Without question, China is to blame for some of the most notorious environmental catastrophes in recent history. From the Three Gorges Dam to the 20-square-mile Guiyu electronics dump, there is no shortage of sobering examples. It would be futile to argue that China is doing the natural world any favors.
But there are no surprises here — much like America in its Roaring Twenties, China is running an irresistible race toward “the good life” in a feverishly breakneck frenzy. That coveted modern lifestyle is made in a single-minded, heavy-handed industrial machine and places a strain on the earth’s ability to sustain the human species.
As bleak as this sounds, mankind remains the ingenious and adaptable creature that built the modern world. We will eventually fumble our way out of the dark and dirty coal shaft into a smoother, cleaner, more efficient industrial era. But is any country in a position to lead the way?
Europe is inextricably mired in its own economic crises. It faces industrial stagnation, urban decay and crippling debt. The U.S. isn’t exactly high and dry either. Being “developed” means everything is already paved, constructed and wired. Though it’s not as good as it could be, our infrastructure is functional enough and leads to complacency — a technological lock-in of sorts.
Compounding this problem, our bipartisan one-bill-at-a-time political system produces piecemeal legislation according to the ebb and flow of political tides. This precludes farsighted, cohesive and adaptable strategies needed to respond to the gradual but catastrophic threat of environmental meltdown.
Moreover, the West has a long history of isolating single goals and finding blunt ways to achieve them. The ancient Greek penchant for breaking the world down into bite-sized nuggets of knowledge was in many ways responsible for the scientific method.
As successful as this worldview has been, it’s often disastrously simplistic when applied to complex ecosystems. This way of thought led Germany to plant neat monoculture rows of Norway pine in lieu of natural forests to maximize lumber output. Though these monoculture “forests” were extremely productive for a single generation of trees, this system quickly led to ecological collapse in what Aldo Leopold called Germany’s “passion for unnecessary outdoor geometry.”
By contrast, China (and, to varying degrees, the rest of East Asia) has a long history of systems-oriented philosophies and religions focused on the balance of a complex flux of “qi” energy. This holistic leaning is also a proven cognitive difference. In one study where Westerners and Asians were asked to describe an aquatic scene, Westerners usually began their sentences by zeroing in on the biggest fish and describing its actions. Asians tended to describe the system as a whole, first identifying the scene as a pond or aquarium with several fish, pebbles and seaweed. This culturally ingrained wide lens view puts Asians at a distinct advantage with respect to environmental issues that generally require a broad recognition of many mutually dependent variables.
In fact, feudal Japanese dam-builders only made incremental adjustments on the assumption that it was impossible to account for every variable affecting the outcome. On the other hand, the West has a long history of approaching environmental problems much like the sorcerer’s apprentice, who made drastic corrections with unanticipated externalities.
Far beyond China’s philosophical and cultural dispositions, its size makes its policies global game-changers. When your population accounts for a sixth of the world, you have a sufficiently large stake in the health of the planet to mitigate the tragedy of the commons.
China also nimbly sidesteps the paralyzing effects of economic lock-in and piecemeal policy-making. The government, today communist virtually only by name, functions as a competitive corporate hierarchy capable of creating and implementing long-term cohesive plans. In contrast to the unpredictable investment environment spawned by the U.S.’s on-again-off-again alternative energy subsidies, China’s commitments to similar measures in its Five-Year Plans launched Chinese manufacturers to dominate both the wind and solar markets in only a few years.
While it’s clear China is still far from environmental sainthood, its circumstances put it at the forefront of a world hurtling toward a tipping point where people must adapt or die. Just as biodiversity creates a hardy ecosystem in which changing conditions kill one species and perpetuate another, the world’s various cultures and political systems offer different advantages in different times. The Industrial Revolution was the West’s great triumph. But will our transition beyond the Fossil Fuel Age represent a changing of the guards that catapults the East into its own global dynasty?
Natalee Pei is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.