As has been frequently noted on this blog and elsewhere, we are everyday negotiating and renegotiating the terms on which we will build a sustainable future. Without question, one of the most critical determinants in this unfolding process is how China will handle its rapid evolution toward consumerism. Already more than two decades in the making, the results of this undertaking have, thus far, been quite mixed. The quality of life of millions upon millions of urban Chinese has unequivocally improved and those achievements are, in leaps and bounds, now spreading across the country. Per capita income in China of $4,940 (2011) is still a fraction of that in Europe and North America (the comparable figure for the United States is $48,442) (The World Bank, 2013). The dilemma, of course, is that the country’s population of 1.3 billion people, voracious appetite for resources, and massive disgorgement of waste (most recently in evidence in the air-pollution emergencies that have gripped Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities) threaten, following two decades of environmental mismanagement by other countries, to tip the planet into unprecedented havoc.
There have been some notably encouraging signs. China has become a global leader in the production of renewable energy technologies and there has been no shortage of enthusiasm surrounding its innovative potential in clean technology. The country’s leadership has, for more than a decade, invoked the notion of a circular economy as a fundamental tenet of its intention to strike out on a decidedly different development path. Multiple plans have been conceived for a new generation of eco-cities.
At the same time, China has hurtled forward to put into place the key building blocks of a fully Americanized consumer society. Against sage advice, the government made the fateful move to embrace the automobile, both as a source of manufacturing employment and urban (im)mobility. As problematic as this political decision has been, it should be viewed against the historical circumstances of the time, namely that once China committed itself to join the World Trade Organization in the mid-1990s, it was inevitable that the country would become an automobile society. Without a homegrown car industry, China would have been quickly overwhelmed—even to a greater degree than is the case today—by imported models.
As China now pivots to wean itself from producing cheap goods for export markets, it is desperate to bulk up its domestic consumption capacity. This task is not as easy as it may sound. To be sure, the Chinese, like most people, are enthralled by the enticements of a modern consumer society. Malls are sprouting across the length and breadth of the vast country and the marketing inducements of familiar international brands are festooned everywhere. Yet countervailing resistance, especially of the cultural variety, should not be underestimated. Given their patchy healthcare and pension systems, it is no wonder that the Chinese are the world’s most stalwart savers. Using data from the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Bloomberg Businessweek calculated that the household savings rate for the country in 2010 was 38% (compared to 3.9% for the United States). It is difficult to speed up the velocity of consumptive throughput when such a substantial amount of money is being salted away for a rainy day.
As a result, the Chinese government has embarked on a series of initiatives to persuade the public to adopt more freewheeling spending practices. In particular, access to credit is being liberalized and new programs to finance retirement are coming on line. As part of the process of engineering their own consumer societies during the second half of the twentieth century, Western countries deployed similar techniques (and many more) to break down preexisting cultural norms favoring thrift. There is no reason to suspect that, with enough effort, China will be any less successful.
Or will it? While it would be a mistake to underestimate the strides that the Chinese public is making to become fully fledged consumers, other currents are cutting in different directions. The government is in the midst of working out its own expression of sustainable development under the guise of creating an “ecological civilization.” The concept remains notably vague and gauzy, but this is no different from the way Western views of sustainable development have taken shape. Of further potential interest is the fact that the recently concluded 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China heralded a plan for a “moderately” prosperous nation, a declaration that suggests a willingness to ease back a bit on the consumption throttle (ChinaDaily, 2012). Preliminary efforts to display resolve for this aspiration took the form of pre-New Year pronouncements calling on senior government officials to discourage excessive holiday displays at the bureaus and state companies under their jurisdiction. This move is equivalent to the White House telling Americans to put away their credit cards during the run up to Christmas.
All of this may seem like idle chatter coming from someone based in a country (the United States) that for more than two decades has had extreme difficulty even pronouncing the words sustainable development. Any suggestion that America’s consumptive throughput needs to be steered downward has been summarily rejected as politically softheaded (even management of firearms sales in the wake of repeated national tragedies seems to off the table). I am by no means oblivious to these charges. We should, though, recognize that whether Americans are cognizant or not, consumer society in the United States is starting to unwind in the face of political paralysis, outsized debt, middle-class shrinkage, military overreach, and perhaps tedium as well. As any shopper knows, it takes a lot of work to consume prodigiously. It requires similarly incessant exertion to maintain the large raft of supportive public policies that keeps consumerist lifestyles afloat: subsidies for housing and automobility, ample supplies of consumer credit, and free-flowing resources to name just a few of the most obvious inputs. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the predominant global challenge is less about how the United States will reinvigorate its faltering consumer society and more about how China will manage its ascent to this developmental stage.
Maurie J. Cohen is the editor of Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy. He is also Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Environmental Science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Director of both the Graduate Program in Environmental and Sustainability Policy and the Science, Technology, and Society Program. Dr. Cohen has held prior positions at the University of Leeds, Binghamton University (State University of New York), Mansfield College (Oxford University), and Indiana University. His books include Innovations In Sustainable Consumption: New Economics, Socio-technical Transitions and Social Practices (with Halina S. Brown and Philip J. Vergragt), Exploring Sustainable Consumption: Environmental Policy and the Social Sciences (with Joseph Murphy), Risk in the Modern Age: Science, Social Theory, and Environmental Decision Making, and The Exxon Valdez Disaster: Readings on a Modern Social Problem (with J. Steven Picou and Duane Gill).