In China, Global Environmental Injustice Kills Millions.

The New York Times has published a ground-breaking piece on the environment in China, “As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes.” The key point to take away is one that I have tried to explain but have had trouble communicating. The ramifications of environmental decisions in China occupy a dramatically different political space than it does here. Environmental “issues” in China are core and personal, the daily difference between life and death for hundreds of millions, every day. In the West, we fundamentally misunderstand the role of pollution and the environment in China. We also don’t recognize the global injustice being conducted in the name of our prosperity in China.

China has become the environmental sacrifice zone for the global economy. We offshore jobs, factories, and pollution. The combination of an enormous workforce in poverty, a government willing to suppress dissent, and the availability of enormous natural resources has proved irresistible to globalized and highly mobile multi-national corporations. However, the combination of corrupt local officials, weak regulations, and the fast-tracking of industry has allowed every ‘low-road’ corporation that can save a buck in return for dumping toxic waste, venting poison into the air, or contaminating the bodies of its workers to find a home.

The environmental Kuznet’s curve is taught in basic environmental studies classes everywhere, showing how people try to argue that as a societies’ wealth rises, its environmental quality rises. Free-market economists like to state that this is due to the environment being valued more highly by a population that is wealthy enough to appreciate it. There is a valuable truth here, one exposed by Van Jones’s “The Unbearable Whiteness of Green“. However, one of the primary methods for achieving this “reduction” is simply offshoring the pollution to places without the same regulations. China is now paying the price for the prosperity of the industrialized world.

The “Industrialized World” has become shorthand for the rich countries, but it is increasingly a misnomer. Industry has often fled to China or India, while service companies, financial companies, and other jobs have stayed here. We have bureaucrats, bankers, or fry cooks…but less and less assembly line workers.

The environmental cost that China is paying is staggering in the human toll.

Public health is reeling. Pollution has made cancer China’s leading cause of death, the Ministry of Health says. Ambient air pollution alone is blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. Nearly 500 million people lack access to safe drinking water.

Chinese cities often seem wrapped in a toxic gray shroud. Only 1 percent of the country’s 560 million city dwellers breathe air considered safe by the European Union. (Source: NYtimes)

We talk of environmental justice here, which is a very real and serious issue resulting from a toxic brew of racism and pollution, but we don’t think of the Chinese people as being the most impacted from global environmental injustice.

Toxic air and water are killing an estimated 710,000 to 760,000 Chinese each year. Even in a country of more than 1.3 billion people, that is a shocking toll. (Source: Washington Post)

The numbers of people dying from pollution, in the Cancer villages, (Source: BBC) or from drinking the black rivers are staggering. Those not dying are suffering a hideous cost to their health, the health of their children, and their quality of life. Student activists across the United States have taken on the role of serving as the conscience of the nation in highlighting the horrible atrocities and genocide in Darfur. As they have said, indifference is not an option. Where is the divestment movement to protect those dying in China?

The answer is that China is far too important for the global economy, the functioning of the world, and is led by a government that seeks growth and sees any danger to that growth as a threat to their power. China has increasingly run into friction with the United States over Oil, investments in Sudan, and the enormous trade imbalance. There is no simple solution.

However, is China doing the right thing? Despite the horrible health and human cost, could lifting people out of poverty be a worthy enough goal that we can excuse it? I mean, every other industrialized country did the same thing, right? This sentiment is heard from people who otherwise fight injustice, poverty, or global warming. However, looking at this as an issue of justice between countries overlooks the issue of justice for the human beings caught in the gears.

Also, as a student of history, I can tell you that things have changed dramatically and we no longer have to make the same mistakes of the past to develop an economy. Our knowledge of science, technology, systems, and ecology has progressed enormously. We cannot let sustainable development become a buzz phrase that applies to well-meaning but unsuccessful projects. It has to become the reality of China and the rest of the developing world’s future.

China can leapfrog us, having an unprecedented opportunity to not sink their start-up capitol into polluting energy and industry that will eventually be discarded due to their enormous and uncounted environmental toll. What is the cost of China having 10% less sunlight due to the Asian Brown Cloud, the pollution visible from space? What will be the cost of saving Shanghai and Hong Kong from rising sea levels? What is the health cost of 555 million people choking on polluted air?

If the United States had the opportunity to install a distributed, efficient, and affordable renewable power system from the very beginning we would be fools to not take it. Well, the Chinese are not foolish. However, the role of local corruption, the suppression of political dissent, and millions of decisions to prioritize the most short-term personal gain over broader prosperity has led to the mess in China today. There are millionaires being made in China today, but much of that money is stained with blood, soot, and coal.

The possibility of widespread social change is a specter that always hangs over China. The history of China is one of people enduring conditions of exploitation and punctuated by periods of almost unconceivable upheaval. Many of these periods have led to even worse conditions, but never underestimate the potential for rapid change. The Chinese government knows this all too well and figuring they dodged the bullet at Tienanmen square, is watching closely. They banned anonymous commenting on the internet for the city of Xiamen due to their role in organizing political protest against an enormous chemical plant.

Protesters used their mobile phones to send text reports, as well as photos and videos, to bloggers and websites in other cities, which posted live reports of the march. The local government has suspended construction of the £700 million chemicals plant, pending an investigation into the potential environmental risk. (Source: Times Online)

In China, they know the power of New Media and the political fallout from the environmental injustice the Chinese people are facing from the global economy. Do we?

8 Responses to “In China, Global Environmental Injustice Kills Millions.”

  1. 1 Ryan Wishart Aug 26th, 2007 at 5:41 pm

    Richard is right, China’s economy must be understood in terms of its place in the capitalist world system. China’s mode of production is one of “state capitalism” whereby the government takes on roles usually reserved for corporations in conventional capitalist nations. The exploitation of workers and the earth is an inherent feature of capitalism’s insatiable need for growth and accumulation. A recent study by sociologists York, Rosa and Deitz using the ecological footprints of nations (thereby including, for example, the resources consumed and pollution generated by goods produced in China, BUT PAID FOR/CONSUMED IN THE US) empirically demonstrates the above criticisms of environmental “Kuznet’s curves”. Although such ideology that supports the status quo is understandably still popular and well funded in many academic and policy circles it is false and must be challenged constantly and loudly.

    Nor is there support for suggestions that China’s ecological sacrifices will lift its population out of poverty in the long term, just the opposite in fact China, Capitalist Accumulation, and Labor. With nearly 2/3 of China’s domestic investment dictated by export demands of transnational capital like Wal-Mart, the people of China are at a conflict of interest with the relatively few elites which are able to become managers and beneficiaries of this capital. These capitalist institutions are driven by competition to exploit the environment and labor force up until the point at which it impedes immediate profits, even consideration of long term profits must give way to short term market survival. This is why the “people’s republic” must employ constant suppression of grassroots democracy. It is also quite possible that ecological collapse will destroy any hope of a just and sustainable society. According to a deputy director of China’s State Environmental Administration “If we continue on this path of traditional industrial civilization, then there is no chance that we will have sustainable development…[b]ecause China’s populace, resources, environment has already reached the limits of its capacity to cope” (New York Times, May 24, 2004).

    In order for China, or any nation, to be able to invest their workers efforts and resources in a sustainable future the citizenship must work to progressively wrest control from institutions and individuals whose primary imperative is simple monetary accumulation. Only by democratizing economic decisions can we hope to help less “developed” nations achieve real “human development” that is ecologically sustainable. It is for this reason that China is a valued US trade partner yet countries which still have to potential to develop viable alternatives such as Cuba and Venezuela are enemies.

  2. 2 R Margolis Aug 26th, 2007 at 6:13 pm

    I would think that, with 1.5 billion people, China’s internal demands for goods and services will surpass their export market. It won’t be tomorrow, but it will come. And even if their refrigerators are clones of the Sunfrost and their cars are similar to the Prius (i.e., relatively sustainable technologies), their demand for energy and materials will increase.

    As for Cuba and Venezuela, I think that countries such as Sweden or Japan (both industrial countries that use energy more efficiently than the US) offer just as viable alternatives without the dictators. Hugo Chavez seems a little too eager to extend his Presidential term for altruistic motives. ;-)

  3. 3 Jamie Henn Aug 27th, 2007 at 2:50 pm

    The situation in China is also a stark reminder of how quickly we need to take action here in the United States. Time after time, the Chinese government has said that they won’t place any limits on their carbon emissions until the U.S. shows real leadership by reducing ours.

    As Richard and Ryan pointed out, there are important connections between China’s ecological stability and the continued viability of its political and economic system. Other articles I’ve read have reported on how resistance to environmental pollution is often organized democratically: citizens meet for discussion, decisions are made by the whole, leaders are elected, etc. Perhaps the government is right in recognizing that environmental protest is inherently protest against the established political system as well?

    Finally, the situation in China brings up an interesting dilemma, I think, when it comes to coal. Here in the U.S., IGCC and carbon sequestration technology is being used as a foil to spurn more coal development. I think activist groups are right to resist this and call for “no new coal” across the board. But these technologies seem essential for China’s development. Let’s face it – even if they started building alternative energy and conserving right now, it would be impossible to take all the coal fired power plants off-line within the next 10 years, maybe even more.

    Do we really have a chance at stopping global warming without actively retrofitting China’s coal plants or replacing them with a new generation of cleaner burning, if still polluting, incinerators? What role should the U.S. play in helping to finance to research and development into this technology? As the “leapfrog” metaphor for economy wide energy transitions falls apart, what sort of bridges are we building from the dirty energy economy to the clean energy future? Or can a direct and rapid transition to clean energy happen without massive societal unrest?

  4. 4 Ryan Wishart Aug 28th, 2007 at 8:17 pm

    Actually, part of the importance of the York et al. 2003 study was that when you account for total per capita ecological footprint Sweden and especially Japan are NOT viable alternatives or really in any significant way different. This is made explicit in their critique of ecological modernization, for instance, efficiency in resource use under capitalism often leads to a “Jevon’s paradox” whereby the increasing efficiency of a resource increases its per capital and actual real volume of consumption thereby negating sustainability.

    As for China’s domestic demand exceeding its export focus, that requires the assumption of rising disposable income for a significant part of the Chinese populace (and that this will occur before social/economic/ or environmental crises disrupt the process), assumptions the article linked above puts in serious doubt as does the recent book by the same authors.

    Regarding the dictatorial nature of Cuba and Venezuela, I can’t defend all the actions of the Cuba government or say I am totally comfortable with some of Chavez’s latest moves (although, if his term limits are eliminated it will be because the MAJORITY of citizens in the country voted for it by referendum). However, I see great potential in the radically democratic way in which Cuba has advanced their organic agricultural program so that is now the world leader( Healing the Rift: Metabolic Restoration in Cuban Agriculture ); and in the community councils being formed as the primary governing bodies (despite western media contentions)in Venezuela. Michael Lebowitz describes the process:
    “the communal councils (based upon 200–400 families in existing urban neighborhoods and 20–50 in the rural areas). These were established to diagnose democratically community needs and priorities. With the shift of substantial resources from municipal levels to the community level, the support of new communal banks for local projects, and a size which permits the general assembly rather than elected representatives to be the supreme decision-making body, the councils have been envisioned as a basis not only for the transformation of people in the course of changing circumstances but also for productive activity which really is based upon communal needs and communal purposes.

    With Chávez’s re-election in December 2006 on the explicit theme of building a new socialism, these new councils have been identified as the fundamental cell of Bolivarian socialism and the basis for a new state. “All power to the communal councils!” Chávez declared. …the consistent theme is the stress upon revolutionary practice in order to build socialism.* Citing Marx and Che Guevera, Chávez has insisted (Aló Presidente, no. 279, March 27, 2007) that it is only through practice that new socialist human beings produce themselves.”

    Although still evolving, I believe these forms of social organization have much to teach those of us in US seeking to rapidly create the breathtaking amount of political and economic change that will be necessary to stop climate change while building a just and sustainable world.

  5. 5 Elizabeth Sep 5th, 2007 at 12:16 am

    Not sure if you’re aware, but your site is blocked in China. I had to access it through this proxy:

    If you are interested in keeping tabs on whether or not you continue to be blocked, you might try this:

  1. 1 Kina: Millioner dør av forurensning « Plausible Fremtider Trackback on Aug 27th, 2007 at 3:15 pm
  2. 2 The New Development « It’s Getting Hot In Here Trackback on Aug 27th, 2007 at 3:23 pm
  3. 3 Chinese Pollution- China Fact « Understanding China, One Blog at a Time Trackback on Jun 22nd, 2010 at 7:13 pm
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About Richard

Richard, VP, Business Development for Ethical Electric is a veteran of online organizing and online media, clean energy entrepreneurship, and mission-related investing. The founder of Fired Up Media and Editor of It's Getting Hot in Here, he served as VP of Project Finance for Solar Mosaic, the Online Organizer for the Webby-nominated, 17 million person TckTckTck campaign and as an angel investor in and board member to startups, such as Skyline Innovations, Faraday Bicycles, and He graduated from the Center for Progressive Leadership's Executive Fellowship and the NextGen Fellowship in Mission Related Investing, as well as Macalester College, where he developed the first student-led Clean Energy Revolving Fund. He also has been known to collect and use cooking equipment from around the world and might just make you something, if you ask nicely.

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