Running out of stones
Religion & Liberty Online

Running out of stones

Who needs sustainable cities? It appears that China does. Slashdot reports that a leading architect of the sustainable city movement, William McDonough, has been commissioned by the Chinese government to create “a national prototype for the design of a sustainable village, an effort focused on creating a template for improving the quality of life for 800 million rural Chinese.” A quick survey of McDonough’s clients includes Ford Motor Company, Fuller Theological Seminary, the Grand Rapids Art Museum, and IBM Corporation.

In an interview on sustainability, McDonough cites environmental concerns as key. “The goal is a safe, healthy, just world, clean air, soil and power, that is elegantly enjoyed,” he says. “In the 70s we saw the hegemony of fossil fuels. So what would be the next design philosophy we would want to work with?”

McDonough repeats the popular axiom that the Stone Age did not end because humans ran out of stones. Indeed, that something must change in China is increasingly less debatable. A report by the Energy Information Administration of the Department of Energy identifies China’s horrible pollution situation:

“A report released in 1998 by the World Health Organization (WHO) noted that of the ten most polluted cities in the world, seven can be found in China. Sulfur dioxide and soot caused by coal combustion are two major air pollutants, resulting in the formation of acid rain, which now falls on about 30% of China’s total land area. Industrial boilers and furnaces consume almost half of China’s coal and are the largest single point sources of urban air pollution.”

News media are beginning to recognize the significance of China’s dilemma, since “China accounts for about 12 percent of the world’s energy demand, but its consumption is growing at more than four times the global rate…. The country’s top environmental officials have warned of ecological and economic doom if China continues to follow this pattern.”

A recent USA TODAY story relates the economic impact of China’s worsening environmental situation. Citing Pan Yue, deputy director of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration, the report finds “Environmental injury costs China 8% to 15% of its annual gross domestic product.” It continues, “In the north, encroaching deserts are prompting human migrations that swell overburdened cities. In the south, factories have closed periodically for lack of water…. The World Bank estimates such shutdowns cost $14 billion annually in lost output.”

China’s pollution illustrates as well the fundamental flaws in the Kyoto Protocol. As a developing nation, China is exempt from the constraints of the agreement, despite it’s enormous and growing population, and it’s huge share of global pollution. Robert Mendelsohn, professor in the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, wrote that “Kyoto is consequently a complex country-by-country agreement that includes everything from nothing to extreme measures. It is no surprise that the USA did not finally agree to Kyoto as it was negotiated.”

For more reading about the legitimacy of governmental roles in promoting sustainability, see the Controversy between Charles C. Bohl, Director of the Knight Program in Community Building at the University of Miami, and Mark Pennington, Lecturer in Public Policy at the University of London, in the Journal of Markets & Morality issue on the New Urbanism, “To What Extent and in What Ways Should Governmental Bodies Regulate Urban Planning?”

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.