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On a Different Scale: Putting China's Environmental Crisis in Perspective

Environmental Health Perspectives
Environmental Health Perspectives
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A 452 VOLUME 108 | NUMBER 10 | October 2000 • Environmental Health Perspectives On a Putting China’s Environmental Crisis in Perspe Different Scal Focus Environmental Health Perspectives • VOLUME 108 | NUMBER 10 | October 2000 A 453 N eed a puzzle to ponder? Consider the future of the People’s Republic of China. China’s astounding industrial growth over the past two decades has created a nation that could become one of the most powerful economies in the new century. Yet, at the same time, China is struggling with some of the most serious environmental health problems on the planet, which could curb its economic growth in the near future. On the surface, China’s list of environmentally relat- ed problems—air pollution, water pollution, shrinking arable land—does not look much different from the degradation inventories of other developing nations undergoing rapid industrialization. However, China dif- fers from all other developing nations in one important respect: scale. Today, China’s population officially stands at 1.25 billion. As Lester Brown, chairman of the board of the Worldwatch Institute, puts it, “A billion of anything is big, huge. It’s one thing if a country of 120 million peo- ple turns to the world market for most of its grain, but if a nation of 1.2 billion moves in this direction, it can quickly overwhelm the export capacity of the United States and other countries.” And China is still growing at the rate of 14 million a year. Over the past 50 years, China has mounted an aggres- sive campaign to eliminate hunger, improve primary health care, and tackle infectious diseases, with impressive results. “Since 1949, the average life span in China has risen from 35 years to the current 71,” says Brown. According to the report Selected Edition on Health Statistics of China, 1991–1995, published in 1996 by the Chinese Ministry of Health, the infant mortality rate had dropped since 1949 from 200 per 1,000 to 31 per 1,000. The report also states that infectious disease

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