We've all witnessed the consequences of China's dramatic economic growth. That nation's burgeoning demand is responsible more than anything else for the global oil and commodity price run-ups of the last few years. Plus, there is the yin and yang of China's cheap imports that have destroyed many of our industries yet at the same time help keep our economy humming with inflation tamed.
Forgive a few liberties with English grammar, but you ain't seen nothin' yet. That's because China still has a long way to go to become the global powerhouse it aspires to be.
Since China emerged from its Maoist madness three decades ago, the nation has lifted an estimated 200 million of its citizens out of abject poverty. That's impressive, equal to more than two-thirds the population of the U.S. The bad news is that China is home to 1.3 billion people, most of whom are still dirt poor.
Exactly how many depends on how you define poverty. The UN says China has around 100 million poor people. However, this relies on the “abject” definition, meaning folks who don't have enough to eat and clothing to wear. In today's China, that's mostly a rural phenomenon. Abjectly speaking, the U.S. can be said to have virtually no poverty.
However, anyone who has visited China knows the country teems with poor people based on our Western framework. An unpleasant aspect of visiting the country's tourist sites is fending off some of the world's most aggressive souvenir peddlers and beggars. Incessantly they jump in front of you and tug at your elbow with a persistence born of desperation. None of them look to be starving and their clothes are a notch above rags, but I count these folks as poor even if official statistics don't.
What's more, the people who live above even my elevated poverty line would like to live still better. One of my most striking impressions after visiting China for the first time in conjunction with the ISH China trade fair in Beijing last March was how thoroughly Westernized the country has become. Culture and language aside, these people are just like us in their appreciation of comfort and convenience. It speaks volumes that Kohler showrooms are sprouting in the major cities.
It's not easy to provide even basic sanitation for 1.3 billion people. It requires lots of water and plumbing skills, both of which are in short supply. This subject was addressed at a symposium put on by the World Plumbing Council (WPC) and some Chinese plumbing organizations. One speaker noted that more than 2.6 billion people worldwide lack access to good sanitation, more than half of whom live in China and India. Speaking of the latter, that's another billion folks who aspire to Western-style creature comforts, putting that much more pressure on global resources. And it's not as if we Westerners want any less of anything along the way.
Our planet's resources and environment will be put to the test trying to accommodate all these teeming billions looking to live the good life. So far they have not held up very well under a fraction of the pressure that's sure to come. I'd love to tell you what Beijing looks like from the air, but the city's surrounding atmosphere is about as transparent as mud. On the worst days, you can barely see a block away even on the ground. Yet, hundreds of millions more Chinese citizens are looking forward to the day they can trade in bicycles for autos.
Everyone knows this is not sustainable, which provides a glimmer of hope. The Chinese government finally has begun to address environmental issues that were largely ignored in its rush to modernize. The WPC symposium included a review of Hong Kong's program that uses salt water to flush toilets. A German engineer detailed his work under commission from the Chinese government to utilize rainwater, recycling and other water management techniques for the 2008 Olympic Park and other big projects. Chinese and Indian engineers both addressed the urgency of conserving water resources.
It's our problem, too. Global resources are abundant but not infinite, and dilution long ago stopped being a viable pollution control strategy. Sustaining economic growth throughout this century will have to go hand-in-hand with conservation, resourcefulness, advanced technology and recycling.
Sustainability exists so far mainly as a buzzword popularized by the green building movement, whose early efforts make for better PR than ecology. Building awareness is a start, but sooner rather than later sustainable use of our resources must become the norm rather than the exception.
When that happens, I'll remove the question mark at the end of the headline.