Springtime in Harbin

The Harbin water crisis is far from over, according to this article from the AP:

A top Russian environmental official tried to reassure the population Tuesday by drinking a glass of water on television. But a spokesman for the World Wide Fund for Nature said the river faced “ecological catastrophe” from the 50-mile-long slick of chemicals floating toward the Russian border from China.

“There will be an effect on nature plants and fish will die and economic damage,” said Ilya Mitasov, a Moscow-based spokesman for the global environmental organization.

The pollution will result in massive fish deaths and force city residents and industries to search for alternative sources of water, he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

The only way to get rid of the toxic chemicals including cancer-causing benzene is evaporation, but the water temperature would have to be 68 to start that process, Mitasov said. Currently it’s about 50 and there is ice on some stretches of the river, which ultimately feeds into the Sea of Okhotsk.

“The benzene will remain in the ice until spring, and the (situation) will be dragged out,” Mitasov said.

Meanwhile, Der Spiegel (via the invaluable Salon.com) features this grim summary of the evironmental costs of China’s economic miracle:

Even if water began flowing once again to the city’s residents on Tuesday, the horrific environmental catastrophe reveals the flipside of the socialist economic miracle. Secretiveness and sluggish crisis management highlight the price the Chinese are paying for their boom. And even as Westerners envy the half-communist, half-capitalist country for its impressive growth figures and endless backyard market, China is no longer merely the world’s factory. It is also the world’s toxic waste dump.

China’s rise as a global power, achieved with high economic growth rates, is reminiscent of the conditions in the era of early capitalism. Everything that drives production is good, and everything that slows it down — safety technology, for example, that prevents industrial accidents from leading to massive factory explosions — is harmful. The result is exploding tanks, burning factories, collapsing mine pits and all manner of toxic leaks. According to official statistics, 350 Chinese die each day in industrial accidents, but the unofficial figure is likely to be much higher. “Occupational safety is a serious problem, because the number of accidents and deaths remains high,” said Wang Dexue, deputy director of the State Office of Occupational Safety, commenting on the horrifying figures from the country’s manufacturing industries.

Adding to the problems are economic reforms that have made many businessmen greedy. China’s laissez-faire brand of socialism doesn’t prevent executives from spending their money on cars and villas instead of investing it in worker safety and environmental protection. Although the government is constantly vowing to monitor manufacturers more closely, local officials and party leaders are often in bed with the captains of industry in China. This Mafia-like alliance between the politically and economically ambitious is known as “local protectionism.”

Chen Bangzhu, an environmental expert on Beijing’s Parliamentary Council, says he recognizes an “irrational development” in his country. In an interview earlier this year, Pan Yue, the deputy minister of the government environmental agency, SEPA, predicted a bitter end to the economic miracle. “This boom will soon come to an end,” he said in an interview with Der Spiegel, “because the environment isn’t cooperating anymore.” The negative consequences of the boom are devastating. Five of the world’s 10 most polluted cities are in China. More than two-thirds of all Chinese rivers and lakes are turning into sewers — even before the recent accident, the Songhua River was hardly a model of cleanliness — and more than 360 million people have no access to clean drinking water. A toxic soup splashes through the country’s waterways, while people living along the banks die from cancer at above-average rates. Nowadays, the then 72-year-old former party chairman Mao Zedong’s legendary swimming outing in the Yangtze River in 1966 would no longer be seen as evidence of his strength, but more as a suicide attempt…

…The People’s Republic, which could soon surpass the United States as the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases, has lost its ecological balance and is paying a heavy price as a result. About 400,000 people die prematurely each year because of the polluted air they breathe. Experts estimate the annual loss at 8 to 15 percent of the gross domestic product — or up to $250 billion — a figure that does not include the costs of treating cancer, skin conditions and bronchitis.

The Chinese leadership has become increasingly concerned about the possibility that environmental damage could jeopardize China’s industrial ascent. After the Harbin incident, even Prime Minister Wen Jiabao admitted that the environmental situation is “bleak” and called for “sustainable growth.” But many other party leaders see this kind of talk as nothing but Western social nonsense. They prefer to follow the lead of Mao, who summed up his take on the environment in 1958 when he said, “Make the high mountain bow its head; make the river yield its way.” Today’s comrades, profiting handsomely from industrial growth, believe it is cheaper to clean up in the distant future than to invest in protecting the environment today.

Of course, such attitudes aren’t unique to China. I could cite our current Administration in the US, with its disbelief in global warming and its infinite faith in the power of more drilling (and foreign wars) to solve our energy issues. Or, going back a couple of administrations, I could mention former Secretary of the Interior James Watt, who did not think we needed to concern ourselves overmuch with conserving resources for future generations, because in his words, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” Such faith is touching, in a way, as is the faith of the Chinese Communist Party’s materialists, who believe we can innovate our way out of any crisis we create, or at least can leave the mess for our children to take care of – as opposed to the faith of the Bush Administration, which preaches that the mess simply does not exist. But the grownups in the room, in China, America and elsewhere, realize that the longer we wait, the greater the reckoning. Whether the grownups can take charge from the greedy, selfish children who all too often seem to be treating the world as their playpen, before that playpen collapses under the weight of its own filth, remains to be seen.

The Discussion: 11 Comments

This spring in Harbin will be a silent spring. like Rachael wrote in her famous environment-preserving book “silent spring”

December 1, 2005 @ 1:16 am | Comment

Recently when I was explaining American zoning law (land use law) to some Chinese – particularly why real estate is subject to more restrictions than chattel (movable) property – I told them:

“In the long run, none of us ever really ‘own’ land. In the long run, we’re all just renting the land, except for the two square metres we’re buried in.”

๐Ÿ™‚ AH, that reminds me of the letter of Chief Seattle to the President. Wait, let me look it up…..

December 1, 2005 @ 2:14 am | Comment

Ah yes, here it is, the letter Chief Seattle (an American Indian) wrote to President Franklin Pierce in 1854:

“The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you sell or buy the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?
…the Earth does not belong to Man, Man belongs to the Earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
…One thing we know: our God is also your God. The Earth is precious to him and to harm the Earth is to heap contempt on its creator….So, if we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it…hold in your mind the memory of the land as it is when you receive it. Preserve the land for all children…”

December 1, 2005 @ 2:21 am | Comment

AND – now that I look more carefully at the Spiegel article which says “many other (CCP) party leaders see this kind of talk as nothing but Western social nonsense…”

….ah, NO, see Chief Seattle’s letter, in my prior comment. There is nothing especially “Western” about wanting to protect and preserve the Earth – and if anything, the American Indians had a lot more respect for it than the newcomer White Americans have had….

December 1, 2005 @ 2:27 am | Comment

Ivan, that Indian quote is really haunting. And Lisa, great post. Thanks to both of you.

December 1, 2005 @ 3:14 am | Comment

Yeah well, my FAVORITE scene in the “Lord of the Rings” movies was when Treebeard and the other Ents (anthropomorphic trees, for those who don’t know Tolkien) smashed up that horrible technocrat Saruman’s factories…… ๐Ÿ™‚

December 1, 2005 @ 3:25 am | Comment

Yeah, Ivan, I was about to say it, but you already did – land ownership is actually a really strong concept in the states. at least in New England and other places I’ve been (appalachia, new mexico…). Most early settlers came over to the colonies just so they COULD own land. at least that’s why mine did, back in the 1600s. Land ownership is a stronger concept in the states than in england, for sure.

Chief Seattle was eminently cool.

December 1, 2005 @ 4:33 am | Comment

great post!

December 1, 2005 @ 4:11 pm | Comment

Thanks, Lin, I appreciate the feedback!

December 1, 2005 @ 5:01 pm | Comment

That quote is nice, but it’s not from Chief Seattle, I’m afraid. It was written by a screenwriter in 1971.

December 1, 2005 @ 10:39 pm | Comment

There are so many reallyinteresting things on here at the moment I think I might take a week off work and spend the time reading. Thanks to everyone involved.

December 2, 2005 @ 8:04 am | Comment

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