Monday, April 19, 2010

The Chinese Conundrum

The Chinese currently have a population of 1.3 billion people. The U.S. has a population of 300 million.

The average ecological footprint of one Chinese citizen in 2006 was approximately 2.0 (a footprint of 2.0 means that that it takes approximately two global acres of resources to sustain each person in China). By comparison, the ecological footprint of the average American in 2006 was 24, which basically means that the typical American was using ten times the Amount of resources as the typical Chinese.

The problem is that the entire planet’s biocapacity is 4-5 global acres per person. This wouldn’t be much of an issue if everyone on earth lived more like the average Chinese rather than the average American. Unfortunately, those 1.3 billion people in China (not to mention their friends in India, Thailand, and the rest of the developing world) have a strange desire to live like we do here in the U.S. Instead of riding bicycles, they want to drive cars or SUVs; instead of eating their traditional, healthy, low-fat, mostly plant-based foods, they want to eat Big Macs and Kentucky Fried Chicken; instead of shopping at stores selling inexpensive locally produced products, the want to buy imported TVs, DCD players and Ipods at suburban-style mega-shopping malls. In short, they want exactly what we have, and, since everyone knows that our American way of life is as close to perfection as one can find in the universe, who can really blame them?

But, if everyone in China actually tried to live like the typical American, our fragile little planet would no longer be able to sustain life as we know it.

So, as I see it, we have two options:

1. We can tell the Chinese that they don’t have the right to live so damned irresponsibly and discourage them from trying to live the kind of lifestyle that we have here in the U.S. This, however, would be a bit hypocritical on our part…rather like telling the Brazilians they shouldn’t clear-cut their forests after we have all but decimated our own.

2. Or, we can try to set a moral example ourselves by taking the steps necessary to reduce our own exorbitant levels of consumption and, in doing so, reduce our ecological footprint to a more reasonable level. Don’t worry. This doesn’t mean that we would have to live like people in Bangladesh. We could, however, try to adopt some of the more ecologically sound practices of Europeans, whose average ecological footprint is only 4.9. Anyone whose ever been to Germany or France will tell you that life is pretty damned good in Europe, even if they do have to recycle and pay a bit more for gas than we do.

Perhaps if we did make an effort to get our ecological footprint down to even European levels, we might actually set a positive moral example for the developing world instead of promoting a model of consumption that can only lead to the death of our planet. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Chinese will necessarily follow our example, but, at the very least, for once—just for once—we wouldn’t seem quite so hypocritical when we exhort other nations to behave responsibly.

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