East and West at the crossroads

by
18 October 2019

Eurasians are mostly urbanised — but lack common purpose, says Stephen Green

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Rush hour at Shinjuku Station, Tokyo

Rush hour at Shinjuku Station, Tokyo

EURASIA is the largest, most crowded continent on the planet. We think of Europe and Asia as two separate continents, but there is no geographical reason for this.

Eurasia is where all the world’s main living cultures first emerged. It is increasingly connected, physically and virtually. All the world’s great powers of the 21st century are Eurasian, except one: the United States. And even the US is inextricably entangled there. What happens in Eurasia will affect the whole world.

I have had the privilege of living in different parts of Eurasia, and of travelling extensively over three decades throughout many of its countries.

I have seen families struggling to get their children educated for a better future in remote rural villages of Myanmar. When I asked one young girl, through an interpreter, what she wanted to do after the schooling that her parents were working to pay for, she shouted out — in English — “I want to be an engineer!”

At the same time, I have seen people living in Europe, Singapore, and Japan who have forgotten how hard it used to be, and who struggle with the crises of affluence; and I have seen enclaves of fabulous personal wealth — in India, Hong Kong, and the Gulf.

I have experienced extraordinary beauty in every culture of Eurasia — from soaring European cathedrals to ethereal Russian icons, from the exquisite geometry of Turkish mosques to the exuberant Hindu temples of South India, from Buddhist cave frescoes to Kyoto temples where time seems to stand still.

And I have been to places that are heavy with the evils of human history: I have seen the Yasukuni shrine, in Tokyo, where some of Japan’s convicted war dead are buried; I have made my pilgrimage to Auschwitz, a place that I am glad I have seen once — and never want to see again.

I have also sensed the gradual degradation of our environment over the same period. Where I grew up in Sussex, you could hear skylarks on the hills every summer; now, they are all gone. I have seen the dense haze in Singapore caused by the burning of tropical rainforests in Indonesia. I have seen the huge flares of burning gas lighting up the night sky above an Iraqi oilfield in the desert outside Basra.

 

WHAT a piece of work is Homo sapiens! Who has produced such an astonishing variety of the sublime and mundane, the precious and pointless, the hopeful and dreadful? I look at my grandchildren who, on present rates of life expectancy, should live to see the next century. What lies in store for them? This is not just an academic question: it involves those I love.

The answer depends on whether we have values in common. Most Eurasians now live in cities, and, by the end of this century, virtually all will do so. The common experience of connected urban life has not produced any emerging sense of common purpose, however, let alone of shared identity. On the contrary, many of the cultures of Eurasia — each with its own traditions, histories, memories, beliefs, and aspirations — are becoming more, not less, assertive as they jostle together.

Throughout much of Eurasia — perhaps with only the Europeans as exceptions — the consciousness of nationhood is as strong as ever. And digital connectivity, far from making old histories fade and old barriers crumble, seems to nourish these cultural identities as never before.

 

DOES this mean that there are no universal values which all should recognise? Viewed geopolitically, this turns into the question whether and how the world-views of China and the US, the two most important and influential powers on the Eurasian stage — the one fundamentally Confucian, the other essentially individualist — can be constructively synthesised.

At a deeper level, though, the great question is about whether and how the irreversible fact of urbanisation will nurture the growth of human individuality in every societyso that the wisdom of others transforms and enriches all these great Eurasian cultures.

Individuality is not the same as the individualism that makes the self the subject of every sentence; for we discover ourselves fully as individuals only as we discover the other. The more we learn about each other, the more we will discover the commonalities of human experience — and the more our own individuality will be fulfilled at its deepest level of being.

 

Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint is a former chairman of HSBC and an Anglican priest. He was Minister of State for Trade and Investment from 2011 to 2013. He is chairman of the Natural History Museum and Asia House.

The Human Odyssey: East, West, and the search for universal values by Stephen Green is published by SPCK at £19.99 (Church Times Bookshop £17.99).

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