By the first quarter of the 19th century, a small corner of north-western Europe had conquered much of the rest of the world on the back of gunpowder, the sailing ship and an evangelizing view of the world which served both God and commerce. Two centuries later, we see a new force at work, aiming for the re-conquest of the world by the Western nations, this time with a new powerful entrant, the United States of America. The West’s weapons of war are as novel as is the ideology of conquest: gunpowder has been replaced by domination of powerful international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that include global finance as part of their arsenal, and an evangelizing ideology that views the trace gas CO2 as original sin. The aim of the West is of course not to directly rule the world for plunder or prestige, but to get the East to agree on foregoing the fruits of modern economic growth to “save the planet”.
To be sure, none of this is very new. The early convocations of nations in the aftermath of World War II, perhaps best marked by the Stockholm conference on the environment in 1972, were devoted to discussions of a new brotherhood of nations that would learn to live at peace not only with one another (the Cold War was still a dominating reality then) but also with “nature”. A new Rousseauesque angst had captured the minds of the ruling intellectual elites in the West, perhaps best personified by Joschka Fischer, a left-wing activist and part of the 1968 “beat generation” who later became Germany’s first Green member of parliament in 1985. This angst needed to be shared with the world. It did not matter very much that some in the East like the indomitable Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, proclaimed at the 1972 Stockholm conference that the environmental problem of the teeming multitudes of East was one of poverty not affluence.
It did not take long for this angst to shapeshift. The original fears of “running out” of natural resources —as the Club of Rome, an international elite of experts, had predicted — or of over-population as warned by serial predictors of global famines and cataclysm such as Paul Ehrlich are history. By the 1980s and 1990s it had become apparent that human ingenuity and the relentless march of technology had consigned the Malthusian thesis to the dust-heap of history. The world had continuously increasing reserves of minerals and fossil fuels despite galloping consumption. The US shale revolution found more oil and gas than the world could possibly absorb. The maverick one-term president Donald J. Trump proclaimed “energy dominance” for a country that conventional wisdom had expected to be an energy supplicant to Saudi Arabia, Russia and other oil and gas producers of the world.
An Increasingly Prosperous World
And far from fearing over-population, countries such as China are much more worried about the demography and geopolitics of “growing old before becoming rich”. Indeed, by late-20th century, demographers were already warning of all the problems associated with an impending decline of a youthful population that could sustain global living standards. While mystical believers of Gaia worried of the weight of a global population on “nature”, statistics of human welfare kept breaking historical records as never before. With respect to human welfare, virtually every metric or indicator shows significant if not dramatic improvement: life expectancy and income levels have improved; poverty levels have declined; people are living longer and healthier lives and the World Bank’s human development index has advanced virtually everywhere (ignoring the blip caused by the covid pandemic since 2020).
Since the 1920s, the global death rate from extreme weather events, for instance, has fallen by 98% despite the tripling of the world’s population. Average global life expectancy at birth in 1850 was just over 29 years; a century later it was over 45 years, and in 2019, it was almost 73 years. In 1820, almost 90% of the global population lived in absolute poverty. By 2015, this had dropped to less than 10% despite a sevenfold increase in world population.
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Carbon Imperialism To Save the World
Yet, the up-coming UN conference on climate in Glasgow is all fire-and-brimstone. With the “climate emergency” upon us, Alok Sharma — president of the UN’s “COP26” summit to be held in Glasgow in November – warns us that this is the “last chance” to agree to a radical agenda of “decarbonization” failing which the world inevitably consigns itself to climate catastrophe (never mind that this is all based on dubious “hockey-stick” global warming models concocted in the West). The UN Secretary-General António Guterres warns us that it is nothing less than “a code red for humanity. The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable”.
And here is where the West’s ambit at a moral carbon imperialism is upon us in the East:
Be prepared to give up cheap and affordable fossil fuels that help your people achieve higher standards of living or else the planet, with all of us in it, gets it. Yes, we promise you money (we know, the last promise was $100 billion per annum, though not yet attained). But there is more, we promise you. We all understand you cannot possibly expect European standards of living but new energy technologies are around the corner, trust us. With solar and wind power, and electric vehicles, and hydrogen and carbon capture and sequestration, we will get there. But stop new coal power plants right now and oil and gas too. We are all in this together.
“History never repeats itself but it rhymes,” said Mark Twain. Now however there is nothing short of massive discordance. China, the world’s largest carbon sinner by far, has “promised” net zero by 2060. Sinner or not, it has quite clearly stated that it might consider participating in the western notion of buying Gaia’s indulgences with decarbonization, perhaps, some decades into the future, but only if the US plays ball: give up the endless tirades about Uigher oppression, consider Taiwan as part of China and stop being an aggressive competitor to the Middle Kingdom’s natural quest for Asian dominance. India, on its part, is also quite clear: “we urge G20 countries to commit to bring down per capita emissions to the global average by 2030”. In other words, you come down to not quite our levels of poverty, and give us space to become not quite as rich as you. And then we have the outliers: Australia has said quite clearly “no” to Biden, Boris and the UN in their requests that coal extraction, coal power and coal exports should stop.
The days of China being “carved up like a ripe melon” by the western powers or of the dissipated Mughals in India being easily replaced by the East India Company as overlords of the subcontinent are long gone. Australia, the ex-colony of convicts, is no pushover either. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, host of COP26, while not entertaining imperial notions of conquest and rule, wants his environmental place in the sun. But he is bound to be disappointed. Carbon imperialism will not work.