Saturday, July 17, 2010

When A Billion Chinese Jump

Our era will no doubt be written about in terms of the rise to power of China and India. As statistician Hans Roesling has pointed out in the earlier blog their post war emergence has come as a result of a growing progress in health, food production and easing of trade restrictions and it is truly a remarkable story. What is not told as often is the cost of such a rise in terms of environmental damage. A new book --When A Billion Chinese Jump by Jonathan Watts and recently reviewed by Guardian book critic Isabel Hilton, indicates the scale of the way the Chinese made no accomodation in their plans for the environment. They simply tore up forests, polluted rivers and did basically whatever was necessary to forge a new industrial economy out of what was basically a feudal agrarian society. As Hilton grimly explains,

"In the past 10 years, the bills have begun to come in: they include acute and chronic water shortages, toxic algae blooms, desertification, acid rain, dying grasslands and angry people. The new middle classes in the prosperous cities of eastern China now want dirty factories closed or cleaned up, but the inland provinces further back in the queue for prosperity are keen to welcome them. In 2007, the World Bank conservatively estimated the cost of Chinese pollution at 5.8% of GDP. (Others have put it as high as 8 to 12%.) If we subtract these sums from China's headline growth, the present looks substantially less impressive and the future more worrying still. Illegal deforestation in China continues, despite belated prohibition; the pollution carried down China's rivers poisons the sea from the Bohai Gulf to the Pacific; particulates are carried on the winds to other countries and China's contribution to the great brown cloud helps to create a giant smog blanket even over otherwise unpolluted areas of Asia."

The book basically tells the story that the Chinese want to do their best to cover up as they tried so earnestly to do in their hosting of the Olympic games last year, by Watts' book shows the true costs of those cheap Chinese goods we have been so keen to import,

"..there is Linfen, a coal town in Shanxi province, said to be the most polluted place in the world, where birth defects run at six times the national average which, in turn, is three to five times the global norm; where the miners' death rate per ton of coal is 30 times that of the United States and nearly a million people's homes are affected by subsidence; where the cost of damage to human health and the environment in the province in 2005 was estimated at £2.9bn...
The Yellow river, the birthplace of Chinese civilisation, is all but destroyed. The government has encouraged people to move west from the overpopulated heartland into the arid and mountainous lands of the Uighurs and the Tibetans, places able to support sparse populations but where ecosystems rapidly collapse under the weight of numbers. The days of the last remaining paradise, the astonishingly biodiverse province of Yunnan, according to Watts's account, are numbered."

The scale of the devastation in other words is almost unimaginable. Nowadays --if there is a ray of light in all this the Chinese are ostensibly for sustainable development and a low carbon economy as it seeks to dominate the green energy technologies but it will take more than words to change what Watts uncovers as a cultural bias away as Hilton puts it "the entrenched idea that nature exists to be exploited and plundered and that any environmental problem can be fixed by engineering."

The title of the book is derived from Watts' childhood where the belief was shared among school children of my generation as well that if a billion Chinese jumped at one time, they could knock the world off its axis. Now the actions of a billion Chinese could do the same and it maybe time to remind them and ourselves of that. As Hilton neatly states--"The west invented unsustainable living; China has taken it up with enthusiasm." The same maybe said of India by the way the other billion people sized neighbor to the west.

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