It is hard to imagine that China could one day lead the world in going green when you look at the smog-filled skies that are everyday reality there. The government knows that energy fuels the growth of nations, and that China’s dependence on foreign energy imports creates a national security risk. People, both rich and poor, are worried about pollution-induced cancers in villages and babies dying from consuming toxic milk. But China has ambitious targets in its 12th five year-plan to address energy, water, carbon emissions and forest coverage. But what it doesn’t have is a plan for how to engage the rapidly growing middle class in sustainable consumption of resources. The need to do so is clear. China’s middle class will grow from 300 million today to 800 million by 2025 and the country could shift from ‘made in China’ status to ‘consumed in China’. In Beijing the 2011 sales at one shopping mall reached $1bn. Qiu Baoxing, vice minister of housing and urban rural development, says: “We cannot continue to blindly follow the American dream. This is simply unsustainable for China and the world.”
Just as the American dream of free choice and seemingly unlimited opportunities has turned into a nation’s nightmare of debt, desolation and obesity, the Chinese dream can easily turn sour – and will if the country’s leaders fail to engage the Chinese citizens in re-orienting themselves toward cleaner, greener lifestyles. Unchallenged masters at copying anything from classic paintings to software and shoes, the Western lifestyle of consumption is the one thing the Chinese should not and cannot follow. As I wrote before, combating pollution and energy inefficiency is no desirable eco-dream any longer: it has become a necessity for the functioning of society and urban survival. Having said that, merely pressing for environmental and green is not enough to encourage truly sustainable urban development. Without a lived culture of honesty, integrity and transparency, even the most ambitious and well-intended eco-city plan will ultimately be dwarfed by corruption, mismanagement and failure (Jonathon Watts’ book on China and the environment ‘When a Billion Chinese jump’ provides telling examples for how close and manifold the links between best intentions and worst results). ‘Real’ sustainable cities will only function if society – people – keep up with technological change by adjusting their attitude and behavior to 21st century’s environmental and resource realities.
Picture credit: Nica Tawnya Hoffman