China is now the world’s biggest consumer of energy. It passed the U.S. as the world’s bigger emitter of CO2 a couple years ago and accomplishes these things with an economy 1/3 as big as ours. Low energy efficiency and excessive dependence on dirty coal explain why China falls high on the list of ecological disasters. Over the next fifteen years China will build 1,000 gigawatts of new power-generation capacity, the total amount of all electricity-generation capacity in the U.S. today. The big environmental problems will increasingly be beyond our borders. We have to drop our America-centric viewpoint.
As environmentalist, we have to be concerned about our world, not only our back yard, and the world is generally dirtier than our back yard. Oil spills like the recent BP catastrophe are routine in Nigeria. In fact, you would not be far wrong if you characterized the whole coast of this part of Africa as one big spill eternal. In all fairness to the Nigerians, natural oil seepage was common even before, but not like this.
But before we get too excited about the ecological cost of fossil fuels, consider what happens to forests when poor people depend on biofuels (i.e. wood). The people of Haiti have created a wasteland out of a naturally ecologically rich island. The problem is charcoal production. We can see how this used to work in Europe if you want a historical perspective. Europe’s forests returned during the 20th Century because the stress was taken off when Europeans shifted from biofuels to fossil fuel. But charcoal was not the only thing destroying forests. Horses did their part. Horses eat a lot of grass and grass cannot be grown in the heavy shade of forests. As long as horsepower was really horsepower, large areas had to be devoted to growing horse food. I know everybody likes horses, but it is not good to have to depend on them. Fossil fuels replaced this too.
The Soviet Union was an ongoing ecological disaster in itself and the evils done by communist central planners lives after them. You can see the example in the Aral Sea, now perhaps better referred to as the the “Aral Depression”. This used to be a really big expanse of water, complete with a fishing industry. But during the 1960s, the Soviets built dams, dikes and canals to support their planned cotton industry. The Aral Sea literally dried up. I have seen the dramatic pictures of boats in the middle of fields used as examples of global warming, but it is merely garden variety central planning that did this. It gets worse when the wind picks up sand and salt from the erstwhile seabed and blows it all over the place.
As you probably have noticed by now, I have been picking up my ongoing ecological disasters from FP-Online. The last one they mention is the Pacific garbage patch. This is a kind of Sargasso Sea of plastic bottles and wrappers concentrated by the current and floating on the ocean surface. The currents pick up garbage from the coasts of North America and Asia and send it in a continual loop in the Northern Pacific.
I think the world is in a kind of development race. As societies develop, they get cleaner. America was much more polluted a generation ago than it is today. As China, Nigeria or the countries of the former Soviet Union develop we can hope they also become more environmentally responsible. But it will be a dirty couple of decades as we wait for it. Fortunately, they don’t have to make the same mistakes that we did. They can jump the line to the best technologies. Our duty is not to stand in the way of those developments.