The Future of Smoke Stacks


Beijing Smoke Stack


Beijing is a polluted city. Not even the spin-doctors deny that the air here is bad. On a windy day you can taste it. But upon my arrival it still came as a surprise to see a huge ten-storey industrial smoke stack right across the street from my apartment on the campus of Renmin (the People’s) University. Encased in scaffolding, workers have been banging and jack hammering on it every day. The project’s location struck me as particularly offensive—way too close to this residential university, an inappropriate site in an already-dense urban environment. And then eight weeks on I made a surprising discovery. The smoke stack is not going up; it’s actually coming down! It’s another sign that China is making a serious effort to go “green.”


China has long been an impoverished nation—rural, isolated, undeveloped, easily overrun. But its goal in the past half-century has been to become a strong, independent and prosperous nation. Outsiders may debate the means by which this has occurred, but the fact is that over 200 million Chinese have been able to climb out of poverty in the last few decades. Not so long ago Beijing itself was largely dirt roads, tough little cabbage patches, and labyrinth alleyway neighborhoods called hutongs.


The story is told that years ago Chairman Mao looked out on this undeveloped scene from his perch above Tian’anmen Square and said he had a dream that one day it would be a landscape filled with “chimneys” (that is, smokestacks)—his metaphor for a future of large-scale industrial development. Well, his dream came true, and then some.


But as a result today China is also awash in pollution of its air and water and land. The only really good news in all of this is that the Chinese government realizes that what has been happening is unsustainable, and must change. There is an enormous push, from the top down, to encourage green industry and lifestyles, and help China fix its own problems and then become a leading exporter of this new technology. It’s one of the central themes of the Shanghai World Expo. The slogan everywhere is “Greener China, Better World.” The Chinese have smelled their fetid rivers and coughed through the murky air of their industrial cities, but now they seem to be “getting it.” To paraphrase something C. S. Lewis said in a quite different context, “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”


Let’s hope the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will have a similar megaphone effect on America’s deaf ears. Hopefully a day is coming when to drive an SUV will be seen as downright unpatriotic. The reality is that we North Americans per capita are still by far the worst polluters and energy and resource consumers on the planet. Just yesterday a philosopher at Tsinghua University, one of China’s leading institutions of higher education, asked me if I had ever read E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful (1973). He had, and thought it was great. He’s passionate about ecology and suspicious of the carnage that greedy modernity is wreaking on the planet. Smoke stacks are coming down in Beijing, and some days the sky is actually blue. There are a few things that need to be dismantled in North America too if we are to leave any kind of viable and hopeful future for our grandchildren.



2 Responses to The Future of Smoke Stacks

  1. Nick July 9, 2010 at 3:56 pm #

    Great reflections. It’s encouraging to hear that China has a green-conscience segment of society. I remember an interview with an environmentalist who frequently speaks in China to business people. The interviewer asked, “How do you respond to people who say, ‘You Westerners had your chance to grow your economies cheaply and pollute, now it’s our turn.'” He said something like, “I tell them, ‘You’re right. Go right ahead. Don’t invest in green technology. Give us a 5 or 10 year head start. One day you’ll decide you want to go green, and you’ll have to buy all the technology from us.’ That usually gets their attention.”

    I agree with your concluding sentiments as well, that we in North America have to begin dismantling some things if we are to be environmentally responsible and leave a viable future for our decedents. I do think there are hopeful signs here as well, though. Just this week I heard a story about a Texas cement company deciding to permanently close all four of high-polluting wet kilns and invest in improving the technology of its newer ones to make them cleaner and more efficient. A number of auto industry executives have indicated that their goal is to shift the automobile away from the oil/pollution debate altogether. Thanks to the Obama administration, the current hype is around plug-in hybrids and electrics, but for the last few decades all the major players in the industry have seen hydrogen as the future. It’s the most abundant resource in the universe, and when pure hydrogen is used as fuel in a fuel cell vehicle, the only exhaust is pure water vapor. In the meantime, auto industry leaders have been (for years) asking political leaders for a gas tax to encourage consumers to buy smaller and more fuel efficient vehicles (although there are complications around that kind of policy that make it untenable—not only would it be unpopular, but it would likely hurt the poor the most, as they tend to have the oldest and least fuel efficient cars and can least afford a fuel price hike).

    On a side note, as someone who is passionate about the auto industry, I think it’s important to mention that new automobiles contribute very little to air pollution. In fact, mowing your lawn for 30 minutes with a gas powered lawn mower puts more pollution into the air than driving a new car from San Diego to Los Angeles and back again. Many cars sold in CA (and several other states) are labeled Partial-Zero Emissions Vehicles (PZEV) and have no evaporative emissions at all, while overall emissions are 90% less than the average new car. And even conventional gas powered cars are making great strides in reducing fuel consumption. This year, Ford introduced a gas-only small car that gets 40 mpg (Fiesta). Next year, GM will introduce a slightly larger gas-only car that also gets 40 mpg (Cruze). VW has a smaller than-midsized diesel-powered car that gets 43 MPG and, thanks to advanced particulate emissions equipment, burns as clean as some gas powered cars (Jetta TDI). All of this to say nothing of hybrids, plug-ins, and electric vehicles.

  2. John Mustol July 8, 2010 at 1:14 pm #

    Two years ago, Jim Wallace, leader of Sojourners, who calls us to repentance in response to the Gulf Oil Spill,” wrote: “I’m in the U.K. this week on a speaking and book tour. It’s always good to be here. My wife, Joy Carroll, is a Brit, and we frequently get across the pond.” Wallace speaks of jetting back and forth across “the pond” meaning the Atlantic Ocean. If ever there was an expression of modern dominance over God’s earth, this is it. Our power and technology have reduced God’s great Atlantic Ocean to a “pond.” And the consumption of fossil fuel and production of greenhouse gases involved in all this jetting around is impressive.

    But Wallace’s family is in Britain, and he lives in the U.S. In order for him to serve his family life, a basic, biblical concern of Christians if ever there was one (Ex. 20:12), he has to rely on jet travel across the Atlantic. And his job, as currently conceived and structured, requires rapid travel too, all over the world, all the time.

    And me too. One of my sons lives in Texas, and the other lives in Los Angeles. If I want to visit them, I have to travel long distances rapidly, and that requires fossil fuel. I just finished a course of study at Fuller Seminary in (smoggy) Pasadena, 125 miles away. To get back and forth required driving or riding the train, again requiring fossil fuel. So my life too is founded upon high levels of energy consumption. These arrangements have arisen because of the availability of cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels.

    As I understand it, China’s development has thus far been more or less founded upon fossil fuels. But, as Glen points out, they are trying to change and “go green.” I wonder if their motivation for this has more to do with concerns about their image in the eyes of the rest of the world, beating out their competitors, and making money than it has to do with high-minded ideas such as “creation care” or ecological stewardship. It is a fact that this modern life, which has lifted some of us (not all) out of poverty and then some, is very energy intensive. And our belief in immanent progress means that more and more energy will be required in the future as our standard of living rises higher and higher. As economist Robert J. Samuelson writes, “We won’t soon end our ‘addiction to fossil fuels.’ Oil, coal, and natural gas now supply 85 percent of American’s energy needs,” and this is expected to continue growing for at least the next 20 years (San Diego Union-Tribune, June 21, 2010. p.B7). China will probably be similar.

    Many evangelicals believe that the answer to the world’s problems is evangelism. If individual people can be converted, the Holy Spirit will work in their hearts, and they will change and begin living in ways that will bring love and justice to the world and heal the world’s ills, including its ecological problems. Francis Schaeffer said in his prescient 1970 book, Pollution and the Death of Man, “Surely then, Christians, who have returned through the work of the Lord Jesus Christ to fellowship with God, and have a proper place of reference to the God who is there, should demonstrate a proper use of nature” (p. 71-2). While it is true that Jesus presents a wonderful model for love and self-sacrifice, and as far as we can see, a good model for ecological living, very few Christians actually seem to follow him in these areas. The vast majority of us evangelicals do not repudiate mammon, self-indulgence, and consumption. We do not change our way of life. By and large, we live pretty much like the rest of the world does. Of course, the overriding evangelical ethic is evangelism, as our name implies, and we have a few other ethical concerns, such as personal honesty, marital fidelity, etc., heterosexual marriage, abortion, and religious freedom, but ecological responsibility is generally not on the list. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of nice evangelicals around who are doing a lot of nice things, but so are a lot of non-Christians too.

    Authentic, courageous, thoughtful, counter-cultural discipleship of Jesus Christ is rare to nonexistent in the modern American church. E. F. Schumacher, in his book Small is Beautiful, turned not to Christianity but to Buddhism for a religious resource to critique our system of modern consumer growth economics. It is surprising that modern American Christianity has so uncritically bought into modernism’s limitless pursuit of wealth, security, and power, that Schumacher would not even look twice at the gospel as a resource for such an endeavor.

    In point of fact, our Christianity seems to have little to do with our ecological behavior (or with other ethical behavior, for that matter). Several studies have shown that, although conservative Christians express less concern about ecological problems than liberal Christians, our lifestyles generally conform to our culture. A 1995 Canadian study concluded that “levels of the individual environmental behaviours . . . will remain low, regardless of concerns, unless an environmental issue is linked to immediate personal concerns, or societal arrangements exist that help reduce the costs of compliance and facilitate cooperative action” (Glenda Wall, “Barriers to Individual Environmental Action: The Influence of Attitudes and Social Experience,” The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, 32, no. 4 (November 1995): 465-91. In 2001, David Larsen noted that “for the most part, the history of evangelical interest in environmentalism [has] followed . . . national trends.” (Kenneth David Larsen, God’s Gardeners: American Protestant Evangelicals Confront Environmentalism, 1967-2000. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Chicago Divinity School, 2001, 78). Empirically, it appears that Christians, by virtue of their regenerate condition and restored fellowship with God, do not demonstrate ecological behavior that differs substantially from non-regenerate people.

    As Wall points out, whatever we may claim to believe, fundamental change in our ecological behavior will require events and conditions that impact each of us personally and our immediate social groups. If the Gulf Oil Spill had caused gas prices to rise, say, to $15-20 a gallon (other fuel prices rising proportionately), then people would have been personally impacted in terms of their self-interest, families, and so on – religious beliefs notwithstanding. The price of SUVs would have fallen; small cars, motorcycles, and bicycles would have appeared all over the place; airline travel would have declined; people would have protested the “greedy oil companies”; politicians would have called for more regulations; and so on. But in spite of all this messiness, in the end, we would significantly reduce our fossil fuel use. The change Glen seems to be calling for would actually begin. Along these lines, economist Robert J. Samuelson makes a helpful suggestion: “a gradually increasing tax on oil and carbon would nudge people toward more energy-efficient products, including cars” (ref. above). This might alleviate a crisis since it would impose ecological reality slowly instead of all at once. But maybe that’s being too rational, and besides many conservative Christians are saying we are TEA, “taxed enough already.”

    As Nancey Murphy and Warren Brown have said, you can teach an old dog new tricks, but it’s hard – and it usually takes a crisis. (Nancey Murphy and Warren S. Brown, Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will, Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2007, p. 306). If we don’t impose limits now by taxing fuels (or something like that), then, perhaps, reality itself will, sooner or later, impose limits upon us, in the form of rising prices, ecological calamity, or some other unanticipated problem. In the mean time, we Christians will just keep doing what we’re doing. I hope that, if the government doesn’t tax fuels as Samuelson suggests, if and when the crisis comes to us or to our descendents, it will be slow and not too brutal. If it happens to, say, our great grandchildren, what will they be saying about us?