As I write this I’m sat on a night train somewhere in China. It’s crowded, sweaty and noisy. I won’t sleep, I’m sure. So I’m going use this time productively and hope that this doesn’t tail off into the sleep deprived ramblings of an idiot.
I am travelling around China and SE Asia as a break from work, but already China has really focussed my mind on how we can get through the next century without, frankly, fucking everything up. I’m not the kind of pessimist who thinks humanity will wipe itself out any time soon, but neither do I think we can get through this without severely damaging our environment.
Before I came here I had already heard all about China’s huge population and its incredible pollution. However seeing this in person has really brought things home. At the moment I feel a mixture of despair along with a fair share of guilt. China is largely as polluted as it is because the West has exported its dirty industries, effectively hiding the problem from its own people. While we congratulate ourselves on our cities becoming cleaner our net environmental impact is getting greater as the amount we consume increases.
The politics and culture of China don’t make things easier. Corruption is everywhere all the way from the top to the bottom of society. Apartment blocks are apparently built on land grabs made by the government from disenfranchised locals, and despite officially being a Communist country China is exceedingly capitalist.
Saying I know how to fix all this would make me a fantasist of the grandest order. However if I am anything I am a realist, possibly to a fault. We will not convince 1.3 billion people who remember the starvation of their parents and grandparents to slow down development and do things more cleanly. People here just don’t care or recognise the problem.
So where can we go from here?
Frankly at the moment, I’m not sure. Part of me feels like all of what I do is a waste of time. Is it all just intellectual masturbation?
(Train update, it currently looks like this…)
One of my opinions that has been reinforced by this trip is that if the West really wants to help tackle climate change and the biodiversity crisis we need to look at ourselves first. Whatever people say Europe, North America and Australia have a huge amount of power, and are indirectly responsible for much of the environmental damage in developing countries. We need to start by cleaning up our act. This means reducing our footprint and importing fewer cheap, dirty products.
How do we do this? Well really I’m not sure. Even supposedly ‘green’ countries like Denmark have huge ecological impacts due to their imports. At the moment I think that most Westerners don’t even recognise this as a problem so scientists would do well to quantify the impact of these products and the the indirect impact of Western citizens (as some are already doing). Once this starts to be recognised as a problem then we can start to deal with it as a society.
On top of that is important that governments push to reduce per capita energy consumption and that appropriate technologies are used to make any consumption as clean as possible. This means using nuclear and renewables; GM and organic. No technology is evil it is what you do with it that counts.