China’s Tipping Point on Environment?

Chinese environmental protesters have won the cancellation of an industrial waste pipeline that would have dumped waste from a paper factory into the ocean near the town of Qidong.

This is not the first such victory.  The Guardian notes that:

The protest followed similar demonstrations against projects in the Sichuan town of Shifang earlier this month and in the cities of Dalian in the north-east and Haimen in southern Guangdong province in the past year.

There’s a general pattern in concern around the environment. (And a very similar one in concern for civil liberties.)  When people are desperately poor, their concerns are food, shelter, energy, and physical safety.

As people grow richer and are able to meet their basic needs, environmental quality and civil liberties, which were once considered niceties, rise in importance.

In regard to environmental quality, this is known as the Environmental Kuznets Curve:


As countries grow richer, their levels of environmental degradation rise at first, then level, then drop. This isn’t uniform across all types of pollution.  For instance, the US has already peaked and now sharply declined in the emission of lead, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide (which causes acid rain), and CFCs (which degrade the ozone layer).  But for CO2 emissions, the US is in that middle zone.

China has been over on the left, rapidly industrializing.  But now it appears to be heading into that middle zone, as there’s increasing pressure to cancel polluting projects, to improve air quality, to reduce emissions of pollutants like sulfur dioxide.

What we’re seeing is the emergence of a Chinese environmental movement, something that’s only become possible because China’s people are rich enough that preserving the environment has become important to them.

This is still the beginning. China is a major polluter. There are years, if not decades, of work ahead. But it’s heartening to see Chinese people standing up against pollution, and in many cases, succeeding.

Perhaps we’ll see the same transition on civil liberties one day.