EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth

Chapter 1. the Economy and the Earth: Learning from China

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 economyexpanding more than fourfold. In effect, China is telescoping history, demonstrating what happens when large numbers of poor people rapidly become more affluent.43

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 U.S. grain harvest.44

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 seafoodthe entire world fish catch.45

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 dayslightly 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.46

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 U.S. level of 342 kilograms, China would need more paper than the world currently produces. There go the world's forests.47

We are learning that the western industrial development model is not viable for China, simply because there are not enough resources for it to work. Global land and water resources are not sufficient to satisfy the growing grain needs in China if it continues along the current economic development path. Nor will the existing fossil-fuel-based energy economy supply the needed energy, simply because world oil production is not projected to rise much above current levels in the years ahead. Apart from the availability of oil, if carbon emissions per person in China ever reach the U.S. level, this alone would roughly double global emissions, accelerating the rise in the atmospheric CO2 level.48

China faces a formidable challenge in fashioning a development strategy simply because of the density of its population. Although it has almost exactly the same amount of land as the United States, most of China's 1.3 billion people live in a 1,500-kilometer strip on the eastern and southern coasts. Reaching the equivalent population density in the United States would require squeezing the entire U.S. population into the area east of the Mississippi and then multiplying it by four.49

Interestingly, the adoption of the western economic model for China is being challenged from within. A group of prominent scientists, including many in the Chinese Academy of Sciences, wrote a white paper questioning the government's decision to develop an automobile-centered transportation system. They pointed out that China does not have enough land both to feed its people and to provide the roads, highways, and parking lots needed to accommodate the automobile. They also noted the heavy dependence on imported oil that would be required and the potential air pollution and traffic congestion that would result if they followed the U.S. path.50

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.

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43. Ibid.; expanding economy from IMF, op. cit. note 10.

44. FAO, op. cit. note 10; population for per capita calculation from United Nations, op. cit. note 25; conversion ratio of grain to beef from Allen Baker, Feed Situation and Outlook staff, Economic Research Service, USDA, Washington, DC, discussion with author, 27 April 1992.

45. Seafood consumption from FAO, Yearbook of Fishery Statistics: Capture Production (Rome: various years); population from United Nations, op. cit. note 25.

46. Joseph Kahn, "China's Next Great Leap: The Family Car," Wall Street Journal, 24 June 1994; oil production and consumption levels from BP, BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2001 (London: Group Media Publications, June 2001), p. 7; for more information on the calculations of paved area, see Lester R. Brown, "Paving the Planet: Cars and Rice Competing for Crop Land," Earth Policy Alert 12 (Washington, DC: Earth Policy Institute, 14 February 2001); rice harvest from USDA, op. cit. note 3.

47. Calculated from FAO, op. cit. note 10, forest data updated 7 February 2001, and from United Nations, op. cit. note 25.

48. World oil availability from James J. MacKenzie, "Oil as a Finite Resource: When is Global Production Likely to Peak?" WRI, www.wri.org/climate/jm_oil_000.html, updated 20 March 2000; Richard A. Kerr, "USGS Optimistic on World Oil Prospects, Science, 14 July 2000, p. 237.

49. United Nations, op. cit. note 25.

50. Ding Guangwei and Li Shishun, "Analysis of Impetuses to Change of Agricultural Land Resources in China," Bulletin of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, vol. 13, no. 1 (1999).


Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute