Odds are you have never heard of the Ob River or of Novosibirsk. Perhaps you’ve seen them on a map and wondered. Well, the Ob is the Mississippi River of Siberia (well, one of three…but the Ob is the biggest). And Novosibirsk is the Chicago of Siberia, a thriving economic engine and cultural center, a million and a half people in the middle of a continent. You don’t know them well now. There’s been no need. Both city and waterway are about as isolated from America as any place on the planet can be. But your children and their children will know of them, the way people in Siberia have heard of Chicago. And they will know because the icecaps are melting and the Arctic Ocean will be navigable and interconnected with the rest of us. Now you fly in on a rickety Russian airliner. Or make the endless drive on the Trans-Siberian highway to get there to Novosibirsk, or take the Trans-Siberian Railway. Both are somewhat beat up. Novosibirsk is an island in the middle of the land, very difficult to get on or off. The open arctic will change all that. The open arctic will bring new railroads, improved highways, airliners that don’t scare you. Port cities draw infrastructure to them. Look at a map. Notice how all across the world there are railroads and highways and canals radiating out from ports. There is so much money to be made. Look at a map of the Great Lakes and all the cities on their shores. Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Toronto, Buffalo, and up the St Lawrence, Montreal are all major inland ports. Between them smaller port cities dot the shore. The Great Lakes Megalopolis is vast and economically powerful and helped to shape the modern world. Such is probably the future of Novosibirsk and all the other cities deep inside Siberia–Irkutsk, Kemerovo, Krasnoyarsk, Novokuznetsk, Omsk, Barnaul, Tomsk, Tyumen–that sit on the huge rivers drain the immense central Asian watershed into the far distant Arctic Ocean. Connected to the rest of the world by sea, the cities will thrive and grow and become powerful. What is still a string of czarist outposts will begin to come together as something not Russian at all, but Siberian. And for maybe the first time ever, a major civilization will arise from the Russian taiga. It will be a mix of Russian, Central Asian, Siberian and Chinese peoples. It will be exploiting a land that has barely been touched by human hands. It will have vast resources, and, being so new, will have few mistakes to undo (and many to make). And it will could just have the same mammoth impact on the world as the industrialization and economy and agriculture and resources and money and culture and ideas of the American Midwest had on the world. The Midwest was a blank canvas for American civilization. The natives (my wife’s family among them) were a tragic distraction who never had a chance. The genuine threat–slavery–was annihilated. With the end of the Civil War the Americans went crazy with innovation. Modern mass industry was perfected in the Midwest. Chicago was the template for all cities thereafter. Large scale agriculture, even modern ways of shopping (pre-internet) came out of the Mid West. Unlike almost everywhere else (including the U.S. south) there were no wars or revolutions in the Midwest to mess things up. And the place was so devoid of people that it was populated with millions of immigrants and emancipated slaves, all adding their own cultural DNA to the mix. The American heartland was a riot of ideas and invention and innovation and social experimentation. The people on the coasts laugh, and the people in the South are offended, but the nation we are today was created in the Midwest. It was a lab for everything new. Its industrial output helped to keep the fascists from winning WW2, its agricultural output fed Europe after the war. It was an economic powerhouse on a scale never seen before on the planet. Indeed. a sizable chunk of the CO2 that is melting the polar icecaps today originated in the American Midwest. Which, ironically enough, is what is making this Siberian powerhouse possible. What the American midwest was for a century Siberia could be for new century. It might be a lab for everything new. All because of global warming. All because the ice is melting. The earth will be hotter and life will probably be harder and the world will be more interconnected than it has ever been. And the very concept of east vs west–which is how we see the world now–will become obsolete. What was east or west will now be to the north and then south, across an Arctic Ocean shimmering beautifully in the midnight sun.
Novosibirsk, two million people as far away from anything as two million people can be, for now anyway.