Last week, Daily Grist reported — somewhat tongue in cheek — that China had surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest overall consumer. It’s all part of our ongoing obsession with China’s boggling growth, which is, from the environmentalist’s point of view, probably the single most significant socioeconomic trend in the world right now.

We’ve gotten several letters since then yelling at us for being “anti-China.” You see, China has four times as many people as the U.S., so on a per capita basis, Americans consume much, much more and produce much, much more waste.

Yes, yes, Americans are the evilest, forever and always. Bring me my hairshirt! Can we have our green credentials back now?

But still. The fact that China recently passed us, and has four times as many people, means that it’s going to get way bigger. Huge. Fast. If it develops along the same lines as the U.S., using the same technologies and fuel sources, we are all screwed. The earth cannot handle another U.S.-style consumer, four times the size of the original.

The answer is not to try to stop China from developing — as if such a thing were remotely in the realm of possibility — or to demonize it. The answer is to do everything we can to try to make China a showcase for every sustainable development trick in the book. The Chinese want prosperity, just as we do, so let’s help them leapfrog, get there without sucking up the rest of the world’s oil and accelerating climate change. Given its closed political system, there’s a limit to what Western greens can do, but at the very least we should be paying attention and doing what we can. There’s evidence that China’s government gets this, anyway.

Obviously, this should be done in conjunction with — not instead of — working to make Western industry and lifestyles more sustainable as well.