The Chinese are environmental cretins, right? It’s a common perception, one that our own moribund leaders are only too happy to encourage. After all, the worse China’s environmental policies look, the better ours look.
The only problem is, this stereotype is baloney. As inconceivable as it seems to Americans, our government’s dawdling on environmental issues and its susceptibility to industry lobbies has in fact put China’s environmental efforts on track to surpass our own.
I first visited China in 1994, when the nation was already booming, but well before it seemed a likely rival for the omnipotent United States. Yet even at that time, the Chinese were taking the first steps toward sustainable development. All commercial buildings and most homes were already illuminated by compact fluorescent bulbs, while many new apartment complexes boasted conspicuous arrays of solar hot water boosters on their roofs.
As an ancient mercantile culture, the Chinese rationale behind embracing these innovations was not so much philosophical as characteristically pragmatic: If you could heat water with sunlight instead of expensive electricity, or triple your light output using a more efficient bulb, what was not to like?
Every visit I’ve made to China since then has brought an increased awareness in the importance of sustainable growth, both from the leaders and the ordinary Zhou on the street. And rather than just lots of feel-good talk, there is action. China’s status as the world’s workshop uniquely positions it to adopt the cutting-edge products it makes for others.
Hence, for example, China’s highways, urban streets and traffic signals are already lit by state-of-the-art light-emitting diode (LED) technology, which is only now slowly making its way into America’s budget-strained infrastructure.
While American cities struggle just to make ends meet, Chinese city governments flush with cash are instead engaged in a race to see who can create the greenest new civic buildings. Architectural competitions for civic work now heavily stress sustainable design solutions, and it’s safe to say that, with the central government’s mandate for green building firmly in place, the commercial sector will soon follow.
Also ubiquitous on Chinese streets are electric bicycles and scooters, which remain virtually unknown in the United States. What’s more, on my last visit, I came across a local beat cop driving a new Chinese-built electric vehicle — another sign that the erstwhile Middle Kingdom takes electric cars much more seriously than Americans do.
Still, it’s perfectly obvious to the central government that China can never sustain American rates of car ownership (about eight cars for every 10 people), no matter how prosperous its citizens may become. This makes the low Chinese rate of car ownership, which is currently about one-tenth that of the United States, no longer seem like a sign of lagging development but rather a blessing in disguise.
In an effort to stem a future deluge of private cars, the Chinese have been busily building or upgrading public transit systems — and quickly: In my "home away from home" in Suzhou, an entire subway system has been built from scratch in the span of three years.
Ultimately, the success of our generation’s environmental policies will be judged, not by our platitudes, but by our outcomes. And while America has been talking, China has been acting.