24 September 2007

Cleaning up China

An editorial in this morning's NTY argues that the exponential development in China over the last 20 years has created a crisis in "devastating environmental impact" that that can't be over come by the slipshod pollutions controls China is now setting. (Read the full opinion piece here: Cleaning Up China: China’s government bears primary responsibility for failing to address the devastating environmental consequences of its breakneck growth.)

I have to say this is true, China does have an epic pollution problem. But guess who encouraged them? Hello! World Bank! US Policy!

In 1991, Lawrence Summers — then the World Bank’s chief economist and later Bill Clinton’s Treasury secretary — wrote a memo suggesting that the bank should encourage the world’s dirty industries to move to developing countries. The forgone earnings of workers sickened or killed by pollution would be lower in low-wage countries, he noted, while people in poor countries also cared less about a clean environment. “The economic logic of dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable,” he wrote.

Mr. Summers later apologized, saying his words were “sardonic counterpoint,” meant to spur new thinking about the environment and development. In any case, the World Bank’s encouragement wasn’t needed. In the 16 years since, a large share of the world’s polluting industries have migrated to the largest low-wage country of all, China, helping to turn big swaths of its landscape into an environmental disaster zone.

And in the intervening years while American industries have dumped toxic waste in Chinese rivers have we cleaned up our own and set the good example? Not! “Endangered rivers this year face a dizzying array of threats from sewage pollution, proposals for unnecessary dams, power lines to highways but all have one thing in common. These are rivers at a crossroads,” said Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers. “This is a make or break year for all ten rivers on the list.”

So, we encourage China to take all our ugly industry so American manufacturers can pay less for cheap goods they export to American consumers while paying crap wages to Chinese workers in jobs with no benefit and even less safety regulation. And, oh yeah BTW, now American workers are out of jobs. And now, even while America is the largest producer of greenhouse gasses, we can stand back and say: "Hey China get your act together" and suggest that "Beijing could start investing some of the hundreds of billions of dollars China earns on exports in social and environmental programs at home." Damn, we do hypocrisy well!

As someone who has traveled to China off and on over the last 10 years I have to say I see immense changes to the air quality and the levels of general pollution. Recycling has become a huge and profitable industry in China. And "Startup companies are being launched every day to develop pollution-control technologies, improve energy efficiency, and create alternate sources of power. The $220 million in clean-tech venture capital China received last year puts it ahead of Europe as a venue for new environmental companies." (From CNN Money Is China turning green?)

Maybe it is time for America to stop trying to distract the world from a close look at America's bad habits by pointing the finger elsewhere. Maybe we ought to look for the log in our own eye before complaining about the splinter in someone else's.

Recycling Bin in Loyang

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