Retail sales figures for the last quarter of '08 are coming in, and the only remotely positive reports emerging are, "It's not quite as bad as we feared." But there's not very many of those, either. This is not really news, because everybody expected it, and some forward-thinkers are hoping it might stimulate a move away from our consumer-based economy. I, on the other hand, fear that our economic blight will merely push us into a deeper reliance on cheap imports.
In addition to putting the squeeze on an already sickening manufacturing sector, the public health and environmental impacts of this trend need to be scrutinized as well. Let me state upfront that I don't mean to encourage Sinophobia or xenophobia or foodaphobia (I just made that up) or any other kind of phobia. But our price-driven consumerism carries a cost that we seldom consider when we're moving through the check-out line, and that has to change.
As I alluded to above, I'm going to focus on Chinese imports to the U.S. It's a popular subject amongst us formerly employed factory workers, and really popular with those who used to work in furniture manufacturing
Employment in the NC furniture industry has been suffering from a decline since the 1990s. It has dropped from 78,323 in 1996 to 52,453 workers in 2006. The weakening in the traditional manufacturing sectors continues, and according to the Occupational Outlook Quarterly (Spring 2002), it is predicted that furniture occupations will continue to decline due to automation, increasing imports and outsourcing.1 The contracting of the furniture industry has the most impact on North Carolina, which is the largest furniture manufacturing state in the United States. According to data provided by the US Census Bureau in 2001, the NC furniture industry employed the most people, followed by California and Michigan.
Which should come as no surprise to anybody reading this. But one of the painful ironies of this is the fact that, thanks to their depressed economic position, those 26,000 workers (as of 2006) are more likely to be forced to purchase Chinese-made furniture, reducing the chance of an invigoration of their previous sector of employment. There are also environmental issues, which I will get into downrange.
Our trade deficit with China is now calculated in the hundreds of billions. While food and other agri-products have only made up a relatively small portion of that, and our agri-exports to China still outnumber theirs to us around 3-1, that may be on the verge of changing.
Just to give you a little background before I continue, I want to talk a little bit about Melamine. If you're a pet-owner, you're probably familiar with the Chinese pet food scandal, and if you've got a baby anywhere around the house, you've probably heard about the Chinese infant formula tragedy. Both of these issues are connected to a much wider one, which has affected both China and its trade partners, of which there are many.
Melamine is a synthetic compound which, when introduced into animals (or people), can quickly collect in the kidneys forming painful and life-threatening stones and/or renal failure. Milk protein is the basis for a wide range of Chinese agri-products. Chinese milk is (mostly) produced by small-scale farming operations, but the milk is collected by dealers, who then water the milk down to increase the volume. In order to regain the minimum protein levels, they add in melamine. The milk is dried, then used in all sorts of products, including chicken feed. Chickens which are housed in cages over small ponds, so their droppings can serve as food for shellfish like shrimp and prawns. Which you probably have eaten.
For years, China and U.S. importers have tried to gain the approval of poultry imports to the U.S., but were thwarted by detailed and serious health concerns dealing with their methods of raising and processing chickens, as well as the fear of avian flu contamination. A compromise was reached allowing chickens raised in the U.S. to be sent to China for processing, and then accepted back into the U.S. Which was a pointless decision, but it opened the door a little more, which was probably the goal in the first place:
Not surprisingly, no U.S. or Canadian poultry processor was interested in shipping raw carcasses
to the PRC to be cooked and sent back to the United States. As a consequence, the PRC began to
press the United States to permit the importation of processed poultry of domestic origin. In
December 2006, USDA officials, in meetings with representatives from the PRC, agreed to
pursue a new regulation that would permit the PRC to export processed poultry of domestic
Congress is fighting this by way of the purse, ruling that no funds be spent on poultry import negotiations with China. But I fear the chickens will soon fly (or swim) here anyway, following in the footsteps of their tiny little shrimp friends.
That's enough about chickens and lost jobs, at least for now. What I really wanted to talk about are the environmental impacts of our global consumerism.
To feed the world's demand for cheap goods, China has grown industrially faster than anyone could have imagined. That growth requires both radical increases in power and an unprecedented consumption of raw materials. Although they have engaged in the construction of large and controversial hydroelectric dams, coal is their main source of energy:
Largely because of air pollution connected to its cars and coal, 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China. Coal, most of it dirty, fuels 70% of China's energy and is the main source of the country's domestic and transboundary air pollution. Despite major efforts to promote energy efficiency and renewables, China will remain dependent upon coal for the foreseeable future.
China already consumes more energy and emits more greenhouse gases (GHG) than any country except the United States. It is expected to surpass the United States in GHG emissions by 2009. The expansion of China's power plants alone—562 new coal-fired power stations by 2012— could nullify the cuts required under the Kyoto Protocol from industrialized countries. The lack of widespread coal-washing infrastructure and scrubbers at Chinese industrial facilities and power plants exacerbates the problem. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from cars in China are also growing rapidly, replacing coal as the major source of air pollution in major Chinese cities.
Which exposes the single biggest flaw in efforts to exempt developing countries from global emissions reductions treaties. Aside from the trade fairness issues, which are substantial, we will never be able to achieve the reductions we need if countries like China and India are exempted. It just won't happen.
And it's not just a global carbon dioxide issue, either:
Information on Chinese emissions is sketchy since the government has not publicly disclosed CO2 or mercury emissions data since 2001. The most commonly cited numbers attribute 25-40% of global mercury emissions (from coal burning) to China. Within China's borders, air pollution from coal, cars, and dust storms is responsible for 3-400,000 premature deaths and 75 million asthma attacks annually. Data on health impacts internationally are difficult to estimate, but China's SO2 is responsible for nearly half the acid rain in Korea and Japan, and particulates and dust from China are worsening air quality as far as the U.S. west coast.
Some U.S. researchers believe at least one-third of California's fine particulate pollution—known as aerosol—originates from Asia. These pollutants could potentially nullify California's progress in meeting stricter Clean Air Act requirements. In May 2006, University of California-Davis researchers claimed that almost all the particulate matter over Lake Tahoe was from China.
Researchers have also found that mercury becomes more hazardous the further it travels. At the smokestack in Asia it is insoluble, but by the time it reaches the U.S. west coast, mercury transforms into a reactive gaseous material that dissolves easily in the wet climates of the Pacific Northwest. For example, researchers have discovered that at least one-fifth of the mercury entering the Willamette River in Oregon comes from abroad, most likely from China. This mercury is even beginning to build up to toxic levels in the local wildlife.
Back to the furniture problem I mentioned above. As an aside, I managed a discount furniture store in Durham many years ago, and much of the product we sold originated in China. Not proud of it, but I had mouths to feed. Besides, I was a Republican back then, and not prone to a lot of soul-searching. :) It goes without saying that the quality was suspect. But you really have no idea. I was lucky to get this stuff off the floor and into someone's home before it literally disintegrated right before my eyes.
And therein lies part of the problem. Poor quality equals frequent replacement and more trips to the landfill, which is a factor U.S. consumers just can't seem to grasp. As a favor to the diligent reader, I will forego the lecture on false economies for now. But you're on notice: that pricetag is only part of the picture, and an extra five minutes using your brain is not going to kill you.
This furniture manufacturing windfall that China has enjoyed didn't take long to deforest wide swaths of the country. It got so bad so quick that they outlawed timber-cutting for the most part. But they had to get the wood from somewhere:
From deforestation in Russia and Indonesia to coal mining in Mongolia and oil extraction in Africa, China's growing hunger for raw materials and energy has damaged the ecosystems of other countries. Ironically, the massive increase in forestry product imports stems from an ambitious and fairly effective campaign to protect forests within China. The massive flood of the Yangtze River in 1998, which policymakers and researchers attributed to deforestation, led the Chinese government to institute a timber-cutting ban and a major campaign to convert slope lands from agriculture to forestry.
The timber ban, combined with China's already very limited per-capita forest resources, has fueled the rapid rise in China's imports of forest products. This wood has also found its way into products exported to the United States and Europe. A study by the NGO Forest Trends notes that over the past eight years China has captured almost a third of the global trade in furniture, ranking it second among all countries in terms of the total value of its forest products .
Chinese timber importers acquire 75% of this wood for furniture and plywood export from the Asia Pacific, mainly from Russia, Burma, and Indonesia. Approximately half of these imports are illegal. Such illegal trade is difficult to regulate, especially between Russia and China where the forestry bureaus in both countries are highly decentralized and under-funded. Loss of these remaining major forests creates serious domestic problems of soil erosion and flooding, while globally the concerns are the loss of biodiversity and increasing climate change.
For those wondering about the title to this diary, it's an old Chinese proverb. The story goes: there once was a frog who had lived his entire life in the bottom of a well. One day, a bird landed on the edge of the well, and began telling the frog about how vast and wondrous the sky was. The frog replied with doubt in his voice, "That can't be true! The sky is small and round."
The U.S. is the single biggest consuming entity in the world. When we purchase products based exclusively on our own immediate needs and desires, and with no concern for where they come from or the effects of their production, we are that frog in the well.