Monday, July 18, 2011

Race to the bottom or the top?

“Perhaps America really does need another Sputnik moment to regain its vast potential. China is liable to provide it.”   

Lauren and I recently visited Beijing. We saw all sorts of small but innovative ways to conserve energy and water; recycling is everywhere; and the whole country seems to rally behind sustainable practices – less the sustainable human conditions in its political agenda. Aside from missing our access to information, we came home invariably disheartened.

As a collectivistic culture, at the heavy hands of the central government, China is aggressively investing and inventing in the green sector. China also enjoys a unique technology leap effect; where one generations of tech falls behind as proven technology in the US, China is experimenting with new tech and new methods. This created a leap frog effect and gave China a distinct advantage in this growing market. As Gellner noted, if we still think we can introduce new products and dominate the Chinese market in the Green economy, we are seriously misinformed about our place and potential in the years to come.

In his article, Gellner did a great job tallying the Chinese market advantage; from toilets to mass transit, he argued, we are nowhere near the sophistication of the Chinese sustainability market place. My observation tells me that China’s rising middle class will dominate the future market shortchanging any manufacturing force that is not aimed to compete for that market. The U.S. is quickly losing the innovative advantage at the hands of our failing education system and continued political compliancy. Even where we see fit to devote effort, we only use the opportunity to perpetuate the same business model. We continue to think the rest of the world will follow in our footsteps in heavyweight carbon demand and profit over mission mentality; we continue to aimlessly invest in short term gains while placing the burden on our less informed children.

I fear there will not be a Sputnik moment - there is no condensed success in the future of American’s cultural and social relevance; no giant step for mankind less we invent the next perpetual clean energy source. We gradually wake to a world no longer needing our technology, no longer wish for our products for their inefficiencies, and no longer respect us for our free press and values. Our dollars falling weaker and workforce drained of talents who prefer the friendly infrastructure of Europe and Asia. I fear our quality-of-life will come to grip with decades of irresponsible environmental stewardship; our healthcare cost increasingly burden a nation’s poor; our overweight children no longer remember what it means to have a federalism or free and fair speech – drones working to perpetuate only a cash-and-burn model.

As China’s market power spreads, its political influence spreads with ancillary means. My worst Orwellian fear is that China will make a few untimely decisions, in Africa or somewhere else in the world, and send us to a spiral of destruction at the hands of autocracy. At that point there is really no way out, no exit. Totalitarianism is inherently unsustainable; it threatens any meaningful progress for the human experience.

So I don’t think the U.S is falling behind in terms of sustainability. I think we are just about neck to neck awaiting the next critical step. Of the three elements of sustainable future, people, planet, profit, we each are experts of two. What we do from here will define the future of our generations. Should we have another cold war or should we have peaceful progress will depend on how much we are willing to work together towards a common goal, pride aside. I’m a radical positivist, but I fear at time we enjoy fearing each other more than we like each other’s company. I stand in the middle somewhere hoping for a sustainable world for my children.

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