"There is still a widespread assumption that one model has proven itself again and again over the past 200 years: the get-rich-first, clean-up-later model. But what worked for Britain in the nineteenth century, for the US in the twentieth century and for Japan and South Korea in the late twentieth century, may not work for China, because of scale and because of timing.
"In a sense, Britain and China may prove to be bookends on this phase of development that will be seen as abnormal in the long-term scale of human development. Britain was one small country producing an awful lot of pollution and extracting and using resources unsustainably. At that point it didn't really have a great planetary impact, but then this moved to Europe, and to the US, and the number of countries that were unsustainable and producing too much got bigger and bigger. Meanwhile, the number of countries left to absorb the impacts gets smaller and smaller. Where does China dump its waste? How does China extract enough from the rest of the world to provide for its people? I believe this is where economic development hits an ecological wall.
"The environment and the economy, which used to run pretty much in parallel, have become so detached from one another. The economists, the governments and the corporations all think the solution to the world's problems is more consumption in China, whereas the environmentalists are all saying: be careful what you wish for. If there is to be any solution, it is in the reattachment of economy and environment."
China seems to play the role of economic saviour in the minds of many Australians I've talked to. Australian mineral exports (especially coal) to China helped buffer the Australian economy through the financial crisis of 2008 and when Australians think about the huge debts hanging over the US, they often point to China as our get out of gaol free card. But how realistic is this hope?
The future of China's economy and of its ecology are tied more closely than any other nation since the industrial revolution. Of course, this is always true everywhere: the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. It is just that in China, the scale and pace of its economic growth, and the timing of its boom, means that the relationship between the two will be much closer to the surface. This is no particular fault of the Chinese, more an accident of history that it has turned out this way. It is in China where the front line between booming consumerist aspiration and worsening ecological degradation will increasingly collide over the coming years. I don't know enough detail about either China's economy or ecology to make any kind of prediction apart from "watch this space".