At the three previous Open Minds Forums, the word "China" was almost as common as "education" or "technology". Except that, in Zurich, London and New York many participants and firestarters cited education and technology as solutions that had the potential to bring us the world we wanted in 2050. China was more often cited as a source of problems -- not a deliberate source but rather, thanks to the sheer size of a country with 1.3 billion people, and an economy likely soon to become the world's largest, a country whose development seemed bound to make even harder the tasks of ensuring energy sustainability, of partnering for food security, of coping with climate change and natural disasters. And since, as Professor Cai Fang of the Institute of Population and Labour Economics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences confirmed in the Beijing panel, it looks destined to get old before it gets rich, it would face some of the world's biggest challenges in financing longer lives.
So, flying in to Beijing and thinking about the panel discussion and reaction to it of Swiss Re's invited stakeholders, I confess I expected the discussion to be a bit more pessimistic than the previous three. Or, to put it another way, in a city where famously the smog is often so thick that you cannot see across the road, I wondered whether our experts might in effect say that we were discussing the wrong things, that the sense of priorities in a middle-income emerging economy have to be different.
Wrong, on all counts. As luck would have it, I was even wrong to expect the smog to be bad: the sun shone and the skies were blue, though all my friends' smartphone apps showing the air pollution ratings still told them that the PM 2.5 count was well above WHO guidelines. But wrong in particular about whether the discussion would have a more pessimistic flavour, or focus on other priorities. Actually it was quite optimistic. And, perhaps above all because of the air pollution problem, it was very pragmatic and action-oriented about all the topics of the Open Minds Forum. When experts' estimates of the number of premature deaths annually caused by air pollution in China range between 500,000 and 1 million, it becomes abundantly clear that treating pollution as a lower priority than economic growth is no longer an option. It has to be dealt with, or growth itself, along with popular support for the government, could disappear.
So big ideas were promoted, amid a clear acknowledgement of the problems but also a feeling of confidence that they could be solved. The focus was on China, but there was a clear sense of the inter-connections between the issues faced in China and those of the rest of the world, especially in climate and food. Dr Liu Jian, director of the Ecosystem Management Partnership in Beijing, part of the United Nations Environment Programme, laid down a challenge to the insurance industry: we will need, he said, to find insurance methodologies for more and more of the planet's ecosystem -- "insurance for the Earth", as he summarised it. Dr Lin Jiang, senior vice president of the Energy Foundation, a San Francisco-based non-profit, emphasised the need not just to clean up air and water pollution in China by switching to cleaner sources of energy and much greater energy efficiency, but also the need to make cities themselves much more liveable in. After all, China is urbanising rapidly, as are other parts of the developing world. With a 36-year time horizon for 2050, there was time to plan solutions that stood a chance of making cities much better places to live in.
Professor Cai Fang agreed with a proposition that had come up in New York: that although China's demographic challenge was going to be very large, it in one sense had an advantage, in that it does not have an entrenched legacy of social security arrangements that need to be reformed. It can start with a cleaner sheet than most. Yet like the medical systems in other countries it would need quickly to learn how to focus the attention of doctors and medical schools to the ailments of older people rather than, as now, principally the young. Dr Fan Shenggen, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute, a non-profit based in Washington, DC, underlined two great issues that lie at opposite ends of the spectrum of policy on food security. On the one hand, China needs to move quickly to counter an emerging phenomenon of obesity. On the other hand, in food policy globally, too few people realise how big and readily available are the returns from spending money to reduce malnutrition. Rather than spending money on grand schemes, spending on malnutrition offered a 30-to-1 economic return he said.
It reminded me, as moderator, of one of the recurring lessons of these inspiring discussions in Zurich, London, New York and Beijing: that we, and even experts, devote too little attention to the connections between policy areas, to the trade-offs, to the often unintended consequences of what we do. We need to think and act more holistically. And, as the Open Minds Forum in one of the world's great new emerging economies showed, we need to keep on thinking and discussing and acting, for the issues are constant and they are constantly evolving. Every time I come to China I realise that I need to relearn almost everything I have previously learned, for a country whose economy has been doubling in size every 7-10 years is bound to be changing faster than our understanding of it. It is the same with the topics discussed and explored in the whole Open Minds Forum: they are going to keep on changing, before our very eyes. The discussion, and the thinking, must go on. To borrow a term from Marxism, and notably from Leon Trotsky, what is needed is Permanent Revolution. And we must all be part of it.
Category: Funding longer lives, Food security, Climate/natural disasters, Sustainable energy, Other
Location: Beijing, China