The Green Dragon?

by Mike O’Brien

China has been on my mind lately. It has also been on the mind of my federal government and political press. Recent revelations that China interfered with our elections in 2019, and possibly in 2021, have caused a bit of a kerfuffle, tinged by panic, indignation, and the kind of reflexive Trudeau-blaming that has become a sad fixture of Canadian public discourse. I miss the days when we blamed everything on Americans; it was unifying and accurate.

Frankly, I would be surprised and a little disappointed if China weren’t meddling in our elections. It would be a sign of indifference, a dashing of this country’s deepest collective hope that important countries notice us and even mention our name from time to time. It’s not like our elections are un-meddled-in anyhow, given that we share the world’s longest unprotected border with one of the 20th century’s most egregious election-meddlers. I’m not saying that official agents of the United States government are targeting our political processes. They don’t have to. The fact that most of our media is American, or pale copies thereof, does a better job of ideological and doctrinal contamination than any State Department stooge could hope to accomplish. The idea that Canadian society could ever be safe from outside predation is a dangerous folly. I suppose the Canadian political and security establishment knows this very well, and the feigned shock at any particular incursion is mostly performed to effect a diplomatic message.

I am glad that Trudeau is in power, rather than the ghoulish Republican-aping Conservatives. I used to give him a hard time for his tap-dancing around the incompatibility of Canada’s economic and environmental goals. I still do, but I used to, too (R.I.P. Mitch Hedberg). But I doubt Trudeau, or anyone, could win another election on the promise of taking steps sufficiently drastic to bring our economy in line with our public environmental commitments, let alone with actual environmental necessity. Too many voters are committed to preserving an unsustainable way of life, and that commitment is generously encouraged by a commercial media landscape awash in energy-industry propaganda.

Our largest newspaper chain, the mostly-American-owned PostMedia, was essentially started as PR operation to get the oil-industry-coddling/coddled Conservatives elected. It was successful, and has only become more entrenched since that first non-progressive Conservative regime was dethroned by the not-as-bad (to be fair, not nearly as bad) Trudeau. The prospects of mitigating ecological catastrophe seem hopelessly outmatched in the short term by the preponderance of fossil energy interests in Canada’s economy and culture.

One can only bash one’s head against such stubborn impasses so long before one longs for some kind of exit. Trapped in what seems like an inescapable bind of cultural inertia and political entrenchment, the bleakly obvious answer seems to be “you can’t get there from here”. If “there” is a future worth having, then one desperately wants to be anywhere than “here”. “Here” is not, of course, only Canada, which is actually one of the nicer parts of “here”. “Here” is, for me, the global system of industrialized Western countries, and their exploited periphery, and their aspiring future peers among countries that are still trying to follow our civilization off a cliff.

There is a temptation to rush to any alternative that presents itself, born not only of a need for hope but also of the seething contempt that arises from being too familiar with the faults of one’s native culture. Witness the partisans of foreign powers who became the most ruthless enemies of their home states, and the most unyielding dogmatists of whatever new system replaced the values of their upbringing. Fierce critics of capitalist liberal democracies flocked to the light of Soviet communism, because they believed the contradictions (or, less ideologically, the flaws and iniquities) of their own civilization to be fatal and deserving of defeat. It was a reasonable gamble, at the time. Their scepticism of democratic capitalism has aged fairly well, at least more so than their optimism for communism. Looking further back, many European subjects were quite happy to see Napoleon riding across their kingdoms on the way to topple their monarchs, being trapped in moribund feudal systems seemingly without prospects for meaningful reform.

French liberalism, like Soviet communism, may have been a mistake (the American version certainly seems to have turned out badly). But it was arguably a good bet, when the alternative was continued stagnation under the hereditary mafia of noble rule. It is certainly more spiritually enlivening to imagine oneself as pulled towards a future ideal than pulling a cart of historically-accreted obligations. This volatility of identity, the possibility choosing one’s most important qualities rather than having them assigned by heredity and nationality, characterizes the modern figure of the partisan. At least, that’s what the very bad man of twentieth-century German political theory thought. This possibility of self-alignment spooked many a government jealous of potential outside loyalties. It is (partly) why Catholics were (and continue to be) seen with so much suspicion by American chauvinists; how could they be faithful citizens of the (de facto Protestant) country, when their very souls are pledged to a faith ruled from Rome? More than just xenophobia or sectarian bigotry, such worries are quite justified if one takes the commitments of religious people seriously. (Although the most fervent Papist-haters likely took Catholics’ commitment to Catholicism more seriously than most Catholics do). International anything, be it socialism, liberalism or environmentalism, threatens the security of states which presume a rigid link between nationality and political identity.

When two world systems are, or understand themselves to be, in a struggle for survival, supporting either one carries the risk of being implicated in moral horrors. To be unaligned still invites suspicions of moral indifference to the outrages of either side. In the post-Cold-War era (we are not “post-Russia”, but we are very much “post-Soviet”), might ecology versus economy define the poles of a new struggle? And if so, which powers stand at the “ecology” pole? We know who stands at the “economy” pole, just look for the federal seal on the uniforms of agents hauling away (or pepper-spraying, or murdering) environmental activists.

Which brings me to back to China. I don’t enough about that country to say whether or not I trust its pronouncements about building a green future. But I do know enough about Canada, the EU and the USA to say that I don’t trust theirs. (This is necessarily unfair to liberal democracies, as they allow a free press to publish immeasurable volumes of criticism and invective, letting the world know about all their faults and misdeeds in minute detail, true or otherwise. Authoritarian regimes enjoy much more discretion in managing their reputations). Even when such green promises are spoken sincerely, capitalist liberal democracies are (at least) a revolution away from exercising the degree of control over industry required to meet dire short-term climate targets

China already had its revolution(s). They were bloody and filled with wrong turns, avoidable disasters and inexcusable crimes against humanity. Crimes against what we consider to be fundamental human rights continue apace, particularly against those ethnic and cultural minorities that the government has not yet purged. All these facts demand recognition and appropriate moral reckoning. But against this background stands the question, in flaming letters a mile high, “who will save the planet?”. It won’t be the United States; they can barely keep their oil-funded fascist party from overthrowing the government. It won’t be Canada; we are a rinky-dink assembly of half a percent of the world’s population, producing nearly two percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Europe is a mixed bag of fascists and progressives, oil-pumpers and fuel-rationers; the best among them may play a supporting role (may I interest you in a French nuclear plant?) while the worst will probably receive the full support of America’s petro-nihilist cabal should the Republicans’ political fortunes flounder stateside.

I don’t know enough about India to judge its suitability for climate leadership, although the sharpness of its suffering from climate disasters (along with its regional neighbours) will likely make it an increasingly vocal advocate for action. I plead ignorance as to the prospect of global climate leadership emerging from Africa and South America in the short term. They have a huge constituency of climate victims, of course, and vast potential for innovation. But can they dictate global industrial practices in the next ten years? I would be happy to learn that they could.

The reason China sits alone on my list of potential climate leaders is that it possesses a unique combination of features: (1) overwhelming economic power, (2) effective central government, and (3) explicitly ideological leadership.

As to (1), China is a potential climate hero precisely because it is presently one of the worst climate villains; a greening of the Chinese economy would be far more impactful than a greening of, say, Belgium’s. Being the manufacturing centre for much of the world’s economy, it can dictate the minimum price of goods to include “green” costs. No longer just competing on low labour costs, China’s high-tech sectors can compete with the best in the world. (Knuckle-draggers who equate “Made in China” with “cheap and shoddy” would do well to note that the robots which China landed on Mars last year are still chugging along). As a manufacturing country that is a net energy importer and was not built by oil and coal barons (unlike the USA), China also has an economic interest in displacing fossil fuels with cheap, exportable renewable energy technology.

Don’t take (2) to be a euphemism for autocracy or democratic unaccountability. If China were merely a despotic state, that would not be an asset for effective ecological protection. The fact that China is able to act as a unified agent, marshalling the resources of the state and of civil society towards achieving official goals, sets it apart from both mere dictatorships and from (peacetime) pluralist democracies. It feels almost unfair to compare China to the United States in these respects, as the latter country seems unique among world powers in being set against itself by antagonistic divisions of constitutional power. Or it would seem unfair, if the USA’s continued claims to global leadership did not merit the most unsparing criticism. Seeing as the United States was singularly ineffective, even actively counter-productive, in its response to Covid, while China was singularly effective and remains the only major country committed to preventing mass infection, I consider the question of national competence settled. I concede that it is easy for me to appreciate the utility of Chinese authoritarianism for climate action from my free, comfortable Canadian existence. But this does not invalidate the point.

Like the preceding features, (3) is a double-edged sword. An explicitly ideological government that embraces an anti-ecological, accelerationist hyper-capitalist ideology would, of course, not be a boon to the planet. But accepting the necessity of fixing a goal for the future, and of pursuing it with great effort despite the inability to empirically prove the correctness of that path, is essential to governance. Ideology is, in large part, the codex of unprovable assumptions that a society must hold to imagine its future. Such provisional certainty is all the more essential to governing a global power like China, which, owing to its economic, demographic and military weight, has the ability to create and not merely navigate global conditions. Absent such consciously ideological thinking, leaders might think that they are not ideological at all, but follow common sense or “self-evident” truths, in which case they dumbly follow the eroded ideological foundations of their native culture. Or they might follow religious or similar “revealed truths” that, unlike ideologies understood as such, exist outside of history and admit of no genealogical critique or revision. Or they might just be agnostic or nihilistic democrats or populists, who consider their duty fulfilled by following their constituents’ aggregated notions and desires. (America’s Republican party seems to be a mix of all three, plus an ascending preponderance of outright criminals and hatemongers. Sadly, the fascists among them seem to be the only ones with an ideological consciousness).

I know that I may echo Westerners who defended Stalin, or Mao, and claimed that their crimes weren’t any worse than those of imperial capital, or if they were they were justified by the eventual triumph of international socialism. I expect that China will continue to do things that shock the conscience of the world, exterminating minority cultures and invading Taiwan soon enough. Situating oneself as a partisan of in the flow of history always carries the risk of siding with the villains (and, in many places, of getting oneself and one’s associates tortured to death). But if one takes as paramount the prevention of catastrophic climate change and ecological destruction, and one observes the utter failure of action on the part of the USA, Europe, and their econo-political client sphere, one is left with few options. One could abandon hope (this is the most realistic but least psychologically comfortable option), or expect the same powers to do the same things but with different results (this is the least realistic but most psychologically comfortable option), or one could pin one’s hopes on another power taking over where the incumbent ones have failed (this runs right down the middle).

I want the Western democracies of the world, with their unprecedented technological might, to leap to action on climate change. I want the peoples of Africa, South America and Asia to rise as a united global front to save the environment. I would be open to a visit from extra-terrestrials, seeking to impose some kind of benevolent planetary stewardship until this mess is sorted out. But I don’t really expect any of those things to happen in the next ten years. Do you? In the absence of any other believable option, I have to bet on China displacing the faltering leadership of American and European liberal capitalism, and exercising its power to bend the arc of climate change out of national self-interest. With its history of floods, droughts and famines (and resulting unrest), I expect China to take the domestic toll of climate change seriously, and to coerce other countries into following a climate action agenda. Maybe this manifestation of leadership will inspire other countries to act quickly, without needing to fall under a “Chinese model”.

Consider this support (if wishing and opining can be so called) a teleological suspension of the ethical. Or a subordination of some morals to others. Whatever the case, I am unwilling to cede the moral primacy of ecology, no matter the cost in human rights or freedoms. Being a member of the human species, and particularly of the civilization most responsible for destroying the natural world, monstrosity seems to be an inescapable feature of existence. I endorse the monster most likely to prevent ecological collapse, even if such odds are less than even, if only to have some foothold for hope. Give me a better option, and I will take it.