Saturday, August 27, 2016

Thoughts on China, Africa, Per Capita Income, and the Environment

Ivindo Nat'l. Park, Gabon. Michael Nichols, Nat'l Geographic
The environmental impact of China-Africa engagement is one of the top concerns of many who are critical of a rising China in Africa. Others acknowledge the issue as important, but maintain that some from wealthy countries want to impose "Volvo" standards in "Volkswagen" countries.

I sometimes think about how these issues emerged in importance in our own country, the USA. This morning, I read a NYT review of a new book about President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was the architect of so much of our government's institutional structure. Following in the footsteps of his presidential cousin Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin "created 140 national wildlife refuges, established 29 national forests and 29 national parks and monuments" but he also built many "habitat-destroying hydroelectric dams" and put in place the foundation of our national highway system.

Roosevelt was a visionary. In 1940, he made a speech at Great Smoky Mountains National Park:
We slashed our forests, we used our soils, we encouraged floods ... all of this so greatly that we were brought rather suddenly to face the fact that unless we gave thought to the lives of our children and grandchildren, they would no longer be able to live and to improve upon our American way of life.
In 1940, our income per capita (in 2008 dollars adjusted for inflation) was approximately $7,446. China's income per capita in 2015 (in constant 2010 dollars, according to the World Bank) was about $6,416.  For Sub-Saharan Africa (excluding high income countries), inflation-adjusted per capita income was about $1,651 in 2015.

If environmental concerns rise along with income, as many social scientists believe, China should be approaching a time when sustainability becomes a real, genuine, and public concern for its leaders. Indeed, there is some evidence that over the past decade with the green credit movement and the establishment of a Ministry of the Environment, this is happening. Yet in Africa, it's far more likely that slashed forests, depleted soils, and the encouraging of floods will continue to plague the lives of parents, their children, and their grandchildren, for many years to come. And Chinese companies seeking business will continue to be part of this.