For India and China a climate clash with destiny

For India and China a climate clash with destiny

For India and China a climate clash with destiny

Imagine that the climate summit conference in Copenhagen which ended last week was not a gathering of nations. Imagine a gathering of delegates from the many ages of a single nation. The fault lines would not be India and China versus the global rich, but rather China 1800 versus China 1978 versus China 2100. It would be a negotiation not between different lands but between different historical facts, different levels of survivalism.

The Copenhagen meeting was an unimaginably complex negotiation among countries; the difficulties it has faced in reaching for broad approval of a global agreement are hard to overstate. But if the conference were interpreted through a chronological, not geopolitical, lens, those difficulties could perhaps come more into focus — as a contest between the rival ideas of life and obligation that societies possess at different moments in their modernising odysseys.
 Sitting at one side of the negotiating table are Western great powers at the postmodern edge of modernisation. Sitting across are developing nations decades, even centuries, behind in affluence, nutrition, literacy and urbaniSation; striving to catch up, they are less enthusiastic about crimping economic growth to cool a warming planet.

But wait. Two developing countries — India and China — also possess, by sheer size, great-power status. Never before, perhaps, have there been two nations so powerful in aggregate-income terms that are so poor relative to others at a per-person level. China is the third-richest nation over all, but it is poorer than 132 countries in per-person terms; India is fifth-richest over all, but poorer than 166 others per person.

Together, that is $11.3 trillion worth of power being steered, if you divide income by population, by a $4,500-a-year mentality. The result is that India and China face enormous pressure to think like the Western great powers of 2009 and, simultaneously, to think like those great powers did 100 years ago, when they were much more focused on economic development and much less interested in global justice.

Geopolitical issues
On geopolitical issues like climate change, India and China are encouraged to balance their internal duties as developing countries with their external responsibilities as emerging giants. They are told to short-circuit history, to avoid tactics for growth that the West now sees as errors, to assume obligations that rich lands took on only when they became much wealthier.  At times, they resist this pressure. At times, they warm to it, as seen in China’s efforts to reassure the world that its ambitious nuclear-power-plant programme meets sophisticated safety standards. And when they sell high-end technology or bid for the Olympics, India and China want their phase of history to be ignored. Then they want simply to “leapfrog.”

This pressure to get with the global programme — whether delivered in climate talks or through the subtler cultural pressure of satellite television — can bring strange results. The leapfrogging dream can tempt countries to engage in kitsch development, to mimic modern ways without building structures to support them.
If getting with the global programme means sacrificing growth for greenness, it involves similarly wrenching tradeoffs in other spheres. In developing countries, a new globalised (and essentially Western) vision of the parent-child relationship is coming, in which the purpose of each generation is to go its own way, leave ancestors to their devices, find one’s own truth.

But the idea can feel borrowed. It comes from places whose structures support it: places with nursing homes, social security, handicapped bathrooms. It arrives in places without that support. So the young agonise about their obligations to the old and the old languish, trapped between an old world that has gone and a new one that hasn’t set in. India’s leaders try to cope by criminalising neglect of one’s parents.

Globalised values
Globalised values similarly encourage sexual liberty. Hookup culture comes to societies without the institutions that make it safe and possible elsewhere: accessible contraceptives, regulated abortion clinics, tolerant parents, police officers willing to investigate rape.

This pressure to be global-modern and yet simultaneously of one’s own place is described in stark terms by Seyran Ates, a German-Turkish writer whose recent book is called “Islam Needs a Sexual Revolution.” In it she details the way that many young Muslim women, without having overthrown patriarchy, have leapfrogged over it. Many engage in anal sex, she told the German magazine Der Spiegel, to preserve the hymen and, with it, the illusion of virginity.

Thanks to leapfrogging, global culture is increasingly simultaneous on the surface. But there is a “lack of simultaneity,” as Ms Ates puts it, in the reality underneath.
This mirage of simultaneity may illuminate the American challenge in Afghanistan. The language American politicians use for their agenda there is the language Americans use for themselves: Afghanistan needs governance, a loyal army, a rooting out of corruption, centralisation. But critics accuse the Americans of committing a basic psychological error: “mirror imaging” — judging the other guys by where you stand and not by where they stand.

Critics of such mirror imaging remind us that those who now commend modernity to Afghanistan won it slowly themselves. They enslaved, then emancipated; segregated, then integrated; regulated, then deregulated. They fought their religious and ideological wars, then learned, achingly, not to fight them. What they did not do, those that went first on this journey, was copy the answers from the back of the book.