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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)
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.
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.
It happened one evening in the new year, driving back to the city on the autobahn from a visit to the town of Petronell-Carnuntum (once home to Marcus Aurelius’ Roman legions as they fought against the barbarians, so colorfully depicted in Ridley Scott’s movie, Gladiator). I was travelling at about 100 kmh, overtaking a column of trucks travelling at their legal speed limit of 80. There was a gusty wind blowing. The road was clear although it had snowed a day or two earlier. The temperature was close to freezing. Suddenly in the gathering twilight I saw something large and white swirling towards the windscreen of the car. Travelling in the middle of three lanes, with trucks on the right and faster cars on the left, there was neither time nor space to avoid it. A bone-jarring thump, and the windshield of the car dissolved into a criss-cross of lines as the safety glass shattered but did not break apart. Recovering from the shock, I realized it was a block of ice, the size of two or three bricks, that had dislodged from the roof of one of the trucks ahead of us. A harder gust of wind or a few km/h faster and I, with my precious cargo of three other people in the car, might all be dead.
Thinking about the incident later brought to mind the phrase “the hand of God.” Being of a non-religious bent, I am inclined to ask: was it the hand of God that threw the chunk of ice, or was it the hand of God that blocked it? Or was it both? A display of divine power? An attempt to impress that seems unworthy of an all-powerful being!
The beliefs of various religions claiming to know the origin of the universe and to give its creator a name; be it Jehovah, Jahveh, Allah, Brahman, etc. seems to me to be just that; beliefs. And the claims made by brilliant scientists like Stephen Hawking who said that the universe was decided by the laws of science simply fails my common-sense test.
“So then science is your God?” I ask Hawking in my dream.
“Well yes,” he replies. “If you like you can call the laws of science “God,” but it wouldn’t be a personal God you could meet and put questions to.” (see USA Today, Oct. 17, 2018)
So to my mind, the beliefs of both science and theology are limited, rather like the motto of the New York Times; “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Although admittedly a superior newspaper, the claim is, in global terms, ludicrous. As ludicrous as the claim of any religion or science to know all the truth. As someone who has been close to death on two occasions, I can assure you there’s nothing to fear on the other side. On the contrary, the overwhelming feeling is a warm sense of peace accompanied by deep, wordless joy. One comes out of the experience loving life more than ever, but in a detached kind of way that is infinitely liberating. As to what really lies on the other side, I’m sure no one really knows for sure, so if it comforts you, go ahead and cling to your beliefs. But for God’s sake, don’t go starting wars or fighting over it.
I’ve sporadically followed Paul Salopek’s six-year walk across the world in National Geographic. As someone who loves to walk in all kinds of terrain myself, I find his a fascinating journey, a wonderful way to see the world up close in all its varied colors, moods and seasons. This to me is real travel; travel measured in footsteps rather than miles in a car or hours of flight. The very word flight conjures images of an attempt to escape rather than a journey to explore and expand one’s horizons. For much of the journey, Paul’s companions have been pack animals and his long treks have brought him to a real and humble understanding of the rich variety of sentient life. For this reason, he speaks with simple sadness of the death of Raju, the donkey who accompanied him on his walk across much of northern India. See the National Geo article here.
I’ve aimed to walk 10,000 steps a day (around 5 miles/8 km) for the past few years and more or less achieved it, except when the weather’s been impossible. I was also surprisingly moved by the death of a feline friend last year. Maybe that’s why the article resonated with me. Maybe that’s why the following passage he quotes from Matthew Scully’s book Dominion lingers in the mind long after reading.
“How we treat our fellow creatures is only one more way in which each one of us, every day, writes our own epitaph—bearing into the world a message of light and life or just more darkness and death, adding to the world’s joy or to its despair… Perhaps that is part of the animals’ role among us, to awaken humility, to turn our minds back to the mystery of things, and open our hearts to that most impractical of hopes in which all creation speaks as one.” From Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy by Matthew Scully.
“…to awaken humility…” and to perhaps remind ourselves that a warming planet requires us to do this for our own salvation.
This is a short story with a punch line in Italian that goes to show that some jokes or puns are untranslatable. But I’m going to try anyway, in an attempt to cross cultural barriers, as we all urgently need to do these days. So here goes!
Never Say No to a Witch (a short short story)
Two failed crooks decide to rob a bank. They’ve both attempted bank robberies alone in the past, but their efforts have failed. Miserably. One has tried legal and accounting methods to embezzle money, and was forced into hiding when the embezzlement was discovered. The other attempted armed robbery and was forced to flee when the carabinieri turned up within seconds. The police car happened to have been stopped right outside the bank in a traffic jam when the emergency call came through. So these two hapless wannabes decide to join forces and pull off a major bank robbery using brain as well as brawn.
The smart(er) crook uses deceit and inside knowledge to determine the precise hour and date for the robbery. The second one gathers untraceable weapons from the black market to use in case force is needed. They slip into the bank just before closing hours on the appointed date. They force the terrorised customers and bank staff to the floor and storm the vault. At the open door to the vault sits an elegant black-clad lady behind a desk with a bottle of yellow liquor and two empty glasses on it.
“Move over,” snarls one, brandishing his weapon.
The woman calmly fills two glasses with the yellow liquid and proffers them.
“Have a glass of Strega,” she smiles.
“I said move over,” he snarls again. His finger tightens on the trigger.
In the split second before he fires, she flings the liquor in their faces and Poof! There is a blinding flash of light and the two men disappear! The elegant lady smiles and refills a glass.
“Mai dire no ad una Strega,” she whispers as she takes a sip. Never say not to a witch. (Translator’s note: Strega is an Italian liqueur. The word also means witch in Italian).
I dreamt up this story some time ago and the makers of Strega are quite welcome to use it in one of their ads if they wish. But the story is also meant as a parable and a warning to the European Union. If the bank in the above story represents the citizens of the united nations of Europe, one of the two robbers stands for the nationalist factions in the various countries that led to Brexit, the Italian rebellion, the rise of the AfD, and the move away from democratic norms. The second crook, the one who uses his legal background to determine the best time and method of entry represents the bureaucracy of Brussels and of the European parliament. Everyone is entitled to an honest wage, but there are too many EU bureaucrats with tax-free salaries who are completely out of touch with the citizens they represent. When they prescribe austerity measures for countries that fail to meet certain economic criteria, they should practice austerity on themselves as well, so that they share in the pain they inflict on the collective. This principle is just as true within individual countries of course.
Politicians seem to have forgotten that the word “minister” implies that one is a servant whose duty is to minister to the well-being of the public.It is reasonable for ministers and prime ministers to enjoy rank and honor as a reward for self-sacrifice and public service. But they are not royalty. They are not infallible. They are not entitled to rob the bank. As someone who is ardently pro-EU, I see there is great need for democratic reform within the EU. I also see the Brexiteers, the AfD, the xenophobes, and the far-right of every country are like the second robber, the unintelligent one, looking to force as a way to getting the reform that they want. But they are using failed methods. Nationalism, xenophobia and fascism have been tried before, and have only led to repeated wars and mass destruction on the continent. Europe needs the EU more than ever. The world needs the EU more than ever.
Several years ago, an Italian acquaintance said to me, “The growth of the Roman Empire was driven by testosterone, you know.” He was a polyglot polymath; a materials scientist by profession, and a keen historian who sometimes spouted Greek and Latin quotations to illustrate the points he made. Julius Caesar, as a promising young general in his thirties, felt like an under-achiever and a failure. He is known to have lamented that Alexander had conquered most of the known world by the age of thirty, while he himself was only a Quaestor (a local magistrate) in Rome. Caesar was forty years old when he formed the first Triumvirate with Crassus and Pompey. He then went on to defeat the Gallic tribes of modern day France over the next eight years, killing more than a million Gauls and Germans in the process (according to Plutarch) and enslaving a million more. Presumably, by the mores of his time, these deaths were considered necessary to establish rule of law, discipline unruly Roman citizens with firm leadership and ensure stable government.
After the Second World War, with American leadership and the newly instituted United Nations organizations in 1945, it was widely believed that conquest and rule by force of arms was a thing of the past. Post-1945 the world entered an era of global peace and the longest absence of major wars mankind has ever known. If today’s world outlook seems bleak, blame it on the internet and social media, which are able to convey local impacts of minor skirmishes into our homes with larger-than-life images. Brutal killings appear immediately on the screens we carry in our pockets, or on laptops and smart tablets in homes and offices. When the Cold War ended, American philosopher Francis Fukuyama famously declared the end of history. In a nutshell his thesis was: with the spread of globalization and its accompanying prosperity, liberalism would spread around the world. Fukuyama’s book “The End of History and the Last Man” was published in the heady post-Cold War days of 1992. Today Fukuyama confesses: Twenty five years ago I didn’t have a sense or a theory about how democracies can go backward. And I think they clearly can.” (Washington Post article here)
On the other hand, Harvard psychologist and popular science author Steven Pinker argues that humanity is currently experiencing decreasing levels of violence (TED talk, 20 minutes) However he argues that liberal values are under threat from authoritarian populism, religious fundamentalism and radicalism of the left and right. There is no doubt in my mind that liberal democracies will do better than dictatorships and autocracies in tackling the gravest problem facing humanity today, global climate change. And it is mainly in democracies that the #MeToo movement is taking shape. People involved in the movement are asking questions and demanding action from their governments. Have we reached a tipping point? Can this watershed moment go beyond words to drive meaningful action? My answer to these questions is an emphatic yes. The fact that the movement has unexpectedly taken root in Asia is an enormous portent of things to come.
African press reports indicate that in many countries on the continent, women are afraid to talk about sexual harassment, especially in many of its conflict zones. According to this Zimbabwe newsletter, four of the five riskiest cities for sexual assault and rape are in Africa. There also appears to be a direct correlation between sexual harassment and geopolitics. The greater the gender equality that exists in a country, the less likelihood of autocratic leaders. Strongmen (and wannabe strongmen) look on the exercise of power as a kind of pissing contest, with the Trumps and Erdogans of this world trying to outdo the Putins, Kim Jong-Uns and Dutertes. More women leaders coming to power in countries around the world as a result of the #MeToo movement would be the best news for global climate. Women are less likely to indulge in geopolitical pissing contests. On the one hand women are generally more inclined to collaborate and cooperate and and on the other, their plumbing discourages such childish displays, leaving them with more time to get on with the urgent tasks of governing.
A quotation from the Psalms recently came to mind. The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off and we fly away. (Psalm 90, v. 10).
Having reached that Biblical milestone earlier this year, I recall a favourite uncle of mine quoting the above lines at me some decades ago when he reached the age of 70. At that time, his attitude was: I’ve done my bit for the world, and given you a good start. Now it’s up to your generation to carry on the good work. Study hard, find jobs, work hard, and you’ll end up like me, looking back on a life well-lived and enjoying the fruits of prosperity.
Based on the foundations laid by an earlier generation, many in this generation (myself included) worked hard and enjoyed a prosperous life, largely managing to evade the conflicts and other terrible things that happened around the world at different places and different times. We lived in a time of a rising tide lifts all boats otherwise known as trickle-down economics, but somehow gravity didn’t do what it was supposed to do, for the simple reason that human greed defies gravity. So instead of trickling down, money trickled up, slowly at first, until the present day when it’s become a roaring flood. Economic pundits (and most famously the pop group Abba) call it “The Winner Takes it All” syndrome. Economist Brian Arthur who has published a body of work on technology and society calls it “the network effect locking markets in to the domination of a single player.”
So here I am, at three score years and ten years thinking, the work’s not done yet; we’ve not laid the foundations of prosperity for coming generations, we’re not leaving behind a healthy planet for them. There’s still time, but there’s a lot of work to do, easily doable despite the shortening window of opportunity remaining, if enough people join in. Here are some links to steps for a healthier planet.
These are only small actions, but following the suggested prescriptions on only one of these links can greatly improve your own health as well as that of the planet. As a side benefit you might find, like Moses, that your eyes are not dimmed, nor your natural force abated. So here’s wishing you all the best for the future of the planet.