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The Human Odyssey: East, West and the search for universal values, by Stephen Green

29 November 2019

Nick Spencer reviews an exercise in futurology

HISTORY stubbornly refused to end in 1991. It appeared to take things easy for a few years, as the world readjusted to the new liberal capitalist norm, but it then got going again, as terrorism, China, crash, recession, civil wars, neo-nationalism, and climate change asserted themselves. Today, it’s rarely felt busier.

Stephen Green is, among other things, a former group chairman of HSBC Holdings and an Anglican priest — a combination that lends him considerable personal experience of the meeting and melting of Eastern and Western cultures, and of the more spiritual dimensions of human life.

Both are on display in this intelligent and wide-ranging exploration of how history will (or could) now play out on the Eurasian stage. That stage is central to the play. Green’s fundamental contention is that the 21st century’s most important plot line will be Eurasian, not simply on account of the continent’s size, population, or economic output, but because Eurasia is the place where the world’s two most significant value systems — Confucian and Individualistic — will meet and compete.

This, it should be emphasised, is not simply Samuel Huntington’s famous “Clash of Civilizations” revisited. Indeed, much of the second half of The Human Odyssey is dedicated to tracing the “commonalities of human experience” — our shared material and spiritual needs and desires — and exploring how they can be fostered across Eurasia.

His conclusions are sensible and will appeal to many, but there remains a nagging problem with the book. Green’s two themes — Eurasia on the one hand, and the collision of world-views on the other — do not quite map on to each other, a fact indicated by the author’s frequent mention of the United States. Thus, two-thirds through, we read how “the biggest geopolitical question facing the world over the next century will be posed by the relationship between China and America in Eurasia.” This feels a bit like having your cake and eating it. Is the conflict geographically Eurasian, or is it ideologically Chimerican?

Green is right to link the long-term political weather forecast to the deep-sea currents of civilisational values, and he is also right to insist that the result will play out not in some abstract realm of ideas, but in specific places, many of which will be in Eurasia. But I doubt whether the two will coincide that precisely. History has a habit of refusing to do what we expect.

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos.

The Human Odyssey: East, West and the search for universal values
Stephen Green
SPCK £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.99

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