Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Externalities: pollution and uncontrolled growth in China

The Yellow River runs red with pollution.
Photo: Treehugger from Dang Yun/ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

The latest statistics from China's National Population and Family Planning Commission show a 40% increase in disabilities -- in only six years! Though better data from rural areas accounts for part of this, but a catastrophe is clearly in progress. A large part is doubtless due to chemical pollution of earth, air and water. Similar trends (though not so extreme) have been found in "chemical alleys" in other parts of the world. USPIRG reports over half of US city water supplies are polluted, with little or no enforcement by EPA.

Despite censorship and repression, farmers have rioted to protest toxic chemicals and drawdowns in rivers. A Stanford University review shows that a quarter of The Yangtze and the Yellow River are "cancerous", with "intentional" spills in other rivers, contaminating the water supply of a quarter of all Chinese, equal to the entire US population. Three huge pipelines are planned to carry supplies to the north -- similar to SPP plans for "bulk water" exports in North America. The agriculture of North China -- breadbasket of millions -- is threatened by a fast-disappearing aquifer, as well as soil contamination, pesticide runoff, overgrazing and climate change. Major conflicts are emerging between the demands of farmers, cities, industry, and public health.

China's uncontrolled and unregulated growth is an object lesson to the world of the "externalities" (the social and environmental costs that traditional economics omit from its accounts). Let us hope that this is not a preview of a slower worldwide catastrophe.

See also the discussion of Pamela Calvert's The Beloved Community film.

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