Monday, May 13, 2013

Climate: China's Response to the West

I'm interested in the question: how are we going to solve the climate problem if China doesn't immediately change course and move toward a carbon-free economy? And how can we possibly expect China to see the value of a carbon-free economy if the United States doesn't move first to become carbon-free, and to do a lot of explaining about how it came to set the wrong example for so long for the rest of the world?

Much of my college studies were devoted to China, and much of my China studies were devoted to the issue of China's response to the West. In fact, it is nearly impossible to understand the dilemma we face today without confronting the position in which we placed China and Japan (and other countries) in the preceding several hundred years. At the risk of oversimplifying, I think it's fair to say that we threatened them and beat them up, and sent a very clear message: figure out how to be like us -- or better yet, even more like us than us -- if you don't wish to be wiped out.

During the 1980s and 1990s, when I was traveling frequently to China, I was one of the thousands of Westerners who was dazzled by how rapidly China was developing, and by how successfully they were using technology to "leapfrog" the West. For instance, during that period they accomplished a high-degree of national integration by rapidly expanding air routes and purchasing Western aircraft. Later, they skipped the nuisance of ubiquitous land lines and rapidly set up a nationwide cellphone system.

At the same time, I saw signs that China might be able to resist doing certain things "the American way." I saw superhighways being built, and shuddered to think how many cars China's drivers might fill those highways with. I also saw the Chinese enthusiasm for consumer goods, and couldn't resist thinking that it is a great thing to succeed at making consumer goods but another to succumb to building your own society itself around the worship of those goods.

And therein lies the rub: it's a little hard for people from "don't-fence-me-in" America, a land which has defined its own freedom in terms of the automobile and the lure of the open road, to suggest to China that it should stick with public transit and bicycles. (It's particularly striking when you lay the map of China over the map of the United States, and see how similar the geography of the two countries is.)

In other words, we have a "me-not-you-ism" problem: we expect to be able to say that one thing is good for me, but you should live by other standards. And at the same time, people in China are inclined to respond: "In fact, I'll worry about me; don't confuse me and you."

Another thing I saw during my travels was giganticism, of the sort epitomized by the mammoth Three Gorges Project. So much of our climate crisis has to do with the tendency to do everything we do big Big BIG! This tendency to do things up big can be breathtaking, and inspiring, but it also entails enormous risks and maybe it's time that we all agreed to see how we might curtail our temptations toward grandeur.

I think that in order to understand the challenge that China and the U.S. face together, we need to talk about such things as: innovation, investment, and trade politics (for example, in such things as solar panels); our respective resource curses; our common "good earth" roots; our even greater paired fates as two "waterworlds"; and ultimately the fact that China and the U.S., are, in fact "oneworld," certainly in terms of the air that surrounds us.

Most of all, we need to confront the fact that, as things stand now, neither the U.S. nor China has an ethics that is powerful enough to cope with a species that is hurtling toward self-destruction. THAT is what our shared dialog should be about.

MORE: #chinaEARTHusa - Radical Change? or Planetocide?

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