Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Pursuing the Pearl

China’s economic boon in the last 10-15 years is probably the best thing that could happen to the United States. It has brought innumerable and invaluable attention to our own situation in the world, our desires, our policies, and our future. More than any other nation in the globalization movement, China has brought the powerful gaze of American society to bear upon itself. And from that introspection, we all can benefit, should the American’s take stock of what the Chinese have so kindly pointed out to us.

The booming Chinese economy has thrust many issues to the forefront of global awareness. None of those is more prominent than the consumption patterns of Western nations, especially the United States. Any environmentalist, when the subject of 1st world nation consumption is broached, will immediately recount the fact that the Untied States, despite being only 5% of the world population, consumes approximately 25% of the resources of the globe. While this can be a mere factoid at times, when one looks at the development of 3rd world nations, it becomes alarmingly prominent. The 3rd world desires one thing more than others: to have a standard of living equal to that of the first. Especially upon gaining that first taste of 1st world living, their desire increases exponentially. They want to drive a new car, watch MTV, and drink a cold Coke in their very own house. And who could blame them? The problem with this is the model that the 1st world nations, especially the United States, have set for this mode of consumption. China has begun to emulate this form of consumption, and it could have dire consequences. For one example, the per-captia household size in China is steadily decreasing, from 4.5 persons per house in 1985 to 3.5 in 2000, and on track to be 2.7 by 2015. With the dream of everyone owning their own home, even though their population growth is near zero they are projected to add 126 millions new households in the next 10 years (more than the total number of households in the United States). If you also add in the number of per capita cars that the United States has which China would like to acquire and the other accoutrements that make up a “1st work lifestyle,” the world is unable to support such a large number of people living as we do. This has caused a deal of alarm, as the two major economic powerhouses will quite possibly become competitors in the resource market.

How can we deny them the chance to become as great as us? To suppress the world as we extend our own legacy is shortsighted, and will not have a good ending. They look to the 1st world as the benchmark of standard of living, including consumption patterns. They could very easily point to the United States and say, "Look, you did whatever it took to grow into what you are now ... now it's our turn. You have no moral authority to tell us otherwise, so be gone." However, if the 5.8 billion other people in the world started acting like Americans, the world would fall far beyond our poor power to compensate for the destruction. Someone has to take a stand somewhere and try to divert the river from its present course. While we do not have the right to tell them not to grow, there should be some sense of duty that we need to advise them how we have destroyed our own soil, water, and air. We grew; we industrialized during a very primitive time, environmentally wise, and are only now being to see the consequences. People then did not know about greenhouse gases, CFCs, the fragility of ecosystems, the dangers that strip-mining and clear-cutting have to the greater environment (agriculture and urban life included). Even as late as the 50s companies were pouring mercury into the oceans by the tons. DDT was legal into the 70s. Now that is not to be used as an excuse for our growth while other nations lingered, nor is it an excuse for our current environmental problems. Environmental science has always lagged behind economic prosperity; it wasn't considered a viable problem/concern until now.

Now must the introspection turn inward. If we cannot forbid them to grow, but the world cannot sustain the whole planet consuming as we do now, where do we tread? Advising is a credible solution, but if the 1st world nations are to provide a positive role-model, a co-creator of solutions to problems both of our own making and others following, there are serious issues that need to be addressed. And I think that these issues have not been pushed to the forefront as ardently until China clamored upon the global stage to stand next to us. Only then, with their shadow looming over the economic, social, and environmental horizon could we awake from our complicity as the world’s head honcho that we’ve held for 50 years. Only then could we look at our reflection, magnified five times, and see what we would look like should we continue down this road. And this is a good thing, as Americans are unwilling to look at these issues when it is at their convenience. But the competition is driving these points home, and opening eyes to the fact that solutions need answering. Thank you China.

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