The single biggest uncertainty on the path to a bright green future can be summed up in one word: China.
By most measurements, China's impact on the planet is now second only to that of the U.S., and China's coming on strong: China is expected to have more cars that America in fifteen years, has built the second largest freeway system in the world and is expected to overtake America as the leading climate culprit. Indeed, China's impact on the future has been dubbed by some the Great Wall of Unknowns.
China has accomplished a miracle of economic development, raising hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and forging itself into an industrial powerhouse in just a few decades. But that development has extracted a terrible environmental cost, with China rapidly becoming the most polluted nation on the planet. Indeed, pollution, environmental degredation and resource depletion are so severe in China that a leading government official there warned that unless China can find a more sustainable path, "the miracle will end soon."
China has bold plans for confronting this crisis: green buildings, green cars, wind power, nanotechnology, mobile technologies, solar, even a green (or green-ish Olympics and new models of measuring economic growth to account for environmental costs. Whether these responses will actually take hold in an authoritarian and corrupt political culture is a different matter, of course, but a Green China may yet astound us all.
Since so much depends on building better cities, one of the more promising signs (though problems are still rife) is the rise of new green urban developments in Shanghai, Beijing, and Huangbaiyu. Our favorite is the Dongtan project on an island near Shanghai, billed as the world's first Eco-City, which will eventually house half a million people in green buildings powered by renewable energy. Dongtan is absolutely the best current model for bright green Chinese city planning.
We've written about Dongtan a lot, but the latest edition of the BBC program Costing the Earth has a great show which nicely tells the story. As architect Alejandro Gutierrez says,
"All over China now, peasant farmers are becoming urban citizens, working in factories, doing urban service jobs and so on. So China has initiated this extraordinary process of urbanization. They're expecting to build about 400 cities the size of Bristol in the next 20 years. Urbanization is becoming the dominant factor in what is happening in China and how China, ultimately, will affect the rest of the world"
I can't recommend Miriam O'Reilly's work on this show highly enough; on projects like Dongtan hinge the fate of our planet.
(photo by Worldchanging board member Ed Burtynsky, titled City Overview From Top of Military Hospital, Shanghai, 2004)
Dongtan and Greening China is a part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on Oct. 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.
I was in China just a few months after this article was written. Unfortunately, I saw few signs of ecological awareness or the raising of people out of poverty.
Yes, Shanghai is a major business hub, but right outside our hotel, locals were reduced to washing themselves in the street.
The Yangtsze River was not yellow, but a horrible brown with a variety of horrible things floating in it - no wonder the Yangtsze Dolphin is thought to be extince.
The Three Gorges Dam has displaced thousands if not millions of people and even the Chinese now admit it had caused ecological problems.
And the litter! I've never seen so many people carelessly dispose of so much garbage in my life.
I've seen documentaries on TV about the great advances in town planning China is making in building a 'green future'. Sadly, the average Chinese person seems to have little awareness of any such issues.
I hope things have changed in the past two years. I hope China will make more efforts to address environmental and humanitarian issues. It is a superpower - it should accept the super-responsibility that goes with it!
Steve N. Lee
author of eco-blog http://www.lionsledbysheep.com
and suspense thriller 'What if...?'