninth century A.D.

Next came more waves of expansion and rediscovery. French and British trappers and traders arrived in the New World; Russian Cossacks surged east through Siberia all the way to the Pacific Ocean. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries almost three million Scandinavians emigrated to the American Midwest and rural Canada. Today, there are Nigerians moving to Fort McMurray, Iraqis to Stockholm, Filipinos to Yellowknife, and Azerbaijanis to Noril’sk. There are growing cities, guest-worker programs, and multinational corporations. As I drove across the Arctic Circle in my rental car, just a few hours north of Fairbanks, it was with a Starbucks Venti latte still clutched in my hand. The latest invasions have begun.

So, unlike the Arctic Ocean seafloor, even our northernmost landmasses are hardly a vacant frontier. Siberia has thirty-five million people, most living in million-plus cities. Canada and Alaska share thirty-four million, the Nordic countries twenty-five million. However, we are still talking about some of the lowest population densities on Earth, especially in Canada and Russia with only three and eight people per square kilometer, respectively (see preceding table). If all Canadians could be airlifted from their cities and sprinkled uniformly across the country, every man, woman, and child would get their own eighty-two-acre spread. The same exercise in China would yield less than two acres per person; in India less than one.393 But no landscape on Earth is settled uniformly like that. We concentrate in specific places for specific reasons—for arable soil, at strategic trading crossroads, along rivers, and so on. Physical limitations have always influenced human settlement patterns in the past, and they will continue to do so in the future. Obviously, one of the biggest limitations on human settlement in these northern areas has always been the cold.

The Uneven Cold

As a general rule the higher the latitude the more severe the cold (and seasonality, of course)—and the fewer the people. However, being near an ocean does change things. Thanks to the geography of continents and the sluggish, heat-carrying thermal properties of water, air temperatures do not simply vary from south to north, or from low elevation to high, but also with distance from a westerly ocean.394

Take, for example, the line of 45° N latitude defined earlier. On the Pacific coast of Oregon, the average January daytime temperature along this line is 52°F. Moving east through the Montana-Wyoming border, South Dakota, and Minneapolis it tumbles to 22°F. Temperatures persist in the low twenties through Green Bay, Wisconsin (home of the Packers), Ottawa (20°F), and Montreal (22°F) but leap abruptly for ship captains on the Atlantic Ocean, thanks to the Gulf Stream current and its north-flowing extensions that carry warm water north all the way from the tropics. Their heat warms 45° N’s land-fall on a beach in southern France (49°F) and lingers for a while over western Europe. But by Milan (40°F) the warm touch is fading again, and by Stavropol, Russia (25°F), it is gone. Tracing the January averages along this single line of latitude, we found temperature swings of over thirty degrees!

This is the so-called continental effect, in which the interiors of continents experience colder winters and hotter summers with distance from a major ocean, especially on their eastern halves.395 The continental effect helps create the numbing cold of the “Siberian Curse” described in Chapter 5, and the southerly dip of permafrost in eastern Canada and eastern Russia. It is what forces people living in Ottawa to bundle into parkas in winter, while due east in Milan they get by with light jackets and fashionable scarves. It is an important reason why the northern penetration of human settlements has been greater in western Canada than eastern Canada, and in western Russia than eastern Russia. Together with heat from the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Current, it explains why most of the Eurasian population north of 45° N is piled onto the western end of the continent, and thus the historical agrarian settlement pattern of Europe.

The Coastal and Lowland Imperative

Another important consideration for human settlement patterns, especially in cold places, is terrain.396 Even prehistoric nomadic hunters, who worried little about permafrost or crop yields, preferred low-lying valleys and coasts.

The reason again is temperature. High elevations are colder than low elevations, and usually more rugged too. As a general rule of thumb, air temperatures fall roughly 6.5°C for each kilometer of increased elevation (18.8°F per mile). Thus, high-elevation ground is colder. It allows permafrost to exist farther south than it otherwise would in the mountains of Norway, the mountain cordillera of western Canada, and on the Tibetan Plateau. In Russia east of the Yenisei River, high elevation compounds the continental effect, making these lands among the coldest on Earth. They are deeply frozen in permafrost, useless for agriculture, and frighteningly cold in winter. In North America, temperatures grow colder mainly from south to north, but in Russia, it’s from west to east.

For these and other reasons the northern high latitudes have never been a strong draw for southern settlers. Their extreme seasonality makes for a short (if intense) growing season. Abundant water and hot summers create a moist haven for hordes of mosquitoes. The freshly scoured landscape, exposed only since the last ice age, has poorly developed soils. Biological richness is low and essentially still colonizing since the glaciers’ retreat. It’s not surprising, therefore, that our past historical expansions have left vast northern land areas only lightly touched.

In Canada, most French and British colonial settlements hugged southern coastlines and rivers. Farms would later spread across her low, flat prairies, bracketed by rugged mountains to the west and rocky Precambrian crystalline shield to the east. All of Alaska’s major settlements are either in low-elevation terrain, along the coast, or both. Norway’s long-axis mountain spine crowded its settlements along its shores where grew societies of fishermen, explorers, and (now) offshore oil and gas drillers. Sweden, Finland, and northwestern Russia, in contrast, are low-elevation and permafrost-free. They have been widely settled since prehistory and their reindeer-herding, dairy, and cool-weather agricultural societies count among the oldest in Europe.

Given all this, it took prospects of financial gain to attract nonnative settlers to remote northern areas. In the ninth century seafaring Vikings—ancestors of today’s Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes—variously plundered or settled Russia, Greenland, Canada, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands. The (re)discovery of North America attracted French and British trappers and traders who penetrated across Canada in search of beaver. From Siberia came the call of sable fur. After defeating the Khan near modern-day Tobol’sk, Russian Cossacks swept three thousand miles east from the Urals all the way to the Pacific Ocean in 1697, completing the Russian version of “manifest destiny” a full century and a half before the United States did. Their legacy was a system of remote outposts where Russian fur traders and missionaries interacted with dozens of aboriginal groups. It took gold discoveries to bring new rushes of people to the Yukon and Alaska. Some remained after, commingling with the existing aboriginal population to grub out frontier lives as miners, trappers, and small farmers. That was pretty much how the situation remained, until the Second Wave.

If expansions of early settlement were shaped by climate, terrain, and gold, in the twentieth century they were shaped by politics and war. Two major transformations happened that altered huge areas of the Northern Rim forever. The first was Joseph Stalin’s decision to grow the Gulag, a vast network of thousands of forced-labor work camps and exile towns across Russia between 1929 and 1953. The second was the decision of the U.S. Army to invade western Canada during the depths of World War II.

The Second Wave: Stalin’s Plan and the U.S. Occupation of Canada

Even before Japan’s December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States was worrying about how to defend Alaska. It was impossibly remote, reachable only by ships or air, with no road connecting it to the rest of the country. Meanwhile, Hitler’s armies were devouring Europe, and Japan’s advance across Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands seemed unstoppable. From Washington, the view of the entire northwestern corner of North America—not just Alaska but western Canada as well—was of a broad soft flank, completely vulnerable to an overland invasion by Japan.

Bases were thrown up in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and the Aleutian Islands and several thousand troops rushed to them. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, American fears went into overdrive and a deal was struck between Washington and Ottawa: Canada would allow the U.S. Army to develop her frontier and connect it to Alaska, so long as everything was turned over to her after the war. The U.S. military-industrial machine swung into gear and selected its beachhead, a sleepy Canadian farm town called Dawson Creek, at the end of a minor western spur line for Northern Alberta Railways.

In March 1942 the residents of Dawson Creek got the shock of their lives. The train arrived, but instead of bringing the expected dry goods and furniture, it was loaded with heavy equipment and work crews of the U.S. Army. They had come to carve a fifteen-hundred-mile-long emergency road through uncharted wilderness—through British Columbia and the Yukon, connecting Dawson Creek all the way to Fairbanks—in under a year.

Canada’s government watched from Ottawa as the U.S. Army opened up her western frontier. Forty thousand American soldiers and civilian contractors poured into a vast wilderness of forest and bog, a place with no roads and hardly any settlements. It was home to fewer than five thousand Canadians, mostly aboriginal hunter-gatherers.

Dawson Creek became the gateway of what would eventually be called the Alaska Highway. To ferry supplies, dozens of new airfields were cut into the wilderness to form the Northwest Staging Route, later used to shuttle some ten thousand American-built airplanes—painted with the Soviet red star—to Alaska, where they were handed over to Russian pilots.397 Another six-hundred-mile road and pipeline were built to bring crude oil south from fields at Norman Wells. Yet another road was built to link the new highway to the Alaskan port of Haines. The old gold rush town of Whitehorse had a new population explosion and sprouted pipelines running north and south. A telephone network was built, together with new shipping facilities along the Mackenzie River. Through immense manpower and treasure, the United States had opened up another country’s wilderness and connected Alaska by road to the rest of the continent.398

The same thing was going on elsewhere in the Northern Rim. A major airport and base were built in Keflavík, Iceland, and more than thirty thousand troops kept there during and after the war. That facility is now Iceland’s international airport. Another built at Sondre Stromfjord is now Greenland’s international airport; the American-built road there is now the longest in the country. Another airport in northern Greenland (Thule Air Base) is still retained by the U.S. military and is now the northernmost air base for the United States.

The close of World War II changed only the enemy, not the construction projects. Three chains of remote “distant early warning” (DEW) radar stations were strung through Alaska, Canada, and Greenland to deter Soviet bombers. A joint U.S.-Canada base was built at Fort Churchill, Manitoba, and another at Frobisher Bay (now Iqaluit). More than sixty thousand troops were stationed in Alaskan bases that are maintained there to this day. By the end of the Cold War, the American military had built a first skeleton of roads, airports, and outposts throughout the northern high latitudes, leaving an indelible template still shaping the region today.

Stalin’s Gulag

America’s northern investments during World War II and the Cold War were purely military.399 But Joseph Stalin’s underlying purpose for building the Gulag ran far deeper. It was more than just a convenient way to punish criminals and silence political dissidents—it was a deliberate decision to industrialize the Soviet Union using the slave labor of his own people. It intended to advance certain socialist ideologies, like asserting man’s triumph over nature and Engels’ dictum—the notion that industry should be evenly distributed geographically across a country. It was nothing less than a forced settlement of his country’s barely habitable Siberian territories—then thinly occupied by aboriginals and a sprinkle of outposts—with ethnic Russians.

The use of prison camps in Russia dates to the tsars, but Stalin took it to a whole new level. By the 1930s he had established camps throughout all twelve Russian time zones. By the program’s peak in the early 1950s, the total camp population had swelled to 2.5 million prisoners. Nearly five hundred complexes were built, comprising thousands of individual camps, each holding a few hundred to thousands of people.400 Many were condemned for minor crimes. Over the course of the program perhaps eighteen million are believed to have passed through the camps; another six million were banished to live near them in exile.

Stalin’s Gulag is one of the darkest chapters in Russian history.401 Its atrocities include uncounted deaths from starvation, exposure, exhaustion, and even outright murder. Thousands of projects were blazed into the wilderness without supplies, a plan, or competence. Many were ultimately abandoned. But as a blunt tool to force massive industrialization and resettlement of Siberia, the program was a resounding success.

A large fraction of this giant captive labor force was aimed directly at the heart of the frozen frontier. Prisoners blasted mines and cut forests. They built roads, bridges, railroads, and factories. The Soviet Union proceeded to industrialize on the backs of these workers and the iron, coal, and timber they produced. If they survived their sentences, many prisoners were forbidden to return home. Millions of exiles and prisoners’ family members instead moved into the growing towns and cities near the camps. Factory towns grew huge, attracting further subsidies and emigration programs from Moscow. Even after Stalin’s death and the dismantling of the Gulag system in 1953, these subsidies continued. By the 1980s there were gigantic industrial cities scattered across some of the coldest terrain on Earth: Novosibirsk, Omsk, Yekaterinburg, Khabarovsk, Chelyabinsk, Krasnoyarsk, Noril’sk, Irkutsk, Bratsk, Tomsk, Vorkuta, Magadan. . . . At staggering cost in blood and treasure, Mother Russia had urbanized Siberia.

Contrasting Patterns of Settlement

The decision of Soviet planners to relocate millions of people and force the growth of giant cities across her coldest, most remote terrain has created one of the most fascinating contrasts in human settlement found on Earth.

On a world map or globe Norway, Sweden, and Finland look coldest of all. Their settlements and infrastructure are arranged in a north-south direction and extend even farther north than most Siberian cities. But don’t be fooled. They are bathed in heat from the North Atlantic Current and enjoy much warmer winters than Russia, even high above the Arctic Circle. I once visited Norway’s lovely city of Tromsø, at 70° N latitude, in January, its coldest month of the year. Its residents were out in force, romping in the snow and chatting amiably in their front yards. Even in January the average daytime temperature is +25°F in Tromsø, warmer than Minneapolis. Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland, which is plunked squarely in the warm current, averages a balmy +35°F. But in Russia’s Novosibirsk, way down south at 55° N latitude, temperatures are subzero, averaging -2°F. Worry not for the Nordics.

Returning to our world map or globe, Canada and Russia at first look rather similar. Both are enormous countries with long east-west coastlines fronting the Arctic Ocean. Both have vast emptiness in the northern parts of their bulk. Both have a band of cities also running in an east-west direction, just north of and roughly parallel to their long southern borders.

But upon closer inspection some differences emerge. Canadian cities hug the U.S. border like a long spotted eel, whereas Russian cities are arranged more like a shotgun blast. Owing to the peculiar orientation of Russia’s climatic gradient (recall that in Canada, temperatures grow coldest moving from south to north, but in Siberia from west to east), Russian cities, unlike Canada’s, push deeply into the coldest parts of the country. It is roughly analogous to Canada establishing her population centers in a band of huge cities running from south to north, from the U.S. border all the way to the Arctic Ocean.

Under the Soviet planned economy, metropolises were grown in places that don’t make sense: in harsh cold, separated from one another and from potential international trading partners by great distances. They are precariously linked by absurdly stretched infrastructure, if even linked at all. Their subsidization so saddled the Soviet economy that some researchers believe they helped bring about the collapse of the USSR in 1991.402 Afterward, of course, the subsidies evaporated and in the 1990s the giant Siberian cities depopulated faster than Detroit in a bad layoff year. In eastern Siberia the population fell by half—from about twelve million to six—a free fall that is only now stabilizing as the region’s population downsizes to some semblance of a free-market equilibrium economy. But even after this depopulation, the Russian Federation is unique among the NORCs in having so many big cities in its coldest, most remote territories.

Perhaps one day, having far-flung urban cores and disseminated infrastructure throughout the New North will pay off. But for now, Russia continues to pay the price for the inefficient layout and bitterly cold temperatures of her Siberian cities. The economic geographer Tatiana Mikhailova estimates that remote distance and cold temperatures cost the country at least 1.2% GDP annually in extra energy and construction costs alone.403 That is nearly half the GDP contraction suffered by the United States during the recession of 2008-09 (2.5%).

An extreme example of this kind of geographic inefficiency is Yakutsk, the capital of the Sakha Republic in eastern Siberia. Despite having a population of over two hundred thousand—more than ten times larger than Canada’s Yellowknife—Yakutsk is essentially a fly-in city. Getting there otherwise requires either a thousand-mile-long boat ride down the Lena River during its short shipping season, or braving the “Road of Bones,” a twelve-hundred-mile-long rutted track from Magadan, built by Gulag prisoners, that is only really drivable in winter. The road even ends on the wrong side of the bridgeless Lena River from Yakutsk. Finishing the trip thus requires driving over the river ice in winter or a ferryboat in summer. During the Lena’s violent, ice-jammed spring flood, Sakha Republic’s capital city is completely cut off from the world except by airplane.

In contrast to Russia, the vast share of Canada’s population and infrastructure closely hugs its border along the warmest and most accessible parts of the country. Its big population centers are close to U.S. population centers. This proximity, together with NAFTA and a historically friendly border, encourages massive volumes of trade and traffic between the two countries. Many Americans are surprised to learn that the United States’ largest trading partner is not China but Canada. However, there is a penalty (or benefit, depending on one’s point of view) that Canadians pay for clustering along the American border. With its small population and economy concentrated in the south, the vast share of their country is inaccessible except by airplane or temporary winter road servicing a sprinkle of little villages. The same is true, on a smaller scale, for Alaska. To this day, much of Canada and Alaska remain stunning wilderness.

If Canada and Alaska are wild, and Russia colonized, then the Nordic countries are downright civilized. On my first visit to Iceland I was amazed to learn that I could lease a sleek sedan from my choice of several multinational rental-car companies, then drive it comfortably at high speed around the entire island. My accustomed experience with driving through thinly populated Arctic countries was crawling with clenched teeth over a potholed gravel road in a battered 4WD truck, either hired from a local driver or borrowed from the government, praying that the one decrepit gas station two hundred miles away would actually have some gas and a working telephone. But Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland all have beautiful paved thoroughfares extending to their remotest extremities. They are dotted with gleaming service centers, stores, and restaurants. Cell phones work everywhere. Reaching the Arctic Circle in Alaska, Canada, or Russia can quickly turn into a bushwhacking expedition. In the Nordic countries, it’s just a pampered weekend getaway.

Soviet planning didn’t turn out exclusively bad results. The next time you pay your natural gas utility bill or fill up your fuel tank, you might nod your head to some ghosts of Soviet planners past: If not for their uneconomic, market-forces-be-damned decision to develop a remote Arctic swamp half a continent away from Moscow, you’d surely be paying a lot more than you just did.

The West Siberian Lowland is a vast, soggy plain bounded by the Ural Mountains in the west and the Yenisei River in the east and from 52° to 73° N latitude. It spans nearly one thousand miles in every direction, is one-third the area of the continental United States, and nearly six times larger than Germany. Weather alternates between a long subzero polar night in winter and dank mosquito heaven in summer. It is blanketed in wet, semifrozen peat and covered with lakes; its northern half is permanently frozen in permafrost. The fate of this frozen, carbon-rich peat, which is relatively fresh (<12,000 years old), is discussed in Chapter 9. But trapped in the rocks below the peat, thousands of feet down, we find another form of carbon that is considerably older. It is the cooked remains of twenty-three trillion tons of organic-rich muck that settled to the bottom of a long-gone sea between 152 and 146 million years ago. That muck is now called the Bazhenov Shale,404 and it has changed not only Russia but the entire world.

New Hydrocarbon Cities

In 1960 West Siberia was empty except for mosquitoes and aboriginal reindeer herders. But when four supergiant oil fields were discovered there between 1962 and 1965, Soviet planners back in Moscow made an extraordinary decision. The USSR would massively develop the West Siberian Lowland, no matter how stunningly remote it was. Never mind that there was no good way to get there, that it was loaded with permafrost, frozen solid in winter, and a flooded swamp in spring. Never mind that everything would have to be built from scratch—ports, roads, railroads, drilling pads, and pipelines—by sending boats up the Ob’ River. Never mind that the magnitude of the initial investment would mean the venture could not be profitable for decades. It was a historically crazy decision that could never be done by private energy companies today.405

For years Moscow poured money into a place few Russians had even heard of. It was east of the Urals, for starters, so might as well have been on the moon. But three decades later the supergiant oil fields Samotlar, Fedorovskoye, and Mamontovskoye were household names. From the region’s tens of thousands of wells flowed one-fifth of the world’s oil and natural gas. The once-empty boggy plain was dotted with cities—Surgut, Nizhnevartovsk, Noyabr’sk, Novy Urengoy, and others—and a population of over three million people.

I have been to these cities and driven across thousands of miles of West Siberia.406 Much of it is still empty and indescribably beautiful in the way that only endless mossy bogs, tea-colored rivers, and scraggly forests can be, silently existing under a surreally glowing northern sky. But entrenched across this Pleistocene still-life is the spoor of the oil and gas industry: wide paved highways, belching bulldozers and diesel trucks with tires taller than your head, thousands of wells, and a labyrinth of pipelines streaming west. Piled high are stacks of rusty pipe, mountains of sand, and jumbled iron graveyards of cannibalized trucks. Our grubby faces were stared at in disbelief over surrendered American passports:407 To West Siberians, a clump of dirty, sunburned field scientists wearing fleece and rubber boots hardly fit the profile. To them, Americans are smiling oil company executives, with briefcases and business suits.

Because of the West Siberian Lowland, the Russian Federation is now the world’s largest producer of natural gas and second-largest producer of oil. It is home to her major oil companies and Gazprom, the state-owned natural gas monopoly. After almost five decades of operations in the region, Russia’s energy industry has amassed enormous political, brainpower, and economic presence there. West Siberia is to the Russian energy industry what Silicon Valley is to technology, New York is to finance, or Los Angeles is to entertainment in the United States.

The Third Wave

The Third Wave of human expansion in the Northern Rim thus stems from our relentless search for fossil hydrocarbons. It began in the 1960s with major discoveries in Alaska, Canada, and the West Siberian Lowland and shows no signs of abating. World interest in the Arctic, in particular, is fueled either by environmental concern for its threatened ecosystems, or excitement over perceived new bonanzas in oil and gas.

The newest frontier is the Arctic seabed. The previous chapter discussed the geopolitical commotion this dawning realization has spawned, and the critical importance of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). A 2008 auction offered by the U.S. Minerals Management Service sold a whopping $2.8 billion worth of Arctic offshore leases; the Canadian government similarly won record-breaking bids for leases in the Beaufort Sea.408

In 2009 a first comprehensive assessment of the Arctic Ocean’s oil and gas potential was published in Science by the U.S. Geological Survey, and the associated data files were released to the public.409 This assessment, which is still incomplete and ongoing, suggests that nearly a third of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13% of its undiscovered oil lies north of the Arctic Circle (see maps pp. viii-xi). All that in a place covering barely 4% of the globe.

Two huge winners are revealed by the USGS data: northern Alaska for oil, and Russia for natural gas. Of forty-nine geological provinces analyzed so far, these two places tower above all others. The Alaska Platform, covering the North Slope and extending a roughly similar area offshore, is thought to hold between 15 and 45 billion barrels of oil with a best guess of about 28 billion. This number approaches the proved reserves of Nigeria and is about one-fourth those of Iraq. Russia’s South Kara Sea alone is thought to hold between 200 and 1,400 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, with a best guess of 607 trillion. That number, if correct, is more than twice the proved reserves of the United States and Canada combined.

There are other promising geological provinces besides these two. For oil, they are Canada’s Mackenzie Delta, the north Barents Sea, the West Siberian Lowland, and three provinces off the east and west coasts of northern Greenland. For natural gas they are the south Barents Sea, the Alaska Platform, and the north Barents Sea.410

If recent offshore lease sales are any indication, many or all of these places will experience increasing levels of interest, exploration, and investment in the coming decades. But will drilling platforms and thousands of new offshore wells mushroom in these Arctic waters by 2050?

Possibly, but don’t bet on it. Offshore energy development is more likely to grow cautiously and incrementally. Even in ice-free oceans—which the Arctic Ocean most certainly is not—offshore drilling is complicated and expensive. Northern environments are environmentally delicate, so they demand above-normal protections. Existing ports and other maritime facilities, as discussed in Chapter 5, are scarce. Ice-resistant platforms and other new technologies still need to be invented. Outside of the Alaska Platform, the vast share of hydrocarbon in the Arctic is not oil but natural gas, which is harder to capture and transport. Oil can be simply pumped from the ground and poured into a tanker. Natural gas needs either pipelines or an expensive LNG or gas-to-liquids facility—essentially a refinery—to liquefy it. Even by 2050 these are formidable obstacles in a place that is environmentally sensitive, remote, and still inaccessible for much of the year.

Something Old Is New Again

What is assured over the next forty years is intensification of oil and gas exploitation in and around the places they already exist today. Offshore, these include the giant Shtokman and other gas fields of the Barents Sea, and Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East. On land—despite some added engineering complications from thawing permafrost—they include West Siberia, the North Slope of Alaska, the Mackenzie Delta, and Alberta. Norway’s gas and oil activities are mostly offshore, but by 2050 large areas of north-central Russia, Alaska, and Canada will look quite different than they do today.

Russia in particular will continue to aggressively develop her Siberian gas fields. When I cornered Alexei Varlomov, deputy minister for the government agency overseeing all natural resources of the Russian Federation, he told me, “The most important factor is the needs of industry,” and that absolutely nothing should get in the way of energy exploration.411 His view is understandable, given the prominence of his country as a world energy supplier. Russia produced 3.6 billion barrels of oil in 2008, second only to Saudi Arabia.412 It produced 603 billion cubic meters of natural gas—and held 43.3 trillion more in proved reserves, both second to none in the world.

Two out of every three barrels of this oil and 85% of this gas comes from West Siberia. However, as is the case with all oil provinces, the size distribution of its petroleum fields is log-normal and the region’s oil production has entered decline.413 Russian production peaked in 1987-88. Samotlar, one of the largest oil fields in the world, peaked at 3.4 million barrels per day in 1980. It has since dropped over 90%, producing just 300,000 barrels per day from its approximately five thousand wells.414 The region’s three major gas fields have also peaked, and their production is expected to fall 75% by 2030.415 There will always be more pockets to be found, but as discussed in Chapter 3, like any other hydrocarbon province on Earth they are growing exponentially smaller and thus less economical to develop.

West Siberian exploration is therefore shifting away from the middle reaches of the Ob’ River—where most of the basin’s crude oil is found—to the immense concentrations of natural gas found farther north. The largest known natural gas reserves on Earth are found in approximately sixty to one hundred fields in this area. Just offshore is the South Kara Sea, now thought to hold perhaps 1,400 trillion cubic feet more. The Yamal Peninsula, stuffed with natural gas, condensate, and oil, lies at the heart of this bonanza and will doubtless be developed.

While less glamorous than the prospect of proliferating offshore platforms in the Arctic Ocean, 2050 will likely see a great degassing of the Yamal Peninsula, feeding thousands of miles of pipeline heading west to Europe and east to China. It is unclear whether a port can be built on its shallow west coast, or that environmental damages will be avoided, but pipelines will spread across the Yamal. Already, at least two are planned and the first one has just broken ground.416

Pay Dirt

Even from several miles away, through the fogged window of the little airplane and a dreary splatter of rain, I could see the heavy curtain of smoke and glowing spots of orange flame. It was Tolkien’s Mordor brought to life, the soil ripped away to expose pitted blackness beneath. Giant trucks dug away at the spoils like orcs. Near the fuming smokestacks were yellow mountains of pressed sulfur blocks, waste excrement from the transformation of low-grade bitumen into synthetic, crude oil. It was a depressing and evil-looking landscape, at least to anyone who finds boreal wetlands and green pine forest attractive.

It was northern Alberta, not Noril’sk. Beneath me sprawled the open sores of the Athabasca Tar Sands, economic engine of Fort McMurray and almost one-half of the Canadian oil industry. Though they are more commonly called “oil sands,” what they hold is nothing like conventional oil. The pure, light, sweet crude pumped with ease from Saudi oil fields is a dream compared to this stuff. It is tarlike bitumen, a low-grade, sulfur-rich, hydrogen-poor hydrocarbon that has soaked into vast expanses of Alberta sandstone.

Extracting liquid oils from this mess is an extraordinarily invasive, consumptive, and environmentally damaging process. At present, the most common way to do it is strip mining, with about two tons of tar sand needed to obtain a single barrel of oil. Gigantic trucks and shovels scrape the stuff off the surface. Then it is crushed and dumped onto conveyor belts heading to swirling tubs of water. The resulting slurry is piped to an extraction facility, where it is churned in a heated witches’ brew of steam, water, and caustic soda. This splits the bitumen from the sand and clay, which sink to the bottom. The bitumen floats off to an “upgrader” (a sort of refinery) to remove sulfur and add hydrogen (from natural gas), creating synthetic crude oil. The waste liquid and dirt are sent to tailings ponds; the yellow blocks of sulfur are simply stacked up.417

Tar sands are an environmentalist’s nightmare. The extraction process gobbles enormous quantities of energy and water. Migratory birds land in the tailings ponds and die.418 Sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulates are released into the air alongside up to three times more greenhouse gas than released by conventional oil drilling. Depending on the technology used, it takes 2-4 cubic meters of water, and 125-214 cubic meters of natural gas, to produce a single cubic meter of synthetic oil.

The water is pumped from groundwater or diverted from the Athabasca River, reducing inflow to the Peace-Athabasca Delta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Ramsar wetland, about 150 kilometers downstream.419 Most mines will operate for about forty years and excavate about a hundred square kilometers of land. No tailings ponds have ever been fully reclaimed, and putting the overburden back afterward mitigates the damage but does not really restore the original ecosystem. Since 1967, when the first mining began, only one square kilometer has been certifiably restored and returned to the public.420 These and other problems have environmental organizations yowling against any further increase in tar sands production.

They face a difficult battle. Short of being outlawed, it’s hard to imagine how the growth of this industry will ever stop. The oil reserves the tar sands contain are estimated at an astonishing 175 billion barrels which, if correct and recoverable, is the second-largest oil endowment on Earth after Saudi Arabia (estimated at 264 billion barrels). That means Alberta holds more oil than Iraq (115 billion barrels), Kuwait (102 billion), Venezuela (99 billion), Russia (79 billion), or Norway (7.5 billion). The cost to produce it has dropped from thirty-five dollars per barrel in 1980 to twenty dollars per barrel in recent years, making even fifty-dollars-per-barrel oil prices very profitable.421 Huge new supplies of natural gas, needed for energy and hydrogen, will come online with construction of the Mackenzie Gas Project, a long-anticipated 1,220-kilometer pipeline that will carry Arctic gas from the Mackenzie Delta area to the tar sands and other North American markets. 422 History tells us that Canada’s adherence to international climate-change treaties crumbles before market forces like these: The tar sands are the biggest reason why Canada not only failed to meet her pledged reduction in carbon dioxide emissions under the Kyoto Protocol (to -6% below 1990 levels), but actually grew them +27% instead.423

So far, about 530 square kilometers have been strip-mined, an area not much greater than the city of Edmonton. But tar sands underlie a staggering 140,000 square kilometers of Alberta, nearly one-fourth of the province and about the size of Bangladesh. Of this large area, about 20%—sixty more Edmontons—are shallow enough for strip mining. The rest can be exploited using underground extraction, which involves injecting 450°F pressurized steam underground for several years to heat the ground, eventually fluidizing the tar enough to pump some of it out.424 This type of underground extraction has the potential to spread across nearly all of northern Alberta. If it does, new pipelines, roads, and towns must follow.

This future springs not simply from my fertile imagination but from cold, hard cash. Those 175 billion barrels of grubby bitumen lie right next door to the world’s largest and friendliest customer, whose other suppliers have either entered decline or soon will. Energy companies are no fools. By early 2009 the government of Canada had already leased more than seventy-nine thousand square kilometers in tar sands contracts. Future production is anticipated to rise from 1.3 million barrels per day today, to 3.5 million by 2018, to 6 million barrels per day by 2040.425 If that black torrent of tar becomes reality, its flow will be nearly ten times greater than the amount of conventional oil flowing south from Alaska’s North Slope today.

America is ready and waiting.

The visual image of Canadian oil flowing from north to south is exactly the right one to hold in mind. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), it passes over U.S. borders unencumbered by tariff. And compared to the world’s other geopolitical relationships, America and Canada remain two countries in a happy marriage.

Their embrace far transcends the energy industry. It is just one part of a bigger cross-border dependency that has long existed, thanks to friendly borders and the geographic proximity of their neighboring population cores, as described earlier. But this lovers’ gaze has not always been so transfixed. Throughout much of the twentieth century, Canada was focused more on domestic integration than the cross-border sort.

A serious schism was fractious Québec, the French-Canadian province with a long history of separatist movements and terrorism. A wave of bombings by terrorist cells of the Front de Libération du Québec culminated in 1970 with the kidnapping of two government officials, one of whom—Minister of Labor Pierre Laporte—was found strangled and dumped in the trunk of a car. The 1970s also marked the emergence of aboriginal rights movements and rising economic and political power in Canada’s energy-rich western provinces. Debate was raging over a national bilingualism policy. During this period of history most Canadians were focused on bridging their country’s internal cultural divisions, not furthering its integration with the United States.

The New Cascadians

But the passage of NAFTA in 1994 marked the beginning of a stunning reorientation in Canada’s political and economic geography. It quickly began to integrate in a north-south direction with parts of the United States, rather than in the old east-west orientation across Canada. Very recent studies of this phenomenon are discovering it runs far deeper than simply increased cross-border trade and traffic; there is an actual melding of cross-border economies under way.426 This is not being steered by Ottawa and Washington but rather by a proliferation of cross-border networks of business groups, chambers of commerce, NGOs, mayors’ councils, and other forms of grassroots enterprise.

The end result of this north-south reorientation is the emergence of new cross-border “super-regions” with distinct economic footprints and cultural auras of their own. Names are even being floated for two of them. “Cascadia” refers to the melding economies of the Pacific Northwest and western Canada, centered on the Vancouver-Seattle-Portland corridor. “Atlantica” links upstate New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine with Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island.427 A key super-region is the Toronto-Hamilton-Detroit corridor integrating southern Ontario—the industrial heart of Canada—with Michigan’s automotive industry and manufacturing sectors in Indiana, Ohio, and other Midwestern states.

For each of these emerging super-regions, the two respective halves across the U.S.-Canada border are also knitting culturally. New surveys reveal that the social values of Atlantic Canada now resemble those of the U.S. East Coast, whereas those of Alberta and British Columbia now resemble those of the western United States.428 Apparently, proximal Canadians and Americans identify better with each other than with their own countrymen living farther away. In North America big doors are opening wide along this long border, with the widest hallways running north and south.

The Friendly Globalizers

The happily knitting border between Canada and the United States is not unique in the North. Unlike the Arctic Ocean seabed, territorial boundaries on land are long settled and calm among the eight NORC countries.429 Borders between Norway, Sweden, and Finland are among the friendliest in the world and their citizens (like Cascadians) identify more closely with each other than with the rest of Europe. The closest thing to a troubled border, if there is one, zigzags through more than seven hundred miles of forest to disentangle Finland from Russia.

Throughout history the Finns were subjugated, first by Sweden and then by Russia, before capitalizing on the disarray of the Bolshevik Revolution to win peaceful independence from Russia in 1917. Finland has been grappling with how to coexist with her giant and occasionally unruly eastern neighbor ever since. The countries fought twice during World War II, and Finland was forced to cede substantial territories to the Soviet Union. One of these, Finnish Karelia, contains the beautiful port city of Viipuri (now Vyborg) and remains a source of great bitterness to Finns today. From time to time Finnish politicians make noises about seeking its return. Less noticed was the loss of Petsamo (now Pechenga), a small corridor that once connected Finland to the Arctic Ocean. Its loss shuts Finland out of any UNCLOS claim there. It is reasonable to expect that Finnish regret over this region will rise in the coming decades.

But none of this renders the Fenno-Russia border militarized or tense. A regional cross-border economy in roundwood (unmilled lumber) is emerging between the two countries, not unlike the one between Canada and the United States.430 Many Russians now own vacation homes in Finland—to the delight of local merchants and consternation of old-timers—and Finnish tourists pour into Karelia. In fact, the only reason this border even warrants mention is because all the other borders around the Northern Rim are so placid. Compared with other neighboring countries around the world, the NORCs are an extraordinarily peaceful bunch.

They also rank among the most rapidly globalizing, business-friendly countries on Earth. Compiled on the following page are index performance scores for fifteen countries, representing the six largest national economies, the BRICs, and the NORCs.431 These respected indices ingest a wide range of econometric and other data to derive country performance rankings in things like openness to trade, tendency to make war, treatment of citizens, and so on. Rather than dissect the merits or agendas of each index, I simply provide rank-based scores from all of them.432 Each uses a different scoring system, so they are presented as percentiles for easy comparison. A score of 86, for example, means a country ranked higher than 86% of all of the countries in the world that are measured by that particular index. Also shown is a single composite score for each country, averaged across the five numeric indices.

A remarkable story leaps from these numbers. With the exception of Russia, the NORC countries are the most stable, trade-liberal, rapidly globalizing players on the planet. Who knew that Denmark and Canada are even more open to free trade than Japan, Germany, or the United States? Of particular relevance to energy production is that this openness also pervades the oil and gas industry, in contrast to the worldwide trend toward nationalization described in Chapter 3.433 Civil and political freedoms run remarkably high except in Russia. Six are among the most peaceful nations in the world. Viewed collectively, the NORCs appear particularly well-positioned to succeed in our rapidly integrating world.

Aside from cold winters, NORC cities also count among the world’s happiest places to live. According to the London-based Economist Intelligence

Some Common Measures of Economic of Economic Globalization, Percefulness, and Civil Liberties, Relative to the World

(Source: 2009 Index of Economic Freedom, Heritage Foundation, and Wall Street Journal (179 countries); 2008 Economic Freedom of the World Index (141 countries); 2009 KOF Index of Globalization (208 countries); 2009 Global Peace Index (144 countries); 2008 Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index (167 countries); 2009 Freedom in the World Country Rankings (193 countries))

Unit, four of them rank among the world’s top ten most livable cities (with Vancouver in first place), citing low crime, little threat from political instability or terrorism, and excellence in education, health care, infrastructure, and culture.434 Remember Lagos, Dhaka, and Karachi, three megacities of 2025 presented in Chapter 2? They scored in the bottom ten.

Acceptance of Global Immigrants

But it takes more than just natural resources in the ground, ameliorating climate, stable governance, and pleasant cities for a civilization to expand. It also takes people.

Like the rest of the developed world, all eight NORC countries are graying and fertility rates dropping. The Russian Federation also faces a sharp population contraction (projected to fall -17% by 2050, see table on p. 173). However, the other seven are expected to grow anywhere from +1% to +31% by 2050. Much of this growth will come from international immigration.435 Thus, global flows of people are already changing the face of the Northern Rim and are critically important to how its future will unfold.

The specific rules and quotas of future immigration policies are impossible to divine here. However, an examination of current laws and trends reveals some surprisingly different attitudes toward foreigners among the NORC countries. National policies differ on the number, origin, and skill sets of foreign immigrants admitted. And culturally, some places are more welcoming than others.

The Russian Federation faces the bleakest prospect. Its demographics are in free fall, with sixteen people dying for every ten new babies being born.436 Its total population is now dropping by nearly eigtht hundred thousand people per year. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, some three million ethnic Russians moved from former satellites into the new Russian Federation, but by 2003 that wave of return had largely ended. In an effort to repatriate more, the Putin administration created a national program to recruit twenty million Russian expatriates to “return home” in 2006. However, it now appears impossible to attract more than two and a half million in total, even counting migrants from the Baltic States.437

Russia’s labor pool for construction, agriculture, and other seasonal work thus depends heavily on migrants from Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, and—increasingly—China in the Far East. Many are “irregular migrants” and would be called “undocumented workers” or “illegal aliens” in the United States. Perhaps ten million may be living inside Russia. Up to a million Tajiks—almost half of the entire workforce of Tajikistan—migrate to Russia in search of seasonal work each year.

Russian leaders have long realized they need to raise legal immigration into the country, but policies to do so are unpopular. Before the spring 2008 elections the Putin administration slashed the quota for foreign labor migrants from six million to two, and several years earlier abolished laws allowing multinational firms to easily hire skilled foreign workers. The reason for such moves is purely political, as Russia suffers from widespread xenophobia. Resentment of foreign migrants runs deep, especially in large cities where they tend to concentrate. In 2008 alone, at least 525 migrants suffered hate-crime attacks, with 97 of them killed.438

The United States is similar to the Russian Federation in that its economy also draws heavily from undocumented migrant labor. Throughout history it, too, has suffered from bouts of xenophobia, presently directed at Hispanics. However, by any global measure, the culture of the United States is immigrant-friendly. Its population, fueled greatly by foreign immigration, is growing smartly by over 2.6 million people per year. Each year approximately 1 million new immigrants are admitted as legal permanent residents (LPRs), another 1 million become citizens, and another 1 million are apprehended at the border trying to enter illegally.439 Nearly 4 million more are admitted as temporary residents. The number of undocumented migrants is difficult to know but is probably around 10-12 million people, roughly comparable to the Russian figure.

The first and foremost goal of stated U.S. immigration policy is family reunification. Applicants who already have relatives living in the United States enjoy highest priority for legal permanent residency, and over 65% of all LPRs are admitted for this reason. The other stated U.S. objectives, in decreasing priority, are admitting skilled workers, protecting refugees from political, racial, or religious persecution at home, and ensuring cultural diversity. Competition is fierce, especially in the last category with 6-10 million applicants per year vying for just 50,000 slots. Even family reunification applicants face processing backlogs of five to ten years. In a world of aging population and falling births, the United States is remarkably advantaged among developed OECD countries, still with no lack of willing settlers ready to move to the United States from all over the world.

Canada enjoys a similar situation, but with some important differences. Like the United States, its immigration policy objectives are to reunite families, to attract skilled workers, and to protect refugees. However, the priority of the first two is reversed. The first and foremost goal of Canada’s immigration policy is to admit people with economically valuable work skills.

Out of the quarter-million legal immigrants admitted to Canada in 2008, skilled workers outnumbered family members by nearly three to one.440 Since 1967 an intricate point system has been used to score an applicant’s value for the workforce, e.g., up to twenty-five points for education level, up to twenty-four points for language skill, up to ten points for suitable working age, and so on. Put simply, Canada has sharpened its immigration policy to attract educated, multilingual, skilled workers above all else.441 While less emotive than U.S. policy of prioritizing family reunification first, it clearly makes Canada’s workforce globally competitive despite its much smaller population.

Canadian policies have also suffered from ugliness, such as exclusion of non-Europeans until 1976. Since then, however, the country’s culture has become unusually welcoming of immigrants from all over the world. Nearly one in five Canadians today is foreign-born. Not long ago I watched thousands of Tamil protestors flood the streets of downtown Ottawa, badly snarling traffic on Parliament Hill. Entrapped drivers just calmly waited it out, some politely tooting their horns in support. A popular television show in Canada is Little Mosque on the Prairie, a situation comedy about Muslim immigrants trying to adjust to small-town life in Saskatchewan. My favorite example comes from the CBC television network, which recently introduced sports commentators Parminder Singh and Harnarayan Singh to broadcast Hockey Night in Canada (equivalent to Monday Night Football in the United States) in Punjabi, now poised to become the country’s fourth most-spoken language. A photograph of these two gentlemen preparing to call out a game of the Toronto Maple Leafs appears in the pictorial section of this book.

In the Nordic countries, public sentiment and national immigration policies tend to fall somewhere between the dysfunctional xenophobia of Russia and the fast-growing ethnic cauldrons of Canada and the United States. Viewed collectively they are morally sympathetic to the plight of refugees and appreciate the need for immigrant labor, but are also wary of diluting their ethnic makeup and (especially) languages and culture. Compared with North America, Russia, and larger countries of Europe, their populations are small and quite homogenous. Other than Sweden, none has a long history of absorbing foreigners. Xenophobia is present and most people, if asked, are more worried about preserving things as they are, rather than population decline or finding enough construction workers.

In principle all of the Nordic countries have adopted policies of allowing free inflows of workers from any country in the European Union, even though Norway and Iceland are not members of the EU.442 This is more welcoming than Russia, which demands worker permits even from its fellow members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). However, winning citizenship in a Nordic country is much harder, often with a language-test requirement. Immigrants from outside the EU are unwelcomed and restricted mainly to a small number of refugees.

To be sure, some subtle differences exist among the Nordic countries. The stereotype Swede is blond and blue-eyed, but in fact there are many dark-skinned immigrants in Sweden. About 12% of Sweden’s population is now foreign-born, similar to the proportion in the United States and Germany. Iceland has also become quite dependent on immigrant labor. Its foreign-born population rose as high as 10% just before its 2008 banking collapse. From there the numbers decline for Norway (7.3%), Denmark (6.8%), and Finland (2.5%).443 Finland, despite belonging to the EU and thus technically open to migrants from all EU countries, is the least welcoming Nordic country, in part due to the difficulty of the language but also owing to a lack of concerted recruitment programs. Not surprisingly, population growth in this country is projected to be among the lowest of the NORCs, pegged at just +2% by 2050 (see table on p. 173). Forced to choose, many Finns prefer less immigration over more, even at the cost of their country’s population and economic growth.

Imagining 2050

Our thought experiment has gained human texture. Against a global backdrop of rising material wealth, environmental stress, and total human population, we find the likelihood of smaller, flourishing cultures growing amid the milder winters and abundant natural resources packed into the northern quarter of the planet. From all indications these resources can and will be divided peacefully between nations, and global market forces allowed to exploit them. While Russia’s population is contracting, she reigns supreme in the economic potential of her enormous northern holdings of natural gas. In all other NORC countries populations are growing, led especially by the United States and immigrant-friendly Canada, with a growth rate very near that of India.

Key settlements and physical infrastructure exist already, but their geography and quality vary widely. North America is efficient but condensed, Russia remote but far-reaching. Best developed are the Nordic countries: Perpetually warmed by the North Atlantic Current, they have extensive high-quality roads and rail, stable governance systems, and towns, ports, companies, and universities already in place, stretching from their southern capitals all the way north to the remote Arctic.

Global immigration explains most of the projected population growth around the Northern Rim. But it is flowing into the larger cities, to places like Stockholm and Toronto, Fort McMurray and Anchorage. These are urban outposts in the midst of beautiful, expansive wilderness. Who will rule the rest?