China: 0-for-3 when it comes to living on the real world?

“It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.” – John Maynard Keynes

The thesis of LOTRW, soon to be available in book form as well as on these  blogposts, is that successfully living on the real world requires that all seven billion of us solve, simultaneously, three problems: our relationship with the Earth as (1) resource, (2) victim, and (3) threat. It does no good for us to extract needed resources such as energy, water, and food in the short term if we degrade the environment and destroy the resources we’ll need in future years. Similarly, if our strategies for garnering resources and protecting habitat and the environment take no account of the occasional disruption caused by Earth’s extremes of flood and drought, heat and cold, wind and wave, then those strategies are incomplete. If we focus on protection for and from the environment while failing to meet our food and water needs, we’ll quickly come a cropper.

The key word here is simultaneously. It should call to mind those equations we used to solve in middle-school algebra, something like this example:

1)    x + y = 12

2)    y – z = 5

3)    3x + z = 17

Here the unique solution is x=5; y=7; z=2.

But you don’t know that unless you take all three equations into account. Suppose you’re content to just deal with equations (1) and (2). You might decide that the solution is x=1; y=11; z=6. But you could argue equally well that x=3; y=9; z=4, just looking at these two equations by themselves.

Something very much like that goes on when we develop resource policies, or environmental regulations, or community-level hazard resilience in isolation instead of attempting a rational framework for all three at once.

Of course, in the real world, we don’t have such precise relationships to work with. It’s as if instead of being given the coefficients, we know them only approximately. Suppose, for example, we’d measured things and we thought the equations were

1a)    1.01x +.98y= 11.8

2a)    .98y – 1.1z = 5.04

3a)    3.05x + 1.1z =16.8

Then the “solution” is (approximately) x=4.92; y= 6.97; z= 1.97. That’s different from the exact result… but by only a little bit. The inference is that we’re better off, and more likely to live successfully on this real world of ours when we take account of the three dimensions to our problem: resources, environment, and hazards.

As Keynes argues, it’s better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.

Which brings us to China. In recent weeks, China has made the news, as Harbin and other northern cities experienced levels of pollution that have not been seen in the western world for more than half a century. What’s more, China’s growing use of water is on a collision course with the limited resource. The Economist, in its October 12th print edition, summarized the problem:

“China is dangerously short of water. While the south is a lush, lake-filled region, the north—which has half the population and most of the farmland—is more like a desert. The international definition of water stress is 1,000 cubic metres of usable water per person per year. The average northern Chinese has less than a fifth of that amount. China has 20% of the world’s population but only 7% of its fresh water. A former prime minister, Wen Jiabao, once said water shortages threaten “the very survival of the Chinese nation”.

The shortage is worsening because China’s water is disappearing. In the 1950s the country had 50,000 rivers with catchment areas of 100 square kilometres or more. Now the number is down to 23,000. China has lost 27,000 rivers, mostly as a result of over-exploitation by farms or factories.

Water shortages impose big costs. China is hoping for a shale-gas revolution but does not have enough water for it since most of the gas reserves are in the driest parts of the country. The World Bank puts the cost of China’s water problems—mostly damage to health—at 2.3% of a year’s GDP.”

The article goes on to say that Chinese hopes for a solution include a so-called South-North Water Diversion Project. If completed, this $50B project will move water across 2000 miles of new canals, much of which requires carving through the Himalayan Plateau, while diverting water from its Indian and Vietnamese neighbors and threatening already-degraded ecosystems in the region. And it will encourage China’s current unsustainable practice of building new cities in the north. All to increase the Chinese water supply by a few percentage points.

In the meantime, what’s the story on Chinese efforts to build resilience to hazards? One showpiece effort, the Three Gorges Dam, was supposed to reduce hazards as well as generate hydroelectric power. It’s early days yet to see the effect on flooding downstream from the dam, but David Petley reported last year on The Landslide Blog that tens of thousands of residents are being forced off the slopes and banks of the reservoir by an increased number of landslides in the region.

The argument is hardly complete, but suffices to give a flavor. China might not be truly 0-3 with respect to resource, environmental, and hazards challenges (see, for example, the September 2 post on LOTRW), but it’s by no means getting a passing grade.

Americans might be tempted to see grounds for complacency in this narrative. We might take comfort from US progress toward energy self-sufficiency through development of natural gas reserves, note our relatively ample, clean water supplies and our grain exports. But reliance on natural gas from shale only delays a day of reckoning with climate change.  What’s more, we’re failing to hold our own against nature as a threat. Losses are mounting, and a daunting overhang of vulnerability to future hazards looms. The clean environment we enjoy has been accomplished in part by exporting environmental risks to other nations such as China where they’re at least out of our sight if not out of mind.

Hardly reassuring.

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