China’s Pivotal Role in Sustainability

Pudong, Shanghai, Skyline
Pudong, Shanghai, Skyline

The glitz and glamour of Chinese urban landscapes has come to stand for the country’s rise. Shanghai still runs by the moniker “Paris of the East,” but one sometimes wonders if the time is far away when other cities might be called the Shanghai of the West.
On the other hand, China’s rise has led to increasing awareness of this country’s role in the world, including the central position it will play with regards to sustainability (cp. Liu, Jianguo and Jared Diamond. 2005. China’s environment in a globalizing world. Nature 435:1179-1186). The neon signs and the constant building activity take on a darker meaning in this context. They seem to stand for a future akin to the landscape of “Blade Runner,” with little hope for social development and environmental protection.

In all the lights, a hope and a lesson is hidden. Hidden, literally, in the dark.

A more noticeable feature of China than the lights, once one gets out of the shimmering city districts, is the darkness of the night. Part of it is a result of the position as a developing country. Much of it, however, is the result of an attitude that favors conservation: In China, it is not a bad word, as Amory Lovins argued it was in the US. Rather, it is a simple part of life. Lights which are not necessary will be switched off. Appliances, most of the time, likewise.
Electricity meters are not hidden away but, more often than not, easily accessible. Thus, a quick glance shows the number. Savings may be little. Too little to be worth the hassle in places like the US and Europe (though this may be changing with the new support for thrift, and google.org is hoping that a smart PowerMeter showing on the computer how much electricity we use – or waste – with what appliance will have such an effect in developed countries, too). Still, the savings are money. So, in China, the conservation behavior leading to savings will be the default behavior.
The solar water heaters mentioned in a recent NY Times op-ed? They are everywhere in China.

Solar Water Heater Salesroom, China
Solar Water Heater Salesroom, China

Below the Yellow River, winters do get cold but the climate is too warm for good insulation and heating to be the norm. Coming from the outside, it seems strange. In the context of conservation behavior, however, it holds another lesson. People don’t particularly suffer because of it, they put on another layer, have some heating somewhere, eat foods that warm, and enjoy the sunshine when it’s to be had. Life wouldn’t be considered bad, or any worse than it could be, because energy is not used – wasted – in heating (oftentimes, empty) rooms.

Now, one has to hope that alternative energy and further sustainability-oriented behavior can be invented where it lacks, and supported where it can be found. Many things are far from good. Still, not only are environmental problems exacerbated in China, but there are behaviors and technologies which give reason for hope. Should they work even better in the future, and if they can work in China, they can probably work anywhere. Thus, this country may not deal the coup de grace to the global environment, but be the place from where new hope arises.

And what's your take?