How China’s Pollution Crisis Relates to Global Sustainability, and the Possibility of a Solution

Cancer villages. A major city’s water supply strewn with thousands of pig carcasses. These may sound like plot developments from some Hollywood environmental apocalypse thriller, but they’re real. China’s environmental problems have been front and center in the news media lately. The government actively denies most reports of environmental mayhem as air and water pollution skyrockets. China’s rapid expansion, rarely checked by government oversight (although granted government support), has resulted in a myriad of public-private enterprises, primarily in the area of industrial manufacturing, as anyone who has ever checked the “Made in” label on most any of their possessions knows. With more capital accruing, the Chinese can then themselves afford to spend money: on house and road construction and various goods of their own. When hundreds of millions of people move to the cities in the largest mass migration in history — with a population the size of the United States’ moving to cities in recent years — the construction efforts are amplified all the more, as are other associated environmental impacts.

This all comes as no surprise. What’s astounding is considering the rate at which the pollution will continue, and how the government will choose to deal with it remains anyone’s guess, although this New York Times article notes China’s new prime minister is acknowledging the pollution. And remember how in January particulate pollution in Beijing broke records, charting 755 out of a supposed maximum of 500?  As an example of how the environmental woes will only grow, forecasts say the number of passenger cars will more than triple to 400 million by 2030. Vehicles already account for almost a quarter of particulate emissions, and the rapidly expanding coal power industry takes the cake for double that. As the Chinese consumers themselves become more wealthy, they’ll start to consume their own country’s goods in greater numbers, providing hundreds of millions of new costumers for manufactured goods. 3.2 million people already die each year from air pollution; one wonders where that number will be at a decade from now. 

Source: EPA

Source: EPA

There’s no easy answer to the conundrum of weighing economic development with environmental impact. Sometimes it’s painted as environmentalism vs. humanism, as economic development helps lift people out of poverty. However, on the contrary, the environmental degradation caused by unregulated development also harms human beings. I think a human life is more important than an endangered spotted owl’s, for instance, but my concern for the long-term survival of my species coexisting with its environment doesn’t diminish my humanism any less in the face of my environmentalism. Europe, Japan, and the United States all faced environmental devastation as they industrialized, with rivers catching on fire and air so sooty from coal visibility was severely diminished and lungs turned grey. In this sense, China’s woes aren’t unique. But the West’s industrialization occurred at a much slower pace and a much smaller scale than we’re seeing in China and we will see in India in decades to come. It seems unfair for Americans and Europeans to preach about China’s polluting when they’re consuming the goods that result in such industrial growth, and they already had their industrial glory days. With China now taking the United States’ role as top greenhouse gas polluter, albeit with a fraction of the per capita rate, there will ideally be more pressure for enforceable standards to be created. However, as the U.S. refuses to take many measures to limit its own impact by more than a nominal amount, any rhetoric directed towards China seems like a joke. Dealing with these environmental policies on a national level is difficult enough, but environmental problems often reach a global scale: with the travelling of pollution, ocean detritus (such as the plastic garbage patches in the Pacific and Atlantic multiple times the size of Texas) in concurrence with dwindling seafood supplies, and the rising oceanic temperatures, there will come a time when some degree of global cooperation will be needed.


Source: United Nations

Obviously there will need to be a paradigm shift in how we see our relationship with our fellow human beings and our surrounding environs. I feel somewhat ridiculous writing this as someone who consumes enough that if everyone consumed like me we’d require somewhere around four or five earths, so I’m not immune to criticism for my own habits. Who am I to chastise the Chinese for trying to achieve a similar standard of living? However, there’s also the factor of living as if everyone lived like you, consumed like you, polluted like you. We cannot survive if everyone in the world lives as Americans do. It’s the tragedy of the commons — on a global scale. So not only must Americans and their industrialized brethren reduce their consumption of natural resources and release of pollution, but there must be incentives for other countries to do the same without hindering their rightful economic development. Maybe this will — in the long run — require a combination of population control, stringent emissions standards made possible by the use of alternative energy sources, water and food consumption limits (also an emphasis on local supplies), and a scaling back of our luxury goods such as consumer technologies. The problem with environmental problems is they require a collective solution: one person’s actions aren’t going to change much. Rational self-interest oriented capitalism being the dominant socio-economic system of values in place through the industrialized world, there must be government intervention to balance the influence of short-term economic incentives that hinder environmental, and eventually human, health. Even so, the paradigm shift long-term human survival requires goes beyond government regulation.

I know it sounds crazy given the capitalist ethos we’ve all be imbued with, but perhaps it’s time to consider reversing what we’ve thus far framed as progress: a bigger house, more stuff, a faster computer. For our long-term survival, though, short-term inefficiency has the potential to be our best friend, with a return to less productive farming methods (a ‘return to the land’) necessitating the employment of more workers, the raised price of essential goods reducing the ability of people to consume nonessential goods. As long as the world population grows, however, such an ideal would be completely untenable, with more jobs to create and more mouths to feed. I am sympathetic to the need for jobs created by industries manufacturing and selling nonessential goods, seeing as the vast majority of the American economy is based on consumer spending, but there has to be limits on our lifestyles and the number of people brought into the world. Barring some unforeseen catastrophe that severely diminishes the human presence on this planet, I see no other way my great-grandchildren will live in anything but a hell hole (assuming they aren’t affected by the hypothetical catastrophe, in which case they’re screwed), unless they’re fortunate enough to be wealthy and sequestered away from the masses.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the complexity of global environmental issues, as they stem from a systemic economic/value arrangement (oftentimes government and corporate policy) all the way down to local policies and individual choices, but through a hybrid of public education and policy influencing actions I’m vaguely optimistic about the ability of those who are motivated enough to make an impact. I envision a combination of local and national policies with bilateral agreements between nations, all the way up to global frameworks. This will take a lot of compromise  sacrifice, and teamwork — and individuals / environmentalist nonprofit groups will need the force to counter the political might of economic powers while also influencing most of their fellow citizens to agree with them. Anyway I hope this made sense and I appreciate any comments on these issues.


One thought on “How China’s Pollution Crisis Relates to Global Sustainability, and the Possibility of a Solution

  1. There is no ambiguity in this issue. With a proper education for every child in the world today, in one generation all of world’s problems would be solved or at least greatly diminished. The greed and corruption that misplace the funds that should go into that education as well as health and technological innovation, that is the real root of the problem. But then again, that would also be solved through proper education.

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