If you like setting fiction in the near future you try very hard to imagine what it will be like - but you have no idea how accurate your dystopia may be. No one predicts a utopia any more.
I’ve recently returned from China. Don’t get me wrong – I liked the place a lot, and I have developed a considerable respect for the Chinese. There’s so much they’ve got right – and so much they’ve got wrong, too.
I was surprised to learn that the population of China was already 400,000,000 in 1904. It’s nearly 1,400,000,000 today. If you’re familiar with the work of Malthus you’ll know that an unchecked population increases exponentially, whilst food production increases arithmetically. It ought to be quite clear to everyone that something has to be done before we breed our way into oblivion, but the Chinese seem to be the only people who have tried to address this issue, and they’ve been vilified for it. Their one-child policy has had its drawbacks, in that an imbalance has been created with too many elderly people, and the recent announcement that this is to be changed to a two-child policy has had an interesting reception, worldwide. Overpopulation is a problem that has no easy answer. Do we really want a world where every inch is given over to food production for human beings, and wilderness is an archaism? China is the only distant country I’ve ever visited with no badly-behaved children, no temper tantrums in the street, no snotty bare-footed baby beggars. The kids are, in the main, well-dressed, well-housed, well-educated and well-loved. The Chinese have tried, with tower block after tower block, to give each person a roof over their head and enough to eat.
The building projects they have tackled in this enterprise are immense. Because the tower blocks are crammed together no one has a garden. Instead, they have a number of People’s Parks, with trees and grassy areas and playgrounds for children. There are spaces for adult handball, badminton, table-tennis – as well as the regular sessions of tai chi. Seventy-year-olds do the splits with ease; they’re supple and fit and clearly enjoy the socialisation each morning brings. There’s no sense of the isolation of the elderly that we have in our big cities.
The biggest dam in the world spans the Yangtze River at a renowned beauty spot, the Three Gorges. This dam has saved millions of lives from the impact of seasonal flooding, but its impact on the eco-system has been profound. What was once a fast-flowing river has been stilled into a vast reservoir providing drinking water, whilst the dam generates hydro-electric power. And the wildlife has died from the bottom up. Virtually no birds, no fish, no dragonflies; instead, sheets of poisonously bright green algae. A stunning landscape of Devonian simplicity, devoid of everything except vegetation.
So much to admire. And so much that is hidden, too. You only see what you’re meant to see. But when our reporting of population issues is so biased (heaven forbid that any country lose its trading opportunities by praising a policy that leads to a declining customer base) it’s hard to know what’s true and what isn’t. I try to go on the evidence of my senses – the slash and burn devastation behind the fringes of trees on the main roads in Borneo, the bush meat for sale by the side of the road in the Ivory Coast – but China is a hard nut to crack. The Great Chinese Firewall that filters the internet keeps out negative reporting of internal matters, but it keeps out the violence and the pornography as well. Young people haven’t heard of Viagra, have no idea what it is. Don’t get their inboxes full of explicit sex and advertisements that promise the impossible as well as the downright distasteful and horrific.
It’s a strange country. Its cities feel safe. There’s an emphasis on harmony and much that is beautiful, both ancient and modern. It’s clean. The streets are rubbish-free and washed each night, the public toilets are clean, there’s no graffiti. But my abiding memories are of a generation of men hawking and spitting because they smoke so much (considerable tax revenue), miles and miles of geometric concrete and glass and steel, wreathed in smog, and people. Millions and millions and millions of people, wearing pollution masks. Relics of the past, such as cormorant fishing, turned into tourist attractions. Unless we obliterate ourselves some other way, this is the future for our descendants.