There is something in our nature that draws comfort from the knowledge that there are people like us who are much worse off. It’s not a pretty attribute, but it’s there, especially when the people are a lot like us, and are worse off for the same reasons that make us fear our own future. So let us take a moment’s respite from our knowledge of the impending consequences of squandering our natural resources, as we contemplate the same fate, bearing down on our supposed enemies. Even faster. (Admit it. You feel better already. Happy Holidays.)
Consider China: loved as our banker, feared as our creditor, loved as the provider of our Mart Mart bargains, feared as a rising global military power, admired for creating more private wealth faster than anyone not on Wall Street and feared as a Communist country. Moreover — and you may be reading this here for the first time — China is deeply, achingly envied by America’s political and economic players because Chinese players can do whatever the hell they want to do without kowtowing to regulators, tree-huggers or journalists. To industrialists, that is heaven on earth.
But be careful what you wish for. China can build a power plant wherever and whenever it wishes, and can burn in it, and emit from it, whatever it wants to, yet somehow cannot manage to keep the lights on. Every winter sees electrical rationing and blackouts over wide areas as seasonal demand rises. And this is not a normal winter in China any more than it is in Europe or America.
According to Reuters, under an onslaught of cold and violent winter weather, “Central China’s Hubei province started rationing power supplies to some users from Wednesday, following similar moves by neighboring Henan and northern Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces as coal stocks at power plants dwindled.” It seems that even with absolute power, unhindered by meddlers, the Chinese government cannot build enough power plants, nor mine and transport enough coal, to meet the needs of its people. The shortfall is expected to reach 60 million kilowatt-hours per day by the end of December.
Moreover, Public Radio International reports that the attempt to increase supplies claimed the lives of 1,600 miners last year, and unrestrained burning of coal has draped the country in thick smog, blamed by the World Bank for some 700,000 deaths. Chinese scientists think the pollution is changing rain patterns in the whole country, to the detriment of food production. Even the tourist industry is suffering from smoke damage to artifacts, buildings and views.
Thus much of China teeters on the edge of catastrophe as wild weather batters its grid (more than 600,000 households were without power in one province, one day this week) at the same time that drought has reduced water flows at its Three Gorges dam (the world’s biggest!) by 26 percent. Meanwhile the State Grid, the Chinese company responsible for all these crises, demonstrated to the world that it is not at all discouraged, by announcing yesterday that it is buying seven electric power companies in Brazil for a billion dollars.
American coal operators are doing everything they can to help China. They are trying to build several new ports on the West Coast to handle coal exports to the struggling giant. The first of the ports, proposed for the Columbia River in Washington, would handle nearly six million tons a year (while the coal industry touts their product as a source of American energy independence from unreliable foreign countries).
But here we have another example of the constant tree-hugger interference that restrains downward progress in this country. Environmentalists have delayed the port’s construction start by at least a year by claiming it’s illogical to be shutting down coal-burning plants in the American Northwest in order to reduce pollution, and then ship the coal to be burned in China without regard for pollution.
With any bad luck at all, this port would be approved, and dozens more, so that without much further delay the fate of the growing American peasant class, dealing with coal and oil shortages, blackouts and wild weather and pollution, would be bad enough to offer solace to the afflicted but growing Chinese middle class.