Perhaps the most obvious, material downside to material wealth is garbage. And in China is building up fast, at the rate of more than 520,000 tons a day. The photo above shows one of the massive waste disposal sites in the country.
Worse, the Chinese approach to processing trash compounds that huge problem. They simply burn it. Yes, there are some clean incinerators in Beijing, Shanghai and a few other places. Yet these are costly and do not get the government contracts, which pays as much as $10 per ton. How could clean facilities compete, however, with incinerators that charge as little as $3 per ton? The latter, obviously, are anything but environmentally safe.
Progress has brought a lot of wealth to China, but modernity has still some way to go as there is no garbage recycling. For the great leap forward in Chinese capitalism has come with little regard for clean air, as anyone coming out for a walk, in Beijing and elsewhere, can attest. And that comes with risks, first and foremost for everybody’s health as well as the planet’s. But there is also a large political risk looming here.
One of the obvious triggers of public backlash in dictatorships is environmental degradation. The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, began his campaign for glasnost, or transparency, in the mid-1980s. That was around the time of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. And the first protests that later multiplied in Soviet cities and republics were initially against polluting reactors and factories. These popular movements later took on a political character and eventually brought down the Soviet Union.
“Two years ago, thousands of residents in a district of the wealthy eastern city of Hangzhou overturned and set fire to police cars, injuring at least 30 officers, while protesting an incinerator planned for their neighborhood,” NPR reports. “The same scene has been replayed in affluent cities throughout China, as middle class urbanites become angrier about the health effects of pollution and the lack of government oversight on industry.” China is a cauldron, and not only because it’s burning half a million tons of refuse every day.