Ever since 1970, and probably before, a huge movement has emerged around the globe whose determination has been to save the environment of the Earth from being utterly destroyed by industrial development, to save our water, air and soils from being irrevocably poisoned, our forests destroyed, our oceans denuded of fish.
Some notable victories have been won in various places, but the destruction wrought by the appetites of mankind, and the greed of private (and some public) entrepreneurs, have led to continuing spectacular disasters, which have been no more than punctuations in the inexorable decline of our soils, air, and water, from the unreasonable demands made upon them.
For some years I have been doubtful about the possible efficacy of this movement: I have always felt one has only to go to Toronto to observe the ceaseless traffic that courses the 401 road across the city, and to realize that this is multiplied across the world thousands of times in other cities, to get the sinking feeling that the battle is probably lost even before it is started.
These gloomy thoughts have been stimulated by an article published this week in The Guardian Weekly, reprinted from The Observer, and taken originally as an extract from a book written by Jonathan Watts, called When a Billion Chinese Jump.
The extract deals with what has happened in Shanghai, which, when I visited it in 1983 in the course of researching a film, struck me as being not only the most heavily populated place on earth, certainly the most crowded place I had ever experienced, but also one in which a strictly disciplined population appeared to have the possibility in hand of eventually overcoming the problems posed by their overcrowding and their poverty.
The Chinese were trying to reduce the rate of their population increase, the most essential step; most of their cities, as they developed, were based on the bicycle, rather than the automobile; this allowed the cities to be planned in a reasonable way, without the industrial parks and far-off residential areas that in our cities demand the use of the automobile, just to get to work; in addition, the Chinese appeared to be on the way to housing and clothing themselves; and in agriculture, unlike in the Soviet Union, they had discovered how to grow immense quantities of food, and how to get it to market in the cities.
In various parts of the country they were performing miracles of environmental stewardship, many of which I saw with my own eyes. Yet the logic of their immense population told its own story: some places I visited were clogged with smoke and aerial pollution so grave that it was sometimes difficult to breathe the air.
Nevertheless, in many parts of the country I saw for myself, brave attempts were underway to provide work for everybody. No doubt there were vast areas where poverty remained intense, and jobs scarce. But, to judge by the agricultural commune in which we filmed, they had a genuine concern for turning what we would call marginal land into productive, crop-yielding land, using methods derived from their traditions (for example, generating manure from the millions of pigs they raised in the villages).
While I was there, however, Deng Xiaoping, the power in the country at the time, made a declaration that I considered to be very foolish. He said one American worker could produce as much as 10,000 Chinese workers. Of course, in this equation he was ignoring the vast energy input that stood behind the highly mechanized American worker. If he had taken that into account, the equation would have been much closer to equal, I believed.
Unfortunately, Deng imposed his view of production and power on his country, which has since adopted capitalism in a big way, and has not only become the workshop of the world, but has imported all the negative effects of capitalism, holus-bolus.
Thus, according to Mr. Watts, “from Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s and Starbucks to Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Chanel, international brands made (Shanghai) the biggest, richest and most globalized mass of modernity in China, home to the most luxuriant boutiques, the tallest buildings, the nation’s first formula one track, the biggest auto companies, the second-busiest port in the world and a gathering horde of international salesmen trying to sell the American consumer lifestyle.
“Chinese consumers have never had more options. America’s Wal-Mart, France’s Carrefour, Britain’s Tesco, and Japan’s Ito Yokado are expanding in China faster than in any other country.”
Since the first KFC opened in 1987, the company has built 2,000 outlets in 400 cities, employing 200,000 people, and McDonald’s have grown from one restaurant to 800. (As a result of changes in diet, obesity has emerged as a problem among young Chinese for the first time).
Well, okay, we said a few years ago when considering the possibility of this sort of thing: we have been through this, we have adopted an obscene consumer lifestyle, who are we to insist that the Chinese not be allowed to do the same thing? With their vast pool of labour, surely they have the right to provide them with work by whatever means is open to them?
Fair enough: except that those jeremiahs who warned that if China were to adopt American consumer habits, we would need four or five Earths to provide the resources such a lifestyle demands, are now able to look on the present consumer splurge with some satisfaction because what they have always warned might happen is actually happening.
The Earthwatch Institute estimates that to sustain American levels of consumption, the world would have to double production of steel, paper and autos, produce 20 million more barrels of oil a day, and 5 billion more tons of coal would be needed.
Even to provide all Chinese with a Shanghai lifestyle, says Mr. Watts, would require 156 million refrigerators, 213 million televisions, 233 million computers, 166 million microwave ovens, 260 million air-conditioners, and 187 million cars.
Since the earth’s resources of air, water and soil are already groaning under the impact of Western materialism, to add Third World materialism would seem to pose questions that, on the face of it, we would have little prospect of finding the answer to. Five or six more Earths? Just where do we find them?
And where, in this frenzied race to global consumerism, does the environmental movement fit in? If you ask me, since it is a movement of people without resources, opposed to the wealth-owners, the movement has little chance of surviving, or achieving its goals. A snowball’s chance in hell, maybe?
Boyce Richardson is the author of Strangers Devour the Land