Wednesday, October 13, 2010

New Book Addresses Fundamental Challenges China Faces in Terms of Environment and Natural Resources: Good News & Bad News

A recently published book about China, When A Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind -- or Destroy It, provides for some sobering reading about the impact of China's rapid and continuous market growth over the last several decades.

There is no question that the Chinese have followed a similar growth pattern as western countries have with the consequent environmental impacts. But the larger question is exactly where China goes from here. And does the West have much of a leg to stand on when it comes to criticizing China's industrial performance in relation to environmental degradation bearing in mind their own growth histories.

Consideration of these questions, and many others, provides the basis for a fascinating -- perhaps sometimes even frightening -- view of what the world may look like in future years as China moves steadily on in an economic sense.

Written by Jonathan Watts, who covers east Asia for the London Guardian newspaper, the book seems destined to be one of the pillars of work for those trying to understand where China is and where it is going.

A recent review of the book in the Financial Times ("Nature Will Constrain China's Growth," Oct. 4, 2010) makes this observation:
"Watts' assertion is that China cannot follow the path of other industrializing nations, which polluted first and cleaned up later. 'This model relied on those at the clean-up stage being able to sweep the accumulated dirt of development under a new and bigger rug,' he writes, arguing that there is no rug big enough to accommodate China's future appetites."
Another review in the London Guardian ("When a Billion Chinese Jump by Jonathan Watts," July 17, 2010) suggests:
"We are barely three decades in to China's industrial and consumption revolution. There are still hundreds of millions of poor Chinese who wish to prosper and consume in a country that wastes so much energy that its average per capita carbon emissions already equal those of France. The most worrying thing about the Chinese industrial revolution is not even the appalling damage that Watts meticulously chronicles, but the capacity for more that is still in the system."
Added to all of this is the observation, made just last week at a University of Denver lecture by Professor David Shambaugh who is himself a China expert, that dealing with environmental issues is one of the great political and social challenges ahead for China.

There are no easy answers to all of this. On the one hand, China desires what other sovereign nation states want -- a growing and vibrant economy, unrestrained to any significant degree by the policies of other nation states. The West certainly would not have paid a wit of attention to the Chinese during their industrialized revolution. But on the other hand we now clearly understand that the consequences of slap-dash economic growth can now reverberate across the globe and do so without regard to whether a country or society has enjoyed the benefits of that economic development.

It is no longer enough to now what is going on in one's own backyard or even neighborhood. Key challenges, and opportunities, now lie thousands of miles or kilometers away. Put simply, what happens in Beijing no longer stays in Beijing (to borrow from the saying "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.) This fascinating, albeit troubling book confirms that and is worthy of the attention of all of us.

--Don C. Smith

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