LONDON – Having reached pensionable age, I qualify to be a grumpy old man. I should be boring my children, and the students at Oxford University where I am Chancellor, with grumbles about how everything is going to the dogs. But that is not quite how I see things.
I went to university myself in 1962. My first term coincided with the Cuban missile crisis. The world seemed to be teetering on the brink of nuclear catastrophe.
Those were the days when global peace was sustained by a concept known suitably enough by the acronym MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction.
Was that world a worse and more dangerous one than today, where our main nuclear concerns are how to prevent proliferation and strengthen the treaty that has deterred it for the last generation?
At the end of my years at Oxford, I went as a student to the United States and visited Alabama. You may recall the story of Richard Nixon attending the independence celebrations in Ghana.
At a gala reception, he went up to one guest, mistaking him for a local, and asked what it felt like to be able to vote and enjoy freedom under the rule of law. “I wouldn’t know,” the man replied, “I’m from Alabama.”
Within my adult lifetime, we have moved from the murder of civil-rights campaigners in the US to the election of a black president. Nothing to be grumpy about there.
Elsewhere, some of our biggest problems have a sort of Hegelian quality. They are the result of solving past problems or of past success. Consider, for example, the biggest challenge facing us, which deserves to be called existential: global warming and climate change.
In the last century, the world got richer; its population quadrupled; the number of people living in cities grew thirteen-fold; and we consumed more of everything.
Water consumption rose nine-fold and energy use thirteen-fold. Industrial output soared to 40 times its level at the beginning of the twentieth century.
But – and here comes the real hit – carbon-dioxide emissions grew seventeen-fold. That is the biggest problem we face – the unforeseen result of increased economic activity and prosperity.
Looking at preparations for the Copenhagen summit in December, when we will try to broker a new global agreement to combat climate change, does not make me grumpy.
At last, the big players are taking the issues seriously. The US is no longer in denial on the question. President Barack Obama and his advisers do not deny the scientific evidence of what is happening to us all.
In China, political leaders seem genuine in their commitment to reduce the carbon content of their runaway economy.
The big problems, of course, are how we take account of past responsibility for the carbon in the atmosphere, how we balance aggregate national emissions and per capita figures – China leads in the first category; the US, Australia, and Canada are the biggest culprits in the second – and how we manage technology transfer from developed to emerging and poor economies.
There will be plenty to moan about if we don’t solve these problems sooner rather than later. This is where old men seem past their political expiration dates.
Let me explain. For all of our lives, my generation has defined success in terms of rising GDP growth: more money in more pockets, more resources for public programs, and more jobs.
None of these will necessarily be a measure of future success. We need to talk more about the quality of growth. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has raised this issue, and he is right to do so.
I am not arguing that growth is bad. Try telling that to the poor. But what we should want to promote is the right sort of growth – growth that won’t ravage our future prospects.
We have to define the sustainability of growth in ways that create an attractive narrative for our citizens. At the moment, people applaud sustainable growth, but they don’t vote for what it means in practice.
German voters balk at any suggestion that we should limit the environmental damage caused by big and expensive cars.
British voters line up behind the truck drivers when protests are launched against hikes in the price of petrol, not least through the introduction of higher energy taxes. Ideas for carbon taxes run into resistance everywhere.
I have five grandchildren below the age of four. By the time they qualify for pensions and the license to grumble, the century will be into its seventh or eighth decade. We hope! How much will they have to get angry about then because of the way that we are behaving today?
Chris Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong and a former EU Commissioner for External Affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford.