China, Capitalism and Environmental Catastrophe

Sam Pawlett rsp at
Fri Aug 4 01:39:45 MDT 2000

[This is  part of an excellent polemic by Richard Smith that appeared in
New Left Review 222.April 1997 p3-40. It is a bit dated and appears sans
notes but I spent some time formatting it so you had better fucken read
it :) SP.]

II.     Consumer Culture and Environmental Destruction

Ever since Deng Xiaoping dumped Maoism and hoisted the slogan of the
1980's, 'To Get Rich is Glorious', his government has urged the Chinese
to strive for the American way of life-a lifestyle based, above all, on
insatiable consumption.  The essence of that lifestyle was nowhere
better summed up than by American retailing analyst Victor Lebow who
declared shortly after World War 11 that 'Our enormously productive'
 .. demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert
the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiri-tual
satisfaction, or  ego satisfaction, in consumption... We need things
consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever
increasing rate. 12 3

At present, according to the Alan Durning of the Worldwatch Institute,
roughly 1.1 billion of the world's 5..5 billion people enjoy such a
life-style.  For purposes of understanding the environmental impact of
this mode of life, Durning divides the Population of the world into
three broad 'ecological classes': At the top are the 1.1 billion members
of the global consumer class'-those with incomes above $7,500 per year.
This class includes most North Americans, West Europeans, Japanese,
Aus-tralians, and the citizens of Hong Kong and Singapore.  It also
includes about half the people of Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of
Independent States, and about one fifth of the people in Latin America,
South Africa, and the newly industrializing states of Asia, such as
South Korea- While Durning notes that doubtless many in this 'class'
feel far from affluent, and in fact the $7,500 threshold puts the lowest
ranks of the consumer class scarcely above the US poverty line, still
this class enjoys a lifestyle unknown in earlier ages:

We dine on meat and processed, packaged foods, and imbibe soft dri,ks
and other beverages fom disposable containers.  We spend most of our
time in cli-mate-controlled buildings equipped with
refrigerators,dryers, abundant hot water, dishwashers, microwave ovens,
and a plethora of
other electric-powered gadgets- We travel in private automobile, and
planes, and surround ourselves with a Profusion of short-lived throwaway
goods.  The consumer class takes home 64 per cent of world 'income- 32
times as much as the poor.

Next come the 3.3 billion people of the world's 'middle income class'
those who earn between $700 and $7,500. This class which also  includes
the low-income families of the former Soviet bloc and of Western
industrial nations, lives on a diet based on grains, lives in moderate
buildings with electric lights, radios, and, increasingly,
refrigera-tors and washing machines.  They travel by bus, railway, and
bicycle, and possess a modest stock of durable goods.  Collectively they
claim 33 percent of world income.  Lastly come the world's poor--some
1.1 billion people includes households that earn less than $700 a year
per family member.  This class includes most rural Africans, most
Indians, many South Asians.  They eat almost exclusively grains, root
crops, beans and other legumes, and they drink mostly unclean water.
They live in huts and shanties, they travel by foot, and most of their
possessions are con-structed of wood, stone, and other local natural
substances.  This poorest fifth earns just two per cent of world income.

                  Consumer culture imposes a heavy load on the global
environment to maintain the throw-away lifestyle of the billion at the
industrial countries, home to most consumers, with developing countries,
home to most middle-income and poor, gives a sense of the orders of
magnitude.  Industrial countries, with  5 per cent of the world's
popu-lation, consume between 40 and 86 per cent of the earth's various
natural resources-minerals, timber, grain and meat, fish, fresh water
and so on.  On a per capita basis, each resident of the industrial
countries consumes at least three times as much water, to times as much
energy, 13 times as much iron and steel, 14 times as much paper, 18
times as much chemicals, and  19 times as much aluminium as someone in a
developing country like China.  Industrial countries account for nearly
two-thirds of global emissions of carbon dioxide from the combustion of
fossil fuels (carbon dioxide is the principal greenhouse gas).  They
account for three-quarters of emissions of sulphur and nitrogen oxides
that cause acid rain.  Their factories generate most of the hazardous
chemical wastes.  Their air conditioners, aerosol sprays, and factories
release almost go per cent of the chlorofluorocarbons that destroy the
ozone layer.  The industrial economy's consumer lifestyle, the cars,
disposable goods, packaging, high-fat diet, air-conditioning, 'depends
on enormous and continuous inputs of the very corn modities that are
most damaging to the Earth to produce: energy, chemicals, metals, and
paper.' In the us those four industries are all among the top five of
energy-intensive production and toxic emissions, as well as for air

111.  Capitalist Development and the Global

Now one has to ask, if just one billion of the world's 5.5 billion
people already consume close to 80 per cent of global production, what
will be the effect of adding another billion consumers-almost doubling
the number of people who consume like Americans at present?
Obviously from the standpoint of 'far-sighted' businessmen, what could
be better?

As Fortune magazine sees it: 'More, of everything.  More housing, and
thus more telephones, appliances, TV sets, furniture, light bulbs, and
toilets and toilet cleaners.  '26 But have these same 'far-sighted'
executives or their propagandists in the business press and the
universities given thought to whether China, or the global environment,
can sustain the load this huge augmentation of mass consumption will

Global warming may still be dismissed as liberal claptrap by right wing
American ideologues, but it is no longer disputed by the world's
scientific community.  1995 was the hottest year since record-keeping
began in 1866.  The years I99I-95 were, moreover, the hottest five-year
period on record, warmer than either of the two half-decades of the
198os, the warmest decade on record.  The ozone holes over the Antarctic
and Arctic also grew larger and lasted longer in I995 than any previous
year, and Chinese scientists reported that a third large ozone 'hole'
has now opened up over Tibet.  Though the warming may be due in part to
some natural cycle, scientific opinion among climatologists is now
shifting as the evidence hardens that at least part of the continuing
and accelerating global warming is due to human activity-specifically
the emission of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide released by the
burning of coal, petroleum products and wood.  In I995 the United
Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change-made up Of 2,500
leading scientists and experts from around the globe-concluded for the
first time that global warming is 'unlikely to be entirely natural in
origin' and that the evidence 'suggests a discernible human influence on
climate.' The UN panel predicts that heat-trapping gas emissions would
cause average global temperatures, now approaching 6o degrees
Fahrenheit, to rise a further 1.8 to 6.3 degrees, with a best estimate
of 3.6 degrees, by 2100.  This may not sound like much but, by
comparison, the world is only 5 to 9 degrees warmer now than in the
depths of the last Ice Age.  Since 1990 the UN panel has warned that
global warming is not only inevitable but that it will accelerate-unless
truly draconian measures are taken to reduce heat-trapping emissions.
Yet, according to the panel, even if world-wide emissions of carbon
dioxide were capped at present levels, atmospheric concentrations would
continue to increase for at least two centuries, essentially because of
gases already released. just holding atmospheric concentrations at
double today's amount would require cutting global emissions below 1990
levels-and a doubling of today's con-centration would raise the Earth's
average surface temperature by 3 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit and cause
substantial climatic change .

The predicted warming, if it materializes, would cause global climatic
havoc and incalculable economic and social disruption over the next
century.  At the very least, melting ice caps will raise sea levels
inundating many heavily populated coastal zones.  Among the most
severely threat-ened countries is China.  In March I 995, a joint report
by the World Bank, the UN Development Program, and China's own National
Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) warned the Chinese government
that if present

trends continue, by 2050 rising sea levels will flood 14 cities and
counties in the Pearl River Delta, including Guangzhou, and 34 cities
and counties in east China, including Shanghai displacing some 76
million people, and submerging the most economically developed regions
of the country.  China's State Oceanic Administration warned in May of
1996 that sea levels are already rising at an accelerating rate along
China's coast and called for a massive programme to build dikes .28

Since any hope of bringing an immediate halt to carbon dioxide emissions
has been considered an economic and political impossibility, the UN
climate panel has sought to convince the leading industrial countries,
which produce the bulk of these emissions, to cap their emissions at
1990 levels by the year 2000.  This was duly pledged by the signatories
of the (non-binding) Framework Convention on Climate Change at the I992
Earth Summit at Rio, which included the US.

Although uncertainties abound in the foregoing projections, given their
potentially catastrophic implications, one might have expected the us,
China and other big polluters to take serious measures to curb
emissions.  Yet four years on, carbon dioxide emissions are still
rising, and even accelerating.  The Bush and Clinton administrations
rejected targeted reductions or mandatory controls to reach the goals
for the year 2000, and sought to induce emission reductions by calling
for voluntary compliance, eased with market incentives to utilities and
other energy consumers.  These produced some small improvements, but the
gains were easily overwhelmed by growth, with the result that us net
carbon dioxide emissions climbed from 1.4 billion tons per year in 1992
to more than 1.5 billion tons in 1995, an increase of seven per cent in
just three years . Meanwhile, China's furious industrialization, powered
largely by huge reserves of coal, is fast propelling China toward the
dubious distinction of the world's Number One polluter.  Three-quarters
of China's energy needs, from factories to domestic heating and cooking,
are met by burning coal.  In 1995 these sources poured out more than 8oo
million tons of carbon dioxide, uncounted millions of tons of sulphur
dioxide, methane, and soot, blocking out the sun over many Chinese
cities, and spreading acid rain as far as Japan.  And, with energy
consumption rising faster than GNP growth, it is estimated that China's
emissions will surpass those of Russia by about 2010, and the us by
about 2020.

Yet global warming is only one of many environmental threats looming
over China and Asia-and not necessarily the greatest or most immediate.

IV. Asia's Environmental Crisis

Asia is the fastest growing economic region of the world.  But this
frenzied development is destroying Asia's environment and eroding
peoples' health faster than anywhere else on  the planet.  Data from the
World Health Organization show that of the seven cities in the world
with the worst air pollution, five are in Asia, two in China.  Twelve
of, the fifteen cities with the highest levels of particulate matter are
in Asia.  And trends for suspended particulate matter-the most serious
health  hazard-are rising in nearly all Asian cities.  Much of this is
due to the exponential growth of motor-vehicle transport in Asia.
Today, there are estimated to be about 500 million motor vehicles on the
planet.  They already account for half of the world's oil consumption,
generate one -fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions, and car exhaust is
now the single largest source of air pollution in half the cities of the
world.  At present , China has only 1 per cent as many cars as the
United States (China has 1.8 million passenger cars, or about one for
every 670 people), and India only 2 per cent as many.  But Asian vehicle
populations are now doubling every seven years.  Asia is expected to
account for two-thirds, of the world-wide increase in car sales this
decade.  And it is expected that the Asian market will soon be as big as
the European and North American markets-20 million cars produced and
sold per year.  Asian cities are already severely congested and
polluted.  Yet this expected prodigious growth of motor vehicles cannot
but massively worsen these, and related problems.30

Industrial air and water pollution, and toxic waste generated by Asian
industry is increasing at several times the rate of GNP growth.  From
I975-88 Indonesia's GNP doubled while industrial pollution quadrupled.
The Philippines' GNP  grew by about 25 per cent while pollution
increased by a factor of eight.  Thailand's GNP doubled while pollution
increased by a factor of ten.  No comparable data are available for
China but since China's industries are among the dirtiest in the world,
trends are almost certainly as bad there.31

Asian energy demand is now doubling every twelve years.  The demand for
electricity is growing even faster: two to three times the rate Of GNP
growth.  Although Asia's emissions of greenhouse and other gases are
still small in per capita terms, in absolute terms Asia will exceed
Europe and the us combined in sulphur dioxide emissions by the year
2005.  Asia's carbon dioxide emissions will surpass that of all
industrialized countries by 20I5.

Among tropical regions, East Asia experienced the world's highest rates
of deforestation during 1981-90.  The Philippines and Thailand have
exhausted their forests.  Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar face
excessive deforestation.  Asia is also suffering a tragic loss of
biodiversity.  Nearly three-quarters of the natural habitat in Asia has
been lost or irre-versibly degraded, and it is estimated that Asia will
lose a higher propor-tion of its species and natural ecosystems than any
other region during the next twenty-five years.33
 Given the foregoing trends, among others, the World Bank warns that
Asia's environmental problems 'are approaching thresholds of
unacceptably high social and economic costs' including 'increasing
health costs and mortality, reduced output in resource-based sectors,
and irreversible toss of biodiversity and overall environmental

V. China On the Edge

Nowhere are these problems more acute than in China.  Indeed, scientists
have observed that 'no country in history has undertaken an economic and
industrial revolution on an ecological foundation in such a degraded
state'.35 China's environmental problems begin with its huge population,
and significant population growth, which is now adding some 16 million
people per year to the total.  If present growth rates continue, China's
population will grow by at least I50 million, the equivalent of Brazil's
population in 1990, by the year 2000.  And by 2025 it will grow by
another 200 million.  In the next three decades, as China's population
swells, it will have to double its annual grain output to more than 800
million tons.  China's food production, though sufficient at present,
would be hard pressed to keep up with this formidable demographic
pressure.36 In a country where only 10 per cent per cent of the land is
cultivable, during the last 40 years the country has lost a third of its
cropland to degradation from over-farming (soil erosion,
desertification), energy projects (hydro stations, coal mining) and to
industrial and housing construction.  At present the country is losing 1
per cent of its arable land per year to encroachment by road and factory

China also faces what officials describe as an I unprecedented water
crisis largely resulting from enterprises neglecting environmental
protection in the pursuit of profits. Water supplies are drying up under
the heavy demands of new industries, population and agriculture.  Vast
lakes have dried up entirely.  Of China's 500 cities, 300 are short of
water and 108, including Beijing, are said to be acutely short.Beijing,
for example, has less fresh water available per capita than some  Arab
nations, and 20 per cent less than Israel.  And water shortages are not
limited to the drier north.  Shenzhen (near Hong Kong) suffered a severe
water shortage in the early 1990's which, as elsewhere, badly hobbled
industrial production.  In 1995, increasing demand for water for
irrigation and industrial use caused a 622 km stretch of the Yellow
River, China's second largest, to completely dry up for  22 days.
Extensive over-extraction of ground-water is causing many cities,
including Shanghai, Tianjin, and Xian, to subside. Sea water
infiltration has affected coastal cities.

  And many of those in China's hundred million or so floating population
of migrants are 'environmental refugees', fleeing from drought-stricken

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