The other day, a radio program on green technology once again reminded me how out of touch we Americans are with the green movement across the globe. The announcer was talking — with the usual condescension — about "bringing a waterless toilet to China," as if the Chinese were primitives incapable of figuring out how to save water, let alone build their own toilets.
This ignorance of China’s environmental policies explains much about why the U.S. is falling behind as other nations strive to develop their green technologies. We arrogantly assume that we lead the world in this regard, when in fact we’re rapidly becoming third-rate.
Americans are scarcely aware of this state of affairs because both our government and our media seldom miss a chance to bash the Chinese over their environmental record. Yet this serves mainly to divert attention from the lagging state of our own green technology and the sclerotic legislators who are to blame for it.
The truth is that, despite relentlessly negative press, China is already well positioned to overtake the U.S. in environmentally progressive policies.
Nor is this a recent development. When I first visited Shanghai in 1994, for example, solar hot water heaters were already a prominent feature of virtually every apartment block on the skyline. Electric bicycles, which remain all but unknown in the U.S. to this day, have long been a fixture in China’s city streets. And, oh yes — water-conserving dual-flush toilets were common in China many years before they were introduced in our own country.
The Chinese enthusiastically adopted high-efficiency lighting two decades ago, not only in commercial applications but also in their homes. This should come as no surprise, since China is among the world’s leading manufacturers of lighting.
Moreover, the more modern technology of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, which is only slowly making headway in the U.S., is already widely used in China for freeway and street lighting, traffic signals, and countless other applications. The LED is an American invention, but once again it’s the Chinese who are making the most of them.
As for gaining independence from foreign oil, many Chinese cities are busily upgrading their public transportation systems or even building new ones from scratch. Not long ago, for example, I had the pleasure of riding the Nanjing subway, and the sad truth is that no existing American subway system can approach it.
The trains and stations are both attractive and immaculate. Electronic displays in each car show the train’s progress in real time, and stops are automatically (and intelligibly) announced in both Chinese and English.
In another eye-opening experience last year, I rode the new high-speed rail line from downtown Shanghai to my part-time home in Suzhou. The formerly two-hour-plus trip clocked in at 25 minutes portal to portal, and cost me about $7.
This is the nation we’re supposed to impress with waterless toilets?
In the last 30 years, the U.S. has become ever more arrogant and complacent regarding its role in a changing world. And so very ironically, like the Communist systems of old, our government seems more interested in deriding the state of other nations than in taking positive steps on behalf of our own. Perhaps America really does need another Sputnik moment to regain its vast potential.
China is liable to provide it.