What Happens When 700 Million Chinese Want their Equivalent of Santa Shoppe?

Last week Wofford College hosted the second Santee-Cooper Lecturer in Sustainability and Energy. Our speaker was John Doggett, senior lecturer at the McCombs Business School at the University of Texas-Austin. The Santee-Cooper Series is meant to introduce our college community to the practical and intellectual challenges of sustainability in the 21st century. We began the year in September with Christine Ervin, former head of the Green Building Council. In February National Book Award Winner Barry Lopez will talk about “Sustainability and Justice,” and we’ll end the first year’s series in March with a seminar on small hydropower.

Ervin and Doggett have both hit the same note: we are in the midst of tremendous energy flux and change, and the world we’ve lived in the past century or so-one of cheap and abundant carbon-based energy-is on the wane.

According to Doggett, most important to our discussion of sustainability and energy is coming to terms with China, India, Russia, and Brazil, four massive economies that will flourish in the first half of the 21st century. China, among the four, will almost certainly replace the United States as the number one economy in the world in only a few decades if not sooner.

China now has almost one and a half billion people. Three hundred million Chinese will move into urban areas over the next ten years in a huge mass population shift that will grow 100 Chinese cities to more than 3 million. What I’d not thought about until this week was Doggett’s point that the bulk of these new Chinese urbanites will enter the middle class. By 2030 700 million Chinese will have joined the “consumer class,” roughly ten-fold the middle class we now have in the U.S..

But besides being economically ambitious, the Chinese are also very aware of the issues surrounding this planetary shift of resources. They will soon lead the world in the production of wind energy. When I asked Doggett about the environmental movement in China, he said that there are more environmentalists in China than anywhere else in the world. “They want clean air and water,” he said. “And they are willing to protest to get it.”

Of course, the environmental problems in China are huge. Though they have slowed down, they are still opening one coal-fired electric plant a week. Their rivers and waterways are polluted, and the city smog is of epic proportions. All this said, Doggett reminded us that it’s likely that the Chinese “industrial revolution” will be much shorter than ours was, and they will come out of it with a much “greener” society, willing to recycle and embrace alternative energy. They have no choice. It will be impossible to power those 700 million middle class Chinese on oil alone.

On Sunday afternoon I went to the Junior League’s “Santa Shoppe” to help my wife Betsy break down the Hub City book table. She, like many small merchants, had made a large percentage of her year’s sales by enticing waves of Upcountry consumers to purchase their goods. Santa Shoppe is a joyful bazaar with an energy similar to what I’ve seen visiting markets in the developing world.

Wandering through Santa Shoppe in the basement of the Memorial Auditorium I thought about all those future Chinese middleclass men and women and the Chinese New Year celebration, a time when over a billion people travel “home for the holidays.”

Everywhere I looked I calculated the resources it will take to bring the equivalent of millions of Santa Shoppes to the Chinese. If John Doggett is right, something like it will happen. They will want what we want. They will feel the fervor of several women I saw wandering from booth to booth, never putting away their checkbooks.

I’m glad Barack Obama is in China this week. If the Chinese “Santa Shoppe” writ large is the future we must have the political will to face it-producing the necessary abundance of clean energy on a world scale, channeling the joyful spending of earned income on consumer goods, and somehow protecting what’s left of our once wild planet.

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