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The Paradox of Development

It’s no secret that China has environmental problems (my other posts about China’s environment), today even the Environment Minister acknowledged that “In China’s thousands of years of civilization, the conflict between humankind and nature has never been as serious as it is today.”

Also on Sunday Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said in an online chat, “We must not any longer sacrifice the environment for the sake of rapid growth and reckless roll-outs, as that would result in unsustainable growth featuring industrial overcapacity and intensive resource consumption.” He is saying this partially in light of the recent news that up to 10% of China’s rice is contaminated by heavy metals, and Beijing’s air pollution was 10x higher last week than the WHO recognizes as “safe.”

Like I’ve said before, the national government, in many cases, understands these bigger issues, but the gov’t system at local levels prevents action because only GDP matters when promotion time comes.

This underlies what seems to be the great paradox of development; that poor people should live a life with the basic necessities, but that furnishing those necessities could lead to irreversible environmental effects, which in turn would destroy their quality of life.

Example 1: a village cuts down the nearby trees to build their homes (+), then the rains come and cause a land slide that wipes out the villagers’ homes (-).

Example 2: a factory is built that provides jobs to the locals (+), but its waste poisons their children (-).

In China I work for a charity organization that focuses on sustainable rural development. This means that our projects our intended to improve their quality of life without pulling more resources from China’s overtaxed lands.

One of the projects that I find particularly exciting is the installation of bio-gas pools and stoves. These systems collect human and animal waste and then harvest the methane released as it breaks down to fuel their stoves and heat their homes. This simple technology not only removes the need to cut down the trees, but saves the family the time/effort/money of getting the wood.

Labor saving technologies like this and solar stoves help families focus less on survival and more on building a small business that would let them escape poverty.

The other project I want to mention was started by a Chinese church in Henan province. The church has organized dozens of workshops for local farmers training them to raise more profitable crops. They have developed these methods through trial and error on their own land that is cultivated by volunteers.

Again, this allows a family to work the same number of hours, but reap a greater reward.

So my hope is that in this next year China is genuine in its efforts to build an economy that not only pulls its people out of desperate poverty, but is mindful of the paradox of development that threatens to destroy what they have created.


7 Comments

  1. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    It’s good to hear about the projects you mentioned, Tom. Otherwise, what has changed since “The Great Leap Forward”, when people falsified their harvest yields to please officials and gain approval?

    • Tom says:

      A lot of the work they are doing involves introducing new crops, like pulp trees, which take up a small amount of the farmers land, require almost no work, and turn a good profit. Other methods include processing more of the raw grain locally, so not only milling wheat, but even making baozi (steamed buns) to bring into neighboring towns to sell for far more than the grain alone would have brought in.
      It is exciting stuff.

  2. […] It’s no secret that China has environmental problems (my other posts about China’s environment), today even the Environment Minister acknowledged that “In China’s thousands of years of civilization, the conflict between humankind and nature has never been as serious as … Continue reading → […]

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  4. Pete Nelson says:

    This is really interesting, Tom. I hope the efforts pay off. Some of my wife’s relatives were involved in economic development and relief work in south and southeast Asia for a long time (but not in China). One thing I hope that people there will see and understand is that economic development and environmental awareness/concern need not be at odds. In fact, when people develop economically, it can (and hopefully will) free up resources and time to improve the conditions in the environment (as you pointed out), and applying appropriate technology (as you also pointed out) can greatly benefit the environment. It’s something I’m interested in pushing – as an engineer, I get quite frustrated with many people in the “green” movement that are not so much “green” as “anti-technology.” They don’t realize (or don’t want to understand) that appropriate technology (and I don’t just mean windmills, etc.) *benefits* the environment.

    • Tom says:

      Great points. I think the green movements needs to accept that technology is at least part of the solution, and businesses need to admit that this might be one solution we can’t consume our way out of.

  5. […] This village had been selected mostly for reforestation projects, since this area was prone to dust storms and mudslides. The project consisted not only of hiring farmers to plant trees, but also built solar stoves and bio-gas systems. These second to projects nearly eliminated the villagers need for wood, and ensured that the new trees would not be chopped down again (for more on these kinds of projects read “The Paradox of Development”). […]

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