What a Billion Chinese are Longing For

Early this year, my month-long travels in south China taught me many things. Things about China, of course; but also about life back home in the U.S. In particular, my glimpses of unchecked Chinese pollution and the related human toll gave me a new perspective on our great American accomplishments in protecting the environment. They also showed me the danger posed by those trying to roll them back.
And so I read with sadness an email sent to me by my congressman last week.  I had urged him to support the EPA’s recent rulings protecting children from mercury poisoning and particulates. His response ignored my words completely, and instead took up the mantra that drives many in Congress today:
“Thank you for contacting me concerning legislation to prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from imposing new burdensome regulations on consumers and small businesses,” he wrote. “Like you, I believe that we need to address the impact that unnecessary regulations are having on small businesses and consumers.”[i]
For my congressman – and for most of his colleagues – environmental protection is mainly seen as unnecessary regulation that needs to be curtailed. And letters from constituents to the contrary simply don’t register.
China, I’ve observed, doesn’t have the problem of over-regulation. With a much smaller environmental protection agency, and with local control over most policies, businesses large and small have been almost completely unburdened for decades. But the results have been catastrophic.[ii]
So I read with interest the results of a new Gallup poll last week, which showed that Chinese people – numbering more than 1.3 billion – rank environmental protection ahead of economic growth by a huge margin.[iii] 57% of respondents said that environmental protection was more important, even if it slowed the economy. Only 21% answered the other way around.  And this comes from a country whose people are six times poorer than Americans.
In fact, the world’s four largest developing countries (the BRIC countries) all responded in the same way. In India, where people have only one-thirteenth the average wealth of Americans, respondents favoring environmental protection won out 45% to 35%. In Brazil, an astonishing 83% favored environmental protection.
What do all these people know that my congressman doesn’t?
For starters, they know that a better job isn’t worth your family’s health.  In China, cancer is spinning out of control. Since the 1990s, cancer has become the nation’s biggest killer. In 2007, the disease was responsible for one in five deaths, up 80% since the start of economic reforms 30 years earlier.[iv]
Pollution in China has given rise to an explosion in “cancer villages,” as polluting industries have pushed into hinterland locations susceptible to the allure of promised new jobs, but which contaminate air, water and soil with heavy metals like mercury and chromium.  While official data is scant, recent estimates total 500 cancer villages; and this map, prepared by a Chinese journalist, pinpoints 100.[v]
A few of China’s cancer villages.
But Chinese people also know that lax environmental protection is bad for business.  Lead and mercury exposure harm the development of Chinese children, who will have to carry the Chinese economy to the next level.  Chinese polluting factories will have to shut their doors in coming years, as the current levels of toxic discharge are not sustainable for any country.  Chinese commercial hubs are dealing with air pollution on a scale not seen in Los Angeles or Pittsburgh in generations, if ever. In fact, just last year, Beijing was forced to close its airport because aircraft could not navigate in the thick smog that frequently blankets the city.[vi]
Here in America, we’re being told of the need to roll back environmental protection to help our struggling economy. But the experience of China shows that this is a false choice.  Admittedly, some Chinese business owners are getting rich as they foul their country’s water, air and soil. But a steep price is borne by the growing ranks of Chinese cancer victims, and by families and businesses in cities too polluted to support normal commerce.
The Gallup poll provides a strong word of caution for Americans: Let’s be careful what we wish for.  The Chinese have been down this road ahead of us. And by large margins, they want nothing more than the environmental protections we already enjoy.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood


[i] Rep. Scott Garrett, NJ 5th Congressional District
[ii] Several Clothesline Report posts in January 2012 discussed Chinese pollution issues; here’s a sample: http://clotheslinereport.blogspot.com/2012/01/ive-found-perfect-epa.html
[iii]Gallup World, Majority of Chinese Prioritize Environment Over Economy, June 8, 2012; http://www.gallup.com/poll/155102/Majority-Chinese-Prioritize-Environment-Economy.aspx
[iv]The Guardian; China’s ‘cancer villages’ reveal dark side of economic boom; http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jun/07/china-cancer-villages-industrial-pollution

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