By Zac Swartout
As I look out the window of my hotel in Chongqing, China, the horizon line ends about 3 miles out. It’s not for lack of a view or weather; the haze that covers this city, like many in China, is pollution. The mountains shrouded in thick, brown fog ring row after row of only slightly differing high rises. Housed here are an unstoppable wave of tens of millions of people who want nothing more than to live a life better than their parents and grandparents.
People from the West cannot begin to understand the scope of China. To put it in perspective, 300,000,000 people, approximately the current population of the United States, still live on less than $2 per day. 30 years ago, China’s GDP was about $200 billion–today its $7.3 trillion. Chongqing, one of the rising industrial cities of China, had regional GDP growth of 16%. It has a population of 30 million in an area the size of South Carolina, whose population is 4.6 million. It’s not that we’re intentionally ignorant. We have no frame of reference to compare this kind of scale and growth. What took us 150 years took them 30. And they aren’t even close to done.
The local government here, like many new urban industrial areas in China, have done everything they can to encourage foreign investment. The effect that a single, large US firm can make here is staggering. Hewlett-Packard, for example, moved into Chongqing early on in its economic development. Globally, HPs largest manufacturing facility is now located here. They saw the opportunity for a large facility, inexpensive labor (college graduates here are also 60% cheaper than elsewhere in China), and relative ease of export. Once HP successfully moved in, so too did its Taiwanese rival, Acer. With the relaxed IP standards here, six ODM (original design manufacturer) replicators moved in shortly thereafter, along with the 200 or so suppliers to support these manufacturers. With one US firm, a cascade of jobs and opportunities were created almost literally out of thin air. Other firms that have set up shop here include: Ford, Briggs & Stratton, Cummings, Texas Instruments, Bosch, Volvo, and Meineke, just to name a few.
The title of my blog isn’t a shot a Bill McKibben’s acumen. Mr. McKibben, for those who are unfamiliar, is one of the more vocal scientists and authors in the Climate Change debate. Recently, he famously said that if the Keystone Pipeline gets U.S. approval, it will be “game over” for the planet and climate change debate. All things being equal, if he voiced his concerns for the most imminently critical issue, he should be screaming at the top of his lungs about the rate of growth here.
This is a call to recognize a world outside our Western bubble. For example, ramping up the Canadian Tar Sands has far reaching negative implications. An 11 hour flight away however, people are registering 3,000 cars a day. In order to slow down the registration process in Beijing, they restricted car registration to 20,000 a month. Unfortunately, this was instituted less than a year ago. Traffic here is bad, day and night (think L.A. or Midtown Manhattan at rush hour). If anthropogenic climate change is happening, the tipping point will not come from a single event. Rather, its wrath will come from nothing more than a people wanting a better life for themselves and their children.
Zac Swartout is a MBA candidate at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute. He was part of the group of students traveling through China this summer to explore sustainable business as part of an annual trip abroad. You can connect with Zac on LinkedIn.