Chen Weihua

Stimulating consumption a catastrophe

By Chen Weihua (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-11-30 08:04
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Black Friday and Cyber Monday in the United States were great news for stores such as Macy's, BestBuy and Walmart. The huge crowds, long lines and numerous online orders remind me of the shopping frenzy in China during the long national holidays.

Governments around the world are trying hard to stimulate consumption to propel economic growth. For China, it is also the means to move away from an excessively export-dependent economy and help rebalance the world economy.

All these may make economic sense. But it does not make environmental sense at all.

As one of the largest greenhouse gas producers in the world, China is under great pressure to curb its carbon emissions. Stimulating consumption runs counter to this.

Many Chinese in cities, like my home town Shanghai, adore American style consumerism.

In fact, much of the domestic consumption that is being added is entirely unnecessary, such as turning on the air-conditioning in Shanghai during autumn and spring, driving a car or taking a cab to a destination when it is slower than public transport, cycling or even walking.

Unfortunately, economic factors always outweigh environmental concerns in boosting growth and pursuing a modern way of life.

We often hear people complain about environmental pollution but very few people do something about it in their daily lives. We have already witnessed the fast disappearance of the Chinese tradition of being thrifty in daily life, recycling plastic shopping bags, drying clothing in the open air, using handkerchiefs instead of paper tissues and conserving tap water and electricity.

A way of life cherished by our parent's generation that generated less global warming is viewed as old-fashioned and a sign of a poorer past.

But, two weeks ago, a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report on China's ecological footprint said the country is living beyond its environmental means by consuming twice as much as its resources can support.

Many argue that the per capita carbon emissions of 1.3 billion Chinese is still low, ranking only 92nd in the world, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. And much of China's carbon emissions have been relocated from developed countries, which outsourced their manufacturing from China. However, the carbon footprint of the average Shanghainese is already among the highest in the world.

Car exhaust gases are a major source of air pollution in Shanghai as more families own automobiles. The same is true for other big cities in the country.

The Shanghainese have such a large carbon footprint because they pursue the American way of life. This is especially worrying because Shanghai is the pacesetter for lifestyle in the country. The example it sets should not be underestimated. It is only too easy to imagine what will happen when the rest of the population, which is undergoing rapid urbanization, pursue the Shanghai lifestyle, a lifestyle marked by the excessive consumption of resources and the excessive emission of greenhouse gases.

I am not arguing that Shanghai, or Chinese in general, especially those in the poor countryside, do not have the right to pursue a better life. The Chinese poor still have a long way to go to achieve the basic means of subsistence.

But, China is soon going to hit a dead end if it continues on its current path of pursuing consumerism at the expense of energy and resources, as is advocated by businesses. It is unsustainable.

The key legacy of the just concluded Shanghai Expo should be educating people how to live a green and sustainable urban life. For Shanghai, the first thing it should do is to make the city a bike friendly metropolis again.

As most world leaders are set to miss the two-week UN climate change conference that began on Monday in Cancun, Mexico, there is little hope for any real breakthrough on the most crucial issue we all face.

That means we need a bottom-up approach - the pledge to pursue a green way of life by hundreds of millions of people.

We all like to say how much we love our children and grandchildren, but until we act to leave a clean planet to the future generations, we are just a bunch of selfish hypocrites.

Boosting consumption and the economy at the long-term cost of the environment is not a solution. We have to be very careful what we are preaching even in a bad economic period.

The author is deputy editor of China Daily US Edition. He can be reached at