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The Rich, the Poor and the Hungry

15 August 2012

The Rich, the Poor and the Hungry

By Gwynne Dyer

Two months ago, the United States Department of Agriculture forecast the biggest maize (corn) harvest in history: 376 million tonnes. After two months of record heat and drought in the US Midwest, it has dropped its forecast to 274 million tonnes. So by early July it was predicting that the price per bushel of maize would exceed $8 for the first time in history, and it’s now forecasting $8.90.

The heat wave in Russia, while nowhere near as bad as the one in 2010, is also cutting deeply into Russian wheat production. There will still be enough for domestic consumption, but Andrei Sisov of the Moscow-based farming consultancy SovEcon said last week that he expected Russian wheat exports to drop from 28 million tonnes to only 13 million. For this and other weather-related reasons, wheat prices are on their way up too.

High wheat prices hit human consumers directly, but high maize prices hit even harder in the long run because huge amounts of maize are used to feed animals and provide oil for processed foods. World food prices in general are on the way back up, and it’s beginning to look like a pattern, not a series of accidents.

The last big price spike, in 2007-09, had a huge impact in developing countries, where many people spend around 40 percent of their income on food (compared with only about 10 percent in developed countries). If you’re already spending almost half your income on food and the price soars, you just have to give your children less food – which is why some people see the revolutions of the “Arab Spring” as delayed reactions to the last spike.

Meanwhile, on a different planet entirely, the McKinsey Global Institute, the business and research arm of management consultancy McKinsey & Company, published another report in June. It’s the latest in an endless series of ever-bolder estimates by various “global institutes” of how fast the demand for goods and services is growing around the world.

The themes of McKinsey’s new report, “Urban World: Cities and the Rise of the Consuming Class”, are familiar enough. The world’s economic centre of gravity is moving to Asia; huge numbers of new “consumers” – people with average annual incomes over $3,600 who buy more than just food and basic shelter – will be joining the global market by 2025; there are wonderful opportunities out there for clever investors.

The only new wrinkle in this document is the bit about how 65 percent of “global growth” to 2025 will happen in the “City 600″, as they call it: the world’s 600 biggest cities. And what McKinsey calls “the Emerging 440 cities” – those among the 600 that are in the rapidly developing countries – will account for almost half of the total growth in world demand to 2025.

Then come the numbers. As the emerging economies grow, they’ll all start buying fridges and baby food and, eventually, cars. Whoopee! We’ll all get rich selling things to the Chinese!

But nowhere in the report does McKinsey deal seriously with the impact of a predicted total of 2.6 billion consumers, up from only 0.8 billion now, on world demand for food. Yet meat consumption soars as incomes rise. Feeding animals to produce meat puts huge pressure on grain resources, so all food prices rise, for rich and poor alike.

Combine the rise in meat consumption with an extra billion people and severe constraints of food production, most of them related to climate change, and world food prices in 2025 could be two to three times higher in real terms than they are now. That means that the poorest starve, and that a lot of McKinsey’s promised new “consumers” – those who can spend on other things than sheer survival – don’t make it into the middle class after all.

The same rationing by price is likely to apply to everything else that matters. Indeed, the prices of energy and raw materials, which fell consistently through most of the 20th century, are already back up to where they were in real terms a century ago. There are not going to be 1.8 billion new consumers in thirteen years’ time, and the poor will be more desperate than ever, and political stability in many developing countries will be just a memory.

The demands of consumers, like the sheer number of human beings, can in theory expand indefinitely, but on a finite planet with dwindling resources and a changing climate the cost of meeting consumer demand is going to go up very steeply. It is probably going to get very ugly out there.

And as for China, the poster child for miraculously fast economic growth – well, China has one-seventh as much water and one-tenth as much arable land per capita as North America. When things get tough, that is going to matter a lot.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. “The last…spike”; and “The only…2025″

 

 

The New Latin

20 May 2012

The Triumph of English

By Gwynne Dyer

The second president of the United States, John Adams, predicted in 1780 that “English will be the most respectable language in the world and the most universally read and spoken in the next century, if not before the end of this one.” It is destined “in the next and succeeding centuries to be more generally the language of the world than Latin was in the last or French is in the present age.”

It was a bold prediction, for at that time there were only about 13 million English-speakers in the world, almost all of them living in Britain or on the eastern seaboard of North America. They were barely one percent of the world’s population, and almost nobody except the Welsh and the Irish bothered to learn English as a second language. So how is Adams’s prediction doing now?

Well, it took a little longer than he thought, but last week one of the most respected universities in Italy, the Politecnico di Milano, announced that from 2014 all of its courses would be taught in English.

There was a predictable wave of outrage all across the country, but the university’s rector, Giovanni Azzoni, simply replied: “We strongly believe our classes should be international classes, and the only way to have international classes is to use the English language. Universities are in a more competitive world. If you want to stay with the other global universities, you have no other choice.”

The university is not doing this to attract foreign students. It is doing it mainly for its own students who speak Italian as a first language, but must make their living in a global economy where the players come from everywhere – and they all speak English as a lingua franca.

Many other European universities, especially in Germany, the Low Countries and Scandinavia, have taken the same decision, and the phenomenon is now spreading to Asia. There is a huge shift underway, and it has become extremely rare to meet a scientific researcher or international businessperson who cannot speak fluent English. How else would Peruvians communicate with Chinese?

But wait a minute. Peruvians speak Spanish, the world’s second-biggest language, and Chinese has the largest number of native speakers of any language. Why don’t they just learn each other’s languages?

Because neither language is much use for talking to anybody else. Chinese won’t get you very far in Europe, Africa or the Americas – or, indeed, in most of Asia. The same goes for Spanish almost anywhere outside Latin America. Since few people have the time to learn more than one or two foreign languages, we need a single lingua franca that everybody can use with everybody else.

The choice has fallen on English not because it is more beautiful or more expressive, but just because it is already more widespread than any of the other potential candidates.

Mandarin Chinese has been the biggest language by number of speakers for at least the last thousand years, and is now used by close to a billion people, but it has never spread beyond China in any significant way. Spanish, like English, has grown explosively in the past two centuries: each now has over 400 million speakers. But Spanish remains essentially confined to Central and South America and Spain, while English is everywhere.

There is a major power that uses English in every continent except South America: the US in North America, the United Kingdom in Europe, South Africa in Africa, India in Asia, and of course Australia (where the entire continent speaks it). All of that is due to the British empire, which once ruled one-quarter of the world’s people. For the same reason, there are several dozen other countries where English is an official language.

Of course, the British empire went into a steep decline almost a century ago, but the superpower that took Britain’s place was the United States, another English-speaking country. After another century during which everybody dealing in international business and diplomacy – indeed, any independent traveler who went very far from home – simply had to learn English, the die was cast. English had become the first worldwide lingua franca.

There have been few languages in world history that were spoken by more people as a second language than as a first; English has had that distinction for several decades already. Never before has any language had more people learning it in a given year than it has native speakers; English has probably now broken that record as well.

Most of those learners will never become fully fluent in English, but over the years some hundreds of millions will, including the entire global elite. And the amount of effort that is being invested in learning English is so great that it virtually guarantees that this reality will persist for generations to come.

No other language is threatened by this predominance of English. Italians are not going to stop speaking Italian to one another, even if they have attended the Politecnico di Milano, and no force on Earth could stop the Chinese or the Arabs from speaking their own language among themselves. But they will all speak English to foreigners.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 14 (“Mandarin…everywhere”; and “Most of…to come”)

 

Power Shift to Asia: No Need To Panic

19 February 2012

Power Shift to Asia: No Need To Panic

By Gwynne Dyer

On February 15th, just as Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping arrived in the United States for a four-day visit, US President Barack Obama told an audience of American workers in Milwaukee: “Manufacturing is coming back!” Coming back from China, that is. But while the Master Lock Company of Milwaukee has indeed moved some jobs back to the United States, everybody knows that the flow will really continue to be in the other direction.

It doesn’t matter whether China’s economy finally overtakes America’s in 2020, or 2025, or 2030. A great shift of productivity and wealth is underway, and economic power generally translates pretty directly into military power. So will the United States and China be able to manage the shift without a great war?

At the end of Vice-President Xi’s US visit on 18 February, the future Chinese leader assured delegates at a trade conference in Los Angeles: “A prosperous and stable China will not be a threat to any country. It will only be a positive force for world peace and development.” Perhaps, but everybody else is very nervous about it.

The transition from one dominant world economic power to another is always tricky, and the historical precedents are not encouraging. Spain was the 16th-century superpower, and the shift to French domination, though never complete, entailed several generations of war. Then Britain displaced France, amidst several more generations of war.

When Germany challenged British supremacy and Japan began building its empire in the Pacific and East Asia in the early 20th century, the transition involved two world wars – and resulted in the de facto division of the world between two non-European superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. The omens are not promising, to say the least.

Both the US and the Chinese armed forces use these precedents to argue for greater military spending. The Chinese generals mostly do it privately, within the confines of Communist Party hierarchy. American military leaders do it more publicly, by coming up with risk assessments designed to frighten the public into keeping defence spending up, but they both groups play the same game.

They can’t help it. Their military training and their whole world-view condition them to expect conflict, and their corporate interest in a higher defence budget leads them to define almost any change as a threat. It sometimes feels like we are doomed to repeat the past endlessly.

But the past is a complicated place, and there is a systematic distortion of history that emphasises violent transitions at the expense of peaceful ones. In fact, at least one major power shift in the past century was entirely peaceful.

The US economy overtook Britain’s late in the 19th century, and it was not inevitable that the change in the pecking order would be peaceful. The time when the two countries would be close allies was still far in the future, and throughout the 19th century Americans continued to see Britain, their old colonial master, as their most dangerous enemy. The two countries fought their last war in 1812-1814, but Britain kept a garrison in Canada until 1870.

London then withdrew the garrison, but not because it trusted the United States. It just calculated that the United States was now so strong that Britain could never win a land war against it in North America. It also concluded that a large Royal Navy presence in American waters was likely to drive the United States into a naval arms race that Britain would lose, and so began thinning out the number of warships that it kept in the western Atlantic.

It was the right strategy. The United States never invaded Canada again, and although it meddled a great deal in the affairs of various Caribbean and Central American countries, that did not threaten any British vital interest. The thorny crown of being the world’s greatest power passed from Britain to the United States without a war, and within one more generation the two countries were actually allies.

So now it’s America’s turn to figure out what to do about an emerging great-power rival on the far side of a great ocean, and one option would be to copy Britain’s example. Don’t provoke the Chinese by hemming their country in with air bases, carrier fleets and military alliances, and they’ll probably behave well. If they don’t, then the other Asian great powers, Japan, India and Russia, are quite capable of protecting their own interests.

The United States has no truly vital interests on the Asian mainland, or at least none that it could protect by fighting China. It was entirely safe from foreign attack before it became the world’s greatest power, and it will still be militarily invulnerable long after it loses that distinction.

Britain is a lot more prosperous than it was when it ran the world, and its people are probably happier too. Decline (especially decline that is only relative) is not nearly as bad a fate as Americans imagine.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit, paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Both…endlessly”)

Burma: Can you trust the army?

22 November 2011

Burma: Can you trust the army?

By Gwynne Dyer

Burma is the second poorest country in Asia (after North Korea), although fifty years ago it was the second richest. It is the second most repressive dictatorship in Asia, outdone again only by North Korea. It is third from the bottom on Transparency International’s list of the world’s most corrupt countries. And the credit for all these distinctions goes to the Burmese army, which has ruled the country with an iron hand for the past half-century.

So what should pro-democracy leaders in Burma do when the army shows signs of wanting to make a deal and withdraw from direct control over the country. Do you hold out for more, or do you co-operate with the generals in the hope that they can be persuaded to go further later on?

That’s the dilemma that faced Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning leader of the National League for Democracy, when the military staged the first elections Burma had seen for twenty years last November. Back then, she decided to boycott the elections, but last week she actually took the leap of faith and registered the NLD as a legal political party.

She had good reason to be wary last year, because 23 generals resigned and founded the Union Solidarity and Development Party just before the elections. They wouldn’t have done that unless the new party was going to “win,” and in the end it got a highly implausible 80% of the votes. But then Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest a few days after the election, and the regime began to offer further concessions.

Thein Sein, the former general who became the president of Burma last March, put out feelers to see if the NLD leader could be coaxed into participating in the new political arrangements. He wanted her help in giving his government more legitimacy, and she realised that she could probably win some major concessions in return.

She saw Thein Sein in private in August, and it’s likely that they made the deal there and then. Six weeks later a Human Rights Commission was created, and the media suddenly became much freer. In mid-October 200 political prisoners were freed (although 500 more remain in jail for the time being).

These changes were probably part of the price that the regime had agreed to pay for Aung San Suu Kyi’s agreement to participate in a political system still dominated by the army.

Later in October it paid another instalment, passing a law that legalised trade unions. And then it was time for Suu Kyi to fulfill her side of the bargain.

She did it last week, declaring that she would register the National League for Democracy as a political party under the new constitution. There is even talk of her running for parliament herself in the December by-elections.

There is nothing illegitimate about making deals in politics. The question is whether this deal is wise — or is Aung San Suu Kyi just being taken for a ride?

Aung San Suu Kyi has probably been told a great deal more in private about the army’s ultimate intentions, but even if they have promised to give up power eventually, she cannot know if they will keep their promises. Probably the generals themselves don’t know yet.

But she has decided to take the risk, and her supporters just have to trust her judgment.