On Blaming the Developing World

Recently, I dove into a month-long documentary binge and cleared out a solid chunk of Netflix’s shelf of films, including The Ivory Game, Rotten, A Plastic Ocean, Capital in the 21st Century, Chasing Coral, and, most recently, Seaspiracy. I learned a lot from these films, but there was something itching at me the entire time I was watching, something that has been itching at me since people started pointing fingers at China for the pandemic, since every climate piece I’ve read has insinuated the same common enemy — that the climate crisis rests on the developing world’s shoulders.

Talk to anyone about carbon emissions or pick up any environmental news article, and chances are you’ll see China and India in big, bold letters. Much of the world seems to believe that the fate of the global climate rests on developing countries who are just now catching up to the industrialization the West enjoyed 200 years ago. As David Wallace-Wells writes in The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, the world will largely be shaped by “China and India, who have the tragic burden of trying to bring many hundreds of millions more into the global middle class while knowing that the easy paths taken by the nations that industrialized in the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries are now paths to climate chaos…thanks to the changing, West-facing tastes of the emerging consumer classes” (Wallace-Wells 64).

Now, before we carry on, it is critical to recall that China, who has been called to the center of every carbon emissions talk, has half the CO2 emissions per capita as the U.S. does. In 2016, China emitted 7.18 metric tons per capita and the U.S. 15.50 metric tons. Let that sink in; that’s twice as many emissions per capita from a country who claims to be more eco-conscious than China, who even has energy efficient practices in place that have required more than 60% of the country’s energy use to be covered by mandatory energy efficiency policies — more than any other nation in the world. It is also worth noting here that a lot of discourse on emissions will intentionally point to numbers for emissions per year instead of emissions per capita. Graphs like those from the World Economic Forum (which is largely a capitalism-fueled think tank that receives upwards of $360 million in revenue per year), will point to China’s 10.4 million tons emitted per year and America’s 5.2 million per year, but when we look at these emissions on a per capita basis instead, it is deeply troubling that the U.S., a country with less than half the population of China, emits twice as much per capita.

Returning to the examination of climate policy, perhaps the toughest factor is that it cannot be a national agenda but a global one; France’s commitment to reducing emissions will only do so much if America or China continues to emit. The dangerous hierarchy of global policy emerges, then, when we realize that the countries that will suffer the most from a warming planet are the developing and third world countries. So, a first world country’s willful choice not to act — whether out of indifference or out of the belief that it can withstand such impacts — has signed the death sentence of the rest of the world. Just consider Puerto Rico during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, when, as Wallace-Wells describes it, “ climate disaster struck there, [and] we processed their suffering, perhaps out of psychological self-interest, as foreign and far away” (Wallace-Wells 92). Despite Puerto Rico being part of the U.S., it enjoyed little of the country’s resources or care in 2017 and was barely being treated as American at all. This is a clear example of an able-bodied country laying careless waste to the climate and leaving those less abled to deal with it. And as certain Americans take a backseat in the face of what they deem to be merely alarmist climate reactions, and as Western countries point fingers at China and India and Southeast Asia for pollution and unsustainable practices like overfishing, it is worth wondering if the U.S. will ever acknowledge their own contribution to the problem. It is worth wondering if the West will take any accountability for the capitalist consumerism it has planted like a weed that is consuming all we have left of a planet.

Only an elite few countries have the privilege to live off want instead of need, but this want has come to shape the entire ecosystem of the world. It is infuriating to me that a consumerist country like the U.S. is so intent on refusing to pay its price of climate change, choosing not to acknowledge that it is the one who left the countries it’s blaming with so much consumerism it’s literally brimming to the ocean. The consumerist market created the plastic market, and a largely Western demand created the cheap labor demand — every “made in China” product exploiting child and forced labor at a penny’s wage for the rich running companies like Amazon. Naturally, you may be thinking, “China is the one making the plastic, Thailand is the country trafficking sex workers, so shouldn’t they be the ones at fault?” Well, who do you think is buying everything? Who do you think has the largest demand for these products? Would these “supplies” exist if there weren’t a demand for them? When Anthony Bourdain visited Colombia in the 2013 leg of his Parts Unknown journey, he watched Colombian children load bags of drugs into a truck for trafficking. He asked the village leader if he knew how much the drug is damaging people in America, and the man said yes, he did, but the work the kids were doing gave them an income for their families, money for books and schools, it gave them hope to get out. How could someone tell them to stop supporting their livelihoods, even if it depended on a drug trade? In other words, how could these children sacrifice their only opportunity to survive in a world unfortunately driven by capitalist consumerism? How could those with nothing afford to give anything up?

The waste laid to the world in landfills and plastic mounds floating on the Pacific is a direct result of consumerism enabled by intense industrialization. Countries like the U.S. and the U.K. industrialized at a rapid rate in the 1800s, leaving the climate hanging on by a thread two centuries later. The science then could not evaluate the damage done at the time, but today it can — and it thus measures the climate damage done by China’s and India’s industrialization efforts. It is curious, then, to consider what numbers we would have if we could accurately measure the rate of climate damage done over the past 200 years. However, void of these numbers, these Western countries carry on now as if they are blameless. As if they did not industrialize and injure the climate just as much, if not more. As the country expressed displeasure with the Kyoto Protocol that based emissions reduction efforts on the size of the country and its amount of emissions, the U.S. cared little about the blatantly obvious truth that its own consumerism polluted the planet at a rate much higher than most other countries. This is a slap in the face of global climate policy, and it’s shameful that the U.S. thinks it does not deserve to pay for their environmental damage simply because it refuses to acknowledge its acceleration of the problem in the past decades.

It is even more infuriating, then, that with every documentary I watch and every news article I read, many of which choose to feature pictures of floating plastic villages in countries like Sri Lanka, I see the rotten fruits of the West’s labor. I see how the first world laid waste to these countries, both from their imperial and colonial practices and their consumerist demands, leaving these countries with the flawed understanding that capitalism driven by consumerism is the only fuel for survival. The West brings consumerist culture to the developing world they already ruined with their imperial agendas, and then they blame them for the plastic in the ocean, expecting local villagers who build bridges around their warming, sinking city to suddenly change a lifestyle they sold to them in the first place. How can a camera pan to the mounds of trash floating on the Ganges and accuse the locals of wastefulness, when it was the imperialists who convinced them they needed these things in the first place?

Now, before I continue, let me clarify that I am not trying to shift the blame from one country to another, I’m merely distributing it. I’m not shifting the blame for climate change from China to America, for instance, but I’m distributing the blame between China and America. First world countries cannot shift the blame of global warming to an industrializing, developing country. After all, it is largely the first world that has kickstarted this capitalization of industrialization that has disrupted the balance of the world and wrecked the climate, the capitalization that is quite literally consuming the world we live on.

What’s worse, a division of China vs. America instead of China and America has driven a dangerous wedge between people now increasingly hyper-aware of race. This past year alone has shown how powerful xenophobia can be, how powerful a common enemy can be. When a global pandemic is named the “China Virus,” the West points its fingers at anyone remotely Asian and (re)asserts a superiority to civilize the world under the White Man’s Burden. The phrase coined by Rudyard Kipling initially referred to the United States having the responsibility to assume colonial control of the Filipino people and their country, all to “civilize” a people they considered uncouth. But what even defines “civilized?” Its definition relies solely upon the person doing the defining. It relies on their normal, and that is historically the normal of the West. So is one only “civilized” if they are the man in the three-piece suit and not selling their wares in a village? What makes the former more “civilized” than the latter? The New Oxford American Dictionary defines the word as “an advanced stage of social and cultural development.” According to this careful definition of the word, then, what superiority does a white man have at all when he is a visitor to a country operating on their own social and cultural terms? Why does the media seem to say that Sri Lankans picking up the trash littered on their shores are uncivilized, but people off the coast of Florida tossing the same trash into the sea are civilized? Why does the media not talk of the important developments being made in historically developing countries like Thailand, for example? In recent years, the country has worked to address and prevent viral outbreaks by providing farmers with a phone app to flag problems with crops or wildlife, which helps to inform the nation’s broader public policy. It makes the farmers on the ground, the individuals growing the food, accountable and attentive to the community. This is a Southeast Asian country with a policy the U.S. can only dream of implementing. And yet the headlines do not highlight this, focusing instead on floating plastic villages and Asian wet markets causing global pandemics.

And so I cannot help but think that the global policy of the West is the antagonization of the East. It doesn’t take much Googling to admit this much, as we only need to turn to the proxy wars in Afghanistan and flawed “wars for democracy” that planted landmines in Vietnam that still go off today and kill innocent children, efforts that have weaponized human rights movements and have decimated lives and the national defense budget. And consider the weaponization of the pandemic that has waged a political and racial battle against China on U.S. soil — within the past year, there has been a nearly 150% uptick in anti-Asian violence, racist Asian jokes about Chinese people who eat animals and have wet markets. In fact, I was rather indignant about a 2019 Vox Explained video on disease, called “The Next Pandemic” (Season 2, Episode 4), which seemed to blame the spread of disease on open wet markets, which are prevalent in Asian countries. The camera panned to Asian butchers and hooks of red meat on display, as if making it a point to show how unnatural food is when not packaged in plastic (ironic, isn’t it?). But if wet markets are the issue, as the video claims, why do they neglect to acknowledge that Italy and other countries have this same culture of wet markets? As John Oliver explains, the term “wet market” is used very broadly and often incorrectly. A wet market, not unlike a farmer’s market, is merely a marketplace selling fresh meat, fish, produce, and other perishable goods, distinguishable from “dry markets” that sell durable goods such as fabric and electronics. One can turn to a place in Europe to find the exact same types of wet markets termed for those in China. If the cause of disease is wet markets as the Vox video claims, why turn the dialogue to the Chinese and not the Chinese and the Italians and any culture with a wet market culture? It’s simple. Because there’s something primal about being non-Western, and those are the people easiest to blame. Unfortunately, the Western superiority complex has even become so ingrained in international society that, in many East Asian countries, to have West-facing tastes is to have high-brow tastes. However, it is worth noting that many countries seek to catch up to the West not necessarily because the West is the gold standard but because that is where the realm of international recognition lies (just consider Japan’s imperial rampage that left a legacy with the Rape of Nanjing all to mimic the British and earn a seat at the international table).

And so this brings me to my last point, which is the war of wealth and the privilege of indifference. How can the world be expected to act environmentally conscious when turning to plant-based and sustainable alternatives is so expensive and largely out of budget for most people? Even in a first world country like the U.S., for example, vegan food costs three times as much; a coffee with a dairy-free alternative doubles the price of the drink; “sustainable” clothing brands like Reformation boast hiked prices and are advertised to the average person by the wealthy (yes, I’m referring to Reformation doing brand deals with well-off influencers marketing clothing they didn’t have to pay for to followers who now think they have to shop this way for the fad and the environment). The wealthy act eco-consciously when it’s convenient for them and their image; sustainability is just a fad, a status symbol, and social media proves it. It’s almost a cruel joke, how certain environmental activism (e.g., the Instagram vegan movement) seems to place the responsibility of sustainable living on average people just trying to make ends meet, when it should instead be placed on the able-bodied government.

While I enjoyed Seaspiracy, I was a bit disappointed by its conclusion that the solution to overfishing and, largely, the ocean climate problem is for individuals to eat plant-based seafood. Not only is this an expensive “solution” for everyday individuals, but it also places all the burden of “saving the world” on the individual rather than on the entity most capable of enacting large-scale change — the government. This is a key reason few people feel encouraged not to eat meat for the environment — one person reducing their meat intake is merely one consumer’s difference in a world of 7.6 billion people. However, if they know that I and many others are making such efforts, the choice may feel more impactful and their contributions thus more meaningful. As marine biologist Dr. Sylvia Earle says, “One person can’t do everything, but everyone can do something.” By enacting policies addressing certain things encouraging collective action, like regulating local and organic fishing which will limit inhumane activity like breeding, the government will be taking a necessary first step in the direction of community-wide change and help to retain as natural an ecosystem as possible. In fact, the American government is more than capable of enacting these kinds of policies, as it has been implementing something disturbingly similar for the dairy and meat industries lobbying it. The American government spends $38 billion each year on subsidizing meat and dairy, keeping meat and dairy (which we’ve long been encouraged to eat from the largely fabricated food pyramids boosting the meat and dairy industries) cheap and affordable, while only 0.04% of those subsidies are used to subsidize fruits and vegetables. As a result, fruits and vegetables remain more expensive and less desirable for the average consumer working off minimum wage. Subsidies, which come from tax dollars, keep animal products cheap, essentially urging us to keep fueling the meat industry fueling our government.

Climate change is not an individual issue; it’s a systemic issue. The government stays quiet and hides behind puppeted climate activism, making YOU feel like YOU have to be the one to make change if you want to stop global warming, when they are the ones willfully working against it out of their own consumerist self-interest. It’s tough to say what the solution is and easy to tell you to call your local government. But whatever it takes, we need to push for this change. We need to push those with the most power to enact change if we want to see the large-scale change our dying planet needs. Because when the world burns, no one will be left in the flames to mourn it.

Writer based in San Francisco. Stanford ’20.