Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 20, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE MIDDLE KINGDOM'S DILEMMA....In 1952, Mao Zedong proposed a solution to the uneven distribution of water in China: take from the (lush, wet) south and give to the (dry, arid) north. Fifty years later, Mao's eccentric dream took shape as the South-to-North Water Transfer Project, a gigantic initiative to divert water hundreds of miles north from the Yangtze River to the Yellow River.

There was only one problem: as geologist Yong Yang discovered on extensive field trips to the frozen source of the Yangtze, there just wasn't enough water to meet the government's goals. In one section of the river, the government wanted to divert more water than the entire flow of the river could provide. And even in areas where the goals weren't literally impossible, they still ran the risk of decimating downstream communities, including Shanghai, that depend on the Yangtze for agriculture, industry, and hydropower. Yet as Christina Larson reports in our December issue, the project goes on, for reasons that would sound drearily familiar in any country:

Informed sources say that the project has a champion in retired President Jiang Zemin — still a powerful force in Chinese politics — and a handful of influential retired army officers. And many entrenched interests have a reason to hope that construction proceeds. The steering committee that manages the water transfer project is led by Premier Wen Jiabao, and its members include high-ranking officials from the national government. A similar bureaucracy has been replicated in affected provinces, creating hundreds of titles and salaries dedicated to moving the project forward. Five state banks have major investments in the plan, and expect loans to be repaid when water user fees are assessed. The two companies with multibillion-dollar contracts to build the early phases of the project are hungry for more.

Why care about some corrupt Chinese engineering boondoggle? Because it's emblematic of China's schizophrenic attitude toward environmental problems: on the one hand, because the central government can't police the provinces well enough to enforce its own laws, activists like Yong are nowadays allowed — sometimes even encouraged — to sound environmental alarms. On the other hand, it often doesn't make any difference. China is still China. Their future affects us all, but even though the Chinese leadership is aware of what it needs to do to address its many looming environmental catastrophes, it's often afraid to follow through:

Every industrialized country — apart from Singapore, a green authoritarian city-state — that has cleaned up its environment has done so with the help of civil society and a free press....David Lampton, the director of the China studies program at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, explained Beijing's conundrum: "The Chinese are caught between the logic of what they know they need to effectively implement environmental policy, and the fear of whether these groups could become the opening wedge to political liberalization."

....Perhaps China will, once again, elide the apparent contradictions of its environmental politics in the same way that it has somehow melded capitalism and communism. Or perhaps smoggy cities, dwindling water supplies, and peasant protests over pollution will force the party to accept greater political openness. Or perhaps the environmental activists themselves will call for it. Whatever happens, the consequences will be epic. If China continues on its current course, within twenty-five years it will emit twice the carbon dioxide of all the OECD countries combined. The Middle Kingdom's dilemma is ours, too.

UPDATE: Still thirsting for more? Check out Jacques Leslie's piece in Mother Jones:

Chinese ecosystems were already dreadfully compromised before the Communist Party took power in 1949, but Mao managed to accelerate their destruction....Yet the Mao era's ecological devastation pales next to that of China's current industrialization. A fourth of the country is now desert. More than three-fourths of its forests have disappeared. Acid rain falls on a third of China's landmass, tainting soil, water, and food.

Excessive use of groundwater has caused land to sink in at least 96 Chinese cities, producing an estimated $12.9 billion in economic losses in Shanghai alone. Each year, uncontrollable underground fires, sometimes triggered by lightning and mining accidents, consume 200 million tons of coal, contributing massively to global warming. A miasma of lead, mercury, sulfur dioxide, and other elements of coal-burning and car exhaust hovers over most Chinese cities; of the world's 20 most polluted cities, 16 are Chinese.

Kevin Drum 12:02 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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Comments

Bridge to Nowhere meet Nowater under the Bridge

Posted by: Ross Best on December 20, 2007 at 12:14 AM | PERMALINK

I won't hold my breath waiting for real freedom for Chinese citizens. The Chinese can't even exercise their god given, natural freedoms such as the freedom to have as many children as they choose to have. They can't relocate from one province to another without government approval.

If they manage to figure out how to manage their environment, it is going to be likely a result of central management. But that means they have to take some bold steps, including some that may hinder short term economic growth. Given the choice between short term gratification vs long term planning, politicians always go for the short term. In other words, I don't hold much hope for China to fix its environmental problems as it is organized today.

Posted by: rational on December 20, 2007 at 12:22 AM | PERMALINK

China will probably environmentally implode in 25-30 years. Not that that will help a post-manufacturing US that much.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on December 20, 2007 at 12:22 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin, don't forget, not too too many years ago, some of you Californios were talking about "stealing" the Columbia and piping it south.

Posted by: SocraticGadflys on December 20, 2007 at 12:51 AM | PERMALINK

This article was interesting because I too was in Beijing in October, and I remember our guide at the Summer Palace remarking about how clear it was. You could actually see the other side of the small lake! Quite unremarkable, I thought. While we knew that the Party Congress was taking place, and saw all the uniforms around Tienenmin Square, I hadn't connected the two until I read this article. Later we visited two other regions in China, Xian and Shanghai, where the only time the sun was visible was as a dim orange ball at about three in the afternoon.

As everyone knows, China is experiencing tremendous growth. The Chinese joke that the national bird is the construction crane, and new apartment buildings are rising almost everywhere we went. Reportedly they're all energy hogs. In the cities the roads are choked with cars (and bicycles), mostly German makes produced in China, and also Buicks(!). The air pollution is bound to be an issue at the Olympics next fall.

Posted by: Don Bacon on December 20, 2007 at 1:03 AM | PERMALINK

It may implode environmentally by 2025, but it'll implode economically first. I laugh when people discuss when China will overtake the US in GDP. It will never happen. Most models indicate that by 2025 China would require 3X its current oil consumption. This is impossible. There is no way that oil will be there. The head of exploration of Total stated his belief that 100 million barrels a day will never happen, ever. So China's growth model is not teneable for even 20 years, and probably a lot less.

The Chinese can't even exercise their god given, natural freedoms such as the freedom to have as many children as they choose to have. Given that the current world population, including the US population, is unsustainable at even current living standards for more than a few decades (if that), China might not be the first. I read recently that someone in an industrialized nation suggested taxing each couple $5000 for every child they had past the second and $500 each year after that as a disincentive for childbearing.

"Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist." ~Kenneth Boulding, economist

The unsustainability of the current global situation is becoming more and more apparent. Even if some people like to think all that is required is decreasing global greenhouse emissions, it's not. The ultimate source is the population. You can have the high population or you can have the high living standards, but you can't have both. The exponential growth model is beginning to fall apart at the edges, and by 2025 it will have become clear to the world it is failing.

Posted by: blah on December 20, 2007 at 1:09 AM | PERMALINK

One of the things most curious about China is that in spite of having a totalitarian government, the government is rather weak.

Posted by: Doctor Jay on December 20, 2007 at 1:38 AM | PERMALINK

Rational,

A bit off topic, but something I feel that needs to be addressed.

I have been to China. I know a lot of Chinese. Almost to a person, they are all for the "one child policy." There are just way too many people in China right now, everyone is aware of it, and the only thing that they feel they can do is have the one child policy.

Regarding the environmental problems of China, China actually has been making some progress. Shanghai, although still dirty by Western standards (it is known as the largest construction project in the world), is far cleaner now than it was 10 years ago.

As for travelling between provinces. You know, now a lot of Chinese try to go oversees to get American/British/Australian citizenships just to be able to travel to other provinces. But then again, there are a lot of migrant workers in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing.

Posted by: Fighting Words on December 20, 2007 at 2:52 AM | PERMALINK

Mother Jones's current feature article is on China's environmental problems, coincidentally.

Read the whole thing here.

Posted by: blah2 on December 20, 2007 at 3:04 AM | PERMALINK

It's interesting that population has popped up several times. I think that taboo subject is going to become more mainstream.

As for China's e problems--aren't we enablers? Go out and stand in the WalMart parking lot or Michaels especially at this season of the year and watch the American population buying their own demise. There are plenty of USA made gift choices that are lanquishing in our rush for cheap. So, it's hard for me to cry for America.

Posted by: elr on December 20, 2007 at 6:36 AM | PERMALINK

I'm of the generation of China watchers who thought Wei Zhingsheng was going to die in prison. For those who don't remember -- Wei was the author of a wall poster (the Chinese call 'em Big Word Announcements) when Deng Xiaoping was calling for "the Four Modernizations", about how China was going to move forward in science and technology and so on.

Wei called for "the Fifth Modernization", the liberation of China's people. So he was jailed as China's most prominent dissident before Tiananmen and most of us expected he'd never see daylight again.

They let him out a few years ago, and he got asylum in the US. I happened to run into him (with Harry Wu), walking across the Capitol grounds one day. I was talking with the guy I was with (about a new citizenship test), and not thinking China stuff at all -- and then I looked up, and there they were.

I literally stammered, I was so surprised. Wei speaks very little English, and I dunno as it is exactly polite to tell somebody on a first meeting 'gee, I thought the secret police were going to kill you'. So I finally quoted his wall poster to him "the Fifth Modernization: Democracy."

Without missing a beat, he replied, like a sign/countersign: "Freedom."

One of the proudest moments of my life.

Posted by: theAmericanist on December 20, 2007 at 8:02 AM | PERMALINK

Thanks for posting that. Some of us don't have a clue how easy our arm chair activist life is. Suppose when you signed a MoveOn petition you knew your life might be the price?

Posted by: elr on December 20, 2007 at 8:54 AM | PERMALINK

China is... complicated to say the least. The business about travel--people travel quite freely. The internal airlines are cheap and crowded with business people, families, etc. It's correct that you can't relocate without permission, but that doesn't mean people don't do it. The regulations seem to intended not so much to prevent relocation, but rather to create a large internal migrant labor population that isn't entitled to the benefits they'd have if they could get authorization, which the government makes very difficult.

"Freedom"-wise, a lot depends on where you are. My impression was that in Beijing and Xian, things were much more closely controlled, though the sense of wide-open pedal-to-the-metal commerce is everywhere (they put ads on things you'd never dream of seeing ads on--a giant billboard running down the front of the control tower at Kunming airport, e.g.)

But then there are areas like the Jingpo Prefecture, where we went for my brother's wedding. This was a semi-autonomous region in Yunnan down by the Myanmar border, analogous to a native American reservation here. They have a pretty substantial self-government there. There's definitely a sense of ethnic-identity defiance of the dominant Han culture and government. My brother-in-law, a retired surgeon and very highly regarded in the local region, is himself an environmental and cultural activist. He was involved in educating young villagers about their cultural heritage--in some ways the wedding itself was an instance of that: a full-blown traditional ceremony of the kind they have been falling away from, and the fact of it being the first marriage between a Jingpo and a white American made it all the more prominent a statement of cultural identity. We also witnessed him in very significant, albeit one-on-one ways, educating people about how some of their agricultural practices were degrading the environment they depend on for their survival.

We encountered a similar awareness of the importance of these issues in LiJiang, where tourism is a major industry. The people we stayed with were very educated and progressive about these matters. At the same time, the central government's major hydroelectric damming project is threatening to destroy Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the most important natural attractions in the area, and there seemed to be a certain fatalism about that. You really had the sense of two different worlds--our local situation where we have a certain degree of autonomy and the implacable central authority that can arbitrarily step in and screw things up when it so chooses.

Posted by: DrBB on December 20, 2007 at 9:25 AM | PERMALINK

It's also important to remember that China has a real latent touchiness about its national pride.

I remember being in Nanking at a big roundtable discussion, where one of our group, who was sorta the sandal wearing bearded lefty from Central Casting, tried to ask some Chinese grad students about China's open air nuke testing program, pointing out that this is a bad thing which everybody else has stopped.

Man, the Chinese took that the WRONG way -- not seeing it as an environmental issue (I tried to explain, there's only so much an interpreter can do), but as an affront to their national security.

I think the same thing is true about China's environmental policies: let 'em catch the most infinitesimal hint that our concern is really about their growth as an economic rival, and they could scarcely care less that it's based on poison and laogai.

Posted by: theAmericanist on December 20, 2007 at 9:31 AM | PERMALINK

PRC is technically godless, so anyone saying "god given" is demonstrating their own ignorance. As someone else mentioned above, the one child policy is quite popular and has done much to lift the urban population into relative affluence. The policy works in the cities because it is popular and easy to implement there. In rural areas, where having a son is of paramount importance, the one child policy has been remade into the "being fined for additional kids but avoid getting your tubes tied until after your first son."

As for the disastrous hydroelectric projects, dig a little deeper and you'll find a story quite familiar to anyone following Cheney/Halliburton. Jiang has ties to the Ministry of Water - the watershifting project guarantees opportunity future graft. The leadership at the top knows the project is technically a bad idea and that's the reason why they encourage dissenters, but they depend on consensus to operate so the project will be developed (hopefully very slowly) until the weight of opinion shifts away. My sense is that southerners generally loath the idea while northerners like it because they're very thirsty and think nothing of screwing the relatively well off southerners. -- The best hope forward might be for a CCP octogenarian die off from hair dye poisoning.

Posted by: anon on December 20, 2007 at 9:33 AM | PERMALINK

Speaking of south vs north environmental conditions in China, these images illustrate the difference:

Here's a clear day in LiJian

And here's a "clear" day looking down from the Great Wall, just outside Beijing.

Posted by: DrBB on December 20, 2007 at 9:36 AM | PERMALINK

There was an NBC "White Paper" documentary in the 60s called "The Great Leap Backward". (I could be eliding two documentaries. It's been awhile.) The image I clearly recall is a summary execution. A man is brought into the frame, his arms tied to a broomstick that runs perpendicular to his body up by his shoulders -- the stick goes under his armpits but behind his back. His captors make him kneel and without fanfare shoot him in the back of the head. The way a newly dead human head moves is distinctive. I was young enough, maybe 10, to be stunned and sickened and horrified.

Years later, a documentary of Michael Palin making a tour of the Pacific Rim countries was on TV. He was in a rural Chinese city that looked like concrete with cancer. Poisonously filthy. Worse than any dystopian movie image because there had been no effort to exaggerate or to make the images striking. It was simply ashen and foul.

I have no hope of any Chinese resurgence or leadership change. There's too much poison there. Too much inertia. I'd love to be wrong.

Posted by: Jeffrey Davis on December 20, 2007 at 9:39 AM | PERMALINK

Jeffrey Davis,

China has lots of problems and I won't pretend I understand them all. But I will confirm that being lectured by someone whose knowledge about it comes from a couple of cursory TV programs is jarring and annoying. You don't sound like someone who knows anything about how the Chinese government - national, provincial, local, local, local, CCP and non-CCP -- works. So sorry if I'm not about to take your comments seriously.

Look at your own USofA. You have a Republican party that is 200% ready to further destabilize the Middleeast in a quixotic attempt to be Jack Bauer; ready to take down 200+ years of economic and governmental progress to appease the wealthiest 5%. A significant and highly vocal plurality who thinks Iraq caused 9/11 and God will rapture them up before the very end; a MSM bought and paid for by the wealthiest 0.001%... I live in the US and I'm plenty frustrated, and unlike China, which for the moment contains its problems to its own soil, America is a basketcase on a global rampage. You tell me what's scarier and more depressing for the future of the human race!

Posted by: anon on December 20, 2007 at 9:54 AM | PERMALINK

Speaking of population control, if you'll check a site like CIA's Factbook, almost without exception, Arab/North African Muslim countries occupy all the highest birthrate spots. Coincidence that they're in so much turmoil?

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on December 20, 2007 at 10:03 AM | PERMALINK

Also, remember that through such things as exporting coke production to China, we export some of our pollution.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on December 20, 2007 at 10:06 AM | PERMALINK

You tell me what's scarier and more depressing for the future of the human race!

I didn't have to catalog the world's ills in one comment.

Posted by: Jeffrey Davis on December 20, 2007 at 10:15 AM | PERMALINK

LOL -- but didn't anon do it for us?

"America is a basketcase on a global rampage..."

Gee, too bad nobody posts here about the anti-American reflex among progressives, might actually make, um, some progress.

I wanna say something hopeful about China, and particularly about the relationship between China and the US: we're an EXAMPLE for them -- and they know it.

A friend of mine went to jail in China for the better part of a year (a hotel fire, they decided he was negligent), and he still does China work. He is famous, in a way, cuz the case attracted so much attention -- and he finds that pretty much everybody he talks to identifies WITH him, as a victim of the security forces. Virtually every Chinese has some experience with the government messing with their families, as the politics change.

One thing that my friend also notes is that when he talks to the Chinese about the security forces and the government in general, is that they are fascinated by the contrast with America: here, the guys responsible to stop fires aren't the same people who investigate them and the same people who arrest suspects and the same people who put suspects on trial and the same folks who decide if they're guilty. It's a breath of fresh air for Chinese to hear about civil liberties, the separation of powers, real elections, and so on.

I work teaching folks like that how democracy actually functions, how to get stuff done: and it is downright inspiring to see 'em GET it: here, the people rule in fact, as individuals and not "the masses". It makes you proud to be an American, frankly.

And it's more than that -- Chinese people (like anybody who wasn't white) could not become citizens until well within living memory (from 1790-1943). One of 19th century's great visionaries for America's future was a guy named Norman Asing, who tried to naturalize but was denied because he wasn't white. In fact, the first test case of the 14th amendment's establishment of birthright citizenship, written to repeal Dred Scott, didn't involve the US born child of an emancipated slave but a son of Chinese laborers, a kid named Wong Kim Ark: it was an American whose parents were born in China who served to cement our first genuinely NATIONAL citizenship.

Like the flow of voluntary immigrants from Africa which has grown over the past generation, building ties to China through immigration has enormous potential for good: we're a damned good example -- not cuz we're perfect, but because we can fix ourselves.

If anybody cares: (http://www.usqiaobao.com/newscenter/2007-12/19/content_55854.htm)

Posted by: theAmericanist on December 20, 2007 at 10:46 AM | PERMALINK

So ... China is fascist now?
.

Posted by: Grand Moff Texan on December 20, 2007 at 11:00 AM | PERMALINK

Where I come from, we have a saying involving glass houses and stones.

Perhaps more Americans should become familiar with it?

Posted by: Soullite on December 20, 2007 at 11:16 AM | PERMALINK

I don't think we need a pissing contest about which country is worst.

For anon - don't take offense. This blog spends about 99% of its time bashing the US. We rarely bash any other countries including China.

Posted by: Tripp on December 20, 2007 at 11:35 AM | PERMALINK

Or China could have a civil war and split into multiple states (with Tibet breaking free)? If it weren't for the nukes and the bird flu that would probably be the best thing for the rest of us. But it's not.

More reason to get our own house in order politically and environmentally so we can have the moral high ground and back it up without having to worry about pissing our banker off.

Posted by: MNPundit on December 20, 2007 at 11:38 AM | PERMALINK

Tripp,

No, we do not spend 99% of the time bashing the US. We spend 99% of the time bashing the Bush administration, the foreign policy of the Bush administration, and the domestic policy of the Bush administration, and the current lousy crop of Republican presidential candidates (we also bash the Democrats for allowing the Bush administration to run rampant). The Bush administration and the US are two seperate and distinct entities (thank God).

Posted by: Fighting Words on December 20, 2007 at 12:03 PM | PERMALINK

Tripp,
If China invaded two large countries in Asia we'd bash them too, even though the instrument we'd bash them with is made in China (along with most everything else).

Posted by: Don Bacon on December 20, 2007 at 12:24 PM | PERMALINK

"No, we do not spend 99% of the time bashing the US...."

More like 67%, and NONE being proud of it. It's like that's making a rude noise, or something requiring therapy: right, 'Stop?

Posted by: theAmericanist on December 20, 2007 at 12:41 PM | PERMALINK

Suppose when you signed a MoveOn petition you knew your life might be the price?

It did feel that way, signing MoveOn petitions a couple of years ago. Why do you think they want to snoop on your online activity?

Posted by: rational on December 20, 2007 at 12:56 PM | PERMALINK

One child policy may be popular. If that is so, why should the Chinese government enforce it so vigorously? Why can't they let the small minority that wants to have many children have it?

Are you folks saying it is OK to have the government impose restrictions on something so fundamental as the right to bear children, in order to achieve its population goals? If the government can do that, what else can it do to achieve whatever goals and targets some politician dreams up? Like cleansing the world and the country of "inferior races." If the majority likes that policy, is it OK for the government to pursue that?

Posted by: rational on December 20, 2007 at 1:00 PM | PERMALINK

One child policy may be popular. If that is so, why should the Chinese government enforce it so vigorously? Why can't they let the small minority that wants to have many children have it?
_____________________________
Well, while everyone's for a balanced budget, I have yet to see anyone volunteers to have his or hers benefits cut.

And what makes you think you're entitled to have as many children as you wish? You only have rights as long as they don't infringe on other people's rights. By having many children, you are effectively taking resources away from other children. And I don't mean money to pay for their tuition and such. I mean food, air, and water etc. that's supposed to be the topic of this discussion. If you're willing to ship fresh water and other resources from the USofA to China for free, then perhaps the Chinese will reconsider about the one child policy.

Posted by: Cindy on December 20, 2007 at 2:20 PM | PERMALINK

"Are you folks saying it is OK to have the government impose restrictions on something so fundamental as the right to bear children, in order to achieve its population goals? If the government can do that, what else can it do to achieve whatever goals and targets some politician dreams up? Like cleansing the world and the country of "inferior races." If the majority likes that policy, is it OK for the government to pursue that?"

What's your alternative? You want to enjoy living in a world where, sure, you can have all the kids you like, but 8 of the 10 you produce will die before they turn 5, the world of pre-1500? Because that's what the choices are. This is not a matter of what you want, it is a matter of physics and chemistry and biology --- we can all live like kings (and have a small world population), or we breed like rabbits until, as happens withe the rabbits, the population collapses.

As for eliding from this, essential and non-discriminatory practice, to ethnic cleansing, huh? What exactly is your argument? That if you give the power to do x (where x is anything whatever) they will then do y (where y is something completely different)?
There is, as far as I know, one country on earth that has seriously tried to limit the population by legal means, namely China, which, as far as I know, has never engaged in any sort of ethnic cleansing. Meanwhile, your big ethnic cleanser countries (and milder variants thereof) were always about government encouraged population GROWTH, just growth of the right group.

How about, as an intermediate step, we simply fscking get the incentives right? No tax reductions for extra kids, and in fact increase taxes to represent the costs to society that they impose, and the externalities they impose on the rest of us. Or are you against taxing externalities and costs --- because it's funny how that works in libertarian minds where, apparently, externalities don't exist nor hidden costs.

Posted by: Maynard Handley on December 20, 2007 at 2:24 PM | PERMALINK

There are just way too many people in China right now, everyone is aware of it, and the only thing that they feel they can do is have the one child policy.

Really. If you think China's environment is f-ed, imagine how bad it would be if China was at 3 billion right now.

Posted by: Disputo on December 20, 2007 at 3:16 PM | PERMALINK

costs to society

Ah, yes - babies - an investment in the future or a cost to society?

Take your pick.

Posted by: Tripp on December 20, 2007 at 4:35 PM | PERMALINK

Why care about some corrupt Chinese engineering boondoggle?

Why indeed. We don't care about our own engineering boondoggles, so what's so special about China?

Physician, heal thyself.

Posted by: Horatio Parker on December 20, 2007 at 4:50 PM | PERMALINK

Maynard, Cindy:

The thrust of my argument is that China is a tightly controlled society, which intrudes so far into individual lives as to limit fundamental human rights and freedoms. Someone there decided "near term economic growth" is more important than long term health of the environment and are relentlessly pursuing their agenda. Small groups of people, however smart and well meaning they are, cannot bring long term prosperity by controlling the levers of power.

What you folks are arguing, by arguing that the Chinese govt bureacrats know best when they curtail fundamental human rights, is that Daddy knows best so you kids should STFU and follow Daddy's orders for the good of society. Hmmm, that is what Fascists do and if I wanted that, I would have written Cheney for President.

If population is a problem in some parts of the world, as it definitely is in China and India, let individuals make a choice. If the govt thinks the people are ignorant, then educate them so they can make informed choices. If they choose to have more children, they are choosing to work harder to support that family. If someone in China can manage a 4 child household, why should you have a problem with that?

Conseratives want the government to intrude in individual lives but want the government to stay out of affairs of corporations (which are not persons) so companies can do whatever they want. As a liberal, I want the government to stay out of the lives of individuals but want it to intrude, if necessary, in corporate affairs so as to ensure they are not unfair to individuals.

First and foremost, we are human beings. Companies, governments etc are convenient organizations we built to support our existence. It is not the other way around.

Posted by: rational on December 20, 2007 at 5:23 PM | PERMALINK

"costs to society

Ah, yes - babies - an investment in the future or a cost to society?

Take your pick.
"

Ah, yes.
Flat earth or round earth --- take your pick.
Global warming or global cooling --- take your pick.
Reducing taxes actually raises govt revenue or actually reduces govt revenue --- take your pick.

No-one is advocating that the flow of children STOP tomorrow. We are advocating that it diminish drastically.

Of course this will play out exactly like discussions of peak oil and global warming have played out. A coalition of morons of various persuasions will spout off one reason or another about why "Malthus is a myth" until the evidence that we are truly fscked is unavoidable, at which point there story will change to some variant of "don't blame us; we followed the best available advice at the time".
Or we'll get that old favorite, the redefinition of the argument: "You mean resources wars are a consequence of Malthus. Hang on, that isn't what you said --- what you said was that the situation was unsustainable, which has nothing to do with wars".

Posted by: Maynard Handley on December 20, 2007 at 5:28 PM | PERMALINK

I read recently in a science blog - perhaps Science Digest - that fully 40% of Chinese infants born since 2001 have been diagnosed with some birth defect due to their hellish environmental standards.

Posted by: mr insensitive on December 20, 2007 at 5:57 PM | PERMALINK

Ah, yes - babies - an investment in the future or a cost to society?

They are both, of course. On average, each addition person brings with it a marginally decreasing benefit and a marginally increasing cost to society and the environment, both largely in the form of externalities, and just like with any type of externality, it is perfectly within the purview of gvmt to control those costs/benefits by forcing them into the market, or, failing that (mostly because none of us want to see babies being bought and sold), through regulating output (aka, how many kids one can have).

Posted by: Disputo on December 20, 2007 at 6:01 PM | PERMALINK

Perhaps people should boycott Chinese goods that have likely been manufactured using processes that have created atrocious emissions? Maybe that would get the message across and cause some changes. You have to look at the demand side of this as a means of green enforcement and incentives. We purchase the vast majority of their manufactured goods. If that were threatened, wouldn't they make some substantive changes, given that their environmentalists have little or no voice?

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on December 20, 2007 at 8:41 PM | PERMALINK

Americanist:

What the heck happened in 1790? That's roughly halfway into the Qing dynasty, and a few years before the Qianlong Emperor relinquished power. Are you arguing that, as one of his last acts, he abolished some sort of citizenship that had existed prior to that?!

Chinese people (like anybody who wasn't white) could not become citizens until well within living memory (from 1790-1943).
Posted by: theAmericanist on December 20, 2007 at 10:46 AM |

Posted by: keith on December 20, 2007 at 9:52 PM | PERMALINK

Maynard:
It was never the case that 80% of kids died before they reached age five, or societies would have simply collapsed, demographically. In pre-1500 Europe (but not India, China, Ottoman Turkey, etc.), infant and childhood death rates might have occasionally reached 33%, but that was both exceptional and exceptionally rare.
As for the necessity of the state stepping in to reduce populatioin, India tried that, and it failed. What worked was the spread of urban cultural norms, via radio, movies, and TV, to thousands of rural villages, which led to a rise in the age of marriage and a delay in having a first child -- both efforts to enjoy the relative freedom of late adolescence. And voila! the birth rate began to decline.

Frankly, the Indians are probably much better positioned to deal with their future demographic issues than are the Chinese, who have two generations of "little emperors" who are going to have to sustain very large populations of the elderly, and that's going to strain their financial resources every bit as much as their 21st century industrial revolution is going to strain their environmental resources.

Malthus talked about factors that would reduce the rate of population increase, and hoped that less extreme short-term measures would make the much harsher population checks that he foresaw as a worst-case scenario. He didn't know anything about "soft power," but that's just what has helped birthrates fall in societies as disparate as 18th century Japan, 19th century Britain, and 21st century India. Given just how wrong so many doomsayers were about India, who's to say what might happen in sub-Saharan Africa in the next generation or two?

Posted by: keith on December 20, 2007 at 9:56 PM | PERMALINK

Uh, Keith, the ultimate goal of any population control measure is to decrease the overall environmental footprint of the population. Increasing the per cap environmental footprint leads to lower birthrate at the expense of that goal.

The sad truth of the matter is that the most effective decision any person can make wrt the environment is to not have kids. It's more effective than trading your car for a bike or becoming a vegetarian.

Posted by: Disputo on December 21, 2007 at 12:15 AM | PERMALINK

who's to say what might happen in sub-Saharan Africa in the next generation or two?

The mostly likely scenario is that sub-Saharan Africa will continue to be turned into Saharan African.

Posted by: Disputo on December 21, 2007 at 12:19 AM | PERMALINK

(patiently, cuz I have learned not to underestimate the stoooopidity around here)

Keith, no emperor had "citizens" among his people. They were "subjects". The EMPEROR was the sovereign.

In this country, "We, the People" rule. WE are sovereign.

In America, citizenship (which while it has Greek and Roman roots, is essentially an American invention) was founded on the principles of the Declaration of Independence, established by the Constitution, and enacted into law by the Naturalization Act of 1790.

Many folks don't realize that the Founders originally sought as colonists only those rights they would have had as Englishmen, e.g., the right to tax themselves granted by King John in the Magna Carta. Only after the Crown refused, pointing out that it had never granted Parliamentary rights to colonies did the Founders decide to make a Revolution: Taxation without representation is tyranny led directly to the revolutionary idea that governments don't grant rights, we're born with 'em, and WE establish governments to protect 'em, which can derive ONLY their "just" powers from our consent. (No government can blame the unjust use of power on popular consent -- a little remarked on fact of our Founding.)

That is NOT how the Qian Long emperor regarded his role in life. He ruled all under heaven, and nobody had rights --- but him.

We were not founded on such an exclusionary idea. We are not, and never will be perfect, but there is a kind of perfection in us, because our Founding is on a universal principle.

In 1790, it became necessary for the American republic to enact rules for how people could come here to take us up on the universal promises of the Founding: so naturalization was limited to "free, white persons". For a very long time, immigration law was limited to the ban on the slave trade and certain regulations for getting off the boats (which in those days only crossed the Atlantic), while becoming a citizen was handled separately by the courts.

In 1854, Norman Asing (who had crossed the Pacific) tried to become a citizen in California, telling a court that he wanted to vote because he believed in the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution. The court told him that didn't matter: he could not vote, because he was not white.

In the late 1880s, after the 14th amendment was ratified, birthright citizenship was tested with the Wong Kim Ark case: the US born child of Chinese laborers. The Supremes ruled that while, like Norman Asing, Wong's parents were barred from US citizenship because of the "free, white persons" statute, the amended Constitution made their SON a US citizen -- quite possibly the first Chinese-American.

But it wasn't until 1943 (and for Japanese, 1952) that the racist bar to non-white naturalization was repealed.

Of all people, progressives must not underestimate the resonance this sorta thing has for freedom loving people all over the world -- including the growing ties between Chinese in America, and Chinese in China.

We can fix ourselves: THINK what that means to folks with family memories of China in the 20th century, looking at the 21st.

Posted by: theAmericanist on December 21, 2007 at 9:30 AM | PERMALINK


I hate it when people use the term schizophrenic improperly, which Kevin did here. Schizophrenic has never meant conflicted. It means the mind is split from reality.

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