Welcome to the spaceship earth

This article was first published in XL Magazine, volume 3, issue 12, December 2007.

The economist, Kenneth Boulding, in his famous 1966 essay, The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth, wrote: ‘I am tempted to call the open economy the “cowboy” economy, the cowboy being symbolic of the illimitable plains and also associated with reckless, exploitative, romantic, and violent behaviour, which is characteristic of open societies. The closed economy of the future might similarly be called the “spaceman” economy, in which the earth has become a single spaceship, without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or for pollution, and in which, therefore, man must find his place in a cyclical ecological system which is capable of continuous reproduction of material form even though it cannot escape having inputs of energy.’ Forty years ago, these two sentences did not have the same resonance as they do today. Clearing forest land, pumping water, or drilling for oil went ahead without a second thought because in an ‘empty’ cowboy economy, there was plenty more where that came from. The challenge then was to develop sufficient man-made capital (chain saws, water pumps and oil rigs) to tap into the natural capital (the timber, water and oil). The challenge now, in a ‘full’ spaceman economy, is not the availability of man-made capital, but the increasing scarcity of natural capital.

Nowhere is this state of affairs more acute than in the rapidly growing Chinese economy with its voracious appetite for resources. Long ago, the early Taoist philosophers spoke of the virtues of humankind living in harmony with nature. That all changed with Chairman Mao who once famously declared that ‘man must use natural science to understand, conquer and change nature and thus attain freedom from nature’ [emphasis added]. This philosophy, subsequently embraced and executed with great alacrity (particularly in the recent era of high economic growth) is creating more problems than it solves.

In northern China, for example, water shortages have become so severe, it has been suggested that water be diverted hundreds of kilometres from Tibet. This has been pooh-poohed by the Chinese water minister, who is more comfortable with the two less ambitious [sic] projects currently in progress to divert water from the Yangtze River basin, where water is more abundant. The so-called South-to-North Water Transfer Project is to funnel 45 billion cubic meters, or 12 trillion gallons, northward every year. The project, if fully built, would be completed in 2050 at a cost of $62 billion.

Putting the disastrous ecological consequences of diverting rivers to one side for a moment, mega-projects like this do not address the nub of the problem which is management of water stocks. Supply simply creates demand, and while this might have been acceptable in the cowboy economy, it is no longer the case in the spaceman economy. Indeed, unless the Chinese focus more of their efforts on examining the current uses and abuses of their water stocks, these grandiose engineering projects will almost certainly come to nought.

The rapid growth of the economy has put enormous pressure on water resources on both the demand and the supply side. Industry demands increasing quantities for production, but it is also contaminating precious supplies through the irresponsible discharge of effluents and other pollutants. For example, it is estimated that the underground water supplies of around 90% of China’s cities have been polluted by rapid economic growth. To put this into context, China’s official media has stated that underground water supplies provide drinking water for nearly 70% of China’s population and 40% of agricultural irrigation. Furthermore, demand is intensifying. Over-pumping groundwater in China’s Hebei province has lowered the water table to such an extent that 969 of the province’s 1,052 lakes have disappeared. Meanwhile, Madoi County in northwest China’s Qinhai province, which had 4,077 lakes 20 years ago, now has less than half this number.

One of the great virtues of an authoritarian state is that once it makes up its mind to do something, execution of the plan is straightforward (in contrast to democracies where the gestation period for environmental policy can be painstakingly long). However, despite the ‘environmental authoritarianism’ being exercised (increasingly) by the Chinese central government, it is not being policed by local governments. Thus, waste water treatment plants may be in place, but these facilities are not being turned on because they are deemed ‘too costly’. Cost, however, does not include the cancers, low IQs and miscarriages being attributed to the high level of pollutants in China’s waterways, 50% of which are running black (i.e. they are completely dead and cannot be used for anything, even for industrial purposes), and the 700 million people who now lack access to safe water (the people living in the Huai River basin being amongst the worst affected).

While there have been some signs of improvement, environmental policy is not keeping up with the pace of environmental degradation. If the Chinese government were to use just a fraction of the funds devoted to mega-projects to increase the chances of success of smaller scale projects to improve efficiency of water supplies (e.g. water conservation, sewage treatment), the prospects for water security and ecological sustainability more broadly would be much brighter. In the meantime, so long as the economic disincentives to sustainable production remain, national laws will continue to be flouted at the local level, and the spaceship will be heading for a crash landing.