Unstoppable Forces and Immovable Objects

“That’s my new house” – my Chinese tour guide gestured toward a row of featureless apartment blocks beneath our vantage point overlooking the river – “and that’s where I used to live.”  She showed me a photograph of a modest two-storey structure within the walls of the ancient city of Fengjie.  It presumably remains intact, albeit more than 150 metres underwater.

This stretch of the Yangtze – roughly 660km from Chongqing to Sandouping – is much less a river than a lake these days, thanks to the mind-blowing Three Gorges Dam.  My guide for the shore excursion of neighbouring Baidi Cheng – the White Emperor City, at the mouth of the still awesome Qutang Gorge – was among more than a million Chinese citizens forced to relocate prior to their homes being submerged by the rising waters.  If she was remotely bitter, it certainly didn’t show.

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Over many return visits since my two years living in Beijing from 2004, the Middle Kingdom has always left a deep impression or two.  It’s hard to grasp the scale and pace of development underway in China without experiencing it for oneself, but while still fresh – if that’s the word – from my most recent trip, I’d like to share some reflections that I hope will provide a glimpse of some of the changes in progress.

I have just returned from two weeks travelling overland in one of the country’s industrial heartlands.  Starting in Chengdu, Sichuan, the home Province of my travelling companion, we journeyed by rail to Chongqing before boarding a tourist ship that cruised down the now broad and peaceful Yangtze to Yichang, a few kilometres downstream of the infamous hydroelectric power station.

The relentless intensity of river traffic brought home that electricity generation was but one of the intended outcomes of this stunning engineering endeavour.  It may not even have been the most important one.  Previously, this was a notoriously difficult stretch of inland waterway, evoking the Symplegades – or Clashing Rocks – successfully navigated in Greek legend by Jason and the Argonauts.  Now, an endless stream of gigantic barges piled high with cargoes – notably mountains of coal – ply the becalmed waters.  Setting aside the grave environmental and social concerns related to the Three Gorges development – including landslides caused by increased physical pressure on surroundings and loss of agricultural land – one wonders about the net carbon impact of what is ostensibly a renewable energy project, given the enhanced flows of coal that have been made possible.

Countless factories and construction projects dot the river banks.  This region of China is well-known for its winter fogs, though it is easy to imagine that the precession of chimney stacks and their attendant columns of smoke – added to the sooty exhaust fumes of river traffic – contribute significantly to the dismal visibility, all the more disheartening in an area of exceptional natural beauty.  It struck me: this is what implausibly cheap consumer goods look like upstream in the supply chain, far beyond the horizon of cost-conscious consumers.  The juxtaposition of local fishermen in tiny sampans bobbing around in the slip-stream of industry lends a Dickensian flavour to the scene – A Tale of Two Rivers – and a vivid reminder, were it needed, of the inequality challenge confronting not only the developing world but many advanced economies, too.  As if to compensate for those dark satanic mills, dozens of new bridges that span the water have been designed with an aesthetical flourish rather than stolid functionality in mind.

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As for the dam itself, which we reached at midnight on the third day and passed in four hours via a sequence of enormous locks, the audacity it expresses can have few equals in the world.  As an aside, en route to China I met one of the challengers for the title of “world’s most audacious construction project” when stopping in Dubai for the weekend.  On arrival, I made immediately for the top of the Burj Khalifa, at 828m and 160 stories the world’s tallest building by some considerable distance.  Appropriately enough, it features prominently in the latest Mission Impossible movie.  The eye-watering extravagance shouts engineering hubris, but it is no less beautiful for that.

In defence of Three Gorges Dam, unlike the Burj Khalifa it is hard to label it as nothing more than a vanity project.  For starters, it is devastatingly ugly.  A few key facts: (1) Mao Zedong visualised the dam in a poem penned in 1956, titled “Swimming”; (2) its 18GW of hydroelectric power capacity is roughly equivalent to nine Hoover Dams; (3) were it operating in 1994 when construction began, it would have supplied around 12% of China’s power needs – but due to explosive demand growth it today represents less than 4% and is obviously declining each year; (4) the submerged area includes 13 cities, 140 towns, 1,352 villages, 657 factories & 30,000 hectares of cultivated land.  Construction is ongoing: the latest addition to the scheme is a ship elevator into which the “smaller” vessels (typically passenger ships of up to 3,000 tons – everything is relative) will be lowered or raised the full length of the drop that separates upstream and downstream waters, thereby shortening the crossing time from four hours to thirty minutes and debottlenecking the main lock system.

Another hour downstream from the dam we disembarked at nondescript Yichang, from where a four hour white-knuckle bus ride whisked us to Wuhan, the most important city in Hubei Province.  Together with Chongqing and Nanjing, Wuhan is one of China’s so-called “Furnaces” due to the sweltering summer climate endured by its 10 million residents.  Its location at the confluence of the Yangtze and the Han rivers, dividing the city into three parts – Wuchang, Hankou, and Hanyang (hence the composite name) – brought to mind Pittsburgh, with which I later learned Wuhan is officially twinned.  From Hankou to Wuchang on the short commuter ferry, I was impressed by the dozens of electric-powered bicycles and scooters crammed on board.  A recent estimate placed China’s e-bike population at 120 million; I briefly imagined the scene were all of those zippy two-wheelers powered by noisy two-stroke petrol engines.

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Moving on from Wuhan, the world’s fastest train south to Guangzhou averages 328km/h on the 968km journey, which annihilates comparable high-speed routes elsewhere in the world.  The new Wuhan Station embarrasses many modern airports in terms of scale, passenger facilities, and physical beauty.  A comparison with airports is apposite, since the station is situated some 50km from the city centre, thereby demanding close to an hour’s taxi ride in light traffic.  This came as a surprise – and a disappointment – to a European brought up to believe that the great advantage of rail over air travel is the convenience of journeying from one urban centre to another.  Still, I retain a conviction that rail travel is vastly less stressful and more enjoyable than flying.

Guangzhou, formerly known in the West as Canton, is regarded as China’s third city after Beijing and Shanghai.  If this status gives Guangzhou an inferiority complex, you wouldn’t know it.  The city’s proximity to Shenzhen and Hong Kong – soon to be connected with yet another high-speed rail line – give it a significant competitive advantage.  A stunning array of outlandish buildings have sprung up, including a striking waterfront opera house, all serviced by a spanking new – and already insanely busy – underground metro system.  Beijing’s development received an additional kick from the 2008 Olympics, while Guangzhou experienced a similar stimulus from the 2010 Asian Games, recognised as the second largest multi-sport event after the Olympics.

On leaving China from Guangzhou’s spotless – if mildly confusing – Baiyun International Airport, my overriding impression was that, despite everything I have read and experienced previously, it remains impossible to do justice in words to the sense of sheer momentum that exudes from this vast country of nearly 1.4 billion citizens, undertaking in two or three decades a transformation for which human history offers no precedent.  The industrial development that took more than a century in the US and Europe – with only a few hundred million citizens to consider – can offer some useful pointers, but direct analogies quickly break down due to the vastly different context in which humanity finds itself today.  For one thing, when E.L. Drake struck oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859, we hadn’t the faintest idea of the full consequences of embarking on a socio-economic development trajectory underpinned by two of our most primitive discoveries: fire and the wheel.

Where does it all lead?  Whether we like it or not, China’s future is our future.  My colleague Dirk Visser at CSPL South Africa begins his excellent systems pressures overview by referring to the movie The Dark Knight, in which the Joker sums up his relationship with Batman: “This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object”.  China creates an overwhelming illusion of the proverbial unstoppable force.  Is nature – or the hard, non-negotiable biophysical limits that nature imposes on all earthly life – the immovable object?  Apparently not, yet.

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This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

I made a resolution recently, one that I had to break within a matter of days.

Quick digression: in my former life on the Mobil Oil graduate programme, we used to enjoy a game called Buzzword Bingo (there are some rather more colourful names for it).  I’m sure it’s familiar across the corporate world – a quick Google search for “buzzword+bingo” returns more than 90,000 hits.  For the uninitiated, each player starts with a grid consisting of words and phrases that sound thoughtful but tend to be vacuous – things like “synergy”, “low-hanging fruit”, or “hit the ground running”.  Each time a particular word or phrase is used, players will strike it off their grid until all have been eliminated – HOUSE! – following which the maverick will stride confidently out of the room and into the dole queue.  

Back to my resolution.  Having attended and participated in countless sustainability-related conferences over the last 5 years, it struck me that too many words and phrases are parroted without a second thought for their true meaning, much less their plausibility.  So I resolved that the next time I’m attending a conference and I hear someone assert with confidence “the world will have 9 billion people by 2050”, I’d shout HOUSE! and then head for the fire escape.

Foolish of me, in retrospect.  Within days, at the World 50 sustainability forum in London, I heard both Patrick Dixon and Nick Stern trot out the “9 billion people” assumption-masquerading-as-fact, yet I couldn’t bring myself to walk out on either of them.  They’re both utterly brilliant and it was a real privilege to listen to them outline their views of the human development challenges facing us over the next forty years.  I’d have been cutting off my nose to spite my face.

But it did concern me that two great minds would have us accept this projection as pretty much inevitable.  Why has it become such a resilient piece of conventional wisdom, unchallenged and unchallengeable?  Is it because it comes from the United Nations?  I decided to check the assumptions that underpin the UN’s population projection.  From the website of the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, I found this revealing statement: 

 To project the population until 2050, the United Nations Population Division uses assumptions regarding future trends in fertility, mortality and international migration.

Three trends – fertility, mortality, migration – play out over the next four decades to deliver 9 billion people by 2050.  But what are the other implicit assumptions that underlie this projection?  For instance, that oil supply will continue to expand to meet rising demand?  

I’ve yet to see any business plan that starts with the assumption: the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening.  That would be silly – that’s just the way the world is.  And for the last 150 years since E. L. Drake struck oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania, oil supplies have risen more or less continuously (barring the odd political intervention) to meet growing demand.  That’s just the way the world is.  Along the way, agriculture has mechanised, delivering humanity a huge endowment of arable land for food production rather than husbanding of draft animals.  In parallel, this has liberated millions from back-breaking manual labour – we can leave all that to our personal “ghost slaves”, or barrels of oil – enabling rapid urbanisation and the associated social complexity that characterises modern civilisation.  And, of course, a human population that has grown more than six-fold from just over one billion in 1850 to almost seven billion today.  

The global population will be 9 billion by 2050, and oil supplies will continue to grow to satisfy rising demand.

HOUSE!