By: Bruce Hull

“Sustainability is the reaction to pain,” says Richard Brubaker, sustainability guru in China, who briefed Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) students on sustainable development prior to wrapping up their International Residency in March. He is optimistic about sustainable development because he now sees governments and businesses responding to the pain inflicted by economic growth, pain that includes crises in public health and risks to business profits.

“Eating bitterness” is a Chinese phrase that captures the challenge of delaying gratification—sacrificing today for a better tomorrow. Though, to the XMNR students who studied abroad in China, it may also describe a serious challenge in China to the Environmental Kuznets Curve and thus bring into question a fundamental assumption of sustainable development efforts worldwide.  The Environmental Kuznets Curve postulates that as an economy grows, so does the social will and capacity to restore and improve environmental quality.  China has placed most of its bets on promoting economic growth first and has delayed addressing the pain and bitterness that growth creates.  It reasons that growth is more critical to promoting the economic capacity a viable nation needs, hoping that a stable and able nation will then be able to fix its environment.

However, the rapid economic growth in China is causing pain and bitterness that are forcing people to question whether the pollute-first-cleanup-later policy is still viable.  History suggests the policy worked for the US and Europe—we hammered our environments and implemented environmental programs later—but the acute and intensifying pain from China’s meteoric growth are raising serious doubts.  The development pathways followed by nations industrializing in the 19th and 20th century when tens of millions pulled their ways out of poverty may not be viable for 21st century developing nations with hundreds of millions of people moving into middle class lifestyles.

Examples of China’s pain and bitterness include: 1 million premature deaths per year from respiratory ailments, an average of 5.5 years shorter lives due to air pollution. Foreign companies now pay a “smog bonus” as hardship pay to entice employees to work in China.  Water is scarce and polluted. 28,000 rivers disappeared in the last 20 years because of depleted aquifers. 95% of rivers have water unfit to drink and some are bursting into flames. Cultural bitterness includes lost languages and cultural traditions, long commutes, and severed communities; as people relocate for employment, traditional communities and families erode.

The western narrative of sustainability seems quaint when viewed from China: carbon footprints, polar bears, and local food.  The Chinese narrative of sustainability is urgent: smog, flaming rivers, and collapsed businesses, an urgency that was quickly realized by those in the XMNR program conducting fieldwork in the country, as sustainability concerns are much more tangible in China.

China’s future seems at risk. Public sensitivity to sustainability issues is increasing—dramatically.  Younger people who grew up after the Cultural Revolution are more tolerant of the risks of political protest. They are also wired and tech savvy.  They’ve become discerning consumers who buy global brands that are assumed safe because global supply chains impose higher quality controls.  These evolving preferences create huge opportunity and risk for global companies: an expanding market for high value products comes with high quality expectations that can produce brand-killing mistakes.

Sustainable development requires innovation and collaboration across business, government, and public sectors, and perhaps even a reconceptualization of the Environmental Kuznets Curve. Pain and bitterness are motivating new models of sustainable development in China. We should all be learning from (and hoping for) successes in China.