Postcard from a Recovering China

This blog post first appeared on the Mail & Guardian’s Thought Leader website

Preparing to leave Beijing last week after a splendid fortnight’s rail tour of the two neighbouring (and confusingly named) provinces of Shaanxi and Shanxi, I was startled to find evidence of a very different China to the one that is often portrayed in mainstream English-language media – “never mind the quality, feel the growth!”  What’s more, I found it in the most unexpected of places: the gentleman’s convenience in the departure lounge of Beijing’s magnificent Capital International Airport.

As is depressingly normal in many places these days, marketers have identified the unavoidable minute or so we all spend answering nature’s call as a terrific opportunity to sell us something.  However, what grabbed my attention was not an eye-catching advert for over-the-counter performance enhancement medication.  In front of me on the wall above the ablution facilities a series of posters followed a common theme, selling not a product or a brand but a concept: sustainability.

In one, an hourglass depicted a melting glacier in the top half, beneath rising CO2 bubbles, with a partially submerged globe in the bottom.  The Chinese caption was endearingly translated into English as “Save the Earth Not allowed to wait”.  On another, whose slogan was not translated but says something like “Please treasure the resources, protect our Earth”, the globe was portrayed as an apple with its skin being peeled away.  Given the location, I admit to feeling rather self-conscious as I furtively rummaged in my pocket and withdrew my camera to record the moment!

46281684-China_1491

This toilet-related anecdote echoes an episode I experienced soon after moving to South Africa from Europe last year.  On visiting various big company headquarters in Johannesburg, I immediately noticed the free condom dispensers in the men’s room, which I took to be a quite appropriate and sensible response to the country’s struggle to curtail the spread of HIV/Aids.  This contrasts sharply with my native UK, where I’m more likely to be sold a personalised car registration plate while nature takes its course.  The consumer is king, to be pandered to even when prone.

(Slightly tangential but indicative of the same trend: I remember fondly those televised public service announcements of my childhood, which my generation would instantly associate with a cartoon ginger tomcat and the catchphrase “Charley says …“.  Sadly, Charley no longer speaks to the UK’s children about the dangers of talking to strangers or playing next to canals, because that would waste valuable media space in which to sell plastic toys.)

I’ve written before about the rational and emotional conflicts that I wrestle with internally each time I return from China.  On this occasion, I left with a clearer-than-ever conviction that China’s future is also the world’s future – which is not to say that I’m entirely comfortable with that realisation.  In disclosing this, I don’t intend to issue a free pass to citizens of every other country on Earth regarding their environmental responsibilities.  The argument that “it doesn’t matter what we do to curb our resource use or greenhouse gas emissions because we’re a rounding error next to China’s national accounts” is morally bankrupt.  Our consumption choices are to a large extent serviced by Chinese coal-fired power plants and manufacturing processes with lax environmental oversight.  We are comfortable purchasing cheap goods, provided we don’t have to confront the devastation they cause in someone else’s back yard.

I recall my business trip some years ago to the massive Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg, when I was struck by a sense that I was standing inside the throbbing engine room of the German economy (though VW’s rivals in Munich and Stuttgart may beg to differ).  For Wolfsburg read China; for Germany read The World.  Similarly, it has been said that the forests of Amazonia represent the lungs of Planet Earth.  In that case, perhaps China is its beating heart – at least in economic terms – powering a cardiovascular system that keeps other organs of commerce from breaking down.  It isn’t called the Middle Kingdom for nothing.

On the flight home to Cape Town, I read in the China Daily newspaper that officials and analysts inside the People’s Republic believe the economic slowdown “may have bottomed out” at 7.4% – down from an average of roughly 10% over the last decade – and the country is now in recovery.  To express this in meaningful terms, at a sustained 7.4% rate of growth the Chinese economy would double in size only every 9.5 years, rather than every seven years under the 10% scenario.  Does this represent breathing space for our attempts to engineer a sustainable future?  And remember: the economy is “in recovery” with the implication being that it is starting to accelerate once again.

Yet, over the course of my travels overland from Beijing through Xi’an and Pingyao to Datong, I noticed several weak signals – in addition to those lavatory wall posters – pointing to a different possible future: millions of electric scooters silently and efficiently plying the urban streets (often carrying more than one passenger); a new bicycle share scheme up and running in Beijing (not the preserve of high-minded commuters in London, Paris or Washington DC); gigantic wind farms dotting the countryside; solar-powered street lighting systems and ubiquitous roof-mounted solar geysers; the steadily lengthening choice of high-speed inter-city rail options available on the China Railways ticketing system.  Want to travel from Beijing in the north to Guangzhou in the south?  By the end of this year, a journey of some 2 200km that currently takes more than twenty hours will be cut to less than eight.  Given this option, why bother subjecting oneself to the ordeal of airport transfers, heavy-handed security checks, cramped seating and baggage delays that characterise air travel?

46281737-China_030

Back in South Africa and having had a week to soak on my experiences, I find myself quite taken aback by my renewed sense of hope (admittedly, more hope than expectation).  While many macro trends and the sheer weight of numbers appear unpromising, China’s development trajectory is not guaranteed to tip the world over the ecological cliff.  And if it does, who among us gets to cast the first stone?  It’s extremely difficult for anyone unfamiliar with the country to find solid grounds from which to criticise its development choices.  The challenges that China’s incoming leadership (coincidentally, likely to be announced the same day as American voters go to the polls) will soon be grappling with – improving the quality of life of more than a billion people within severe and hardening environmental limits – are as daunting as they are unprecedented in human history.  In this respect I wish them well, as I think we all should.  Our collective future largely depends on their success.

The Story of Energy (for Grown-ups)

Among the myriad challenges facing the human species in the early years of this century there is one that shows up on every political and business agenda from Pretoria to Paris, Lusaka to London, and Windhoek to Washington: how to sustain economic growth.  So dominant is this discourse that those who dare to question it can be readily dismissed as lunatics, so far outside the mainstream as to appear out of touch with reality.  Can’t they see?  We need to create jobs!  

Yet deep down we all know that our home planet – and the non-renewable resources upon which our economies are based – is finite, meaning that nothing can grow indefinitely without violating immutable laws of nature.  This is a scary thought.  So, to insulate our preferred mental models of the world from uncomfortable physical truths, we invent oxymoronic terms like “sustainable growth” that evade all attempts to assign a coherent definition.  Most worryingly, we render ourselves unable to recognise and confront a profound blind spot: the pivotal role that energy plays in the human project. 

To comprehend why we are where we are, and what it means for our future, we must first appreciate that not a cent of economic activity happens without energy being transformed from one form into another.  Through trillions of daily conversion processes – some of which happen inside our bodies as we consume food which also required energy to produce – we benefit from a range of useful services such as heating, cooling, mobility, communications, etc.  In so doing, laws of physics dictate that we must throw some energy away as waste heat; we can (and should aim to) improve the efficiency of our conversion steps, but we can never break even. 

A deeper understanding of our predicament is revealed in the workings of our pre-industrial world.  Then, as today, our economic system was based entirely on the movement of people and things.  Prior to the Industrial Revolution, however, all of that movement was driven by solar energy, whether it was harvested as food for people, feed for draught animals – then converted into motion via muscles – or wind caught in the sails of ships and windmills, or rivers turning watermills.  For simplicity, we can think of this kinetic energy sub-system as the ‘Wheel’.  It was constrained by our ‘solar income’, which is the quantity of incident sunlight we could capture (in a relatively short timeframe) and usefully deploy. 

Sure, we had for many centuries also been making good use of stored sunlight.  By burning wood, peat and coal (the last of these in miniscule quantities by today’s standards), we were able to use the liberated heat to cook our food, warm our homes, and drive an impressive host of manufacturing processes.  We can call this thermal energy sub-system ‘Fire’, and it ran on the ‘hydrocarbon battery’ – sunlight captured by plant and animal life over millions of years before being locked away in fossil fuel deposits – to which we increasingly turned as our supplies of firewood became exhausted.  But, just as today, our ability to bring the hydrocarbon battery into service was constrained by the rate at which we could move these combustible fuels from where they were found to where they were needed. 

This year marks the 300th anniversary of an event that altered the course of human history profoundly.  In 1712, Thomas Newcomen’s first steam engine became operational in the English Midlands town of Dudley.  By converting heat into motion, it united humanity’s two most important discoveries: Fire and the Wheel.  From that moment on, our scope for mobility – in the first instance, to shift water from a flooded coal mine – was no longer bound by the limits of solar income, by human and animal muscle or sailing ships. 

Once we’d hooked ourselves up to the hydrocarbon battery, we began to mechanise our world.  Fewer draught animals were required, which liberated not only the paddocks on which they were kept, but also the large tracts of arable land which fed them.  In concert with advances in agriculture, fewer farmhands were able to produce greater quantities of food, which in turn boosted population growth.  More of us were free to swap rural for urban landscapes that were melting pots of knowledge-sharing and innovation, fostering further advances in science and medicine that allowed us to lead longer, more productive – and more consumptive – lives.  Later, steam ships and locomotives allowed us to move more things (including food) faster over greater distances, enabling ever higher levels of consumption.  For the better part of three centuries, we hardly looked back as we ascended this upward spiral, propelled by ancient solar energy released from fossil fuels. 

A crucial enhancement of the Fire/Wheel axis arrived towards the end of the 19th Century with the invention of the automobile.  If fossil fuels are the Earth’s hydrocarbon battery, then crude oil is their ultimate expression: its liquid state provides unmatched energy density and ease of transport, making oil the reference fuel for moving people and things, far superior to coal and natural gas.  Its role in underpinning our economic system cannot be overstated and it seems impossible to dislodge.  No wonder we are prepared to go to war over the stuff – we are fighting for nothing less than our ability to sustain economic growth as we know it. 

A ready supply of cheap liquid transport fuels subsequently enabled us to do all sorts of clever things, such as create globalised supply chains and just-in-time delivery systems, and we congratulate ourselves for the perceived efficiency gains that we created.  The trouble is it all unravels spectacularly when fuel becomes expensive or scarce, even fleetingly.  Keen to avoid cold-turkey convulsions on a societal scale, governments intervene by any means necessary and order is maintained.  This is precisely how South Africa ended up with the world’s single largest point source of CO2 emissions, thanks to its apartheid-era coal liquefaction programme, a response to constricted oil supplies. 

All the most prized attributes of advanced economies – proud beacons of human progress to which many developing nations aspire – are based upon the marriage of Fire and the Wheel.  That is, we achieve and maintain our pinnacle of civilisation by relentlessly digging fossil fuels out of the ground and setting them on fire in order to move people and things from place to place in motor vehicles.  High-tech, indeed!  But lurking in the dark recesses of our minds is the realisation that consuming any resource faster than its rate of formation is, by definition, unsustainable.  Fully aware that our hydrocarbon battery is draining fast and will not be re-charged in the conceivable future, that using it has a deleterious effect on the natural systems that sustain all life on Earth, and that meanwhile the economic system through which we aim to deliver societal needs is utterly dependent on it, what are we to do?  We surely can’t return to a pre-industrial existence where most people struggled on the very edge of survival.  At least, we won’t take this lying down. 

There is a glimmer of hope around which to galvanise our collective imagination.  About the time of the automotive revolution, another energy technology was born that also came to shape modern life: electricity.  Just as the steam engine created a pathway for turning heat into motion, so electricity can reverse the process.  Via electrons, we can take solar income – either directly by capturing sunlight or indirectly by harnessing wind – and transform it into every imaginable energy service of benefit to society, including the mobility which underpins all economic activity.  

Crucially, modern electrical devices – and transportation modes in particular – just happen to be supremely energy efficient, meaning that we can enjoy more services with less energy expenditure.  And electricity is unique among energy carriers because it can also convey information.  This introduces the prospect of discarding the current ‘dumb’ energy system and replacing it with one that is ‘smart’.  Since all of the energy arrives for free and its source will never expire as long as our solar system persists (if it doesn’t, human concerns will be a thing of the past!), what’s not to like?  

We are exhibiting all the symptoms of addiction, including compulsive behaviour and denial in the face of mounting evidence that we have a serious problem.  We even resort to theft in order to feed our increasingly expensive habit, either from weaker nations and communities, or from generations as yet unborn.  As civilised adults we need to confront and treat this addiction, unhook ourselves from the hydrocarbon battery, creating in its place a new economic paradigm that provides societal needs equitably within solar income constraints.  

Does this mean the end of growth, at least as the term is currently understood?  That is inevitable anyway; we cannot negotiate with hard biophysical limits.  The best we can hope for is what economists might call a ‘soft landing’.  The 21st Century project – both hugely challenging and incredibly exciting – is to create the ultimate just-in-time delivery system, powered by energy that arrives every day from the sun, not by setting fire to millions of years of ancient sunlight in the blink of an eye.  All other species on Earth manage just fine like this.  For now, we are the 0.0001% that attempt to live by rules of our own making and it is silly to imagine that we can continue as we are with impunity.