Former US President George W Bush revealed in his book Decision Points that he often broke the conversational ice with visiting heads of state by asking the question: ‘What keeps you awake at night?’ One response to this question stuck with him. Chinese President Hu Jintao answered with an extraordinarily candid expression of the sheer logistical task before him. The problem which kept him awake at night was: ‘How do I create 25 million jobs every year?’
That answer bears some reflection. If he and his ruling Communist Party had successfully met their people’s expectation, they would, in the intervening years since the Bush Presidency, have created 250 million jobs for poor people seeking a better life than that of slaving away in back-breaking subsistence farming. China has, after all, suffered privation and terrifying famine within living memory, much of it with political origins. It is a salutary practical warning against easy ideological answers for all environmental campaigners, and perhaps also for a few religious leaders.
While the privileged members of Western pressure groups may express their existential angst by lying down in the aisles of Waitrose, others of a more practical frame of mind are busily addressing the problem created by the elephant in the room, which is not actually an elephant, but rather people, billions of them, each wanting a decent life for themselves and their families. While activists busy themselves raising awareness, others are addressing that difficult balance between environmentalism and the relief of poverty. They are creating jobs, building sanitation plants, growing food, organising recycling, researching materials, making the water supply safe, etc., etc. Some people have to walk the walk. They tend not to be noticed. We owe them thanks.
One can appreciate what the Chinese President’s response means in practical terms when one flies over the southern Chinese coast into Hong Kong, passing over city after city of new high-rise apartments, roads and other infrastructure construction sites, or simply by reading the South China Morning Post which discusses the problems young people have trying to afford to live in this thriving region. It’s a good read, describing the real-world problems of those seeking to lift living standards, and it manages to do so intelligently without anything like o blaming ‘Tory cuts’ all the time. That’s the problem with UK citizens of the world – they are so damned insular!
China is changing rapidly. Presidents Bush and Trump ‘get’ China, both as a major geopolitical rival, and as major world trading competitor. Plainly it is a strongly developing economy with all the complex positives and negatives that this implies. Its recent progress post-dates its abandonment of rigid state control which had taken the country into appalling poverty during and after Mao’s disastrous and oppressive ‘Cultural Revolution’. Then, hundreds of millions of people were unnecessarily plunged into absolute poverty. Since the ideological approach was abandoned in the 1980s, life has been getting steadily better for all. Some may now drive Porches, but others are pleased to be able to have the convenience of an electric motor scooter: inequality is infinitely better than penury.
The old city of Guilin has been rebuilt after destruction in the Second World War. It is a pleasant and green city. Its modern buildings tell a story. New apartment blocs are being speculatively built yet currently have no occupants. The Chinese Government is already building for future need. Old farmers’ dwellings are being abandoned. Like the African Americans who turned to urban life instead of remaining as dollar-a-day cotton-pickers, Chinese farmers have left the paddy fields to work in the thriving pharmaceutical industries and the technology giant Huawei, whose plants constitute the backbone of industry alongside mass tourism. If mass tourism is bad, the message isn’t getting through in China, for hundreds of millions visit the region of Guilin each year.
The factories export mobile telephones to the USA, and, in a striking illustration of capitalist specialisation, the virtuous circle is completed by Texas, which shifted out of cotton production without a workforce locked into poverty wages and now exports rice to China.
The story of opportunities grasped by the entrepreneurial spirit abound in a country rejuvenated by an optimistic ‘can do’ attitude. The fields around an abandoned village outside Hong Kong have been brought back to life by a young man who developed a business selling organically-grown lychees at a premium price to the city’s growing middle class. In the northern Chinese province of Ningxia on the edge of the Gobi desert, someone realised it was on the same latitude as Bordeaux and after a few years this region has become a major grape-growing area. Its premium wine has won the top honour in the Decanter World Wine awards, defeating competition from USA, Australia, Argentina and South Africa. Viticulture is a step up for those who previously relied on herding, subsistence farming and cultivating wolfberries for traditional Chinese medicines. Some 86 wineries have been established, and 98 more are being constructed in an industry now employing 120,000 people and attracting investment from French conglomerate Moët Hennessy. It is progress, practically and ethically.
At the recent meeting of world leaders to consider the implications for global trade of China becoming the workshop of the world, European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič told the gathering that the European Union would be happy to increase its co-operation with Beijing as long as it could improve the transparency of its grand plan for boosting trade and infrastructure. There is plainly ongoing suspicion about the scope of its world economic ambition.
Mr Šefčovič placed his imprimatur upon an alignment of purpose between China, the USA and the EU, which is a tad awkward for Caroline Lucas of the Green Party who has recently taken such a prominent role in castigating President Trump and railing against global trade, while nevertheless seeking to tie the UK permanently into the EU. Once, the Green Party rejected the EU as a club for crony capitalists who could afford good lawyers and lobbyists to fix the rules of the club in their favour: under Ms Lucas it is now the EU’s best, if somewhat confused, cheerleader.
One is bound to wonder whether she and her followers have noticed the disconnect. It appears that they are exhorting us to shut down the current world economy while simultaneously tying us closer to Brussels. Meanwhile, wisely or not, the EU is promoting the same approach as President Trump, in actively developing a global trade regime with all the energy usage that this implies. Ms Lucas also simultaneously insists that politicians must ‘listen to the people’ on the issue of climate change while encouraging politicians to ‘stop Brexit’ – the greatest expression of public opinion in British democratic history.
Is it only middle-class liberal people from Brighton who get listened to in Caroline Lucas’s Brave New World?
Climate Change activists and anti-capitalists are increasingly joined at the hip with the Green Party in all this. They are clamouring to be taken more seriously, and with Greta Thurnberg’s recent trip to Parliament and the movement’s promotion up the news agenda, their wish is being granted. Of course environmental concerns need to be taken seriously: if we do not, we will sleepwalk into disaster. We urgently need a debate about what is and what is not a good, sensible, practical and democratic Green politics, for there is a pressing need to winnow out the ideological, the unworkable, the over-emotional, the dishonest, the knee-jerk negative and the tin-foil-hat order of protest. What passes for Green politics today exhibits intolerance, middle-class superiority, first-world prejudice and the kind of blatant incoherence which I have described above.
The Church can contribute to that discernment purpose. Christianity has a long history of engagement with millennarianism, false prophets, the extreme and the strange, ranging from the Montanists to Jonestown and Waco. We have millennials announcing that they are removing themselves from the gene pool (perhaps mercifully), rather like the Shakers who also managed to render themselves extinct. Maybe we should say something… or not. With its history and experience in this kind of thing, the Church ought to be at least as robust as John Lennon, who noted in his song Revolution? “We all want to change the world”, but counselled: “We want to see your plan ahead.”
Good environmentalism seeks to care for people and planet alike. Let us by all means have green energy, recycling, carbon capture, reforestation, eco tourism, species conservation and, of course, functional democracy. The latter is important as it tends to allow peace to flourish between nations, thereby averting the environmental disasters of war. Caroline Lucas should be a defender of the people’s choice.
The Church of England is debating these issues, and will continue to do so. Some have already thrown their weight behind the Extinction Rebellion protests. I can understand the attraction, but we have been warned to be as gentle as doves and as wise as serpents. We have a history and a methodology for testing claims in honest debate which should assist the discernment process. I hope I won’t be the only one at General Synod not uncritically admiring the Emperor’s new green clothes.
The truth is that poor people rarely have the resources and opportunities to make broad-based ethical choices. If you are hungry you might be driven to hunt bush meat; if you are cold you chop down trees. The destitute sell their heritage, their futures, and their bodies. Better off people tend to have fewer children and more control. We shall only succeed in limiting population growth by better inclusion of the poor, and that involves new thinking, new incentives, new houses, cheap energy and free trade. The last thing we need should we face a ‘climate emergency‘ is for us to to turn to the Green Manifesto only to find it’s about as useful as Joanna Southcott‘s box.