The United States is going green, albeit in fits and starts, with modest increases in automobile fuel efficiency, a smattering of wind power, and a shrugging acceptance of electric cars. Conservation is not a word that falls easily off the American tongue and fracking provides a new messiah excuse for the burn baby burn school of energy that refuses to lip serve any virtue in conservation. Still, we are getting there.
China is not very green. Everything is wrapped in plastic, there is little recycling; they drive cars as big as ours and are building roads to carry more and more of them. It will be some time before they consume as much energy per capita as we do, but it could happen. While we are starting to trend in a conservation direction, their trajectory is still up and up.
Many in the US believe that China needs to turn the conservation corner and be more sensitive to environmental and climate issues. The Chinese insist that we had our time to develop and now it is their turn, climate can wait. But China is no longer a developing country; it is a developed country. Sure, some areas are still lagging twenty-first century standards, but that is true in the US as well. Much, much of China is fully developed and it is time for China to put more focus on the global impact of their rampant growth spurt.
When I was working in Nanjing, every day my fellow workers looked at the sky and muttered, “It’s not very sunny today.” The sun was up there, obscured by the grey pall that hovers over the city. Their obstinate denial of pollution is an elephant in the room sort of party joke. Though no one would voice it directly, I felt their grief in lamenting the sun, worried that it might never shine on Nanjing again. One day I explained that the United States used to have grey skies but now they are clear again. They accepted those words with more gratitude than anything else I added to our work together.
Eventually the Chinese will wake up and decide their pollution is unacceptable, both physically and economically, and they will decide to fix it. Once that occurs, the characteristic difference between the US and China will shine through. When the Chinese government orders reductions in carbon emissions and recycling of solid waste, these hazards will be addressed faster and more comprehensively than we do in the United States. The debates and lobbying and competing interests that play out in public here stay behind closed doors in China until a government edict emerges and a billion people all change their habits.
It has been forty years since the environmental movement nudged the United States to clean up our water and reduce pollution, yet we are still arguing about emissions standards and climate science. We are an argumentative nation that airs many opinions; if not perfectly, at least with a broader range than in China.
The United States will get to green incrementally. The only question is will we go far enough, fast enough to avoid climate catastrophe. China can get to green quickly once it decides to go. The only question is will it turn its environmental course around soon enough to avoid climate catastrophe.
Haze over Nanjing