Environmental Catastrophe 101

It seems that every time you gain hope, a challenge arrives and a darkness falls across the field of vision.  Then, the bright little monocle of the new, freshly gained, insight of a hopeful future for the individual and for the species has to be squeezed into the eye socket tightly, with a little curse or a prayer, lest it be blasted out by explosions of pessimism and the sheer tonnage of the old order which causes earthquakes even as it falls. 

From my small perspective here, today, in a small city on Taiwan’s east coast, that means that impressions of the depth and quiet power of the environmental movement in Taiwan are being shaken by something with far greater magnitude: more destruction on the mainland.  A few days ago a major oil refinery exploded in Dalian, the primary (and prosperous) port city for northeast China.  (Yes, the fact that North Korea has dragged and not allowed more Chinese goods to flow out of the Tumen estuary has helped to cement Dalian’s economic potency for all three of the northeastern provinces. ) 

Today, we learn that more than 50 square kilometers of sea have been smeared with oil resulting from the blast:

courtesy Huanqiu Shibao; that paper's big news page on the explosion can be accessed by clicking the photo

My friend, Beijing University professor Bao Maohong, is a scholar of Chinese environmental consciousness and the enviornmental movement in China.  He had been rather bullish about the potential for China’s “Green Games” in 2008 to galvanize a grass-roots environmental movement which would be shared between NGOs and the Chinese government itself. 

I suppose that the Dalian spill, much like the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe, will be China’s test case for just how tuanjie or unified that system truly is.  Are people in the Northeast mobilizing to innovate their way out of this mess?  To what extent are Chinese netizens/citizens/laobaixing allowed to question the series of events and missteps that led to the spill in the first place?

Cleanup in Dalian -- click image for the Huanqiu photo gallery

And will the disaster result in a fundamental rethinking of environmental policy in the PRC? 

Hey Thomas Friedman!  Don’t you have some nifty slogans to trot out here about the splendid future of China and China’s cutting-edge environmental technology, thanks to the technochrati in the CCP?  OMG you do:

In the last few weeks [in 2007], I happened to visit Doha and Dalian, and I must say: I was stunned.

Before explaining why, let me acknowledge that chances are you’ve not visited Doha or Dalian recently. Indeed, it may be — I presume nothing — that you have never heard of either city. Doha is the capital of Qatar, a tiny state east of Saudi Arabia. Dalian is in northeast China and is one of China’s Silicon Valleys because of its proliferation of software parks and its dynamic, techie mayor, Xia Deren. What was stunning is that I hadn’t been to either city for more than three years, and I barely recognized either one.

Dalian, with six million people, already had a mini-Manhattan when I was last here. It seems to have grown two more since — including a gleaming new convention complex built on a man-made peninsula.

But this, alas, is not a travel column. It’s an energy column. If you want to know why I remain a climate skeptic — not a skeptic about climate change, but a skeptic that we’re going to be able to mitigate it — it’s partly because of Doha and Dalian. Can you imagine how much energy all these new skyscrapers in just two cities you’ve never heard of are going to consume and how much CO2 they are going to emit?

I am not blaming them. It is a blessing that their people are growing out of poverty. And, after all, they’re just following the high-energy growth model pioneered by America. We’re still the world’s biggest energy hogs, but we’re now producing carbon copies in places you’ve never heard of.

Yes, “Americans” are popping up all over now — people who once lived low-energy lifestyles but by dint of oil wealth or hard work are now moving into U.S.-style apartments, cars and appliances.

But, as I said, this is not just about “them.”It is still very much about us.

I see.  But at least old Friedman is on the record, to his credit, on the issue of oil and Dalian. 

The Gulf of Mexico storm/explosion/unleashing of oil ever since has been critiqued by outlets like the New York Times, but few American papers have had the temerity to suggest that American lifestyles and decades of policy (many of which are not poised to change) are equally at fault as BP.  The Suddeutscher Zeitung had an immense article about this three weeks ago (which I recorded and hope to upload sometime in the coming month as a podcast) which really took the U.S. political system to task.  And it reminded readers of that old Republican chant “Drill baby, drill!”

China lacks the same kind of audacious political culture, and there are few members of the Standing Committee to my knowledge that could be linked in a visible way to the petrochemical industry.  (Although if memory serves me right, perhaps Hu Jintao’s son or another princeling is on the board of a major Chinese oil concern?)  It’s also worth remembering that the Waijiaobu, the Chinese Foreign Ministry, is flanked by two immense headquarters of Chinese oil companies. 

Enjoying Young Pioneer Day at the Foreign Ministry, Beijing

And while Germany will criticize China’s Umweltschmutzung until the end of time, it’s worth noting that German automobile manufactures have been positively drooling of late at the higher-than-normal rates of automobile purchases on the mainland. 

Dalian or Alabama? Dalian...

Economic crisis averted, but environmental catastrophe emerges.  Nevertheless I’m gripping that monocle, as the necessary provocateur Jesse Jackson said, to “keep hope alive.”  Smudged and dirty though it may be, the eye behind it seeks a way forward.


  1. WTF happend this world!! the environment disaster coming one by one !!!
    Feel painful as the mother earth !!
    By the way,thanks for the informations !!

    1. Fortunately some people are taking action; one difficulty in both the Chinese (and U.S. context) is the extent to which governments hamper involvement and oversight of corporations (as well as mobilization to document and clean up the spills). I think there is a tie between serious corporate corruption and serious environmental degredation.

      I really believe that Steven Chu would make a fine leader for the United States, as a person able to describe in vivid detail the consequences of continuing on the present path.

      In the meantime maybe readers should consider donating to Greenpeace China as they seem to be taking proactive steps…


      Now, ironically enough, I have to go burn a bunch of gasoline by flying to Tokyo. Maybe someday there will be nuclear powered jets, or fusion-propelled speedboats to get there?

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