As the Copenhagen summit goes on, deciding all our futures, I’ve been thinking about what it takes to motivate democratically-elected leaders to take steps that may bring what seems like immediate hardship, in order to avert longer-term disaster.
George Monbiot suggested in a recent column in the Guardian that the world is divided into ‘expanders and restrainers; those who believe that there should be no impediments and those who believe that we must live within limits.’ There is no indication so far that the leaders meeting in Copenhagen have the courage, the commitment or the comprehension to tell their publics that there should be limits.
Funnily enough, it was China that sprung to mind when I was trying to think of precedents for leaders imposing what seem like draconian constraints on the people they govern for the future, common good. One prime example is the family planning programme that grew over the 1980s into the famous or infamous ‘one-child policy’. Whatever you think of the methods used to control the Chinese population, or the abuses of the system (late-term forced abortions, female infanticide et al), this is a clear instance of a governing elite taking a cold, dispassionate look at uncomfortable problems (the population boom under Mao) and taking appropriate action to limit the damage.
The curbs on population must have been incredibly painful, both for individuals, who were unable to satisfy their desire for more children, and for society in general, since they flew in the face of one of the most important Chinese cultural ideals, that of the large family, many sons, and ‘three generations living under one roof’. And yet they bit the bullet, and did it, because they knew that China would not be able to support a population that continued to grow at the projected rates.
Similarly, but perhaps less painfully, they turned around a long cultural tradition of burial that involved a tomb-sweeping festival, offerings laid at ancestors’ graves, geomancy to determine the location of tombs, and ideas about the need to preserve bodily integrity for the afterlife, and promoted instead cremation, because they knew that China didn’t have enough land for everyone to bury their dead.
You’ve got to admire their far-sightedness, whatever you think of their methods. (If China had not curbed its population when it did, as Chinese leaders have from time to time reminded the world, China’s carbon emissions would be far higher than they are now.)
Of course, now that the Chinese government is, if not more democratic, more aware of the dangers of popular discontent, and more wary of snatching the lollipop of economic growth from its people’s mouths, such draconian measures are more problematic. Which is probably partly why they are insisting that China is entitled to economic growth, and that citizens’ desires for fridges, cars and air conditioning systems must be satisfied (another reason is nationalism: a sense of injustice at the idea that the West might live in luxury while the Chinese continue their until recently very low-emission lives.)
But isn’t this kind of draconian, coldly realistic action to live within our means exactly what we now need, whether we live in a democracy or a ‘communist’ state? If human civilisation is going to survive, we are all going to have to make even greater sacrifices, of things we now believe to be essential parts of our cultures and our lives. At least the Chinese example shows that such things are possible. Perhaps the Chinese have more to teach the rest of the world about this than they realize… But it seems doubtful that anyone else would want to listen.