The (impossible) American dream

For many in the developing world, it seems as if western countries have combined high-income lifestyles with a clean environment. But the truth is not so simple, writes Dale Wen, and it’s time for Chinese people to rethink their model of development.

The algae outbreak in Taihu Lake last year set off alarm bells in China once again. Looking closely at the root causes of the country’s ever-increasing ecological problems, two things become clear. First, such disasters are the result of a conventional model of economic development. Second, if China continues with this model it will not find any real solutions. 

China’s economic development has become trapped by what globalisation theorists call “latecomer disadvantage”. Late-developing countries need to expend a huge effort attracting industry to their shores. Consequently, highly polluting western companies receive special treatment as they move in to development zones across China. In order to maintain comparative advantage, many regions have overlooked the environmental cost of introducing these companies. In fact, many local governments have acknowledged – tacitly or otherwise – that the environment is the price to be paid for maintaining cost advantage. This situation has directly led to the environmental crisis that we now see in China. It also enables developed counties to plunder these late-developers. Most worryingly of all, this model of development is totally unsustainable.

Sustainability in the west

On the surface, it appears as though the people of the US, Europe and Japan have high incomes and highly consumptive lifestyles, yet enjoy a clean environment. It often looks as though we Chinese could enjoy a similar lifestyle if our technology were as advanced, our legal system as strict, our officials as clean and our people as educated as in those countries. But have these nations really achieved sustainable development? And is it actually possible for us to emulate their model?

Let’s start by considering these questions in terms of the Earth’s capacity to support life. The Living Planet Report, published by WWF in 2006, shows us how the planet is already overburdened. The demand for resources from the current human population is already 125% of what the Earth can provide. We are no longer living on nature’s interest: we have started eating into the initial investment. If we carry on consuming ecological resources at our current rate, total environmental collapse is inevitable. But the countries that consume the most are not the low- and middle-income countries where most of the Earth’s population resides. They are technologically-advanced, high-income countries with low population densities, such as the US. With only 5% of the world’s population, the US consumes around 25% of its resources. Developing countries with high populations such as China and India cannot hope to copy the US model of development. Even if we had the same advanced technology as the US, for every Chinese citizen to enjoy an American lifestyle we would need 1.12 planets. Clearly, this is an impossibility.

The countries of the west, therefore, are the real bad guys. They will find it hard enough to maintain their current lifestyles. Yet China has the world’s largest population, per capita consumption at less-than-half the world average and scarce resources. For the country to successfully follow the western model of development is impossible. We need to change our thinking, figure out how to make our resources work for us and distribute them efficiently.

An end to looting

High-income countries are home to around 15% of the world’s population. Their biological capacity represents 28% of the earth’s total, but they currently use up around 55%. How did this happen? Although developing countries largely achieved their political independence in the past several decades, economic independence is still a long way off. The naked looting of resources that took place during the colonial era may have passed, but in the globalised economy developing countries are still at the bottom of the ladder, where they provide cheap labour and resources to satisfy the excessive consumption of developed countries. If it were not for the painfully cheap labour involved in Chinese manufacturing and the similarly low costs of developing-world agricultural produce, the people of the US and Europe would be unable to enjoy their high consumption levels or cleaner environment.

China’s export-oriented economy – the so-called “workshop of the world” – has achieved great things, but it is now time to reflect on our situation. Take the textile industry, for instance. Clothes produced in China are exported all over the world, but Chinese companies only see 10% of the profits: the rest ends up in the pockets of western brands. Textile manufacture and dyeing is water-intensive and highly polluting, as is cotton production. To produce one kilogram of cotton requires roughly four kilograms of insecticide and fertiliser – and 11 cubic metres of water. If environmental costs are taken into account, the already tiny profit margins of the Chinese textile industry could even slide into negative figures. Besides textiles, many other resource-intensive, highly-polluting manufacturing industries have been transferred to China by developed countries. China is not just the workshop of the world – it has become its kitchen, sewer and rubbish tip. This is more than the already fragile Chinese environment can take. We have given our labour, resources and environment in exchange for a tiny proportion of the profits – and the rest of the world’s scorn. Cheap Chinese goods even inspire trade embargoes. The gains cannot compensate for these losses.

Exporting pollution

In the past few decades the environmental movement has achieved a number of local successes in western countries. Air and water pollution have been brought under control, and green areas are conserved, but this is still largely in middle-class areas of these countries. Most problems are not solved, but transferred to other areas. For example, polluting industries are often moved to poor areas of the country, and waste from electrical appliances is (sometimes illegally) exported to countries like China and India.

We have to ask if problems can really be solved by externalising pollution. Greenhouse-gas emissions are a global phenomenon and cannot be exported: we all live on the same planet. In the first half of 2007, for example, Beijing moved 200 factories to the outskirts of the city or other cities entirely. Many cities, rather than controlling water pollution, are bringing in water from further and further away, and extending channels so that polluted water is deposited further away. As one rural resident put it to me: “If it’s pollution in the city, it’s still pollution in the countryside.”

Living simply

A friend from the US once told me: “Our single planet cannot afford the rich any more”. If Chinese people see the lifestyle of an average American as the benchmark for prosperity, and US citizens see the lifestyle of wealthy businessmen like Bill Gates as the benchmark for prosperity, then the earth will never be able to satisfy our consumerist desires. With this in mind, the US conservation movement has as its motto: “Live simply, so others can simply live.”

The problem is reducing our personal impact on the environment can only make up for a tiny proportion of the damage done to the environment by the pursuit of wealth by large corporations and governments. Individual actions are important, but they are tiny when considered on a system-wide level. The problem, therefore, has to be tackled at the level of government.

China does not have the resources to support US levels of consumption, even if rural residents turned over all their land to make into roads. And is our model of urban life, where people drive to the gym to use an exercise bike, really that wonderful? Is it really what we want? Or what our consumerism tells us we want? The Chinese government is promoting the “scientific view of development” and the concept of “putting people first”; both of these ideas reflect on our current model of development. Is it now time for Chinese people to rethink the American dream?

Dale Wen is a scholar living in the US. She works for the International Forum on Globalization, a North-South non-profit organisation based in San Francisco with members including well-known social activists, economists, authors, scholars and researchers from 25 different countries.

Homepage photo by crizk