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.

5 Responses to “Copenhagen”

  1. Sam

    I hope something will be rescued from the debacle that is the now hopeless Copenhagen Summit, but if it’s more than a statement of intent from World leaders I’ll be very surprised, and so Copenhagen will become just another missed opportunity.
    Can we blame them though? When it’s clear we individually miss so many opportunities to make changes at home; the education of our children perhaps? While they have been made aware (too aware?) of the effects and causes of climate change, to the extent that they angrily blame our generation for the problems they will inherit, they have not been weaned away from what you call ‘the lollipop’ – all the goodies that we enjoyed – cheap power, cheap travel and cheap food.
    I’m as much to blame for this as anyone, yes my kids instinctively recycle, yes they walk to school, yes they do the little things that are meant to make a difference, but they now live in a new house, built with tonnes of concrete and lit like a palace. Energy efficient it may be, but no one would call it green. Not my choice, as you know, but it could have, should have, been an environmentally friendly build, with strong lessons imparted. That opportunity has been missed.
    There have been other opportunities and hard choices – the global recession perhaps? Should we have stood back and instead of propping up ailing banks and industries just let them fail? The ensuing crash would, no doubt, have resulted in simpler lives for us all, less travel, less energy, less ability to meet demand, but would the suffering (and many would have suffered severe privation, aside from the global political consequences) have made it worth it? The easy answer is yes, but would I want to see my children go through that? That’s a much harder question to answer, but there is still only one right response – yes. I just struggle to say it.

  2. Peter

    This is an issue that I’ve been pondering as of late – that the concept of democracy vis-a-vis the French Revolution and taken to its absolute apex in the U.S. is what dooms the world when it comes to threats such as global warming. Owing to a lack of political will b/c politicians are looking nervously at the latest polling figures, there will be far fewer individuals of integrity who are willing to commit career suicide and implement measures that ensure that no further terms of service are in the offing.

    It is exactly b/c of the authoritarian state infrastructure that China has been able to mobilize and marshall its population to at least marginally realize Deng’s vision of a materially prosperous country. Having witnessed firsthand the haphazard chaos that India experiences w/ its multitude of states and their individual interests, it would be a monumental task to persuade one and all in that country to assume sacrifices even more than they have borne thus far.

    The notion of democracy avails w/ it accompanying precepts of entitlement; and given the human condition as well as behavior, the id tends to foment selfish conduct. If one to declare that cheap/inexpensive weekend vacations w/ EasyJet and RyanAir were no longer available and that the cost to travel to some of these locales were to exceed 1 000 Pounds Sterling, there’d be far fewer “travelers,” but also probably a sense of moral outrage in conveyed by people muttering “I ought/want/deserve…” Not sure this would necessarily be a negative outcome since some people who visit Cuba or a place like Phuket only come into contact w/ locals by way of wait and cleaning staff.

    Not disheartened necessarily, but subscribing to a sober pragmatism.

  3. Dino

    Hi Fuchsia,

    I fear that this whole Copenhagen Summit will turn into lots of people “talking a lot but not saying very much”, as I would usually put it. And by the end of it, I doubt that there will be major agreements, and if there are I very much doubt that they will be adhered to.

    These kind of summits are notorious for not changing very much-just look back at the Kyoto Protocol. It ended with the US not signing it (even though it was/is the world’s biggest producer of carbon emissions) and most countries failed to reach the targets set by the Protocol. Britain claims that it has reached these targets, but it’s all a lie: what’s actually happened is that a lot of Britains factories have relocated overseas, so other countries are producing our emissions for us! (Dyson famously relocated his hoover making factory to Malaysia a few years ago, for example).

    So all in all…I don’t hold out much hope for the Copenhagen Summit. And I fear that by the time that all the world leaders get themselves into gear and really try to drastically change the situation, and treat it like a true global emergency, it will already be too late.

  4. Dino

    Update: Looks like I was right. The news has just reported that the talks have ended without a legally binding agreement and that leaders will only “take note” on the talks. (In other words, do next to nothing).

  5. James

    How much of the effectiveness of China’s One Child policy is far sightedness, and how much is draconian punishment for violation?

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