China has proved to be so much better than us at fouling its own nest that it is winning hands-down the lemming-like race we are having to the edge of the cliff that defines the end of the industrial age. China — Communist! China — has adopted our religion (the absolute love of money) with a zeal that makes the archbishops of Wall Street look like apostates. It has sacrificed to its new found god its air, land, water and now its financial system, at such speed it is beginning to blaze like a rock falling into the atmosphere. As the country singer puts it: “Falling feels like flying — for a little while.”
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but can turn out badly when the object of the admiration is suicidal. China adopted all our vices at once — relocation of the rural population to jammed cities, runaway industrial and commercial development, electrification, automobilization, to name a few. And it not take any of our virtues, such as a free press, a vibrant environmental movement, a once-strong regulatory environment. It wanted, and it got, a machine that moved at blinding speed and that had no brakes. There have been casualties.
1. Air. China’s air pollution, chiefly from coal-burning power stations, has become legendary. Citizens are so desperate for fresh air they are flocking to breathing stations set up in several cities where they get to slip on a face mask for a few minutes and breathe from a bag of sweet mountain air trucked in from far away. (Entrepreneur alert: remember when we thought the idea of selling water in little bottles was funny? Canned air is now one of China’s hot products. Along with face masks.) Citizens were also snapping up the new smog insurance that offered to pay off if the insured was sickened by smog, or had to endure too much pollution for too many days. The government shut the new offering down, saying it seemed too much like a lottery. A report out last month said that of the 74 cities put under a stern mandate by the central government to reduce air pollution, a total of three reported some progress. The government tightened the restrictions.
2. Water is just as bad. Twenty per cent of China’s rivers are considered toxic — which is to say you should not only not drink the water, you should not touch it. Another 40 per cent are “seriously” polluted. Half the public drinking water systems in cities deliver water that is of poor quality or worse. Offshore, a vast area of toxic water has formed because factories are dumping 32 billion tons of (mostly untreated) wastewater through 435 discharge pipes directly into the ocean. The government announced in February a $300 million program to start dealing with this.
3. Land. Civilization requires at least six inches of healthy topsoil, and China has been destroying its foundation far more quickly than has American agribusiness. A combination of deadly heavy metals from manufacturing and overused pesticides and fertilizer have rendered unusable eight million acres of Chinese farmland — at a time when the margin between food produced and food consumed is razor thin. China announced in March it has a big, expensive plan to start dealing with that.
4. Finance. Now the wheels are starting to come off the country’s financial system. Shaken by the near collapse of the financial system in the west — a consequence of hideous levels of personal debt resting on a foundation of overvalued real estate — the Chinese vowed to avoid a similar fate by over-building real estate with hideous levels of personal debt. They called it a stimulus program. Since 2008 they have been building a skyscraper, on average, every five days, not to mention 30 airports and 26,000 miles of highway. With borrowed money. So much borrowed money that debt now exceeds 200 percent of China’s GDP. (When US debt approached 100% of GDP, panic ensued.) All secured by real estate, an astounding proportion of which is empty and unused. The implosion is expected momentarily.
China’s self-destruction is a story befitting Greek tragedy or an Homeric ode. It is fraught with significance and moral instruction for our age. But if it happens on a day an airplane gets misplaced or a celebrity gets a DUI charge, we probably won’t hear about it.