The runaway train is China

I’ve been here in New Zealand for just over a week now and I’ve been writing several blog entries in parallel to discuss all the things that have happened since I left Seattle back on the 6th of November.   But, they’re not ready yet and there’s something else that I just felt I had to get posted.

My friend, MD, sent me a link to this story days ago and ever since I read it, it’s been on my mind.

Some months ago, I wrote a piece called “The Train Ride to Hell“.  After reading this story, I think China may be driving the train.

Elizabeth Economy, the author, pulls a tremendous number of facts about China together so we can see bigger patterns than we normally could from just following the news articles from and about China.  After reading this, it seems clear to me that China (and therefore, the rest of us) is caught in a no-win situation. 

If they revise how things work in China and stall their economic growth in favor of their ecology and global weather, chaos will result similar to what happens when a corporation is experiencing red-hot growth and can’t keep its cash-flow balanced correctly.

On the other hand, if they do not slow the economic train, China will become unlivable.   Their water, their food and their air, both in terms of availbility, usability and quality, will simply fail to meet minimum requirements for the overall system to continue it’s run-away growth – and the first result will obtain.

If there’s a particular insight that I wish Ms. Economy would have brought out in her article, it’s the one that Thomas Friedman made in the NY Times back on April 7th, 2007, when he wrote about the “The China Price” in his piece entitled, “The Power of Green“. 

Here’s Elizabeth Economy’s article entitled, “The Great Leap Backward?” from Foreign Affairs magazine as published by The Council of Foreign Relations.   I strongly encourage you to read it in it’s entirety.


The Great Leap Backward?

Elizabeth C. Economy
From Foreign Affairs, September/October 2007

Summary:  China’s environmental woes are mounting, and the country is fast becoming one of the leading polluters in the world. The situation continues to deteriorate because even when Beijing sets ambitious targets to protect the environment, local officials generally ignore them, preferring to concentrate on further advancing economic growth. Really improving the environment in China will require revolutionary bottom-up political and economic reforms.

  Elizabeth C. Economy is C. V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenges to China’s Future.

China’s environmental problems are mounting. Water pollution and water scarcity are burdening the economy, rising levels of air pollution are endangering the health of millions of Chinese, and much of the country’s land is rapidly turning into desert. China has become a world leader in air and water pollution and land degradation and a top contributor to some of the world’s most vexing global environmental problems, such as the illegal timber trade, marine pollution, and climate change. As China’s pollution woes increase, so, too, do the risks to its economy, public health, social stability, and international reputation. As Pan Yue, a vice minister of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), warned in 2005, “The [economic] miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace.”With the 2008 Olympics around the corner, China’s leaders have ratcheted up their rhetoric, setting ambitious environmental targets, announcing greater levels of environmental investment, and exhorting business leaders and local officials to clean up their backyards. The rest of the world seems to accept that Beijing has charted a new course: as China declares itself open for environmentally friendly business, officials in the United States, the European Union, and Japan are asking not whether to invest but how much.

Unfortunately, much of this enthusiasm stems from the widespread but misguided belief that what Beijing says goes. The central government sets the country’s agenda, but it does not control all aspects of its implementation. In fact, local officials rarely heed Beijing’s environmental mandates, preferring to concentrate their energies and resources on further advancing economic growth. The truth is that turning the environmental situation in China around will require something far more difficult than setting targets and spending money; it will require revolutionary bottom-up political and economic reforms.


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