Chinese Premier: Rich nations should ditch ‘unsustainable’ lifestyles … and stop buying all the crap we make

OK, maybe Premier Wen didn’t say that last part:

BEIJING (AFP) — Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said Friday that rich nations should alter their lifestyles to help tackle global warming, at the start of a two-day meeting on climate change, state media reported.

“The developed countries have a responsibility and an obligation to respond to global climate change by altering their unsustainable way of life,” Wen was quoted as saying by Xinhua news agency.

Snap! And yet … and yet … I confess the first thing that popped into my head when I read that admonition was this Onion story:

Chinese Factory Worker Can’t Believe The Shit He Makes For Americans

FENGHUA, CHINA–Chen Hsien, an employee of Fenghua Ningbo Plastic Works Ltd., a plastics factory that manufactures lightweight household items for Western markets, expressed his disbelief Monday over the “sheer amount of shit Americans will buy.”

“Often, when we’re assigned a new order for, say, ‘salad shooters,’ I will say to myself, ‘There’s no way that anyone will ever buy these,’ …. One month later, we will receive an order for the same product, but three times the quantity. How can anyone have a need for such useless shit?”

… “I hear that Americans can buy anything they want, and I believe it, judging from the things I’ve made for them,” Chen said. “And I also hear that, when they no longer want an item, they simply throw it away. So wasteful and contemptible.”

I titled Chapter 9 of my book “The U.S.-China Suicide Pact on Climate,” noting:

The climate problem cannot be solved if China and other rapidly developing countries do not take steps to restrain their emissions growth. But if the United States maintains its position that we will not take strong action until China does, neither country is likely to act in time.

Even setting aside the morality of the issue, the United States does have an obligation to act — and to act first — under the much-ignored UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was signed by President Bush’s father in 1992 and ratified that year by the Senate unanimously.

The signatories to the treaty recognized “that the largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases has originated in developed countries, that per capita emissions in developing countries are still relatively low and that the share of global emissions originating in developing countries will grow to meet their social and development needs.” The Rio Treaty recognized the “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” of each nation, and established a core principle:

Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.

Needless to say, that particular position is now very unpopular in this country, as I discuss in the chapter. Nonetheless, developing countries certainly have every right to lecture us about our failure to act to reduce emissions — especially since, unlike every other developed country, the United States has not merely refused to agree to binding emission reduction targets, we have actually spent the last eight years trying to convince other countries to abandon the international negotiation process.

That said, China isn’t Haiti or even Mexico. While the United States is still by far the world leader in cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases, China has surpassed us in total emissions. Its strategy of growth at any cost, which it learned from the West, is now utterly unsustainable, see “The immorality of China’s coal policy is breathtaking (literally).” In 2006 and 2007 alone, China built a staggering 200,000 MW of fossil fuel based electric generating capacity, almost all coal-fired. In those two years, they built the equivalent of more than half of the US coal generation capacity, which took us decades to build.

Like our country, China’s leaders operate under the misguided belief that they can pollute all they want during this time of rapid growth, and then use their future wealth to solve their environmental problems. While that paradigm has worked in America for polluted rivers and smoggy cities, it is fatally flawed for dealing with the threat posed by irreversible climate impacts, such as the disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet or the release of the carbon and methane locked in the frozen tundra or peatlands (see “Tundra, Part 2: The point of no return” and “For peat’s sake: A point of no return as alarming as the tundra feedback“). What is doubly tragic about this is that until the late 1990s, China in fact had a far more sustainable energy policy (see “China’s immoral energy policy — Part II: The efficient alternative“).

Yes, much of China is still living under terrible poverty. But it also remains the case that catastrophic climate change — which is unavoidable if the Chinese will not reverse their unsustainable path by, say, 2020 at the latest — will hit developing countries, including China, much more painfully than it will hit the rich countries.

Every other developed country can unhesitatingly criticize America’s unsustainable lifestyle. Even China has every right to attack us for not fulfilling our obligation to start reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, every right to propose as it did last week “that rich nations devote one percent of their economic output toward helping poor countries fight global warming.” But I am not so certain the Chinese premier has any moral standing to attack our unsustainable lifestyle, a lifestyle China encreasingly feeds off in our mutual suicide pact.

Let me end with The Onion:

Among the items that Chen has helped create are plastic-bag dispensers, microwave omelet cookers, glow-in-the-dark page magnifiers, Christmas-themed file baskets, animal-shaped contact-lens cases, and adhesive-backed wall hooks.

“Sometimes, an item the factory produces resembles nothing I’ve ever seen,” Chen said. “One time, we made something that looked like a ladle, but it had holes in its cup and a handle that bent down 90 degrees. The foreman told us that it was a soda-can holder for an automobile. If you are lucky enough to own a car, sit back and enjoy the journey. Save the soda beverage for later.”

Chen added: “A cup holder is not a necessary thing to own.”

Chen expressed similar confusion over the tens of thousands of pineapple corers, plastic eyeshades, toothpick dispensers, and dog pull-toys that he has helped manufacture.

“Why the demand for so many kitchen gadgets?” Chen said. “I can understand having a good wok, a rice cooker, a tea kettle, a hot plate, some utensils, good china, a teapot with a strainer, and maybe a thermos. But all these extra things–where do the Americans put them? How many times will you use a taco-shell holder? ‘Oh, I really need this silverware-drawer sorter or I will have fits.’ Shut up, stupid American.”

Chen added that many of the items break after only a few uses.

“None are built to last very long,” Chen said. “That is probably so the Americans can return to buy more. Not even the badly translated assembly instructions deter them. If I bought a kitchen item that came with such poor Mandarin instructions, I would return the item immediately.”

May Gao of the Hong Kong-based labor-advocacy group China Labour Bulletin said complaints like Chen’s are common among workers in China’s bustling industrial cities.

“Last week, I took testimony from several young female workers from Shenzhen who said they were locked in a work room for 18 straight hours making inflatable Frisbees,” Gao said. “Finally, the girls joined hands on the factory floor and began to chant, ‘No more insane flying toys for Western pigs!’ They quickly lost their jobs and were ostracized by their families, but the incident was a testament to China’s growing disillusionment with producing needless crap for fat-ass foreigners.”

Continued Gao: “As Chinese manufacturing and foreign investment continue to grow, and more silly novelty products are invented, we can expect to see more of these protests.”

8 Responses to Chinese Premier: Rich nations should ditch ‘unsustainable’ lifestyles … and stop buying all the crap we make

  1. Funny…but sad too, in that we all need to eat to live.

    As somebody who has made a living for decades and decades off making (admittedly completely useless) designed stuff, my question would be “what can I contribute to the economy that you really need?”

    We all have to contribute something to our shared economy. For some of us, maybe that has to be something redundantly ridiculous!

    With 6 billion of us, how can we really create a spartan economy comprising only the “good wok, a rice cooker, a tea kettle, a hot plate, some utensils, good china, a teapot with a strainer, and maybe a thermos.”

    It’s a difficult problem. I think we just are hopelessly beyond the simple and needed objects stage of the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker.

  2. Tilo says:

    With 6 billion of us, how can we really create a spartan economy comprising only the “good wok, a rice cooker, a tea kettle, a hot plate, some utensils, good china, a teapot with a strainer, and maybe a thermos.”

    I just posted this on another thread. But in light of your comment, it is so much more appropriate here.

    From Martin Durkin: “Romanticism is in essence anti-Capitalist. Not in the sense of traditional Marxism. The Marxists wanted to go forwards not backwards. They wanted to build bigger factories than the capitalists, not folksy medieval craft workshops. No. Romanticism was a kind of reactionary anti-capitalism. And it was the ideology and aesthetic worldview of those people who lost most, or gained least from capitalism. I think it’s the same today. In Europe, the toffs (Prince Charles and his gang) are green because they have lost their position in society. The intellectuals – teachers, lecturers, scientists are green because they don’t have the status they used to. (Not long ago, a professor would have been someone important, had a big house, maids etc). These days, plumbers make more money.

    It’s not easy to explain this properly in a few lines, but this I think is the real basis for all those anti-modern green prejudices.

    They hated all the factories and cars long before global warming came along. The importance of global warming is it linked what otherwise would a have been a disparate bunch of prejudices and gave them some moral impetus.

    So you can say that scientists profit from global warming (grants etc), but that’s the icing on the cake.

    You can easily tell that global warming is really a political idea rather than a scientific one. In any gathering in polite society you can tell who will be ‘pro-global warming’ and who will be sceptical, in the same way as you can guess who will hate George Bush, or who will be sympathetic to Sarah Palin.

    Go into a party of lefties in New York and tell them the science on global warming doesn’t stack up. They don’t say, ‘Good Lord, what a relief, I thought we were in for it.’ Instead they get very cross with you. They’re terribly attached to their apocalypse and don’t take kindly to people rocking the boat. ”

    [JR: Tilo, the science has been elaborated on at length on this website. You are one of those Junk Science people who simply choose to ignore what real science and real observation tells us. Fine. But this is not the website for debating long-debunked denier talking points.

    You don’t believe in science and you don’t like progressive solutions, so you have to attack those who disagree with you as anti-modernist. We get it. Do it elsewhere.]

  3. alex says:

    Personally I hate all this plastic crap but the rest of my family are addicted to it. I seem to spend my whole life unpacking huge carboard boxes, puzzling over undecipherable assembly instructions and filling the loft full of stuff that isn’t actually broken but no-one can think of anything useful to use it for.

    Then there are the intermidable runs down to the dump, carefully separating all this crap into 35 different categories for ‘recycling’ (which I believe generally means stuffing it all in a container and shipping it back to China for burning).

    I wish I’d lived 300 years ago, poverty and all. I like growing my own veg, collecting logs for the wood burning stove, drying clothes on the line, etc. I don’t mention it in polite company though in case they lock me up.

  4. Our resident denier is quite wrong about the political idea of climate change.

    I am one example of as green as you get now, and I loved all the useless designed stuff before I woke up to our species exceedingly miserable chances at surviving the consequent climate change.

    Some people can learn from scientists. Some can’t. That’s the difference.

  5. paulm says:

    Snap. Just what I thought when I heard this on the radio.

    This post should also be in solutions. It really gets to cusp of the problem. We have reach this level of consumerism and material comfort (&population) due to fossil fuels. We couldn’t have done it otherwise.

    Well its screwed up the climate and now were running out of the stuff and were falling off a cliff. It really couldn’t be any worse. Is this really the peak of civilization?

    With a WWII approach we also have restructure our societies. Its like dieting, you always put the weight back on until you realize that you have to change your lifestyle and eating habits completely.

  6. David B. Benson says:

    Today’s TNYT has an article discussing the slow down in south China. Seems the developed countries have indeed scaled back buying the c**p made in China.

  7. Greg says:

    The Onion writer forgot the worst waste ever – does anyone remember the year when everybody got a “Billy Bass” or “Rock Lobster” at Christmas. “Yeah, I know, let’s make a battery powered piece of crap that will be landfilled by March!” I can’t remember to whom I said it (I was at my in-laws) but I recall saying “If I was in charge, the manufacture, distribution and sale of anything like this would be illegal.”

  8. Abdoul Yessoufou says:

    I hope that the consumers in the west listen to what the chinese PM has to say. It is a very real problem with the chinese made goods. Most of them are of low-quality and could barely be used for more than few months. Why should the developed world allow such crap to be sold in their market is a real question that we have to ask ourselves. Apart from the quality of the goods, the production cycle is also against all the civilised tenets that we cherish here in the North- child labour, slavery and earth polluting emissions that the manufacturers generate. Are parts of what we should consider each time we make decisions about what to buy from the chinese products.