Here’s a teaser for you. Of the following six countries, which will have the fastest population growth between now and 2050 — China, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Iceland or Norway? I’d be willing to bet that your answer is wrong. But then, I’ve got an unfair advantage. I’ve just had a conversation with Laurence C. Smith, dashing Arctic adventurer and professor of earth and space sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). I meet Smith over a coffee in Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell. His new book, The New North: The World in 2050, demonstrates a remarkable knack for divining global megatrends from the stuff of daily life. It seems this is a man to whom the world whispers its secrets. So a simple question first. When he looks around this room — this typical London room — what does it tell him?
Smith weighs his cardboard coffee cup in his hands. “First, I see oil,” he says. “I’m drinking oil as I sip coffee from my cup.” How so? “Oil fuels 99 per cent of our transportation and is an essential ingredient of nearly everything we make. Our food is grown with it, our plastics, lubricants, pharmaceuticals and millions of other products derive from it. Without oil, this coffee wouldn’t exist.”
OK, that’s cute. What else? “I see water,” he says mysteriously. “Or, to put it another way, I see virtual water. Virtual water looks like coffee, or cardboard, or cotton, or cookies. It is embedded in almost everything. Water is in this coffee and this cup. It was vital to produce the floorboards beneath our feet; it made the electricity that powers the lights, and the shirt I am wearing.
“Entire oceans, such as the Aral sea in Central Asia, have been sucked dry to grow our cotton. Water is one of the reasons why the northernmost countries are in the ascendence.”
Thus we have arrived at Smith’s big prophetic idea: the “Northern Rim Countries” or “NORCs” — Canada, the state of Alaska, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland and Russia — will be the dominant powers of tomorrow.