The mother of all hangovers on 1 January 2010 has nothing to do with alcohol. From London to Washington DC it’s the result of waking up to find that the world’s most populated country, in whose economy we are inextricably entwined, doesn’t give a damn what anyone else thinks. From deciding the fate of civilisation’s climate, to the judicial killing of mentally ill people, China, bluntly, is going its own way. But world leaders or newspaper columnists pompously taking the moral high ground against such a disdainful dictatorship is quite futile. The shape of the current global economic realignment has a momentum and trajectory shaped by centuries of geopolitics. It also has a direction that we, having created and gloried in the consumerist model, are actively still encouraging. Only last August Tony Blair defended a tripling of traffic in China over the next decade.
Unless these dynamics are understood, no amount of hand-wringing at United Nations’ climate conferences or on national news will make the slightest difference.
The great economic historian Paul Bairoch pointed how, up until the middle of the 18th century, the average standard of living in Europe was probably lower than that of the rest of the world. In 1700 China’s share of world GDP was estimated to be just under a quarter, on a par with Europe and India. By the middle of the 20th century, two and a half centuries later, Europe’s share had risen to nearly a third while China’s had fallen to 5%, and India’s to under 4%. Was this the result of the internal brilliance, creativity and liberating power of the free market? On the contrary, it was more to do with the fact that their competition was, “forcibly dismantled by war, invasion, opium and (in the case of Britain) a Lancashire-imposed system of one-way tariffs,” according to historian Mike Davis.
History does not excuse China playing hardball with the environmental future of humanity (not to mention human rights and democracy), but it certainly goes a long way to explaining their dismissive attitude to the exhortations of the international community. India’s approach to climate negotiations can fall into a similar category.
We are in a trap of our own making, both historically and in the way that China’s current economic development is premised on rising consumption in places like Europe and North America, where people already over-consume.
It’s not only to do with climate change and the use of fossil fuels. Whether its rare minerals and timber from Africa, or farmland elsewhere in Asia, China is scouring the world to feed its export-led development strategy. In September last year, scientists reported in the journal Nature that globally we have already crossed the safe planetary boundaries of three out of nine critical environmental life support systems. Growing aggregate world consumption and waste production cannot be further sustained.
But China follows a simple logic. Rather than the flawed model that defeated so many developing countries, by integrating into the world and trading more on its own terms, all China is doing, ironically, is to emulate what worked for Britain and the US in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Now, with just 83 months to go before it is no longer “likely”, to use the IPCC definition of climate change risk, that we will stay below the critical 2 degree temperature rise, our options are limited. Rich countries have no choice but to lead by example in setting a different, less destructive model for economic success, that does not rely on endless growth in consumption. This has barely begun. They also have to realise that the hollow annual charade at meetings of the G8 or G20, which endorses greater global economic equality but then ignores the mechanics of its delivery will have to end. With relatively painless innovations like the financial transactions tax, it easily could.
We have seven years to turn things around until the end of 2016. The power of seven: the number of sins, the hills upon which Rome was built and the ages of man. Perhaps more important now is the notion of the seventh generation, to consider what will be the impact of decisions made today on seven generations hence. You could call it the “responsibility of the long now,’ an approach used by many indigenous people that forces us to connect across time to those you could not possibly know. A greater sense of history may help us negotiate more effectively with China. A greater sensitivity to the future may enable us to live better with ourselves. Happy new year, and make every month count …