Book Excerpt

The America Syndrome: What would happen if Chinese citizens lived like Americans?

by Lester Brown


The economic indicators for the past half-century show remarkable progress. As noted earlier, the economy expanded sevenfold between 1950 and 2000. International trade grew even more rapidly. The Dow Jones Index, a widely used indicator of the value of stocks traded on the New York Stock Exchange, climbed from 3,000 in 1990 to 11,000 in 2000. It was difficult not to be bullish about the long-term economic prospect as the new century began.

    Difficult, that is, unless you look at the ecological indicators. Here, virtually every global indicator was headed in the wrong direction. The economic policies that have yielded the extraordinary growth in the world economy are the same ones that are destroying its support systems. By any conceivable ecological yardstick, these are failed policies. Mismanagement is destroying forests, rangelands, fisheries, and croplands – the four ecosystems that supply our food and, except for minerals, all our raw materials as well. Although many of us live in a high-tech urbanized society, we are as dependent on the earth's natural systems as our hunter-gatherer forebears were.

Natural endowments


    To put ecosystems in economic terms, a natural system, such as a fishery, functions like an endowment. The interest income from an endowment will continue in perpetuity as long as the endowment is maintained. If the endowment is drawn down, income declines. If the endowment is eventually depleted, the interest income disappears. And so it is with natural systems. If the sustainable yield of a fishery is exceeded, fish stocks begin to shrink. Eventually stocks are depleted and the fishery collapses. The cash flow from this endowment disappears as well.

    As we begin the twenty-first century, our economy is slowly destroying its support systems, consuming its endowment of natural capital. Demands of the expanding economy, as now structured, are surpassing the sustainable yield of ecosystems. Easily a third of the world's cropland is losing topsoil at a rate that is undermining its long-term productivity. Fully 50 percent of the world's rangeland is overgrazed and deteriorating into desert. The world's forests have shrunk by about half since the dawn of agriculture and are still shrinking. Two thirds of oceanic fisheries are now being fished at or beyond their capacity; overfishing is now the rule, not the exception. And overpumping of underground water is common in key food-producing regions.

A new China Syndrome


    In China, the combination of over-plowing and overgrazing to satisfy rapidly expanding food needs is creating a dust bowl reminiscent of the US Dust Bowl of the 1930s – but much larger. In a desperate effort to maintain grain self-sufficiency, China has plowed large areas of the northwest, much of it land that is highly erodible and should never have been plowed. As the country's demand for livestock products – meat, leather, and wool – has climbed, so have the numbers of livestock, far exceeding those of the United States, a country with comparable grazing capacity. In addition to the direct damage from overplowing and overgrazing, the northern half of China is literally drying out as aquifers are depleted by overpumping.

    These trends are converging to form some of the largest dust storms ever recorded. The huge dust plumes, traveling eastward, affect the cities of northeast China, blotting out the sun and reducing visibility. Eastward-moving winds also carry soil from China's northwest to the Korean Peninsula and Japan, where people regularly complain about the dust clouds that filter out the sunlight and blanket everything with dust. Unless China can reverse the overplowing and overgrazing trends that are creating the dust bowl, these trends could spur massive migration into the already crowded cities of the northeast and undermine the country's economic future.

    The flow of startling information from China helps us understand why our economy cannot take us where we want to go. Not only is China the world's most populous country, with nearly 1.3 billion people, but since 1980 it has been the world's fastest-growing economy – expanding more than fourfold. In effect, China is telescoping history, demonstrating what happens when large numbers of poor people rapidly become more affluent.

Where's the beef?


    As incomes have climbed in China, so has consumption. The Chinese have already caught up with Americans in pork consumption per person and they are now concentrating their energies on increasing beef production. Raising per capita beef consumption in China to that of the average American would take 49 million additional tons of beef. If all this were to come from putting cattle in feedlots, American-style, it would require 343 million tons of grain a year, an amount equal to the entire US grain harvest. In Japan, as population pressures on the land mounted during a comparable stage of its economic development, the Japanese turned to the sea for their animal protein. Last year, Japan consumed nearly 10 million tons of seafood. If China, with 10 times as many people as Japan, were to try to move down this same path, it would need 100 million tons of seafood – the entire world fish catch.

They auto know better


    In 1994, the Chinese government decided that the country would develop an automobile-centered transportation system and that the automobile industry would be one of the engines of future economic growth. Beijing invited major automobile manufacturers, such as Volkswagen, General Motors, and Toyota, to invest in China. But if Beijing's goal of an auto-centered transportation system were to materialize and the Chinese were to have one or two cars in every garage and were to consume oil at the U.S. rate, China would need over 80 million barrels of oil a day – slightly more than the 74 million barrels per day the world now produces. To provide the required roads and parking lots, it would also need to pave some 16 million hectares of land, an area equal to half the size of the 31 million hectares of land currently used to produce the country's 132-million-ton annual harvest of rice, its leading food staple.

Paper tiger

    Similarly, consider paper. As China modernizes, its paper consumption is rising. If annual paper use in China of 35 kilograms per person were to climb to the US level of 342 kilograms, China would need more paper than the world currently produces. There go the world's forests. If the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy will not work for China, then it will not work for India with its 1 billion people, or for the other 2 billion people in the developing world. In a world with a shared ecosystem and an increasingly integrated global economy, it will ultimately not work for the industrial economies either. China is showing that the world cannot remain for long on the current economic path. It is underlining the urgency of restructuring the global economy, of building a new economy – an economy designed for the earth.

    Copyright (c) 2001 Earth Policy Institute. Lester Brown is chairman of the Worldwatch Institute's board. Reprinted from Earth Policy Institute's new book Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth; (W.W. Norton & Co., NY: 2001).