Waste no time in stop­ping waste If we per­sist with busi­ness-as-usual pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion pat­tern we would in­vite a re­source and en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COMMENT - LI LAILAI The author is coun­try di­rec­tor of World Re­sources In­sti­tute in China.

Be­ing “thrifty” means spend­ing one cent as if you have only half a cent. This is an old Chi­nese say­ing to warn peo­ple to han­dle af­flu­ence with­out for­get­ting about a po­ten­tial cri­sis. Un­der­ly­ing this com­mon sense is an ethic rooted in Chi­nese cul­ture: wast­ing is bad.

Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping has urged Chi­nese peo­ple to “build a thrifty so­ci­ety”, be­cause if we per­sist with our busi­ness-as-usual pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion pat­tern we would in­vite a re­source and en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis.

One “in­con­ve­nient truth” is that China uses about 20 per­cent of the to­tal global en­ergy to pro­duce about 12 per­cent of the world GDP. The coun­try’s en­ergy con­sump­tion per unit of GDP is 2.2 times that of the world aver­age. A sim­i­lar pat­tern is seen in the con­sump­tion of other re­sources such as steel, ce­ment and other raw ma­te­ri­als, as high­lighted by State lead­ers and ex­perts at the In­ter­na­tional Fo­rum on Build­ing Eco­log­i­cal Civ­i­liza­tion hold in Guiyang, Guizhou prov­ince, last month. In do­ing so, the lead­ers in­di­cated that huge amounts of en­ergy could be saved in China by im­prov­ing ef­fi­ciency.

One con­se­quence of high en­ergy and/or re­source con­sump­tion is en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­lu­tion. Five of the seven ma­jor river sys­tems in China are pol­luted, and their wa­ter qual­ity at 40-50 per­cent of the mon­i­tored points is be­low the level III national stan­dards. Since early this year, peo­ple liv­ing in North China have ex­pe­ri­enced se­ri­ous air pol­lu­tion. And air pol­lu­tion, ac­cord­ing to a Chi­nese Acad­emy of So­cial Sciences re­port, shaves off up to 9 per­cent of China’s GDP.

Nat­u­ral re­sources are limited, so is the ca­pac­ity of the en­vi­ron­ment to cope with their loss and sub­se­quent pol­lu­tion. By con­tin­u­ing with unchecked growth, we will de­plete the re­sources and over-sat­u­rate the en­vi­ron­ment with pol­lu­tants. Tech­nol­ogy could be a so­lu­tion, but the de­vel­op­ment of tech­nol­ogy can never match the pace of the cur­rent pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion lev­els.

What then is the so­lu­tion? The an­swer is “build­ing a thrifty so­ci­ety”.

In a thrifty so­ci­ety, wealth is cre­ated both by sav­ing and pro­duc­tion. If we save en­ergy, we can make do by gen­er­at­ing less en­ergy. The dif­fer­ence is that (un­like a power plant), sav­ing en­ergy does not re­quire re­source con­ver­sion— coal/oil and wa­ter to elec­tric­ity. The en­ergy and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­strains China faces make it clear which so­lu­tion is the right one.

It is en­cour­ag­ing to see some Chi­nese prac­tice “thrift” in their own ways. For ex­am­ple, a com­pany in Xiangyang, Hubei prov­ince, has set up a unit near the city’s wastew­a­ter treat­ment plant. It re­cy­cles the sludge from the wastew­a­ter treat­ment plant in its bio-di­gesters to pro­duce pu­ri­fied meth­ane, which pow­ers one-third of the city’s taxis. Had it not done so, the meth­ane — which is a 25 times more po­tent than car­bon diox­ide over a 100-year time­frame — from the wastew­a­ter treat­ment plant would have pol­luted the at­mos­phere.

The bio-di­gester sys­tem has also saved thou­sands of gal­lons of gaso­line from be­ing con­sumed by the city’s cabs. Be­sides, the residue from the sludge treat­ment is a good or­ganic com­post, which nearby farms sell with seedlings. The com­post helps trees and plants to grow up into forests, which are of an im­por­tant el­e­ment of the ecosys­tems per­form­ing its func­tions to serve the hu­man well­be­ing and pu­rify the en­vi­ron­ment.

But such a “thrifty” pro­duc­tion­con­sump­tion prac­tice is still weak in China. Govern­ment sup­port, along with good tech­nol­ogy that could cost more than con­ven­tional pro­duc­tion fa­cil­i­ties, is needed to make this prac­tice wide­spread. The re­sul­tant prod­ucts re­quire a sup­port­ive mar­ket and should en­joy the same ben­e­fits that goods pro­duced by mo­nop­o­lies do.

A “thrifty so­ci­ety”, how­ever, can­not be built with­out in­di­vid­u­als’ in­volve­ment. To be­gin with, peo­ple should stop wast­ing food on the din­ner ta­ble, es­pe­cially be­cause me­dia re­ports say the amount of food wasted in China ev­ery year could feed 200 mil­lion peo­ple for a year.

A good ex­am­ple of con­ser­va­tion, for in­stance, was pro­vided by a study my son and his high school friends car­ried out five years ago on the use of wa­ter in Bei­jing. All the mem­bers of the house­holds they in­ter­viewed (60 in to­tal) used the same bucket of wa­ter at least three times — to wash rice, wash veg­eta­bles and clean the floor. Per­haps they were con­scious of the pre­cious­ness of wa­ter be­cause of their in­come level, but the prac­tice didn’t af­fect their qual­ity of life. The boys who car­ried out the study were so im­pressed by the house­holds that they changed their own waste­ful be­hav­ior.

Many sim­i­lar prac­tices can still be found in China and should be pro­moted vig­or­ously to save pre­cious re­sources and the en­vi­ron­ment, and help build a “thrifty” so­ci­ety.

Both at the in­di­vid­ual and so­ci­etal level, build­ing a “thrifty so­ci­ety” is a mat­ter of ethics. If we view so­ci­ety as a sys­tem, the re­sult of the in­put-out­put loop is noth­ing but de­ple­tion of limited re­sources and dam­age to the en­vi­ron­ment, mak­ing life even more dif­fi­cult for our fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. And car­ing for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions by lead­ing a “thrifty” life is part of tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture, a cul­ture that is rich in rea­son and val­ues, and has no place for waste.

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