Monday, June 9, 2008

What you can't see in Shanghai is what you can see at Wal-Mart and Wall Street

Diane and I returned last week from an incredible trip to China. We had a fantastic journey seeing the country’s major sites. However, it’s what you cannot see there that may have been the most striking thing about visiting China.

What am I talking about? Pollution. It’s REALLY bad in China. Shockingly bad.

Beijing, Xi’an and especially Shanghai are particularly afflicted. If you didn’t know better, you’d think that a dense and persistent fog had descended on these cities. But in reality, that fog is smog…quite literally blocking out the sun. I read in Good Magazine that breathing the Beijing air is like smoking 70 cigarettes a day. I believe it.

Shanghai is worse. Standing on the old side of the river (the Bund) and looking across to the new part of the city (Pudong), the massive skyscrapers a half mile away appear as half visible ghost like structures behind a curtain of grey smoggy haze. It makes any pollution in US cities look like child’s play.

Of course, the pollution is the result of China deciding that economic growth is more important than anything else. The country is the world’s number one producer of products, and to feed global markets at a pace and a price that keeps their economy going and growing into the world power that it wants to be, the Chinese have brutally sacrificed the environment.

And while it’s easy and smug to sit back and point fingers at the Chinese and their government as the problem, I believe that falls well short of assessing the situation. No, pollution of this magnitude is only created by huge, global trends.Specifically, I think what you can’t see in China because of pollution can be clearly viewed as related to two very American causes:
  1. The American consumer’s desire for cheap goods. The U.S. is the largest consumer economy in the world. You like that 42” flat screen TV at a good price at Costco? How about your weekly trip to Wal-Mart for cheap supplies? You like buying low priced everyday items at Target or Fred Meyer? China makes these items cheap…all the while polluting the global environment at an alarming rate. So, before casting blame on the Chinese, take a look in the mirror and realize that your own desire for cheap stuff is a driver of massive pollution of our planet.
  2. The massive profit-at-all-cost strategies deployed by big business. In their efforts to win and sustain spectacular profit margins that benefit stockholders and top executives on a quarterly basis, big business has shipped huge numbers of American jobs overseas, set up factories over there where labor costs are low and environmental impact concerns (and therefore costs) are zero and then gone bonzo in producing their goods for export back to the US market. This major jump in production with no environmental concerns is a direct contributor to the literally breathtaking pollution in China.

I think the linkage between these two American issues comes into scary focus when you consider just why it might be that Americans might want cheap goods? Could it be we’re a naturally thrifty lot? Maybe partly. I mean hey, who doesn’t like to save a few bucks. Or, could it be that our population is forced into needing those cheap items because our jobs have been sent overseas, our incomes have stagnated and the price of food, gas and other commodities are through the roof. I think this is more likely.

There is a vicious cycle at play here. American companies want greater and greater profits…they outsource jobs to cheap labor markets with no expensive environmental concerns…Americans back at home have fewer jobs and less money to spend, therefore crave cheap goods and increasing demand for Chinese made products…which American business gladly supply.

All of this has a punishing effect on the environment. Oh sure, the skies over the USA are pretty clean and our water is safe (for now), but for how long? And, what will have to happen before we and the Chinese decide to change?

In my opinion, the only way to break the cycle is to create and maintain better incomes here in the U.S. for the next generation economy. This will decouple the linkage between corporate profit and consumer need for cheap goods…thus helping the environment while building a stronger economy here at home.

How do we get there? It won’t be easy. Big problems need action by not just many individuals, but really, governments and corporations. Here are three thoughts:

First, vote at election time. Vote for leaders who see the big picture…the future of an economy transformed away oil and service sector jobs into one run on decent paying green industries, new energy development, technology, bioscience, clean production and similar industries.

Second, vote with your checkbook. Question your need for cheap crap. Don’t buy it if you don’t need it. Don’t buy things from companies that ship jobs overseas if you can. Meantime, buy green products when you can. This is the type of consumer behavior that, over time and in big numbers, companies will have to respond to.

Third, make corporate greed work for us instead of against us. What if our government invested in education and re-training for our workers? What if rather than subsidizing big business, we gave tax breaks to companies for investments in R&D for new energy sources or means of production? And, what if we actually invested in the education and training needed for a next generation of workers to fill new economy jobs?

In the end, I’m certainly no economist, I’m no politician, nor am I a CEO…but I am someone who just saw the devastation our “global economy” is having on the environment first hand. While perhaps some of the above ideas may be less than complete, I can tell you that I am 100% certain something must be done to change things.

I’d like to be able to see clear skies in China and a better future here at home.


green thinking said...

Engineering consultants shoulder the responsibility to promote energy-efficient and eco-friendly technologies to meet thechallenge of energy over-consumption and environmental deterioration

Marc said...

Green Thinking, thanks for the comment. Good point. Great point actually. I'm thinking that if big business (and manufactuers in particular) believe eco-friendly technologies will help them make money and not cost them money...then they'll start embracing them. So, without knowing anything about engineering, I'd hazzard a guess that part of consultants promoting "green" manufacturing is promoting the profit opportunity they present too. Anyway, a couple thoughts. Maybe no-brainers at that...but thanks again.