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What is Wealth?

When I was a small child, wealth meant the ability to buy different kinds of imported food. There were no cold stores then, only a single ice factory in town, so exotic food meant things like tinned preserves, Danish ham, Australian Cheddar, canned sardines and chocolates. These delicacies usually came as gifts from visitors and were saved for special occasions, treasured long after the guests had left.

As I grew older, found a job and struggled to become economically self-sufficient, wealth meant money in the bank. Money was saved to finance the luxury of travel, buy a car, savor the security of owning an apartment (or even that impossible dream, owning a house with a garden), to provide a cushion against unexpected job loss. All these hurdles were crossed and there was a steady job with enough money in the bank to survive for a year. Yet the insecurity remained.

Then came the unexpected day when confronted with the deep contentment of someone who had nothing but a small suitcase of possessions, the clothes on his back and confidence in his life skills. Using this person as an inspiration, I gave all my possessions away, keeping only a (t)rusty old car and a part-time job. The nagging insecurity vanished, leaving behind a surge of confidence that the universe would provide; that the intangibles of life were more important than possessions or money in the bank. Where did this faith come from? I don’t know. It was a deep, gut feeling that I trusted. For many people faith comes from religious belief, but in my case I had no strong adherence to any religion although I respected the universal truths of all religions.

Security is such an elusive thing. Ultimately it can be defined as a state of mind. But although this definition is largely true, it does break down at times. Try telling refugees fleeing from bullets and bombs that security is a mental attitude. “Whose mental attitude? Not ours,” they’d say. I believe that Gandhi’s appeal to the World War II allies to counter Hitler with non-violent resistance was ill-advised and would not have succeeded. Civil disobedience worked with the British Empire because, despite rampant colonial hypocrisy, they ultimately respected their own rule of law. Today we see this respect for the rule of law and human rights breaking down in many countries around the world.

Every age has its own definitions of wealth. In Biblical Old Testament times, wealth was measured in nomadic terms; cattle, goats, large families and many servants. This was traditionally also true among the Maasai, the Baktiari, and most other nomadic tribes. The Book of Proverbs defines wealth thus: the rich rule over the poor and the borrower is servant to the lender; i.e. neither a borrower nor a lender be. Modern day banking practices seem to have upended this rule and if you’re a big enough borrower, you might end up owning the bank.

Today, in the face of unprecedented anthropogenic climate change, true wealth needs to be redefined as the health of the planet. This basic fact is easy for billionaires and the world’s rich corporations to overlook. They think in terms of quarterly returns to shareholders, GNP, or other artificial indicators and forget that all wealth ultimately depends on two measures of health; planetary and personal. The planet is sending us enough warning signs. It’s time for all of us to stop counting money as a measure of success and concentrate on living healthy lives while improving the health of the planet.

Planetary health is the most important source for our well-being. Now more than ever.

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The Emperor’s New Clothes and the Climate of Denial.

Hans Christian Andersen said it best more than one hundred and fifty years ago. Children have the capacity to speak truth to power when sages are silenced for daring to state the obvious in a climate of denial. Scientific studies have shown, with ever-increasing certainly, for more than four decades now, that human action is changing the planet in alarming ways. What was at first a trickle of change has turned into a flood. Despite years of unseasonal floods, droughts, ice melts, desertification and habitat loss, it is only now, when children take to the streets in protest, that there is any real hope of progress.

And this childrens’ movement has an unlikely heroine; sixteen year-old Greta Thunberg, who didn’t mince words while addressing self-important bodies like the UN COP24 conference or to EU leaders. “You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us the future was something to look forward to. Those who will be affected the hardest are already suffering the consequences, but their voices are not heard. Is my microphone on? Can you hear me?” Her words shamed members of the UK Parliament who took the unprecedented step of declaring the climate crisis an emergency.

At the COP24 conference in Poland, she told the assembled delegates: “You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is to pull the emergency brake. You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet.”

Greta Thunberg’s words and actions are a reminder of the eternal truth of a tale by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. In his tale, the Emperor’s New Clothes, everyone pretends to see and admire the marvellous garments that are supposedly visible to everyone but the foolish. Until one child cries out, “But the Emperor has no clothes!” At that moment everyone sees the truth and repeats the child’s words. In our real-life parable, Greta Thunberg is the unnamed child in Andersen’s story, and the Emperor stands for the corporations and big businesses that stand to lose their profits if climate change is accepted as an issue that is vital to humanity’s future.

Rethinking the World Order

According to economic historian Angus Maddison, in the year 1820, the Chinese economy was the world’s largest, accounting for approximately 33% of global GDP. At the same time, India’s was half that, with 16%, and a youthful United States around 1.8%. Europe ranked second in this GDP league table with 26.6%. (Here’s a link to the 200-page OECD report. If you’re interested, see p.46)

19th century Canton (Guangdong). Image courtesy Wikimedia commons.

It was around this time that British opium traders began to export Indian-grown opium to China, an act, ostensibly in support of the principles of global free trade, that impoverished both India and China. The import of opium was illegal under Chinese law, but the fading Qing dynasty was unable to stop the smuggling, principally through Canton, or Guangdong as it is known today. In this period began what the Chinese now call “the century of humiliation” where they could not compete with superior western naval power and suffered internal fragmentation. In subsequent decades, China ceded territories to Germany, to Britain, to France and to Japan. One of the few happy results of these forced occupations is that China’s best beer, Tsingtao, comes from the Jiaozhou Bay area that was ceded to Germany. Tsingtao beer was listed as the world’s top-selling beer in 2017.

Guangzhou today. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Canton street view. Image courtesy Wikimedia commons

By 1952, the picture had changed dramatically. Europe’s share of world GDP was 29.3%, the US 27.5%. China’s GDP had dropped to 5.2% and India’s to 4%. Today, nearly 200 years after the first opium war, it looks as though China is resuming its old dominance, with close to 20% of world GDP; this time as a united country that willingly trades with other countries around the world. So, contrary to what is often written in the media, maybe China’s expanding global  influence is not really so threatening. From the Chinese perspective, they are merely returning to their rightful place in the international world order. Rightful place this may be, but the accompanying geopolitical shifts are worrisome to many countries, especially Asian ones. India now wears a necklace of potentially hostile naval bases in Bangladesh, in Sri Lanka, and in Pakistan, all built and financed by China. Until Duterte came to power, the Philippine leadership worried about Chinese occupation of the Spratly islands that are claimed by six countries: Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei. China has now pre-empted the discussion by building a military base there.

The increasingly authoritarian rule of supreme leader Xi Jinping does not bode well for China. Neither does the crackdown on Uighur ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, or independence movements in Taiwan and Tibet. Meanwhile, climate change looms over the entire world, so amidst rising prosperity in the region, there are tough geopolitical questions to be dealt with in every corner of it. So here’s a toast to some schoolgirl or boy who, unknown to the world today, will come to power and find answers to some of these questions in the decades ahead.