Chairman Mao, the Chinese leader between the 1940s and the end of the 1970s, had several big ideas over the course of his life. Taking his country along the road to communism along the lines of the Soviet model was prominent among them. Unfortunately, Chinese society, mostly rural, was very different to Russian society, which was much more urban and comparatively educated. The idea of the industrial working class leading the way towards red nirvana, as theory predicted, was effectively precluded by the fact that there was no industrial working class to speak of.
Mao therefore devoted much thought to how he could get Chinese agricultural output to increase to the level at which it could pay for a major programme of industrialisation. The peasants were hardly helping: Mao thought they were much too interested in improving things for themselves than in achieving communism, and he long suspected that they were holding back production for themselves rather than handing it over to the state.
Eventually, the great dictator came up with another big idea, one that he thought would allow him to cut through all of these problems at once. The Great Leap Forward was a programme of rapid industrialisation, with a complete transformation of the country in an astonishingly short space of time: “We must start a technological revolution”, said Mao, “so that we may overtake Britain in fifteen or more years”.
It was as good an example of megalomania as you could wish for. Mao ordered iron smelters to be built in the countryside, so that the seeds of China’s industrialisation would be planted. The new factories would be manned by the menfolk, while the women tended the fields. There would be enforced collectivisation of both industry and agriculture, with inspirational leaders driving everyone on towards a glorious red future.
Early reports of the results were highly encouraging. Extraordinary production figures poured in from all over the country. It was said that agricultural output had risen to such a level that overpopulation was no longer a concern.
The reality was very different. Nobody dared resist the government machine or tell the truth – that the figures had been systematically inflated – for fear of being denounced as a defeatist. Competent officials had all been removed and replaced with ideologues – those who adhered to the communist faith. The output of the new factories turned out to be mostly unusable. But more importantly, Chinese food production crashed, a result of collectivisation, central planning, loss of manpower to the new factories, and experimentation with the then vogueish, but now entirely discredited, scientific theories of Trofim Lysenko. Starvation ensued. As many as 58 million people may have died, a figure that is similar to the number killed in the Second World War.
Extreme caution is necessary when politicians have big ideas.
Which is why you should be worried about the current goings on in Westminster. The green blob, including much of the government, is currently working on a plan that is, if anything, even more ambitious than Mao’s brainstorm. This “Great Green Leap Forward” claims to be about delivering nothing less than the total decarbonisation of the British economy. Like Mao’s escapade, the transformation is intended to be complete in just a few decades, but is intended to transform British life far more thoroughly. The expectation is that we will change everything, from the way we heat and light our homes, to the way we eat, to how we spend our leisure time. It is the command economy and the command society rolled into one. Mao never dreamed of a revolution so complete.
The plan, such as it is, is set out in a lengthy report by the Committee on Climate Change. It was published last week. It is fair to say that it seems to have been prepared with the same attention to detail with which Mao planned his transformation of the Chinese countryside. So, while there are graphs, and a lot of words, it is extraordinary how little substance there is. Buzzwords and references to funky new technologies abound; lots of things are “possible”, lots of things are said to be getting cheaper, but almost nowhere is there any sign that anyone has looked at the practicalities or, more worryingly, pinned down a meaningful estimate of what it will all cost or the benefits it will bring. You will look in vain for a detailed plan, or a cost-benefit analysis to support it.
In essence, it’s a series of fairy stories. We’re going to capture carbon dioxide from the air, or from power station flues. We’re all going to rip our houses apart to install insulation, and we’ll buy blinds and shades to deal with the resultant overheating in summer. We’ll buy heat pumps and drive electric cars, powered by hundreds of thousands of square miles of offshore windfarms. The economy will switch to hydrogen, and to hell with the costs or the side effects. In reality, this is a sales brochure for a transformation to a command economy.
And of course, like Mao, the CCC knows that this is not going to happen on its own: compulsion will be required to deliver the goods. “Policies are needed for households deemed able-to-pay”, says one of the CCC’s subsidiary papers of the problem of how to pay for insulating the UK’s housing stock. “Constraints on demand growth” are one of the proposals to address aviation emissions. There goes the second holiday, although no doubt exceptions will be made for Very Important People.
The fact that many of the ideas in the Great Green Leap Forward have been tried before, with consequences ranging from embarrassing to downright disastrous, seems not to worry the CCC one jot. Take for example, cavity wall insulation, which was installed in six million homes over the last two decades. It is estimated that between 1 and 1.5 million of these procedures may have been botched, often leading to serious damp problems, sometimes catastrophic. Nevertheless, the CCC has glibly announced that another six million homes are going to be given the treatment. The last time we tried biofuels on a large scale, the result was described by the UN as “a crime against humanity”, as people across the developing world went hungry. Still, bioenergy seems central to Great Green Leap Forward, with BECCS (bioenergy with carbon capture and storage) mentioned 67 times, compared to 13 mentions for nuclear energy.
And all this to reduce global temperatures by a few hundredths of a degree. The CCC tries to sell the idea of the UK as a global leader, showing the benighted foreigners how things should be done. Once they have seen our example, it is suggested, the rest of the world will follow our lead and spend hundreds of billions on technologies that don’t deliver what people want or need. In reality, of course, countries like China and India, where people die prematurely through lack of access to reliable energy, are not going to hold back on developing their fossil fuel assets. And it would be immoral of them to do so.
And there are signs that the CCC knows that they are on a fool’s errand. “If the rest of the world were not to increase effort materially”, they say, “technology progress could be much slower and costs correspondingly higher”. Like anyone who thinks about the situation in the developing world for a minute, they too must know that China and India have different priorities. So, in reality, we are embarking on an attempted revolution that will bring misery to millions, and is likely to destroy the economic prospects for our children, without bringing any tangible benefits at all. The rest of the world is simply going to carry on regardless.
It took years of misery before the Chinese government machine was ready to accept that Mao’s Great Leap Forward had been a huge mistake; the Communist faith and the belief in the command economy was strong among the elite. How long will it be, how much pain and misery are going to have to be endured, before those lessons are learned once again in Whitehall and Westminster?
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