Saturday, July 24, 2010

Birthdays can get you thinking

(Published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 21.)

It was my grandson’s second birthday last week. For a birthday treat he was taken to Wellington Zoo, though the experience was a bit of a disappointment – for the adults in the group anyway.

Half the enclosures were empty and even where there was a creature lurking in the undergrowth, it was often hard to see. Not that that mattered much to Barnaby and his four-year-old brother Gabriel, who seemed largely indifferent to the animals but had a great time roaming and exploring the unfamiliar territory. They reminded me of the kid who’s given an expensive toy but finds the packaging more fascinating.

But this column isn’t about a trip to the zoo. One consequence of having grandchildren (I have only two at this stage, with another soon to arrive) is that you think about the future a lot more than you otherwise might.

You find yourself wondering what sort of world your descendants will grow up in and what sort of life they will have. If you’re one of those people who think there’s not much they can do about it anyway, this isn’t terribly useful; but even fatalists must find it hard to avoid fretting about whether their grandchildren will enjoy the happiness, freedom and prosperity that we fervently want for them.

One thing we can safely assume about the world 20 or 30 years hence – if “safely” is the appropriate word in this context – is that it will be very different from the one we inhabit. At no stage in human history have events moved so fast.

In the space of a few years we have observed a potentially epochal shift in economic power from West to East. The United States, so long the world’s economic powerhouse, is suddenly in danger of relinquishing that role to China.

America’s critics – of whom there is no shortage in New Zealand – regard her sharp decline as a fitting punishment for unbridled greed, hubris, militarism and rampant consumerism. But it would be rash to write the US off so soon. It is a country with massive reserves of resilience and dynamism, and it remains unchallenged as the world’s pre-eminent military power.

Its morale may have taken a hammering but it has the potential to bounce back. We should all hope that it does, because for all its faults, America is still a democracy, and I would feel a lot more confident about my grandchildren’s future in a world where America retained the power to act as a check against any expansionist ambitions China might harbour. (I should stress here that my comments are entirely concerned with the Chinese communist state and are not intended to reflect on the Chinese people.)

For all its embrace of capitalism, China remains a totalitarian state with little regard for democratic freedoms. I wouldn’t want my grandchildren to grow up in a country that was subservient, either directly or indirectly, to the repressive central politburo in Beijing. Yet this prospect can’t be entirely ruled out, especially if American economic and military power declines. Nature abhors a vacuum, after all.

We need to keep these things at the back our minds even as our government snuggles up to China in the hope of leveraging off its economic wealth. As Woody Allen once wrote, the lion may lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep. For the lamb, read us.

If you factor in global population pressures and fears about climate change, the crystal ball becomes even more fret-inducing. New Zealand, with its relatively sparse population, temperate climate, fertile soil, rich seas and abundant fresh water, might look very alluring to an aggressive foreign power with no respect for our sovereignty.

On a more positive note, we inhabit a smaller and more intimate world than ever before. One of the consequences of globalisation, jet travel and the communications revolution is that they have broken down many of the nationalistic barriers over which people once eyed each other with enmity, envy and suspicion.

I can’t confirm whether it’s true that no war has ever been fought between two countries where you can buy McDonald’s hamburgers; but it does seem reasonable to assume that people are less likely to go to war against a country that they have visited as tourists, or with whose citizens they have attended international conferences and exchanged emails, than against a country of which they are completely ignorant. (Admittedly, Bosnian Serbs in the 1990s butchered people who had been their neighbours for centuries, which slightly undermines my theory – but I’m still optimistic enough to believe it generally holds true.)

The instant worldwide availability of information, via the Internet and the satellite dish, also helps. Tyrants and despots find it much harder than they once did to keep their people in ignorance, bombard them with propaganda and whip them into paranoid frenzies against imagined enemies – though the leaders of North Korea and Iran do their best.

Religious zealotry, the cause of so many horrific wars in the past, is generally on the wane too. The one exception, of course, is Islamic fundamentalism, from which we are, thankfully, largely immune in New Zealand.

None of which, I’m afraid, completely eases my nagging concerns about the sort of lives my grandchildren will have. We can only pray that civilisation continues its erratic upward trajectory, and that the next generation is as blessed as mine has been.


Phil said...

Very interesting and insightful.
I am sure that China's potential for turning economic build up into a military buildup, and expansionism is very real.

Bearhunter said...

"I can’t confirm whether it’s true that no war has ever been fought between two countries where you can buy McDonald’s hamburgers;"

Depends on whether you consider 35 years of internecine fighting in Northern Ireland a war...