4/13/2008

Is Our Fate Tied to China's Growth?

Is Our Fate Tied to China's Growth?


Water in five of China’s largest rivers is now so polluted it’s dangerous to touch, acid rain bathes 30 percent of land, half its forests have gone, and two-thirds of major cities fail air quality standards – with officials admitting that in some areas breathing is like smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.

But the picture wasn’t always this bleak. In The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, Thom Hartmann recalls his Beijing guide assuring him, 20 years ago, that officials were acutely aware of the precariousness of sustaining a quarter of the world’s population on just seven percent of its farmland.

“‘We have a destiny,’ he said, standing straighter . . . ‘China will not follow the mistake of the West. We have learned from our past. If the winter is coming and you have stored enough food to make it through . . . would you allow your children to eat it all in the first month? China will not make this mistake with oil.’”

A repressive political situation enables China to turn on a dime. In nations where drivers regard rising gas prices as an affront to their masculinity, it’s hard to imagine the nimbleness afforded by a government that can dictate how many children a man can father. But the results are profound and global: a pioneering green GDP, 4.8 million forest hectares replanted since 2004, a 58 percent increase in solar cells since 2003 and an interest in renewables that has cut global wind turbine prices by 20 percent.

But it’s a double-edged sword. Hydroelectric power created by the Three Gorges dam promises to generate the equivalent of 90 million annual barrels of oil. Too bad it will flood fertile agricultural lands, eliminate wildlife habitat of endangered species like the panda, and risk turning the Yangtze River into an open sewer the length of Lake Superior.

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AFP Photo / Liu Jin

It’s hard to imagine how to avoid this ecological destruction. Simple mathematics dictates that it was only a matter of time before China’s 1.3 billion residents overtook 296 million Americans as the most voracious consumers of four of the five basic commodities – grain, meat, coal and steel. And they are quickly catching up on oil. From 1990 to 2002 the number of cars quadrupled and could double seven more times by 2020. As the world’s most populous nation begins importing food, financiers speculate on grain as shortages threaten shockwaves across world markets and turn farmers into sheikhs.

Washington’s Earth Policy Institute predicts that by 2031 – when incomes match Americans – China’s tipping point is likely to become the world’s. Analyst Lester Brown believes that, unchecked, China will consume two-thirds of the world’s current grain supplies, 99 million daily barrels of oil – against a global supply of 84 million – and twice as much paper as the world currently makes. If they follow Americans and amass three cars for every four people, their fleet of 1.1 billion vehicles will dwarf the current global fleet of 800 million, and would require paving an area equivalent to all of China’s rice paddies to be driven.

But despite a climate notoriously repressive of non-government interference, over 2000 green NGOs have taken root, newspaper environmental coverage has risen five-fold since 1994, and protests have increased every year for a decade, to 74,000 in 2004. Last April, 60,000 Zhejiang residents torched cars, smashed windows and injured 30 officials during pollution protests. In July, 15,000 rioters raged against an aging Xinchang pharmaceutical plant.

Ironically, the democratic spark that such protests may ignite – like in post-Chernobyl Eastern Europe – would end China’s ability to turn on a dime, hastening the tipping point.

Which leaves us in the morally odious position of wishing a continued dictatorship on others to ensure our own survival. But how can we demonize a nation whose individual citizens consume ten times less than we do? If the path that China is taking the world makes us nervous, we might want to level the criticism closer to home – at the institutions that gave China the directions.

Maria Hampton

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