Indias online paper reports
THE flow of startling information from China helps us understand why our economy cannot take us where we want to go. Not only is China the world's most populous country, with nearly 1.3 billion people, but since 1980 it has been the world's fastest-growing economy — expanding more than fourfold. In effect, China is telescoping history, demonstrating what happens when large numbers of poor people rapidly become more affluent.
As incomes have climbed in China, so has consumption. The Chinese have already caught up with Americans in pork consumption per person and they are now concentrating their energies on increasing beef production. Raising per capita beef consumption in China to that of the average American would take 49 million additional tons of beef. If all this were to come from putting cattle in feedlots, American-style, it would require 343 million tons of grain a year, an amount equal to the entire U.S. grain harvest.
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In 1994, the Chinese government decided that the country would develop an automobile-centered transportation system and that the automobile industry would be one of the engines of future economic growth. Beijing invited major automobile manufacturers, such as Volkswagen, General Motors, and Toyota, to invest in China. But if Beijing's goal of an auto-centered transportation system were to materialize and the Chinese were to have one or two cars in every garage and were to consume oil at the U.S. rate, China would need over 80 million barrels of oil a day — slightly more than the 74 million barrels per day world now produces. To provide the required roads and parking lots, it would also need to pave some 16 million hectares of land, an area equal of half the size of the 31 million hectares of land currently used to produce the country's 132-million-ton annual harvest of rice, its leading food staple.
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Although it has almost exactly the same amount of land as the United States, most of China's 1.3 billion people live in a 1,500-kilometer strip on the eastern and southern coasts. Reaching the equivalent population density in the United States would require squeezing the entire U.S. population into the area east of the Mississippi and then multiplying it by four.
Interestingly, the adoption of the western economic model for China is being challenged from within. A group of prominent scientists, including many in the Chinese Academy of Sciences, wrote a white paper questioning the government's decision to develop an automobile-centered transportation system.
They pointed out that China does not have enough land both to feed its people and to provide the roads, highways, and parking lots needed to accommodate the automobile. They also noted the heavy dependence on imported oil that would be required and the potential air pollution and traffic congestion that would result if they followed the U.S. path.
If the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy will not work for China, then it will not work for India with its 1 billion people, or for the other 2 billion people in the developing world. In a world with a shared ecosystem and an increasingly integrated global economy, it will ultimately not work for the industrial economies either.
China is showing that the world cannot remain for long on the current economic path. It is underlining the urgency of restructuring the global economy, of building a new economy — an economy designed for the earth.