The Law of Conservation of Filth

The Law of Conservation of Filth: In order for something to get clean, something else must get dirty.

Corollary to the Law of Conservation of Filth: It is possible for everything to get dirty and nothing to get clean.

This is one of Murphy’s Laws. I used it in my answer when asked recently about whether “green” technology had caught on yet in China. Short answer, not yet.

Sadly, many products are just plain dirty to make and China is using the energy resources they have available (coal), and the production technologies that are easiest and least costly to adopt – that is the “brown” versions. Environmentalism as currently practiced in the West is essentially a luxury good, and I have yet to see a “green” technology that actually costs less than the “brown” alternative. Only by penalizing the “brown” and subsidizing the “green” can the case be made.

That is not to say that things aren’t changing in China. This article on the recent record-setting pollution in Hong Kong highlights the issue:

The problem of air pollution in Hong Kong prompted Australia earlier this year to include a health alert in its advice to travellers to the southern Chinese city, warning that it could aggravate some medical conditions.

Pollution has in recent years become an increasing health and economic headache for the authorities in the city of seven million.

Emissions from the factory belt in southern China over Hong Kong’s northern border combined with local emissions from power plants and transport to generate a thick haze over the city for large parts of last year.

The government has stepped up efforts to cut vehicle emissions, including offering tax concessions to users of environmentally-friendly hybrids.

Now the article does not make completely clear which government is trying to curb vehicle emissions – the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s (HKSAR) relatively independent government or the PRC government across the border. I suspect it is HKSAR, as I have seen no such effort in PRC, and it makes sense for HKSAR to do so. It is a wealthy city and clean air is a sign that you’ve reached a level of affluence where the manufacturing and resource extraction is no longer the driver of your economy (e.g., Singapore).

Most of the great cities around the world have traveled this path. The early industrial towns of England had skies so black with coal soot that children developed rickets from lack of sunshine. The industrial hinterlands of New York City poisoned the oyster beds surrounding the city, forcing a culinary switch from the local seafood to hotdogs. The Cuyahoga River famously caught fire in Cleveland in 1969 (and at least 9 other times going back to 1868). Rob Gifford in his brilliant book, China Road, writes about the terror of bicycling through a northern Chinese coal town.

I am not trying to weigh in on global warming or pollution in general. Everyone wants clean air and water. It is just that the Kyoto Protocol was doomed to failure on Day 1, as it exempted the developing world, especially China and India. It also failed to recognize that wealth is created in the manufacturing sector, and changing production methods and energy sources was not going to be easy or inexpensive. Such improvements can only be effectively implemented with a level playing field (compliance costs equal to all competitors). In a free trade environment, the cost advantages to sourcing in China, Mexico, India, etc., insured that the Protocol would fail. No wonder the US Senate voted unanimously to reject it. While some in the developed world may speak blithely about bankrupting core industries like coal, China and India do not have the luxury (yet) to pursue such a path. They each have over a billion overwhelmingly poor mouths to feed.

PassageMaker can help find Chinese firms who use green technology – like the Hong Kong-owned plating company we found for one project that recycles 100% of its effluent – as our clients’ require it. However, such suppliers are the exception to the rule and always more expensive. Our Sourcing Feasibility Study is just that – a study to determine if the client’s goals are feasible. Often clients want a “green” product for a “brown” price. And most of the time, that’s not feasible. Yet.

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