Saturday, November 25, 2006


The Oregonian ran a front page article yesterday about huge clouds of soot and mercury drifting across the Pacific to Oregon and the rest of the United States. Major sources of this pollution are the coal-powered electrical generating plants in China. China presently has about 2,000 coal-fired plants, and has plans in place to build another 500. Impacts in Oregon of these Chinese plumes include hazy skies, increased particulate matter in our air, and increased levels of mercury in our rivers, leading to increased mercury levels in fish.

I've written previously in this blog about the basic laws of ecology, as posed in the 1970's by Dr. Barry Commoner, including "everything is connected to everything else." There are direct links between the Chinese air pollution and each Oregonian. I'm sure that like me, you've often noticed that almost everything we buy these days is made in China. Chinese manufacturers provide low cost labor, low cost materials, and an aggressive manufacturing and exporting sector based on scant government regulation regarding worker health and welfare, environmental impact (i.e. pollution), and other issues that increase the cost of goods made in the U.S.A. As a result, the Chinese economy is a raging tiger, trying to keep up with both the foreign demand for manufactured goods, and the domestic demand for modernity and a higher standard of living (in other words, the Chinese want to be like us Americans).

I pulled some data from the U.S. Bureau of Census web site about the balance of trade between China and the United States. Below is a graph of the data I pulled (sorry about the quality - I really struggled to import this as a graphic). The graph shows, for every year from 1985 until 2006, the dollar values of goods exported from the USA to China (blue line), imported from China to the USA (red line), and the trade balance, or difference between the import and export (yellow line). The vertical axis is millions of dollars, and the values shown on the axis are therefore $100 billion, $200 billion, etc.

In 1985, the US exported $3.85 billion and imported $3.86 billion in goods. By 1995, the US exported $11.7 billion and imported $45.5 billion. By 2005, the US exported $41.9 billion and imported $243.5 billion of goods from China. The trade balance (US exports to China minus US imports from China) went from minus $6 million in 1985, to minus $33.7 billion in 1995, to minus $201.5 billion in 2005, and is projected to be about minus $221.7 billion in 2006. Household and electronic goods account for a major portion of the imports from China.

Yesterday was the day after the Thanksgiving holiday in America, and is always the biggest shopping day of the year. Stores open at 5 and 6AM with big sales, and people line up to be there early. The TV news showed shoppers with carts full of big-screen televisions, video games, stereo and video equipment, and all manner of electronics and toys and household items, mostly bought on credit (US consumer credit debt is another topic). A majority of these consumer goods are probably manufactured in China.

Everything is connected to everything else. The pollution drifting through the atmosphere from China to Oregon is directly linked to the buying habits of American consumers. We want our "stuff," and we don't really think or care about where it comes from - we only want it at a low price. Unfortunately, the dollar price we pay at the store is not the true price of the item. The true price includes the ecological price tag that comes - hidden - with each item we buy.

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