It is increasingly likely that our ailing Western industrialized economy will be preceded in collapse by that of China, whose degradation of the natural web of life has been far faster and more profound than ours. Every six months or so I check on China’s disintegration, plowing through metric tons of punditry on its Miracle-Grow GDP, its rising military power, its imperial ambitions — to come upon a patient in ICU, nearly comatose. If America is Dead Man Walking with respect to food, water, air and soil quality, China is The Walking Dead. [Really? I have to explain that? One is about a man about to die, the other about a zombie, already dead.]
China’s warp-speed industrialization, which blasted off in the 1990s, has destroyed its natural infrastructure “on a scale and speed the world has never known,” says director Jennifer Turner of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The intention was to follow our American model of progress to prosperity; the unintended consequence has been to become a model for us of how quickly the industrial age can crash.
Life is still tenable in China, but only if the following rules are strenuously obeyed;
1. Don’t Breathe the Air. Air pollution in China has become legendary. Half the coal burned in the world is consumed by China’s generating plants and factories, and the resulting pollution regularly brings major cities to a standstill, making it impossible to drive or go outside, thus to open schools or businesses. A recent study by its own Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences ranked Beijing’s air as the second worst among the world’s major cities and labelled the city as barely habitable. Since then the government has begun a war on coal, vowing to shutter hundreds of coal-burning power plants. Turns out, though, it’s building bigger ones to replace them, and coal burning is expected to increase for the foreseeable future.
2. Don’t Touch the Water. Over half of China’s lakes and reservoirs are too polluted for human use; over half of China’s groundwater is too polluted for human use; and over half of China’s rural residents do not have safe drinking water. According to an editor of The Economist, which did a report on China’s water, “There are large parts of the urban water supply which are not only too dangerous to drink—they are too dangerous to touch.” 400 major cities are short of water, 110 of them seriously. More than half of the 50,000 rivers that existed 20 years ago are simply gone — used up.
3. Don’t Eat the Food. What may be the worst environmental threat of all — soil contamination — has just recently emerged from the fog of official denial and secrecy (or maybe it was just the air pollution). It has only recently come to light that the toxic emissions of thousands of hastily-built, unregulated chemical, ceramic and similar factories have so saturated their surrounding soils with carcinogens that China has an estimated 450 “cancer villages,” whose entire populations have been sickened by food grown in the toxic soil and laced with heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium.
But the problem of soil contamination is hardly limited to nearby villages. A recent government survey, dribbled into public view by a frightened and reticent government, indicates that nearly 20 per cent of China’s farmland is contaminated with heavy metals. As a result, the food supply is riddled with contaminated rice and other grains. According to one Greenpeace researcher in-country,”Every consumer in China is exposed to this kind of pollution.”
To review, then: a country whose capital city is barely habitable, half of whose water is unusable, 20 per cent of whose farmland is unusable, whose demand for ever more coal and oil to burn is insatiable, is being discussed as a rising global power and a threat to the American Empire.
Right up there with Bangladesh.