Tuesday, April 22, 2008

“We Can’t Live Like This”:

Earth Day Wisdom of a 13-Year Old

One unbearably muggy, smoggy summer day several years ago, I met a young Chinese girl and her father on then brand-new magnetic levitation train that runs to the Shanghai airport, covering 20 miles or so in just eight minutes. “Annie” as she called herself sat down opposite me, so that we shared a large window. She had just finished a summer of English camp and wanted to practice before returning home. So we chatted about her age (13), hometown (Hangzhou), and eventually her life plans. At first she protested my question about what she would do with her adult life, citing her age. When I persisted, she said: “I want to work on the environment,” using a 50 cent word for a newcomer to our language. I asked her why, and she responded gesturing at the filthy air outside the maglev window: “Because we can’t live like this.”

Annie and her dad, a monolingual environmental engineer, drove home several lessons that are quite apt for today, Earth Day. First, it’s just plain wrong, as some like to assert, that the Chinese have no ecological conscience. China is heroically reforesting, cleaning up rivers and streams, and replacing old factories with much less polluting ones.

Second, these efforts by themselves are patently inadequate. The evidence of that is everywhere. From air and water unfit for human consumption to dry river beds across Northern China, even as China plants crops for export. From the Gobi desert advancing on Beijing to airborne mercury spewed from coal-fired power plants falling in the Rockies. We sometimes overlook that the scarcity of safe resources is not a new, but an age-old, problem in Chinese society. What is new is the impact of developments in China on the rest of the world.

Third, there is hope. There’s no lack of money in China. Indeed, it suffers from excess liquidity and credit-creation. Why not devote some of those government financial resources – currently 1.4 trillion dollars and rising daily with China’s current account surplus – to addressing these problems? Scrubbers on every coal-fired power plant. Bag houses on steel-making furnaces. Modern waste water facilities – not just in place but also operating – in China’s top 200 cities. Why not?

But this problem is not only Chinese. All the big polluters – including the US and Europe – need to start taking more urgent and more concerted action. Instead of each one waiting for the other to move first, why can’t we have some big joint effort to clean up scarce water, improve air quality, and reduce carbon emissions. If the 13-year olds understand the need to act and are willing to commit their lives to improving the world they were born into, what’s wrong with the government officials and business leaders?

Charles Blum


  1. I sincerely feel that American environmentalists are part of the problem. Their projected ethos is a turn-off to mainstream Americans. "Green" projects need to be marketed to politicians and the public alike as making good economic sense. Renewable energy is cheaper and cleaner than traditional sources and creates good-paying jobs. "Green" infrastructure is safer, more efficient, and often more aesthetically pleasing than 19th and 20th century relics. I'd rather ride that magnetic levitating train from Dulles to D.C. than deal with the antiquated diesel bus and 70's train marathon currently available.

  2. I completely agree with the first commentator. Green = Jobs. Politicians should enthusiastically embrace green initiatives especially because they typically mean new industries and good paying jobs in their districts. Plus, as I've stated in a previous posting on this blog, farmers and ranchers stand to make money hand over fist leasing parts of their land to solar and wind power projects. I say, Congress should pork up environmental projects and put taxpayer money to good use.