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.
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?