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The Boy Who Cried Sputnik

September 29th, 2009

1Thomas Friedman has a new Sputnik article out, and the suggestion in his opinion piece is that Red China wants to become Green China. “I believe this Chinese decision to go green,” he says, “is the 21st-century equivalent of the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik—the world’s first Earth-orbiting satellite.”

The reference had a familiar ring. Turns out that it’s actually the NYT columnist’s fifth time referencing Sputnik in such a fashion (Earlier Friedman/Sputnik moments can be found in Dec 04, Jun 05, Jan 06, and Nov 06).

Could it be that recycling metaphors is Friedman’s way of helping save the planet?

I have less of a problem with tired historical analogies than with the way Friedman pins certain motivations on the Chinese. It is simply not the case that they have experienced a tectonic shift in thinking on the environment, that at the grassroots level everyone there is suddenly “going green.” And by no means are we the passive beneficiaries of any production trend.

“When China decides it has to go green out of necessity, watch out. You will not just be buying your toys from China. You will buy your next electric car, solar panels, batteries and energy-efficiency software from China.”

China’s Communist Party may have recently announced change for political reasons–the government want to be seen by the global community as doing something–but the motivation for the manufacture of so-called clean technologies is profit driven.

Most in China don’t worry about using anything but the cheapest forms of energy. Certain technologies are attractive to industrialist because there is demand abroad. While these technologies may eventually become widespread, the emphasis for now remains on export opportunities.

Friedman has chosen to write about environmentalism precisely because his (American) readers have the subject on their minds. In China, there is no similar concern. The level of environmental consciousness in the country is abysmal. Utterly.

There’s a point at the beginning of Poorly Made in China where I am standing with an industrialist outside a nickel-plating factory in South China, looking with him out over a polluted landscape. When I complain about the stench, the factory boss at my side criticizes me, suggesting there we have “cultural differences” on the subject of pollution.

Industrialists resent pressure to clean up their act, and even Mainland Chinese who are not directly involved in industry share this view (because they do not want to slowdown the dream of a China that is supremely powerful and very wealthy). China is gripped by a mania for money, and the emphasis is on growth at any cost. The rivers really do run black, and the only real concern over “greening” involves the pursuit of American dollars.

Battery power is taking off in China, not for philosophical reasons, but because it’s a dirty business. The technology behind batteries has changed little since the 1950s. They are made with lead. China’s manufacturing advantage in this area is cultural. Manufacturers are more than willing to jump into projects involving hazard to worker and community health. China is producing energy-saving devices precisely because the people there cares less, not more, about things like the environment and safety.

Friedman’s article was published over the same weekend that yet another lead scandal was underway. This time, 121 children have been found with the toxic substance in their systems. In recent months, thousands of children have been diagnosed with lead poisoning in China.grass

I would like to agree with Friedman, but when it comes to the environment, it is China–not America–that needs a Sputnik moment. I don’t know what might produce such a trigger, but Chinese ought to want a better quality of life. With too many there behaving badly, though, environmental risk is ubiquitous. In all honesty, there are few parks in the country in which one dares to sit on the grass…and there are fewer people who give a damn about it either.


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