Source: The Independent
The world is watching China’s economic surge with understandable awe – while politely and passively ignoring the country’s ecological disintegration.
When the journalist Jonathan Watts was a child, he was told, like so many of us: “If everyone in China jumps at exactly the same time, it will shake the earth off its axis and kill us all.” Three decades later, he stood in the grey sickly smog of Beijing, wheezing and hacking uncontrollably after a short run, and thought – the Chinese jump has begun. He had travelled 100,000 miles criss-crossing China, from the rooftop of Tibet to the deserts of Inner Mongolia and everywhere, he discovered that the Chinese state was embarked on a massive program of environmental destruction. It has turned whole rivers poisonous to the touch, rendered entire areas cancer-ridden, transformed a fertile area twice the size of Britain into desert – and probably even triggered the worst earthquake in living memory.
“The planet’s environmental problems were not made in China, but they are sliding past the point of no return there,” Watts argues in his new book When A Billion Chinese Jump – the essential starting-point for this conversation. The uber-capitalist Communists now have the highest emissions of global warming gases in the world (although the average Chinese person still emits a tenth of the average American). We are all trapped in a greenhouse together: environmental destruction in China becomes environmental destruction where you live. This story will become your story.
So Watts stands in the village in Guandong province where the world’s old motherboards – yours and mine – are sent to die. There, children pick through the old computers, breaking down every reusable part, like they were the globe’s intestine. But the children sicken with lead poisoning, and develop brain damage, cancer, and kidney failure. Even when the kids get to sit in a classroom, they have to wear masks, to protect them from the mountains of garbage.
So he goes to meet the environmental activists who are trying to stop this poisoning of their children, and watches as – terrified – they are carried away to prison. (Imagine if Al Gore had been imprisoned for exposing Love Canal, and was still in solitary, and you get the idea.)
So he ventures out on a ship with an international band of scientists to save the last Yangtze dolphin – an animal that was swimming though China’s rivers 10 million years before the first human, and was a common sight not long ago. But gradually he realises he is too late. They are all dead. He says: “Man had wiped out his first dolphin? The end of a species after twenty million years felt terrifyingly momentous. This was not just a piece of news. It was even more than history. It was an event on a geological timescale.”
So he watches as the globe warms and China’s deserts stretch further and deeper with each passing year. So he stands and stares as the Himalayan glaciers – where most of Asia’s great rivers begin – melt and die, with two thirds on course to vanish by 2050.
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.