Thinking big in Beijing

AAP/Haibin Wong

“Awesome” may be the most abused and over-used word in recent history. For once, however, it seems appropriate. The news that Chinese authorities are contemplating creating a new megalopolis of some 130 million people is awe-inspiring, but possibly not in a good way. Stretching from Beijing to the (already enormous) port city of Tianjin, it set an entirely new benchmark for the phrase “urban sprawl”.

Just to put this in some sort of perspective, the proposed conurbation will be a bit larger than the present population of Japan – and possibly a lot larger by the time this project is completed, given Japan’s demographic trajectory.

Even by the gargantuan standards of Chinese development, this is a big deal. This is a monumental project by world historical standards and it tells us something important about where we are and where we may be collectively heading.

I am currently living in Beijing and trying to get my head around what this might actually mean and look like. The latter part of this exercise is already more difficult than you might think. As I gaze out of my apartment window upon what could in theory be a sunny day, the view extends for – I’d guess – 300 to 400 metres. After that, even tower blocks disappear into the haze.

Having said that, many of the locals think that things are improving. There’s no doubt that the authorities here have both the will and the capacity to do something about pollution if they choose to so. Some of the dirtiest industries that used to ring Beijing have already been given their marching orders.

True, this may only mean that some of the more egregiously polluting industries are just wrecking the environment elsewhere. But it’s indicative of what a bossy government can do if it puts its collective mind to it.

Part of the logic of the new mega-city is to develop what we might call environmental economies of scale. By packing tens of millions of people into a smaller space with efficient infrastructure, the collective environmental footprint will be reduced.

Perhaps so, but would you actually want to live there?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a city boy – Bristol, actually – so I’m not pining for some long-lost, overly romanticised bucolic boyhood. On the contrary, cities are great places to live. I’m glad we collectively stopped being hunter-gathers and became farmers, but I’m also a great believer in the sorts of complex divisions of labour that cities offer. Hanging out with sheep and cows is not my idea of a good time.

And yet nature has its place. I’m guessing that the idea of a “dawn chorus” might be difficult to translate, much less explain to the average resident of Beijing. I have heard the occasional squawk from some invisible bird or other, but apart from the occasional fly and a surprisingly large number of newly fashionable pet dogs, “nature” is all but invisible.

I don’t blame the Chinese government or the Chinese people for any of this. After all, China’s one-child policy did more than anything else to keep this environmental obliteration at bay. Without it, it’s estimated that the population of China would be 400-500 million larger than it is now and even more of the Middle Kingdom would already be paved over. The export of “China’s” environmental problems would be that much greater too.

But if any country can make this sort of project work, it’s probably China. They have the money, the capability and the political will. How would we measure “success”, though? No doubt things like quality of life are subjective and resist generalisation. Likewise, I’m sure living in a vast urban conurbation with all the facilities and improvements in housing it offers is better than being a dirt-poor rice framer in the back of beyond.

And yet it’s hard not to think – from the privileged position of an ageing, white, middle class male, at least – that something important has been lost and that we’ve collectively stuffed up in some profoundly important way. We may not have set out to destroy nature and transform the planet into an environmentally impoverished wasteland, but it looks like what we’re well on the way to doing precisely that.

We need to recognise that it’s not the fault of capitalism, authoritarianism or any other -ism you might want to nominate. The bottom line, especially when seen for China, is that there are simply too many of us trying to lead a better life.

Only time will tell whether it’s sustainable, much less a good life. In the meantime, if you want a preview of our possible future, there are less illuminating places to look than contemporary China.