Can the world survive China’s headlong rush to emulate the American way of life?

In a mere two and a half decades, China has awakened from Maoist stagnancy to become the world’s manufacturer. Among the planet’s 193 nations, it is now first in production of coal, steel, cement, and 10 kinds of metal; it produces half the world’s cameras and nearly a third of its TVs, and by 2015 may produce the most cars. It boasts factories that can accommodate 200,000
workers, and towns that make 60 percent of the world’s buttons, half the world’s silk neckties, and half the world’s fireworks, respectively.

China has also become a ravenous consumer. Its appetite for raw materials drives up international commodity prices and shipping rates while its middle class, projected to jump from fewer than 100 million people now to 700 million by 2020, is learning the gratifications of consumerism. China is by a wide margin the leading importer of a cornucopia of commodities, including iron ore, steel, copper, tin, zinc, aluminum, and nickel. It is the world’s biggest consumer of coal, refrigerators, grain, cell phones, fertilizer, and television sets. It not only leads the world in coal consumption, with 2.5 billion tons in 2006, but uses more than the next three highest-ranked nations—the United States, Russia, and India—combined. China uses half the world’s steel and concrete and will probably construct half the world’s new buildings over the next decade. So omnivorous is the Chinese appetite for imports that when the country ran short of scrap metal in early 2004, manhole covers disappeared from cities all over the world—Chicago lost 150 in a month. And the Chinese are not just vast consumers, but conspicuous ones, as evidenced by the presence in Beijing of dealers representing every luxury-car manufacturer in the world. Sales of Porsches, Ferraris, and Maseratis have flourished, even though their owners have no opportunity to test their finely tuned cars’ performance on the city’s clotted roads.

Yet the Mao era’s ecological devastation pales next to that of China’s current industrialization.
A fourth of the country is now desert. More than three-fourths of its forests have disappeared. Acid rain falls on a third of China’s landmass, tainting soil, water, and food. Excessive use of groundwater has caused land to sink in at least 96 Chinese cities, producing an estimated $12.9 billion in economic losses in Shanghai alone. Each year, uncontrollable underground fires,  sometimes triggered by lightning and mining accidents, consume 200 million tons of coal, contributing massively to global warming. A miasma of lead, mercury, sulfur dioxide, and other elements of coal-burning and car exhaust hovers over most Chinese cities; of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, 16 are Chinese. Four-fifths of the length of China’s rivers are too polluted for fish.

Half the population—600 or 700 million people—drinks water contaminated with animal and human waste. Into Asia’s longest river, the Yangtze, the nation annually dumps a billion tons of untreated sewage; some scientists fear the river will die within a few years. Drained by cities and factories all over northern China, the Yellow River, whose cataclysmic floods earned it a reputation as the world’s most dangerous natural feature, now flows to its mouth feebly, if at all. China generates a third of the world’s garbage, most of which goes untreated. Meanwhile, roughly 70 percent of the world’s discarded computers and electronic equipment ends up in China, where it is scavenged for usable parts and then abandoned, polluting soil and groundwater with toxic metals. … If unchecked, the devastation will not just put an abrupt end to China’s economic growth, but, in concert with other environmentally heedless nations (in particular, the United States, India, and Brazil), will cause mortal havoc in societies and ecosystems throughout the world.

The process is already under way. During the Mao era, the People’s Liberation Army ritualistically
fired shells at the Taiwan-controlled island of Quemoy; now, the mainland spews garbage that floats across the mile-and-a-quarter-wide channel and washes up on Quemoy’s beaches at the rate of 800 metric tons a year. Acid rain caused by China’s sulfur-dioxide emissions severely damages forests and watersheds in Korea and Japan and impairs air quality in the United States. Every major river system flowing out of China is threatened with one sort of cataclysm or another, including pollution (Amur), damming (Mekong, Salween), diverting (Brahmaputra), and melting of the glacial source (Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra). The surge in untreated waste and agricultural runoff pouring into the Yellow and China Seas has caused frequent fish die-offs and red-tide outbreaks, and overfishing is endangering many ocean species.

The growing Chinese taste for furs and exotic foods and pets is devastating neighboring countries’ populations of gazelles, marmots, foxes, wolves, snow leopards, ibexes, turtles, snakes, egrets, and parrots, while its appetite for shark fin soup is causing drastic declines in shark populations throughout the oceans; according to a study published in Science in March 2007, the absence of the oceans’ top predators is causing a resurgence of skates and rays, which are in turn destroying scallop fisheries along America’s Eastern Seaboard. China’s new predilection for sushi is even pricing Japan out of the market for bluefin tuna. Enthusiasm for traditional Chinese medicine, including its alleged aphrodisiacs, is causing huge declines in populations of hundreds of animals hunted for their organs—including tigers, pangolins, musk deer, sea horses, and sea dragons. Seeking oil, timber, gold, copper, cobalt, uranium, and other natural resources, China is building massive roads, bridges, and dams throughout Africa, often disregarding international environmental and social standards. Finally, China overtook the United States as the world’s leading emitter of CO2 in 2006, according to the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

All this is common knowledge among the scholars and activists who follow Chinese environmental trends.

Nothing mentioned so far—not even China’s supplanting the United States as the world’s biggest greenhouse gas polluter—should make Americans feel smug, for what the Chinese are chiefly guilty of is emulating the American economic model. From the 1980s on, Chinese policymakers went on foreign-study missions to figure out how developed countries fostered economic growth. As Doug Ogden, former director of the Energy Foundation’s China Sustainable Energy Program, puts it, “It’s not surprising that the lessons the Chinese drew from their international experiences are often based on sprawl development and private automobile ownership and highly energy-consumptive practices,” since the economies they studied all possess those features. One of the Chinese officials’ most fateful choices was to promote the automobile industry as a pillar of China’s economy. The decision must have seemed obvious. After all, cars are the foundations of the American, Japanese, and South Korean economies, generating jobs and economic activity.


From an international perspective, the potential impact on climate change is worst of all. Motor vehicles now account for no more than 3 or 4 percent of China’s greenhouse gas emissions, but the industry is still nascent. According to one projection, the number of cars on Chinese roads will grow from 33 million to 130 million over the next 12 years.

The only thing likely to slow this explosive growth is the increasing scarcity of the resources needed to make and fuel cars. As numerous commentators have pointed out, if China’s income per capita, now less than a 10th of the United States’, ever reached the American level, several Earths would be required to provide resources. “Through all of our engagement with China, the U.S. government has aggressively promoted China’s adoption of an American-style, high-consumption, high-waste economic model,” says Jim Harkness, president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and former executive director of the World Wildlife Fund in China. “Combine that with the global trading rules [that downplay environmental and labor standards], the tremendous constraints China faces in terms of its need to generate employment, and the fact that they’ve got all that coal and no oil—and how surprised can we be that we’ve ended up with an environmental nightmare?”

The complete article is available at Mother Jones:
http://www.motherjones.com/news/feature/2008/01/the-last-empire.html

Another article well worth reading is Robert D. Kaplan’s famous essay, The Coming Anarchy (now a book), which has influenced geopolitical debate for a decade.
The original essay is available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/199402/anarchy


Africa may be as relevant to the future character of world politics as the Balkans were a hundred years ago, prior to the two Balkan wars and the First World War. Then the threat was the collapse of empires and the birth of nations based solely on tribe. Now the threat is more elemental: nature unchecked. Africa’s immediate future could be very bad. The coming upheaval, in which foreign embassies are shut down, states collapse, and contact with the outside world takes place through dangerous, disease-ridden coastal trading posts, will loom large in the century we are entering.

Precisely because much of Africa is set to go over the edge at a time when the Cold War has ended, when environmental and demographic stress in other parts of the globe is becoming critical, and when the post-First World War system of nation-states—not just in the Balkans but perhaps also in the Middle East—is about to be toppled, Africa suggests what war, borders, and ethnic politics will be like a few decades hence. To understand the events of the next fifty years, then, one must understand environmental scarcity, cultural and racial clash, geographic destiny, and the transformation of war. The order in which I have named these is not accidental. Each concept except the first relies partly on the one or ones before it, meaning that the last two—new approaches to mapmaking and to warfare—are the most important. They are also the least understood. I will now look at each idea, drawing upon the work of specialists and also my own travel experiences in various parts of the globe besides Africa, in order to fill in the blanks of a new political atlas.

For a while the media will continue to ascribe riots and other violent upheavals abroad mainly to ethnic and religious conflict. But as these conflicts multiply, it will become apparent that something else is afoot, making more and more places like Nigeria, India, and Brazil ungovernable. Mention the environment or “diminishing natural resources” in foreign-policy circles and you meet a brick wall of skepticism or boredom. To conservatives especially, the very terms seem flaky. Public-policy foundations have contributed to the lack of interest, by funding narrowly focused environmental studies replete with technical jargon which foreign-affairs experts just let pile up on their desks. It is time to understand the environment for what it is: the national-security issue of the early twenty-first century.

The political and strategic impact of surging populations, spreading disease, deforestation and soil erosion, water depletion, air pollution, and, possibly, rising sea levels in critical, overcrowded regions like the Nile Delta and Bangladesh—developments that will prompt mass migrations and, in turn, incite group conflicts—will be the core foreign-policy challenge from which most others will ultimately emanate, arousing the public and uniting assorted interests left over from the Cold War. In the twenty-first century water will be in dangerously short supply in such diverse locales as Saudi Arabia, Central Asia, and the southwestern United States. A war could erupt between Egypt and Ethiopia over Nile River water. Even in Europe tensions have arisen between Hungary and Slovakia over the damming of the Danube, a classic case of how environmental disputes fuse with ethnic and historical ones.

Jon Sumby

As Kyoto Kev wanders around China gushing about their industrial boom and the wealth it will generate for Australia, while making the occasional announcement about minor funding and projects to combat global warming, it is worth thinking about what this economic growth means for the world – besides an abundance of cheap consumer goods.