Sustainability advocates have a kind of international culture of our own, one that values long-term thinking, environmentalism, equity, global partnership, and local empowerment over economic growth, individualism, materialism, and nationalism. For sustainability to move forward requires deep social change, which may be starting to happen. Two recent articles on China and Japan, published almost simultaneously, show how these extremely different countries, under dramatically different circumstances, may be starting to converge toward sustainability.
China’s motivating factor is environmental devastation, particularly air pollution. The unsustainable cause is a manic drive toward gross domestic product (GDP) growth over the last several decades. The result is unprecedented pollution, filling Chinese cities with gloom and sapping individual health and vitality, as described in “In the Air” by Ian Johnson, in The New Yorker. Thus, in the steel city of Handan, dangerous micro-particles, known as particulate matter (PM) 2.5, average 13 times the maximum target set by the World Health Organization. Cancer and respiratory diseases are rampant. People are dying prematurely. China is suffering.
One reaction, as Johnson describes it, is a number of local groups organizing forays into the countryside, allowing brief escapes. As one Chinese leader of such forays put it, GDP “doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have your life.” Such outings are reminiscent of the Sierra Club, which began by organizing nature walks and evolved into North America’s largest grassroots environmental organization. Another organizer, Teng, discusses the possibility of closing down the worst steel production facilities, which “would be greener and even more profitable, but” this would mean laying off “thousands of workers. ‘I don’t think that you could do that in any country, could you?’ Teng said.” To an American, accustomed to job dismissals, this statement is laughable. It also means neglecting the environmental side of sustainability in favor of the equity side. Despite their different values, then, neither China nor the United States have a full sustainability ethic.
In this kind of situation, what would a sustainability ethic look like? The trick would be to shut down the most polluting industries and slow or reverse GDP growth while preserving jobs, albeit perhaps with fewer hours per week. In fact, change is possible. America’s environmental ethic stems from upheaval in the 1960s and 1970s. China’s social equity ethic is a remnant of the communist era, while the country’s drive for incessant growth is of far more recent vintage. And China is beginning to develop an environmental ethic. Under intense pressure from local environmental groups, the Chinese government is allowing more discussion of pollution, including data gathered by local environmental groups.
Time does not stand still. Countries and cultures change, with increasing rapidity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Japan, too, has been changing, over the last hundred years, at a whirligig pace, especially if one considers it a deeply traditional society. Yet for the past twenty years, this change has been a slowing down. A New York Times editorial by Norihiro Kato points to the possibility of Japan entering a post-growth paradigm, a situation anathema to many economists, as it spells stagnation, shrinkage, even a kind of death. Contrarily, as the ecological economists would have it, it may mean achieving a steady state economy, one that no longer needs endless growth but can thrive in new and different ways. To use a metaphor, Japan may have grown out of childhood into a long adulthood, maturing, exploring new ideas, changing, but no longer physically growing.
Very recent news would suggest the opposite. Japan’s new Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has been administering a dose of economic stimulus, pushing huge new infrastructure projects and relaunching export-driven growth. Yet, claims Kato, this may be a temporary aberration. Abe’s pledge to focus “on growth powered by nuclear energy” may not be tenable in a Japan in the shadow of Fukushima. For it is in the Japan of the 1970s and 1980s that we see a parallel to today’s China, a drive to growth and global prominence. Might Abe be an aberration? Might Japan no longer harbor such aspirations?
Kato links Japan’s drive for growth to the use of nuclear energy, and suggests that the Japanese populace may back down from Abe’s entire program. He puts forth the possibility that “the newfound prominence of antinuclear talk is actually a symptom of a deeper transformation whose contours are only now becoming visible: the slow emergence of a sense that Japan may have entered a post-growth era.” The implications of this change—if, indeed, Abe’s economic revitalization proves an illusion—are profound, and have barely begun to be discussed. To be sustainable, to provide a livable world for the generations to follow, we must end the drive to growth-at-any-cost that has polluted China’s air and rivers, along with the nationalism that leads to conflict. Without realizing it or meaning to do so Japan could be a forerunner here, not a geriatric nation but a mature one, a role model for the future.
Yet the idea of a post-nuclear Japan may be problematic here. After all, nuclear energy, as a near-zero carbon technology, is increasingly entering the sustainability discussion. Perhaps the assault on nuclear energy works best as a metaphor of the need to minimize destructive technologies. Still, our high-tech society is, in many ways, enabling sustainability, allowing global sharing of best practices, empowering democratic movements. Smaller, lighter, and more mobile technology would seem a quantum leap from the ponderous industries of the twentieth century. However, this new technology is still energy-hungry. Until we can move to an all-renewable economy, nuclear power may be a dire necessity, although in Japan it has become a kind of dragon stirring protest. In both Japan and China, environmental catastrophe may be leading toward change.
Ethan Goffman is Associate Editor of Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy. His publications have appeared in E: The Environmental Magazine, Grist, and elsewhere. He is the author of Imagining Each Other: Blacks and Jews in Contemporary American Literature (State University of New York Press, 2000) and coeditor of The New York Public Intellectuals and Beyond (Purdue University Press, 2009) and Politics and the Intellectual: Conversations with Irving Howe (Purdue University Press, 2010). Ethan is a member of the Executive Committee of the Montgomery County (Maryland) Chapter of the Sierra Club.