Where China goes, the rest follow in the global neighborhood
EAST LANSING, Mich. – Globalization is making it a small world, after all, and the costs of this newfound neighborliness are high.
Two internationally acclaimed scientists present sweeping evidence that China's challenges – from polluted air and water to making and consuming goods to family life – already are making a big impact on the environment and human well-being in China and other parts of the world, including America and Europe.
The developed nations must take a more active role – with policy, with aid and through business – to assist and support developing countries and recognize that the only real borders are drawn on paper.
"The world is increasingly connected," said Jianguo "Jack" Liu, the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Michigan State University. "If we want to make the environment in China better – and there are many important reasons for us to – the whole world needs to do something about it."
Liu, University Distinguished professor and director of the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability at MSU, has joined with Pulitzer-prize winning author Jared Diamond, professor of geography and physiology at UCLA, to write "China's Environment in a Globalizing World – How China and the Rest of the World Affect Each Other" in the June 30 issue of the international science journal Nature.
In the cover-story feature article, Liu and Diamond outline the striking changes to China's environment, including:
- Much of China's rapidly growing economy, coal mining and cement, paper, and chemical production, still rests on outdated, inefficient, or polluting technology. Industrial energy efficiency overall is much lower than that of the developed nations.
- Almost all coastal seas are polluted.
- Freshwater fisheries are being severely degraded by pollution and overfishing.
- Environmental damage has caused severe economic losses, social conflicts and human health dangers.
- Lifestyle changes have meant that the number of China's households grew almost three times as fast as its population during 1985-2000 because average household size declined dramatically. Reduction in household size alone led to 80 million more households in China from 1985-2000, an increase exceeding the total number of households in Russia and Canada. Smaller households use resources less efficiently.
"China's environmental problems also spill over to other countries, which are increasingly affected through sharing the same planet, atmosphere, and oceans with China," Liu and Diamond note. "In turn, other countries affect China's environment through globalization as well as through their own environmental pollution and resource exploitation."
Liu and Diamond itemize a litany of push and pull between China and the rest of the world. The hallmark is environmental damage which places economic, social and health burdens with which China is ill-equipped to cope.
The developed nations, Liu and Diamond argue, carry a strong moral obligation to lead in helping the developing nations protect the environment and achieve economic sustainability. In the developed nations, the big picture is easier to see on a full stomach. Protections – such as laws, zoning rules and regulations – are possible thanks to the luxury of economic power. The developing nations' first priority on the most basic needs makes bigger-picture concerns harder to address.
"When China produces something for export, they use natural resources and release pollutants to the environment," Liu said. "You leave the pollution behind. Thus, importing countries contribute to China's environmental problems."
The developing nations offer lucrative markets, but markets that come with an environmental price. Diamond noted that Westerners must realize China's benefits come at a price.
"China increasingly affects the rest of the world, because China's huge population, combined with its high rate of economic growth, translates into large and growing resource consumption and impact on the world's shared pool of finite resources," Diamond said. "It's impossible for the West to tell China that we in the West will maintain our high consumption rates but that China mustn't try to catch up. Something will have to change."
Among the authors' recommendations:
- Aggressive support of education in China. An educated population better understands global and environmental impacts – the first step toward affecting change.
- "Environmental education is important, but it's not enough," Liu said. "You have to enhance education in general. People who have more schooling have the ability to develop new technology and use technology to understand and solve some of these problems."
- Rigorous implementation and enforcement of environmental laws and regulations already on the books in China, an effort that will require greater funding.
- Use market tools to address environmental issues, such as eliminating subsidies for industries that severely harm the environment, like coal.
- Address lifestyle issues, such as household size and even divorce, which have an environmental impact. Liu and Diamond even suggest examining the benefits of mandatory waiting period of divorce, saying divorce ultimately has negative environmental impacts.
It's time, Liu says, to realize the other side of the world really is the back yard and good neighbors don't just borrow, but also return favors.
"This is not just a recommendation for China but for the whole world," Liu said. "We focus on China, but that doesn't mean only China needs to do this. "
Source: Eurekalert & othersLast reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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