The philosopher Slavoj Zizek once remarked that the United States does still have a working class — it’s simply in China.
With the U.S. manufacturing base shriveling (Ford Explorer, anyone?) and imports from China booming (set to surpass a quarter trillion dollars this year), it’s hard to contradict that trendy Slovenian academic.
China’s manufacturing miracle means (among many other things) that even in a period of stagnant wage growth, U.S. consumers can march into Wal-Mart and fill their carts with lots and lots of stuff.
The most famous environmental impact of China’s boom has to do with crude oil: As China’s economy surges (it grew at an annualized 11 percent in the second quarter), it burns more and more crude, burdening the environment with greenhouse gases. While we ramble from strip mall to strip mall in SUVs stuffed with Chinese goods, Chinese factory smokestacks send plumes of black gunk into the air.
But here’s another way to look at the situation: While China expands its industrial base to supply the world with everything from mops to electronics, it’s cutting drastically into its farmland. Might some wag soon be moved to remark, “China does have farmers — they’re just in Brazil”?
According to this news report, between 1995 and 2005, China shed eight million hectares (20 million acres) of arable land — equal to about two-thirds of Iowa’s farmland. Over the next five years, the nation’s farmland will “irreversibly shrink,” the report quotes an Agriculture Ministry official.
While China’s farmland sprouts suburban housing and factories, its demand for food imports have surged. In 2005, the nation became the world’s leading soy importer. Soy imports from Brazil alone leapt more than 10,000 percent between 1995 and 2005, the Guardian reports.
Let’s review this arrangement. The U.S. shunts its manufacturing base off to China. To accommodate the boom, China starts outsourcing its food production to Brazil. To accommodate that, Brazil rips into the Amazon rainforest, which, as Biodiversivist never tires of pointing out, ranks as one of the world’s great carbon sinks.
All these transformations require large doses of fossil fuel: to move the stuff across the globe, to fertilize marginal lands in South America, etc. And they’re all accompanied by solemn nods of approval (and occasionally, cash) from the apparatchiks who staff the IMF, World Bank, and WTO, trained as they are to promote the wonders of comparative advantage.
Yet none of this has to happen. China needn’t be factory to the world, anymore than the U.S. needs to be the globe’s major consumer or Brazil’s rain forest and savanna its breadbasket.
Perhaps the global green movement should refocus its energies on rebuilding robust local economies everywhere.