China Burning: This is Not a Drill

Chinese residents of Ningbo, breathing through face masks, protest the announced expansion of a petrochemical plant, while in Beijing, shrouded by air pollution, a spectacular stage production praises the country’s progress. (Photo tableau by Tjebbe van Tijen/Flickr)

Chinese residents of Ningbo, breathing through face masks, protest the announced expansion of a petrochemical plant, while in Beijing, shrouded by air pollution, a spectacular stage production praises the country’s progress. (Photo tableau by Tjebbe van Tijen/Flickr)

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.

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4 Responses to China Burning: This is Not a Drill

  1. thank you for using my picture
    BUT Creative Commons menas to include a link to the original picture in its original context; please add that to this page

    thank you

    ex TL: It is done. I apologize for the oversight. Your tableaus are amazing.

  2. BeezleyBub says:

    ►In 2008, China’s banks were worth 10 Trillion Dollars.
    ►In 2013 China’s banks were worth 25 Trillion Dollars.
    ►In just 5 years it grew a magical 15 Trillion Dollars!
    ►The entire 15 Trillion Dollar U.S. Commercial Banking System took 100 years to get to that size.
    ►The entire 15 Trillion Dollar U.S. Annual Economy (GDP) took 100 years to get that big.
    ►The China Bubble is the BIGGEST and FASTEST financial bubble in all of recorded human history.
    ►All bubbles burst as they drive gas prices higher and price spikes poke pin pricks in the bubble.
    ►This collapse will happen around the super-critical 2015 Paris climate negotiations rendering them useless.
    Why Is This Important?
    ► 90% of Lions gone since 1993.
    ► 90% of Big Ocean Fish gone since 1950.
    ► 50% of Great Barrier Reef gone since 1985.
    ► 50% of Fresh Water Fish gone since 1987.
    ► 30% of Marine Birds gone since 1995.
    ► 28% of Land Animals gone since 1970.
    ► 28% of All Marine Animals gone since 1970.
    ► 50% of All Vertebrate Species gone by 2040.
    ► Extinctions are 1000 times faster than normal.
    ► Ocean acidification doubles by 2050.
    ► Ocean acidification triples by 2100.
    ► 90 elephants are killed every single day.
    ► 2-3 rhinos are killed every single day.
    Why Is This Important?
    MONEY = POWER = MONEY etc.
    Energy conservation or efficiency doesn’t really save energy, but instead spurs economic growth and accelerated energy consumption. Here is the future.
    ►1/100th watt = $1 of global economic activity.
    ►500 megawatts = 1 average power plant.
    ►600 megawatts = China’s increased coal use every 10 days for the next 10 years.
    ►500,000 megawatts = 500 planned new nuclear plants for China by 2050.
    ►25 billion megawatts = World power output in 2014.
    ► Each Day, C02 per megawatt of power increases.
    ► Every 4½ days, 1,000,000 new carbon users are born.
    ► How many windmills, solar panels and batteries will give us just today’s 25 billion megawatts?
    Why is This Important?
    ► Hadley Centre for Meteorological Research (2009): +4°C by 2060.
    ► United Nations Environment Programme (2010) up to: +5°C by 2050.
    Why Is This Important?
    All the world wants 2 things, jobs and a liveable planet. We can’t actually have both without building a new nuclear plant every day to the end, according to Tim Garrett of Utah U, a guy who is seriously into economic thermodynamics.
    We are on track to wipe out three-quarters of life on earth in 300 years ― at most. While solar and wind power are useful, we cannot afford the ecological cost of running all our mega cities on just that type of power. Too many heavy and rare-earth metals, along with conflict minerals, would be required. The smog from the graphite mines alone, used to make the rechargeable batteries, would choke the planet. Even liquid metal batteries are too big and unsustainable.
    i forgot hydrogen as gas batteries new lower production costs and safety.
    H-fuel cells double efficacy have fewer parts for urban transit, Hydrogen can now be made directly from sunlight. Hydrogen vehicles only produce water vapour tailpipe emissions.

    • SomeoneInAsia says:

      So we just have to switch to hydrogen en masse and our problems are solved?

      Yeah, right.

  3. SomeoneInAsia says:

    Continuing from the above article:

    5. Education. The Great Communist Party is nourishing the 1.4 billion minds of this great nation with invaluable nationalistic doctrine to the effect that (1) they are truly being led towards a glorious future by the Party which has only their highest good in mind; that (2) they should therefore put their trust completely in the Party and never, ever ask a single question; and that (3) articles such as the above are blasphemies coming from foreign devils who either just don’t understand China or are filled with evil intentions.

    I don’t think China’s story warrants being viewed as a Greek tragedy, by the way. Greek tragedy is supposed to arouse the emotions of pity and terror. But China’s story only makes me want to stick up my middle finger in the Party’s face instead.