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".