And I’m even more worried about biodiversity loss than even climate change, although that’s obviously a huge, important issue and very pressing. But the loss of so many species is really calamitous. There has been a big change and I can see that maybe if the problems that China faces are China-specific, in terms of the political system and the ancient traditions in regard to medicine, for example, others really do represent a global, human problem. A lot of these problems are accumulating problems that are just starting to reach the point of when they just can’t go on.
There’s a passage in your book in which you mention writing during your travels that: ‘In the 19th century, Britain taught the world how to produce. In the twentieth, the US taught us how to consume. If China is to lead the world in the twenty-first century, it must teach us how to sustain.’ Meaning change will have to go through China because it’s just so huge?
Absolutely. By figuring out how to put China on a sustainable track half, if not all, the world’s problems are solved, because other countries that are coming up behind in terms of economic development, like India or Brazil or Indonesia, would have a model to follow. But at the same time, if you can’t do that, you end up with a country like China following a really nightmarish extreme: the US model of energy consumption. Even if it was the much more scaled down, more modest, more the efficient consumption of Japan, or even just of Europe, you’d still have a calamitous situation on your hands because you’ve got these Chinese multiples of everything.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
This is the real challenge of China: Can you persuade people and educate people, can people themselves realise that the US model, the Western model, even the Japanese model may have some elements they can take, but on the Chinese scale, they really need to find a Chinese solution for what’s sustainable and manageable?
The idea of ‘get rich first, clean up later’ is brought up as a common way of thinking about the environment in terms of economic development. But how can we get rich off of sustainability?
That’s the key point, which is why I think ‘get rich first and clean up later’ isn’t really applicable in the case of China and is really the reason why China is showing so many strains of environmental stress, because that just doesn’t work as it relates to East Asian global development. It’s why the government is trying very hard to try to find a way to be sustainable and still make money, and that’s why it’s investing so much in low-carbon technology. But they obviously can’t say to their own people, ‘Okay, all of you—consume less.’ It’s just not politically realistic while the people in their country look on the lifestyle very enviously of the US and Japan and other places.