Let's say you are the leader of a country containing hundreds of millions of people, and growing fast. Let's say you have few natural resources — no great reserves of petroleum or precious minerals — and that the vast majority of your population is illiterate and in poverty. You have a limited industrial base, a miniscule tax base, and slim prospects for economic competition in the world, short of grossly exploiting your own poorly trained work force.
What would you do? It sounds like a no-win situation, but it's not far from the dilemma in which China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, and many other nations find themselves.
A story this week in the Washington Post describes the environmental catastrophe taking place in China as that country struggles to modernize and raise their standard of living. Reporter Joshua Kurlantzick writes: "the country is now home to the world's worst environmental problems," and "it is totally unprepared to combat them."
By some measures, at least six of the world's 10 most polluted cities are in China, including Beijing and Urumqi. Several have the highest rates of airborne carbon monoxide in the world. The country's environmental agency says that living in Chinese cities with the worst air pollution does more damage to an average Chinese person's lungs than smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. . .
China's environmental protection agency estimates that the quantities of carbon, nitrogen and other gases in Chinese cities will make the air too toxic to breathe in the most polluted urban areas within a decade.
It's an ugly story. Forests are being ripped up and turned to desert; rivers are filled with garbage, human waste, and dead fish; and even city aquifers are loaded with heavy minerals. Why must this be? The article continues:
The environmental catastrophe is the result of a storm of factors.
In the past two decades, China has witnessed an extraordinary migration from rural to urban areas, as more than 200 million people, looking for work, have moved to the cities, overstressing resources. In the next two decades, another 300 million are expected to join them. . .
As far back as 1982, the Chinese leadership placed an environmental protection section in the national constitution. Today, the director of the government's environmental agency frequently warns that China's development is ecologically unsustainable, and that the country will not be able to reverse the damage once it has attained a higher gross domestic product.
These warnings go unheard, because breakneck urbanization and industrialization have benefited too many Communist Party leaders.
China is committed to an historically unprecedented rate of rapid industrialization, and the country often is touted as an economic miracle, but at what cost?
Those of us who read (and write) this blog know, of course, that there is an answer to these problems: a clean, cheap, environmentally friendly form of light manufacturing that will provide high quality goods to all without raping the land, and that could turn China into the envy of the Earth. It may be just a matter of time until nanotechnology can deliver on these promises and more, but will it be soon enough?
A few days ago, we mentioned here that molecular manufacturing might, in fact, be invented somewhere in the developing world sooner than in the United States, Europe or Japan. Considering the enormous incentives — economic, environmental, and, yes, military — that less developed nations might see in nanotechnology, this scenario does not seem at all implausible.
You also could make a strong argument that such a beneficial technology should be developed as rapidly as possible. You could argue that the humanitarian and ecological benefits alone should be enough to motivate all leading nations to band together and bring this to pass. You could say this, and CRN does say this!