Sunday the New York Times ran an alarming piece on the state of the environment in China. It seems the industrial revolution that is transforming the world's most populous nation is wreaking unprecedented havoc on the earth. The numbers are absolutely staggering: it is poised to eclipse the U.S. in greenhouse emissions, 500 million of its people lack access to safe drinking water, only one percent of China's 560 million urban dwellers breathe air considered "safe" by the European Union. The chief cause of particulates in Los Angeles smog is pollution from China. And on and on, each fact more sobering and frightening than the last.
The problem has reached an uncontrolled feedback loop: governmental economic policies have incentivized heavy industry and construction. Buildings are needed so badly that they are built quickly without simple measures such as insulation. This increases the need for heating and cooling power. More power plants are built to meet this need. These coal-burning plants are built quickly and cheaply, without costly environmental protection safeguards. But policy continues to support economic growth because it has lifted millions out of poverty.
This piece left me bitterly cynical about humanity. Why should we expect China to behave any differently than the U.S. or the European powers as we industrialized? Human beings, as a macro-organism, seem to lack the self-awareness necessary to prevent such environmental calamities. In a very real sense, we have not evolved any further than the bacteria in the petri dish, choking to death on its own shit.