9 12 2005

Last month I talked to you about China’s impossible dream—to have a living standard on a par with the U.S. There just ain’t enough oil , wood or grain in the world for it to happen, in a nutshell. Since then, an accident at an oil refinery has sent a hundred tons of benzene into the main water supply for Harbin, one of China’s largest cities. All that benzene has passed through Harbin; by now it has crossed the border into Russia, and eventually it will reach the Pacific Ocean, where it will enter a food chain that may end up on the plates of fish eaters here in America. Oh, joy.

You know, in a way we’re lucky it was benzene. Sure, benzene is a carcinogenic neurotoxin, but it’s not, y’know, acutely poisonous—it’s not like it was arsenic or cyanide or chlordane, not a Bhopal-type incident that’s going to kill thousands of people outright. It’s just going to create a leukemia spike, which, when you consider all the other toxins that are getting turned loose in China, will hardly be noticed. Really.

If the Chinese government has its way, that leukemia spike won’t be noticed at all, because they’ll hide or manipulate the statistics to keep it from showing up. The latest news reports from China indicate that the officials responsible for the spill are paying for it with their jobs, but the ones responsible for hiding it from the public are not.

This spill is just the most noticeable event of its kind, so far. A recent visitor to rural China wrote of villages where the only available household water was purple from industrial pollution, and noted how widespread industrial pollution is throughout the countryside. I suppose this is one way to deal with the problem of overpopulation.

Sometimes it seems to me the Chinese just don’t get it, even when they try to be ecological. A story recently came out of China, via the Associated Press, about the largest government slaughter of Chinese civilians since Tienamen Square. Troops shot ten people dead out of a demonstration of thousands who were protesting that they were being insufficiently compensated for seizure of their land. Why was the government confiscating their land? Why, to build a wind farm, a tidal generating plant—and a coal-fired power plant. For this they were displacing thousands of relatively self-sufficient, if financially impoverished, peasants. How ecological! Then I read something that really made my jaw drop—the government of China admits that 70,000 similar protests occurred just last year. Seventy thousand protests in ONE YEAR.

The thing is, the Chinese are not doing this for themselves or by themselves. They are doing it for us, with our money. The widespread pollution of China is a direct effect of a massive transfer of wealth from the United States and Western Europe to China. We, with our royal lifestyles, are responsible for those 100 tons of benzene washing down the Amur River, for the fact that five of the world’s ten most polluted cities are in China. They are dying for our sins of gluttony and overconsumption.

When the first Westerners approached China about commercial trade, they were rebuffed, because the Chinese felt they had everything they needed already, and it was true. There is a remarkable book, “Farmers of Forty Centuries,“written nearly a hundred years ago, that details how the Chinese farmed the same land for four thousand years–sustainably, intensively, and organically feeding the longest-lasting, most sophisticated urban civilization that has ever existed on this planet. Sure, our civilization is a lot more sophisticated, but we have a few thousand years to go to match the Chinese record for sustainability. What they did was not easy, and for most of the people on the bottom it was not terribly gracious, but it by God worked for four thousand years.

But all that is being swept away. The Chinese have sold their inheritance for a pot of Walmart contracts and a dream of upward mobility for everyone. When I was a kid I read in Ripley’s Believe it or Not that if everyone in China stood on a chair and they all jumped off their chairs at the same time (a feat of synchronization that might not be past them), they would change the orbit and rotation of the earth, and that was several hundred million Chinese ago. What the Chinese are doing now is every bit as upsetting to global stability as jumping off of chairs en masse. and it really is happening.

As a “developing nation,” China is not bound by the Kyoto Agreement, although they have agreed to work on cutting their greenhouse gas emissions—if the European nations will subsidize that process. That’s not fair to the Europeans—China’s pollution problems have mushroomed much more at the behest of American demand than demand from Europe. And most climate scientists agree that the Kyoto Protocols are a drop in the bucket compared to what really needs to happen to keep from going into out-of control global warming—if we can still stop it at all. What profit is it to gain a world of money and lose the soul of soil and air?

musical segue: “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” as played by Richard Thompson from the live 1988 album, “More Guitar”




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