16 February 2008


Leslie, Jacques. 2008. The Last Empire: Can the world survive China’s headlong rush to emulate the American way of life? Mother Jones 33(1) Jan.-Feb.:28-39, 83-85.

Reading the litany of environmental complications and predicaments and prodigious ecological changes that China as a dominant economic power is undergoing, as depicted in the article, would lead one to answer the question posed in the subtitle with an emphatic negative: No, the world cannot survive China's current pace
and model of economic development.

On the production side, China is now first among the world’s 193 countries in production of steel, cement, coal, and 10 kinds of metal, and lesser products as buttons (60% of world’s total) and cameras (50%). In terms of specific industries, the Chinese furniture industry is highlighted, an industry that now produces more than 30% of the international furniture trade, and is the world’s leading importer of illegally logged wood, and re-exports 40% of its wood exports to the U.S.

On the consumption side, China (its middle class is projected to number 700 million by 2020) consumes more refrigerators, cell phones, television sets, fertilizer, and grain than any other country.

From the “backyard furnace” campaign during the Great Leap Forward (1958-62), in which villagers cut down 10% of China’s trees in a few months; to the Kill the Four Pests campaign (1958), in which there was a mass slaughter of sparrows resulting in the explosion of the locust population; to today’s even greater environmental problems, including possessing 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, manifesting four-fifths of the length of its rivers as too polluted for fish, dumping each year a billion tons of untreated sewage into the Yangtze, and generating one third of the world’s garbage--China, and tangibly the whole planet, suffers from its immense environmental calamity-in-the-making.

The environmental repercussions travel outside China’s boundaries to severely damage forests and watersheds in Korea and Japan. It also impairs air quality in the U.S., not only by its supplanting the U.S. as the world’s biggest greenhouse gas polluter, and not only that it is now the world’s leading producer of anthropogenic mercury emissions (one study found that up to 36% of anthropogenic mercury emissions settling on the U.S. originated in Asia), but China now rivals North Africa as the world’s leading producer of border-crossing dust.

In its headlong rush to develop economically and emulate the American economic model,
China shows what happens when the U.S., still the world’s largest economy, shifts so much of its production, including pollution-heavy industries, to a country that only recently is becoming concerned about its environment. Where does blame lie?

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