George Ding: All China Can Eat

The salmon sashimi platter at Golden Jaguar is never full. Every time the employee behind the counter slides some on, customers swarm around and snatch them all up. Since they don’t know when they might get more, each diner grabs enough for her whole table. The sight reminds me of those Chinese temples with fish that try to jump over each other to snatch a morsel of food, or piranhas at feeding time. If you’re having trouble visualizing the situation, try this:

I was eating lunch at the restaurant with some friends when my roommate remarked that he saw a woman literally pick up the platter and scrape half of the salmon sashimi onto her plate. I decided to see this for myself.

Perhaps it was the furious way diners descended on the sashimi like ravens on a deer carcass, or perhaps it was because I had just finished Jonathan Watts’ fabulous but depressing book When One Billion Chinese Jump, about environmental crises in China and what they mean for the world, but I suddenly had a vision of the apocalypse.

Currently, Golden Jaguar is prohibitively expensive for most Chinese. Indeed, the only locations outside of provincial capitals are boomtowns Shenzhen and Wuxi. But maybe one day, it wouldn’t be. Perhaps one day China would have a solid middle class that could regularly enjoy Golden Jaguar’s decadent buffet. This might be great for Chinese epicures but what would it mean for the world?

In his book, Watts makes the counter-intuitive argument that the people most dangerous to China’s environment are not the countryside polluters but the consumers in big cities. He writes:

The energy use of the average person in Shanghai has surpassed that of Toyko, New York, and London and is now 50 percent higher than the global norm…. To provide everyone in China with a Shanghai lifestyle, factories will need to churn out an extra 159 million refrigerators, 213 million television, 233 million computers, 166 million microwave ovens, 260 million air conditioners, and 187 million cars…. Power plants would have to more than double their output.

And to provide everyone with a Beijing diet, the ocean would have to produce much more salmon. More than that, in fact. Other popular stations at Golden Jaguar serve chilled shrimp, steamed crab, and baked oysters. As I watched the people around me gorge on seafood, I couldn’t help thinking that if one day Golden Jaguar became available to the masses, the oceans might run out of animals.

Certainly it’s unfair to ask the Chinese to watch what they eat when the West has been stuffing its face for decades, but history is rarely fair. Watts repeatedly makes the point in his book that although China did not create this pattern of reckless consumption, it is where this pattern will break the world. Simply put, the world’s current lifestyle is unsustainable.

So what can we do? Watts again:

A new outlook is essential. This is not a matter for one country or one generation. Mankind has climbed to a peak in China, but our position is precarious and the view from the summit is appalling. Here, more than anywhere, the world has been unbalanced by superlatives, by billionfold multiplication, by earth-changing jumps. Here, more than anywhere, the current path of human progress looks certain to lead to destruction. Here, more than anywhere, we all need to look forward and step back.

Not only does the world need China to grow and consume cautiously, we also need countries that have enjoyed an absurd level of consumption to dial back. Otherwise, there won’t be a good future for any of us. It’s time for an honest accounting of the stresses we’re putting on the planet. It’s time for all of us to start being more aware of the way we live. So the next time you’re trying to grab salmon sashimi at a buffet, try to leave some for your neighbor, or better yet, try to leave some for the ocean.