Trees in New England, Dead Pigs in Shanghai

I’m currently on the bus between Boston and New York.  Well, as I write this, not as it is eventually published – the Megabus wi-fi is out. Oh, first world problems.  However, looking out the window as I always do on this drive, there is one fact worth noting about the central transit corridor through the densest area of the richest and most developed country in the world –it’s really boring and mostly trees.

In disgusting China news, there has been a spate of dead livestock turning up in the rivers.  It began in Shanghai with pigs, and now dead fowl and pigs are popping up everywhere in the country. This is definitely not a first-world problem.

A little-known fact about New England – it has more trees today than it did at the time of the Revolutionary War.  Forest cover here has fluctuated dramatically during the last 500 years.  Native Americans used fire to keep forests at a fairly low level of density, and when they mostly all died in post-Columbian plagues the forests became the overgrown messes that greeted European settlers in the 1620s.  Over the course of the next 200 years, the trees were all cut down and turned into fuel and ships. But as the Industrial Age took hold, something awesome happened – the trees came back.  We began using coal for fuel, and steel for ships, and left the woods of New England alone.

America was lucky in many ways to have industrialized early, but we don’t realize sometimes what an environmental boon it was.  We took centuries to do what China is doing in decades, with more land for fewer people, and the impact on our land was a lot lighter.  High-intensity mining, fracking, production – these are still wreaking havoc on parts of the country, obviously.  But our problems are just in a different league than China’s, where “the environment” isn’t a discretionary issue for San Francisco liberals, it’s a matter of life and death for everyone.  Wealth and power cannot protect you from the air in Beijing.

Thinking this through should give us pause.  American politicians and alternative-energy types always rag on China for attempting to corner the market in solar.  I’m obviously no expert and have spent just a little time in China, but it’s a disaster zone. You must see it to believe it.  If it continues on its current path, when China finally becomes “rich”, it’ll be plowing huge amounts of its wealth into cleaning up everything they had to do to get there.  Cost-competitive solar would be a godsend for China – it would allow it to finally begin to roll back the damage it has done without stranding its people in poverty.  Even if most of the subsidies and investment are wasted, who cares?  For every day that you can knock off the wait to viability, that’s a day of damage prevented, lives cut short, suffering alleviated.

How much money would you spend on solar if you couldn’t breathe the air outside?


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