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Mike Millikin: Xiaokang Shehui

xiaokang.jpgMike Millikin publishes Green Car Congress, and is a regular contributor to our Sustainability Sundays feature. I asked him to send us something not about sustainable vehicles, and this is what he wrote. It's a bit longer than we were expecting, but I just couldn't cut it down.

I really should ask him to do this more often

According to Wikipedia, the Chinese term “xiaokang society” (xiaokang shehui, literally “society of small peace/comfort/health”)—first applied in China’s Classic of Rites (one of the five classics of Confucianism) some 2000 years ago—has been widely used in the PRC since around 2002.

The vision of a xiaokang society is one in which most people are moderately well off and middle class, and in which economic prosperity is sufficient to move most of the Chinese population into comfortable means, but in which economic advancement is not the sole focus of society. Explicitly incorporated into the concept of a xiaokang society is the idea that economic growth needs to be balanced with sometimes conflicting goals of social equality and environmental protection.

This last weekend, resource efficiency was the topic of a special session during the 2005 meeting of the China Development Forum in Beijing, and in it, resource-efficiency was explored as an aspect of xiaokang society.

...a key strategy towards building a xiaokang society, a resource-efficient society, was discussed. While much attention is paid to traditional economic resources such as coal and oil, the environment itself is not often thought of as a critical resource.

However, polluted water is not a drinking water resource. Polluted air damages traditional economic resources through acid rain and climate change. Both harm the health of the Chinese people. Resource efficiency must include not only energy, water and land, but also the use and consumption of environmental resources.

China has major issues. It has 1.3 billion people who are increasingly seeking a xiaokang-type life. The economic and industrial engine that is growing as the country develops along that path has an insatiable—and presently inefficient—energy appetite as well as an appetite for the natural resources of the country. From the Seventh Green China Forum:

China ranks first in daily water consumption and sewage discharge, and second in energy consumption and carbon dioxide discharge. Its energy consumption is seven times that of Japan, six times that of the United States and 2.8 times that of India in terms of unit GDP.

China currently has a population of 1.3 billion, compared to the 600 million it had when New China was founded in 1949. But land suitable for people to live has shrunk from six million square kilometers to the current three million square kilometers due to serious soil erosion.

Can China grow its way to sustainability? Herman Daly, who from 1988 to 1994 was the World Bank’s senior environmental economist and is currently outside the pale of WB orthodoxy as a professor at the University of Maryland, tackled that question at the CDF meeting.

My short answer is “No.”

[...]When the economy grows it does not grow into the void, displacing nothing and incurring no opportunity costs. Rather it grows into the finite, non-growing ecosystem and incurs the opportunity cost of displaced natural capital and ecological services. Beyond some point growth in production and population will begin to increase social and environmental costs faster than it increases production benefits, thereby ushering in an era of uneconomic growth -- growth that on balance makes us poorer rather than richer, that increases ills faster than wealth, and that is likely to be ecologically unsustainable. There is evidence that the US has already reached such a point.

But it would be more productive to debate the longer, more nuanced, answer.

Long Answer: A longer answer requires consideration of three subsidiary questions :

(1) growth in what? Exactly what is it that is supposed to be growing when we say "grow our way to an environmentally sustainable world"?

(2) what is environmental sustainability? Is it just a pair of words that make a rhetorically soothing sound, or does it have an operational definition? ; and

(3) who is "we"?


From the viewpoint of sustainable development, what is the best growth policy for the North to adopt for itself in order to help the South overcome poverty?

(a) the North should grow its GNP as fast as possible to provide markets in which the South can sell its exports, and to accumulate capital to invest in the South. A rising tide lifts all boats, and it doesnít matter if the North grows faster than the South.

(b) The North should continue its welfare and efficiency development, but stop its throughput growth, in order to free up resources and ecological space for the South grow into -- at least enough to eliminate absolute poverty, and ideally enough to catch up with the North. If the latter is ecologically impossible, then the North should reduce its throughput.

It is clear that the World Bank has effectively opted for (a), although without, to my knowledge, ever explicitly asking the question. The World Bank should explicitly ask the question. The closest they have come to doing so, I believe, is the question we have been asked to debate today. This is therefore an event worth celebrating!

By the way, the correct answer to the multiple-choice question is (b).

China, although considered a part of the Global South, is replacing the US as the worldís largest absolute consumer of resources, even though per capita consumption is much lower. Therefore the frugality and efficiency of Chinaís development strategy is even more critical to sustainability than that of the US. However, the rich cannot preach frugality and efficiency to the poor unless they practice these virtues themselves. And the sequence is also important: frugality first induces efficiency second; efficiency first dissipates itself by making frugality appear less necessary. Frugality keeps the economy at a sustainable scale; efficiency of allocation helps us live better at any scale, but does not help us set the scale itself.

Xiaokang shehui. Global.

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Xiaokang shehui tianxia

Posted by: Imposter on 30 Jun 05

"Xiaokang shehui. Global."

Right on.

Great post, Mike.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 30 Jun 05

hehe,Hello!I'm i want to tell you the meaning of Xiaokang shehui.At first,the "XIAO"in china is not only the meaning of "small",so,"Xiaokang" is a word in china,it's not meaning "small healthy/peace"and so on.hehe.Chinese is a hard to understand language,so if you want to know more,you can contact me,my,

Posted by: Foxemperor on 1 Jul 05

I'm Chinese too. I think the translation is fair. "moderately well off and middle class" captures the key concept. This is best contrast with the capitalistic view that puts no limit on growth and the accumulation of wealth.

Posted by: Wai Yip Tung on 1 Jul 05

Westerners have a word "altruistic" (unselfish concern for the welfare of others).
Imagine (John Lennon).

Posted by: ggarmento on 4 Jul 05



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