17 January 2013

Growth and the Destruction of the Environment: Do We Have any Right to Make These Choices for the Chinese?

*Picture taken from the NYT "Room for Debate" page.  Find the Link here. 

The argument about the choices faced by societies between economic growth and environmental damage becomes increasingly important as much of the non-Western European world, most notably China's pace of industrialization speeds up.

At this point it has become almost cliche to pick on the New York Times for running ignorant economic analysis and presenting it as fact. This time they at least had the good sense to relegate the ignorance to the opinion section. 

There are issues with each of the four individual arguments made in this forum published on the Times website about economic growth.   In this "debate" however, I want to point out what was not included in the arguments, that is, an acknowledgment of the historical context, rather than critiquing what was written. 

So often (almost always) in arguments from westerners about the "proper" path for growth in the developing world, especially in China, the argument is made that there needs to be a balance between growth and environmental sustainability.  We are far more educated about the environmental and health costs of industrial pollution than any generation before us.

There are (of course) two sides to this growth coin.  The positive way of viewing this argument is that countries that are developing now, can, and should, learn from the mistakes of The US, Western Europe and the former Soviet Union.  China "learning" from our "mistakes" and slowing growth to preserve the environment is a popular stance in the west.  Clean, slow growth in China is a win-win for the west.  They grow slower, and thus pose less of a threat to our global financial dominance while doing so, and the world stays pretty and green so that the wealthy among us can enjoy it on our vacations.  

The other side of this coin, which these arguments by westerners always seems to miss is the historical context of US and Soviet development.  It was largely through unregulated (and massively polluting) industrial growth that many of the world's leading economies were able to become wealthy enough to have the wealth and time to care about environmental degradation.  

I am not arguing that rapid growth at high environmental cost is path China should take (In my opinion).  What I am arguing is that those of us living in wealthy countries that developed at such a high environmental cost that at certain points in our history our rivers were so polluted as to become flammable, are not in a moral position to tell a currently industrializing nation not to pollute at the cost of economic growth.  Just perhaps, the Chinese and other developing countries should have the right to make their own decisions about the trade off between cheap growth and environmental destruction?  Or at very least, they should not have to be told by a bunch of wealthy westerners to "do as we say, not as we did". 


James Miehls said...

For the record:
I am willing, and somewhat expecting to be torn to shreds with this argument.
I am aware that if I am going to claim historical significance I need to acknowledge that there is much better scientific evidence about environmental damage, as well as the technology to produce things much more cleanly than when the Western countries went through their periods of industrialization.

Anonymous said...

This is a difficult topic to rationalize because there are so many factors when considering the environmental impact of industrial growth, let alone the political implications held in China. It certainly makes the issue ripe for postulation. Unfortunately the main reasons China has not(and possibly will not) progress environmentally are consumerism and communism. To over-simplify the matter I think the primary concern should be fresh water, which everyone should have a right to access. The path to North America's development has been over 100 years in the making, so as you said it is difficult to compare both sides of the coin. However, in those 100+ years we have gained infinite wisdom regarding the adverse effects of toxic waste. It should be in everyone's best interest to focus on the mitigation and elimination of future damages, particularly in developing nations. The knowledge we have gathered should be shared, unfortunately it is often ignored when faced with economic adversity. Realizing profit is more important than accounting for damages. If Chinese leaders are knowingly exposing their people to toxic effects of industrial processes through drinking water, they should be held accountable, a can of worms no country has the guts to open. If the people of China know they are being poisoned (they do), why don't major international organizations back them in their fight? Surely because North America couldn't survive without Dollar Stores or Wal-mart, neither could China for that matter. Where do we start? By demanding a global right to fresh water for every nation and sanctions against those who do not abide by it. The cost of production will definitely go up, but at least we can sleep well at night knowing everyone has fresh water. Who knows, this might be the ideal way to corner the Chinese on one of their many human rights violations.

James Miehls said...

I agree with a lot of your points here. The one thing I am going to take issue with is "consumerism and communism". Despite the name of the primary political party in China the class processes taking place are in general not communist. If the workers were in control of the surplus they were producing (thus deciding where to spend it), it is highly unlikely that they would choose to poison the water that they themselves and their families have to drink. If communism was present in China there is a much better chance that collective of workers would make decisions that were far less harmful to the environment in which they live than the decisions that are commonly currently being mad.e