Vinoth Ramachandra

The Biggest Threat?

Posted on: December 10, 2011

The average human today lives longer, travels further, burns more carbon and eats more food than in any generation before us. The unsustainable consumption habits of Europe, the USA and Japan have been promoted worldwide and are now being emulated by hundreds of millions in China, India, Brazil and Indonesia. The carbon-fuelled, capital-intensive approach to economic development has gathered so much momentum that, however much the world’s leaders may pay lip-service to caring for the planet, very few have the imagination and courage to envision alternative pathways.

Not surprisingly, the face of the earth too is ageing. Its skin (the soil) is drying up and becoming more reliant on chemicals. Its arteries (the rivers) are choking with industrial waste and blocked dams. Its lungs (the forests) are gasping for air, having been steadily shredded for timber, paper, cash-crops, ranches and highways. Its energy reserves (oil, coal) are being consumed faster than ever. While all our countries display the symptoms of this deterioration, in none is it so glaring and amplified as in China.

This is the verdict of Jonathan Watts, the environmental journalist and China correspondent of the Guardian newspaper. I have just been reading Watts’s fascinating account of his journey from the Tibetan plateau to the decimated forests of Heilongjiang, describing the tragic contradictions of China’s accelerated ‘progress’. In When A Billion Chinese Jump (2010), Watts repeatedly points out the gulf between the stated aims of the Chinese leadership when it comes to ‘scientific development’ and the realities on the ground.

Despite its dictatorial leadership, the Chinese government seems less able to prevent an environmental meltdown than leaders in democratic nations because it is more addicted to rapid growth. Moreover, power lies neither at the top nor the bottom, but within a middle layer of bureaucrats, with their own fiefdoms, and local developers whom it is difficult to hold to account. The per capita energy use in Shanghai now exceeds that of Tokyo, New York and London, and is 50 per cent higher than the global norm. And it is the conspicuous consumption of rich Shanghai shoppers that is being pushed as the lifestyle norm in all the other mega-cities in China.

“Hopes for a green future are premature,” writes Watts, while fears of the red past seem outdated. “If any single colour predominates in today’s China, it is the grey of smoke and ash and concrete, of horizon-blurring smog, of law-obscuring vagueness and of colour-stifling monotony. More species are dying out, fish stocks are declining, water shortages are growing more severe, deserts are encroaching on cities, glaciers are shrinking and the climate is becoming more hostile. Countless millions die each year of environment-related disease. Yet the government is choosing farm animals over wildlife, monoculture over biodiversity, concrete over earth and weather modification over truly ambitious moves to tackle global warming.” (pp. 388-9).

Is China the biggest threat to global security? It would seem so, despite the American political and media obsession with Iran and Pakistan. For China’s domestic addictions and environmental problems have spilled over into the rest of the world. As its own forests, fields and mines struggle to satisfy an expanding national appetite, China is depleting Siberia’s forests and Mongolia’s ore deposits. Obese children used to be rare in China; now nearly 15 % of the population is overweight. To feed its growing livestock, China imports huge quantities of soya, much of it from Brazil, which has accelerated deforestation in the Amazon region. The high-protein, high-octane, junk-food lifestyle has consequences for global food security, climate change and South East Asia’s wildlife. Toxic dust from factories and deserts in Shanxi and Inner Mongolia drift across the Pacific to the West Coast of California. Dams and river diversion projects in Tibet and Yunnan are affecting millions of people living downstream in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Burma. Chinese cash and political support is accelerating the filthy extraction of oil from Canada’s tar sands and propping up evil regimes in resource-rich nations like Sudan, Zimbabwe and Burma.

In the lead-up to the Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change, China promised to cut the carbon intensity of its economy (greenhouse emissions relative to GDP) by 40-45 per cent by 2020. However, if it continues to grow at 8 per cent per annum, and remains unable to kick its coal habit, both its per capita carbon output and its historic emissions (those accrued over the past hundred years or more) will have exceeded that of the UK by 2020. There is still a long way to go before it catches up with the USA in both per capita and historic emissions culpability- but I think I have said enough on this Blog about the latter that I’ll quickly pass over this point!

If China is becoming the biggest threat to global security, India must lie not far behind. Its political elites care more about “national prestige” than human rights and the welfare of future generations. (How strange, then, that Europe and the US are looking to these Asian powers to rescue their economies!). If conservation is to stand any chance of working in China, India and elsewhere, environmental laws and well-articulated policies are not enough. There has to be a widespread cultural conversion: new values and attitudes, new understandings of what constitutes the “good life”. And, in my experience, that conversion has to begin in the middle-class Christian churches of Asia (which includes people like me).

5 Responses to "The Biggest Threat?"

One does become very sad thinking of the mess we have made of our planet… Good to remember however that it is Gods planet, and He will not forget the work of his hands. Meanwhile, we have to face and take our own responsibility.

One of the core problems (economically, environmentally, ethically) is that there are more nations visible on the world stage now. They are all guilty and justify each other. The wake up call can only come when one of them falls terribly which is why they are eager to bail each other out. This interconnectedness will surely trigger a chain reaction.

I agree that the middle class will need to take the lead. Hopefully some solutions are found while there still IS a middle class. Economic developments in the west continue to distance upper and lower classes eroding the middle class out of existence.

Dear Vinoth,

About a week ago, a number of brazilian Christian organizations and inidividuals commited to the environmental agenda gathered for a few meetings to discuss what actions can be taken by the church in Brazil in order to influence the upcoming Rio+20 conference and the parallel People’s Summit.

In the one hand we are excited with the opportunity to mobilize and gather different actors that will hopefully become more active in this area. On the other hand, we are aware that we should not be nahive nor too hopeful about the outcomes of those meetings.

I, particularly, am rather cynical about the idea that we can ‘save the environment’ lest we do not tackle some other main economic issues, like the levels of consumption, emission of poluents and even – why not – the very root of our economic structure. I am always encouraged to read your posts as you seem to not lose the perspective about thos who are some of the deep problems – like, for instance, by supporting the whole OWS movement and the strikes on Chile.

Therefore, if you feel like you want to comment on that, I would like to ask you what kind of ‘strategy’ of mobilization or of action we could/should use in order to prevent an environmental catastrophe, especially thinking of actions that also tackle the most deeper economic problems of our global capitalist society? With some poetic license I could say it in other words, how to link Occupy World Street with the Rio+20 and People’s Summit meetings?

We will greatly appreciate any contribution.

Best regards,


once again, you drive me to repentance, my friend. God save us. God Bless You, Vinoth.

A bit off topic (actually very off topic) — however — have you, Vinoth, written articles or books about the politics and history of Sri Lanka?

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December 2011
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