The Olympic flame was lit 10 days ago at Beijing’s Bird Nest. Since then Michael Phelps won an unprecedented eight gold medals in the Water Cube and the sport of China-bashing for its environmental damage and devastation has been in full swing. We all have been made aware of the facts about China’s pollution; number one in the world in greenhouse gas and ozone depleting chemical emissions, 1000 new cars on Beijing’s roads every day, two new coal fired power plants go online every week, air and water pollution that has led to a cancer epidemic without precedent, the loss of the visually breathtaking Three Gorges to a colossal hydroelectric dam, a looming water scarcity crisis that could affect hundreds of millions of people and led to the construction of the massive South to North Water Project that dwarfs the California Water Project and brings water from the Yellow River to Beijing.
The speed and magnitude of China’s environmental devastation has caught the world off-guard. When the Ehrlichs warned the world of the perils of overpopulation and the pending apocalyptic consequences, everyone turned to China because of their 1.3 billion people. When China took the unprecedented step of government-mandated limited population growth, many foresaw a crisis averted or at least tempered.
What the world failed to perceive was that, in order to improve the standard of living for hundreds of millions of people, China was willing to completely abandon its isolationist economic policies to create an economic juggernaut in the form of capitalism on steroids. Under the new system, an annual increase of less than 10% in Gross Domestic Product is deemed a failure. Communism, long thought to be incompatible with capitalism, along with an enormous labor force, helped jump start and sustain enormous economic growth with tremendous environmental consequences.
Three years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Beijing with former UN Under-Secretary Maurice Strong and David Anderson from the UN Environment Programme to meet with a number of environmental officials in the Chinese government. A few months ago, I was lucky enough to return to Beijing as an Aspen Institute Catto Fellow. These experiences illuminated the striking parallels between China’s inability to manage resources sustainably and the US’s similar failure.
These similarities go far beyond the three McDonalds, KFCs and Starbucks on every commercial block in major cities. Both countries have strong environmental laws and a chronic refusal to effectively enforce them. Both countries have a growing addiction to consumption and a populace exposed to effective and relentless marketing. The end result has been a societal shift to assess an individual’s success based on what they own or buy.
Most Chinese want to own a car, wear the latest fashions, and watch a flat screen in a climate controlled living space just like most Americans. Along with this increased focus on materialism comes an addiction to convenience and the associated single use products and packaging.
Both countries rely on the same economic indicators to determine success. These indicators do not take into account sustainability and environmental costs with predictable results: immediate financial success trumps environmental and public health protection nearly every time. Also, both countries have failing energy policies that predominantly rely on cheap, polluting sources even as they pay lip service to meaningful conservation efforts.
Finally, both countries refuse to aggressively regulate industry, even when worker conditions are unsafe and the manufacture, use and disposal of products and their wastes are harmful to public health and the environment. Neither country uses the precautionary principle for decision-making.
So the next time you’re tempted to bash China for the Olympic Opening Ceremony’s fireworks increasing global temperatures by a degree, remember that we are their role model. Everything in excess, and success, is determined by what you earn and what you own. Unfortunately, in China, the American Dream has become the world’s environmental nightmare, and we are far from blameless.