China's new middle class control planet's future
Updated: 2011-08-13 10:22
By Kim Bowden (chinadaily.com.cn)
Various Western media attributed the ground-swelling of NIMBYism - the "Not-in-my-backyard" sentiment common among middle and upper classes seeking better living standards in their neck of the woods - to the city's upwardly mobile.
Although initiated by peasants, the protest gained traction when internet-savvy young urbanites spread the word online.
International environmental media group Treehugger reported that "hundreds of well-off Chinese caught the attention of international media with a protest against a garbage incinerator being put too close to their homes", while The Telegraph said "China's burgeoning middle class has lodged its first mass challenge against the government by staging a large environmental protest in southern China".
The European Union's climate action commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, agreed that China's middle class are increasingly a green force, telling an audience in Korea earlier this year that pressure from a growing middle class will encourage China's leaders to push ahead with cleaning up the environment.
"China now has had some 400 million citizens entering the middle class, they also demand clean water and air their children can breathe, like others will do."
But although such aspirations may see an eco-emphasis in some places, they don't necessary spell good news for the environmental future of the planet as a whole.
In a talk in Beijing on his book "When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind - Or Destroy It", Asia environmental correspondent for the Guardian Jonathan Watts said "Economic development will often lead to environmental degradation - they are different sides of the same coin."
However, he argued history showed once per-capita income reached $5,000 to $8,000, the trend reverses, as people decided they were "tired of living in a pig-sty".
He said although some of the environmental clean-up was the result of innovative solutions, "some of it was because of a dirty little secret".
Western societies have generally "outsourced the problem to other countries, to future generations.
"Poor old China ended up being, in a sense, the repository of 200 years of the world's environmental problems."
The question is, where to for the dirty byproducts of China's rising middle class? Watts said "When you get to a country the size of China the issue is the amount of rug left to sweep it under is not so big."
To their credit, China is getting creative and new eco-technologies are a government priority; however, environmental problems that fall into the too-hard basket, rather than being shipped to the developing world as their Western counterparts had the luxury to do, are largely being internalized.
"Dirtier industries," said Watts, "are being pushed inland," away from more affluent east-coast settlements.
In a review of Watts' book, the Guardian's Isabel Hilton said "This book is not simply an indictment of China's development path: it is a lesson for us all in the dangers of how we live."
As Watt's himself summed up to the predominantly expat crowd he talked to in Beijing recently: "China is becoming more like us. And we are the problem."
Kim Bowden hails from Auckland, New Zealand, where she recently completed AUT University's Postgraduate Journalism Diploma, top of her class.
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