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China and the Path to Environmental Sustainability
(Released August 2007)

  by Ethan Goffman  


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Fearful of the negative effects of a population boom on modernization and development and with its population continuing to rise exponentially, in 1979 China instituted its "one-child policy," which limited each woman to a single child, with a few exceptions. Over the years the policy has been somewhat relaxed, particularly in rural areas, which may allow a second child if the first is a girl, or if enough time elapses between children (Hemminki).

Although designated a temporary measure, the law continues to this day. It has been effective, lowering the birthrate to an estimated 1.75 per woman (Central), well below replacement level (Ding et al). Nevertheless, the Chinese population continues to grow, to over 1.3 billion today. This is at least in part due to number of women reaching the age of fertility; as China's population ages, the number of babies should continue to decrease.

crowd with balloons
A celebration parade for the 35th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China
Fewer children means that a population will become, on average, older. With some 10% of the population over 60 years old as of 2002, China can now be classified as an aging society (Benbo). While less acute than in some Western societies, this situation means that China will have to confront lower work productivity and greater health problems for a large portion of its citizenry.

Still another challenge is China's drastic increase in urban population. Since 1950, China has undergone an unusual history of modernization due in large part to extraordinary social experimentation by a highly centralized, communist government that often placed primacy on peasants working the countryside. Through the 1970s, therefore, China was notable for a "peculiar pattern of rapid industrialization without a parallel growth of the urban population" (Shen et al, 288).

graph that zooms at the far end
After thousands of years of relative stability, China's population zoomed in the 19th Century, and even more in the 20th Century

The 1980s began a shift to a free market economy that saw a more common urbanization pattern that continues to accelerate. This has had its costs, both social and environmental, in dislocation of people and in resource consumption, so that "as urbanization continues into the future, it will be inevitably accompanied by dramatic increases in the consumption of water, land, energy, and mineral resources" (Shen et al, 288). Such increases correlate strongly with urbanization, industrialization, and a consumption-oriented society. China today is on the verge of being majority-urban, with an estimated two thirds of Chinese living in cities by 2030 (Half).

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