The Choking of China — and The World

In The Independent, Johann Hari writes about China’s “ecological disintegration”, heavily citing Jonathan Watts’ book, When A Billion Chinese Jump. Swiping at “gasbag” Thomas Friedman’s premature celebration of the country’s Green Revolution, he lauds the individuals and NGOs within China who are fighting to bring it about.

This is not an unambiguous story. This destruction is not being pursued out of wickedness: it is happening as a side-effect of a benevolent impulse. The Chinese people are determined to rise from poverty to prosperity. Forty years ago, China was starving. Today, it is in surplus. Some Chinese argue: if environmental damage is the price we pay for whiplash development, why not? You Europeans and Americans destroyed your environments, felled your forests, trashed your habitats all through your Industrial Revolution – and when you were rich enough, you cleaned it up. Yes there is a cost, but it is less than the cost of staying poor forever. How dare you lecture us, when most of our emissions are from factories you have outsourced to make goods and process waste for you, and when you refuse to even make tiny cuts in your emissions are home?

There’s some justice in these responses. Your contribution to global warming (and mine) vastly exceeds the average Chinese person’s. Every successful environmental treaty in history began with the biggest polluters cutting back first. Yet we are refusing to do it, and far from urging China to go green, our governments are doing the opposite. It wasn’t mentioned in the industrial quantities of journalistic hot air that accompanied Hu Jintao’s trip to Washington D.C., but the Obama administration is currently suing the Chinese government at the World Trade Organization to stop them from subsidizing wind farms, saying it represents ‘unfair competition.’ A seventy-a-day smoker riddled with lung cancer isn’t really in a position to lecture a younger man to stop smoking, especially if he’s trying to steal his nicotine patches.

But if this debate dissolves into a game of mutual finger-pointing – you’re the worst! No, you are! – then we will be trapped in a spiral of mutual environmental destruction. The argument that China will simply clean up the damage when they’re rich doesn’t work, alas, for two reasons. Firstly, 700,000 people are dying every year in China as a result of the extreme pollution, according to the World Bank. They can’t be compensated at some later date with a wind farm. Secondly, and even more crucially, the West “cleaned up” largely by exporting its pollution to poor countries like China. As Watts puts it: “This model relied on those at cleanup stage being able to sweep the accumulated dirt of development under a new and bigger rug. When this process reached China, it had already been expanding for two centuries. Now “the waste [is] getting too big and the rug too small.” Where is China going to export it to? For how long?