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Consumed In China

Shipping containers ready and waiting at the Shanghai port.
Shipping containers ready and waiting at the Shanghai port.
A few weeks back a colleague here was going around the office saying: “I feel like reading a book about China. Does anyone know a good one?” At the time, I didn’t have an answer, but now I do: Jonathan Watts’s “When A Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind – Or Destroy It.”

The book is engagingly written account of the paradox that is China written in the form of an epic travelogue that starts in Shangri-La and ends in Xanadu. British journalist Watts has a good eye both for the big picture and the telling detail. Although he tries mightily to dish out the pessimism and optimism in equal portions, I think the dark side looms larger overall.

For instance, Watts notes that China is an authoritarian country whose leaders have staked their legitimacy on economic growth and nationalism rather than on a popular mandate. Many analysts, Watts says, argue that if China were more democratic, popular will would create a national climate (pardon the pun) for the kinds of limits needed to curb pollution and protect the environment. But Watts argues this matter is not so simple:

It is often argued that China needs more democracy and a bigger middle class. But people power alone will not solve all of the country’s environmental problems. A swelling middle class could make things much worse unless beliefs and lifestyles also change. In this case, the West has set a dire example in dealing with the biggest threat of our age: consumption.

Pollution was yesterday’s priority. Climate change is tomorrow’s. Both are symptoms of a bigger, more immediate malaise: the unsustainable consumption pioneered by advanced, wealthy democracies and now increasingly replicated by rich citizens in developing nations like China.

Having visited almost every province in the country, I’m far more concerned about Shanghai’s friendly shoppers than Henan’s snarling polluters. The latter are a recognized problem that can be cleared up with sufficient time, money and government effort. The former, however, are hailed as potential saviours of the global economy. Nobody wants to stop them. Indeed, businesses spend a fortune encouraging consumers to spend more. Their advertising campaigns have proved devastatingly successful. The energy use of the average person in Shanghai has surpassed that of Tokyo, New York and London and is now 50 percent higher than the global norm.

The rest of the country has some way to go before catching up, but that is what the government wants. To provide everyone in China with a Shanghai lifestyle, factories will need to churn out an extra 159 million refrigerators, 213 million televisions, 233 million computers, 166 million microwave ovens, 260 million air conditioners and 187 million cars. Power plants would have to more than double their output. The demand for raw materials and fuel will add enormously to global environmental stress and security strains.

In short, China’s problem is the same as the rest of the world’s, only it is bigger because there are more Chinese and they have the money to make this dream/nightmare come true. Watts sums up the issue nicely in one sentence: “If the planets resources were priced properly for their long-term value to future generations, rather than their immediate accessibility, mankind might just be able to avoid a disastrous fight for what’s left.”