Where did all that Pollution Come from that Plagues China?

February 7, 2010

Before criticizing China for polluting the environment, learn about the history that caused today’s problems first. The First Industrial Revolution took place in England after James Watt developed the steam engine in the late 18th century. Coal and burning wood played an important part in this process. The result, the beginning of serious air and water pollution.

The second Industrial Revolution (1820-1870) was significant to the economic development of the United States, and this process increased between 1870 and 1914 leading up to World War I.

Pollution from industry increased to epidemic proportions after World War II in 1945, because the type of pollution changed significantly. Industries in America and Europe began manufacturing and using synthetic materials such as plastics, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and inorganic pesticides like dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane (DDT). These materials are not only toxic, they also accumulate in the environment—they are not biodegradable. This brought on increased rates of cancers, physical birth defects, and mental retardation, among other health challenges.

Due to an increase in world trade after World War II and moving a significant percentage of the world’s manufacturing to Japan, then to China after Mao died, the pollution created by using these synthetic materials increased and with it pollution moved to a global scale. Most of the products that are manufactured in China are sold by multinational corporations like Wal-Mart where 90% of what they sell in America is made in China.  If you shop at places like Wal-Mart, you are partly responsible for the pollution in China. When you hear criticisms blaming China for polluting the environment, point a finger at yourself as one of the causes. For that reason, I do not shop at Wal-Mart.

Another factor is that there is a lot of pressure from the people of China on their government to improve the standard of living for 1.3 billion people. Only one other country on the planet at this time has the same challenge and that is India.

A city street near Shanghai, China

The changes taking place in China and India today parallel the changes that already took place in America, Britain and Europe more than a century earlier. In the 1960s, about sixty percent of Chinese workers were employed in agriculture. That figure remained more or less the same throughout the 1960s into the early 1990s. In the 1990s, the labor force employed in agriculture in China had fallen to about thirty percent, and by 2000 still further.

By comparison, in 1870, a hundred-and-twenty years before 1990, fifty-three percent of workers in America were in agriculture. Today, that number makes up 3% of the workforce. The rest live in towns and cities with a middle-class consumer lifestyle that many in the world want and that is the cause of much of the pollution in the world today.

What is China doing about its pollution problems? Next, iLook China will focus on answers to this question at  China Going Green

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of the concubine saga, My Splendid Concubine & Our Hart. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. 

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