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Ellis, E.C. 2008. Environmental Revolution Starts at Home. Science 320(5883; June 20):1587


Environmental Revolution Starts at Home

The title of J. Liu and J. Diamond's Policy Forum, "Revolutionizing China's environmental protection" (4 January, p. 37), implies a novel solution to China's environmental problems, but suggesting that China must reform its environmental governance is nothing new (1). What's more, criticizing a nation because economic performance is still its main criterion for choosing government leaders hardly seems fair. What criterion guides U.S. national leadership? If the U.S. economy appears greener than China's--and less pollution and greenhouse gases are indeed generated per dollar of U.S. GDP--this is only because the United States has exported the "dirty" industries that produce most of what it consumes to China and other nations that need hard currency from abroad to develop their economies.

China's environmental failings reflect the same basic challenge faced by all governments: how to enforce environmental regulations when these conflict with economic development. Even Liu and Diamond admit that China's government has already attempted to couple environmental performance with governance and has a plethora of environmental regulations on the books. The main problem seems to be an inability to enforce most of these in the face of overwhelming economic pressures.

The reason that China has dramatic environmental problems is not a mystery. China's once small economy is booming, moving large numbers of people into a modern consumer life-style. Given that this development is linked to the expansion of China's industry and energy use, as it has been everywhere else, and that a large share of this is dedicated to manufacturing what the rest of the world consumes, those busy consuming the fruits of all of this industrial production should share some of the responsibility for the environmental results.

This would indeed be a revolution: finding a way to make consumers pay for the environmental costs of their consumption, even when they are incurred on the other side of the world. In a globalized economy, the environmental revolution ought to begin at home.


Erle C. Ellis
Department of Geography and Environmental Systems
University of Maryland
Baltimore County
Baltimore, MD 21250, USA



  1. V. Smil, China's Environmental Crisis: An Inquiry into the Limits of National Development (M. E. Sharpe, Armonk, NY, 1993).