Living Hand to Mouth

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

New York Times

October 26, 2005

Shanghai

You don't see this every day: A columnist for The China Daily wrote an essay last week proposing that the Chinese consider eating with their hands and abandon chopsticks. Why?

Because, Zou Hanru wrote, "we no longer have abundant forest cover, our land is no longer that green, our water tables are depleting and our numbers are expanding faster than ever. ... China itself uses 45 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks a year, or 1.66 million cubic meters of timber, or 25 million full-grown trees." The more affluent the Chinese become, he added, "the more the demand for bigger homes and a wide range of furniture. Newspapers get thicker in their bid to grab a bigger share of the advertising market."

In the face of rising environmental pressures, he said, China must abandon disposable wooden chopsticks and move to reusable steel, "or, better still, we can use our hands."

Mr. Zou's column underscores that while year after year of 9 percent growth may be economically sustainable for China, it is reaching its environmental limits. That pressure hits you the minute you land in Shanghai.

As you wait for 90 minutes to get your visa stamped at the airport, crushed between traveling Chinese and visiting investors, you can feel that you are in a country engaged in extreme capitalism. Every other person around me in the visa line was already on a cellphone or P.D.A. - as if people could not wait to get through passport control to start doing deals.

Not only is China not a communist country anymore, but it may also now be the world's most capitalist country in terms of raw energy. Indeed, I believe history will record that it was Chinese capitalism that put an end to European socialism. Europe can no longer sustain its 35-hour workweeks and lavish welfare states because of the rising competition from low-wage, high-aspiration China, as well as from India and Eastern Europe.

But can anything stop Chinese capitalism? Yes, Chinese capitalism. Other than political breakdown, the biggest threat to China's growth is now the environment. One Sam's Club, part of Wal-Mart, in the Chinese city of Shenzhen sold 1,100 air-conditioners in one hot weekend last year. There is a limit to how long you can do that. China's leaders know this and have been taking steps to reverse deforestation and find alternatives to the coal-powered electricity plants that have turned cities like Shenzhen into just one big gray cloud.

One thing the Chinese government is doing is changing how local, state and national officials are judged. G.D.P. growth is not the only metric anymore.

"During the transition period from planned economy to a market economy, there was a period when the economic indicators were the only criteria, because we had to develop the economy," Shanghai's deputy mayor, Feng Guoquin, told me. Today, however, more and more Chinese citizens demand that their local officials "pay equal attention to economic development and ecological protection."

But given that the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party rests largely on its ability to keep raising living standards, it can't afford a recession and mass unemployment - in any crunch, officials will always choose raw growth. The party cannot afford a recession, and it also has to extend growth to the still impoverished rural areas. But many of those villages are already boiling because, while villagers crave jobs, they resent the deforestation, dams and polluted rivers that have already been dumped on them by the big cities.

So I'm glad that Donald Rumsfeld finally came over to China to talk with China's military last week, but that is so 20th century. How China uses its growing military is purely hypothetical. What China's impact on the global environment will be if it continues to grow at this pace is a certain disaster - for China and the world.

Tighter regulation alone won't save China's environment, or the world's. Since logging in most natural forests was banned here in 1998, China's appetite for imported wood has led to stripped forests in Russia, Africa, Burma and Brazil. China outsourced its environmental degradation.

That is why you need an integrated solution. And that is why the most important strategy the U.S. and China need to pursue, in concert, is one that brings business, government and N.G.O.'s together to produce a more sustainable form of development - so China can create a model for itself and others on how to do more things with less stuff and fewer emissions. That is the economic, environmental and national security issue of our day. Nothing else is even close.