I set out for Huangbaiyu on a sunny spring day along with my friend and translator Flora. We took a taxi from the regional capital, Shenyang, and followed a newly built expressway to a newly paved road. The new village's 42 homes, with yellow walls and red roofs, were laid out in a grid, like a piece of half-built American suburbia here in the Chinese countryside. Very little of Dai's interpretation of McDonough's plans was obviously "eco." Shannon May, an anthropologist from the University of California at Berkeley who spent 18 months living in Huangbaiyu, told me that Dai-who had little experience as a builder, let alone a green builder-had neither the expertise nor the support to fulfill McDonough's vision. "It was like the Chia Pet model of development," she said. "Just add water." Because Dai was short on funds, only one house had a solar panel. A dozen workers mixed cement near what was to be the revamped bio-gasification plant, which had a hopeful coat of green paint. Two more workers, here to water a few meager strips of grass, were sitting on metal buckets, drunk at 11 in the morning. One sprang up and kissed me on the cheek. "Americans, you hug them, you kiss them, they don't care!" he exclaimed. It would have been nicer had he shaved.
We toured old Huangbaiyu, a beautiful collection of stone homes where ducks waddled down the main street and villagers plowed fields with pairs of horses, and after lunch we headed the few hundred yards back to the new village, where Zhao and Yi soon arrived home from the faraway plot where they had been planting corn. Their hands were stained red from pesticides. "Come into my home," Zhao said. "Come, come." He showed us the fireplace he'd cut into the wall, and his freshly tilled vegetable patch, where he was planting beans and cucumbers in a space a fifth the size of his old garden. "This project is a waste of money," he said. "These houses are suitable for factory workers, not country people." He handed us a couple cans of Snow beer and cracked one open for himself. "Chinese people think this beer is only half as good, because in our minds, foreign beer tastes best," Zhao said. "But I think this is pretty good beer."
The first thing to understand is that China's problem is our own. For every Chinese peasant who moves to the city-400 million are expected to do so in the next two decades, the greatest urban migration in history-the world loses someone who lives off the land and gains someone who lives on the grid. This year, for the first time ever, the planet has more urbanites than rural residents, a shift attributable in large part to China and its dozens of million-person cities you've never heard of. City dwellers in the developing world use at least three times as much energy as those in the country. The richer they get-the richer China gets-the more they use. China's economic boom, a 10 percent increase in GDP every year, is twice that of America's at the height of the dot-com era and shows no signs of relenting. Half of the world's new buildings go up in China. The country has constructed the equivalent of the U.S. highway system in a decade. It adds the electricity use of Norway, 102 gigawatts, to its power grid every year and builds the equivalent of three coal-fired electricity plants every week (not one, as is usually reported). Last year, it produced 2.3 billion metric tons of coal, 40 percent of the world's total and more than the U.S., Russia and India combined.
There is no dirtier form of energy than coal, and there is no dirtier coal than China's. Few of the country's plants have sulfur scrubbers, making China the world's largest emitter of sulfur dioxide, which causes the acid rain that falls on a third of Chinese territory. Last year, the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) recalculated the country's GDP to account for environmental costs-and reported a 3 percent reduction (others estimate 8 to 15 percent). That same year, 4,700 people were killed in coal-mining accidents.
In February, South Korea suffered two weeks of toxic dust storms that meteorologists blamed on China. In April 2006, a similar cloud of pollution was spotted floating over the Pacific toward North America [see "Endangered Orbits"]. U.S. soil is filled with Chinese particulates; roughly 50 percent of our mercury comes from foreign, mostly Chinese, coal plants. But while China's smog becomes our problem and its petroleum companies buy up Africa's oil fields and its livestock eat up the soy that deforests the Amazon, what the world really fears is China's coal-powered greenhouse emissions.