Archive for April, 2012

Apr
17

The Tragedy of Chopsticks: Getting Things Straight in China

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Chopsticks: A Lesson in Getting Things Straight (About China)

Chopsticks: A Lesson in Getting Things Straight (About China)

As we’ve discussed previously on this blog, the West often gets things completely backwards when it comes to China, and the misunderstandings can be serious barriers to Asian innovators seeking global markets. The “Tragedy of Chopsticks” helps illustrate this.

A few years ago while in the US, I became concerned about chopsticks in China. The anti-chopstick publicity from Greenpeace and other groups was pretty convincing. What a shame to read about the vast tracts of precious forest land in China that were being mowed down to fuel China’s reckless, wasteful use of disposable chopsticks. What an environmental disaster! The New York Time‘s famous Green Blog recently reminded us all that “Disposable Chopsticks Strip Asian Forests.”

The article begins with a photo of a Greenpeace demonstration in Beijing where activists are building trees made from chopsticks to highlight how chopsticks wipe out trees. The coverage of China’s deforestation from its horrific chopstick use made me worry about the nation, for I had long known that China hardly had any forests left. Thirty or so years ago, the amount of forested land in China was around 9%. Some say it might have been a little higher, perhaps 10 or 11%, but it wasn’t much. As a young professor at the Institute of Paper Chemistry early in my career, I learned that China had to import most of its wood since there was so little forest land. But since that time, the paper industry and the chopsticks industry in China has boomed. So if we had 9% forest 30 or so years ago, how much, if any, do you think is left today? After all those people using disposable chopsticks for all these years, is there anything left of China’s forests?

That was a question in my mind before coming over here, where one of my first agenda items was to better understand some of the environmental allegations made against China and against the forest products industry here. What I found really shocked me. Take forest, for example. What’s left of China’s forest? What percent of China’s land is covered with forests? The World Bank and other credible sources now put the estimate around 21% – roughly double what China had a few decades ago. In fact, China is on course to achieve it’s goal of 27% forest land, and has what appears to be the world’s highest rate of afforestation, the opposite of deforestation. To provide the raw materials needed for forest products such as paper and, yes, chopsticks, China is ADDING forests, not mowing them down, creating sustainable high-yield plantations that can be planted and harvested repeatedly just like farmers plant and harvest their farmland, while carefully protecting virgin forests. Yes, plantations aren’t the same as wild virgin forests in terms of species diversity and beauty, but they are forests, and it is a good solution to the challenges of development. Yes, there was tragic forest lost in the past and irresponsible actions, but now China has strict policies and enforces strict regulations. Plantations must be approved before they can be created, and further official approvals are needed before trees can be harvested and then before they can be transported. As for chopsticks themselves, most of these come from bamboo, which grows rapidly and is easily planted, just like a food crop. In fact, bamboo is a food crop, with bamboo shoots being one of the most important components of Chinese cuisine. Will Western NGOs next tell us that we have to stop eating bamboo shoots? And then will we need to stop eating rice to save the rice fields?

An APP Tree Plantation in Southern China

An APP Tree Plantation in Southern China

So while the West is bemoaning the stripping of Asian forests from Chinese chopsticks and paper, the real story in China is a doubling of China’s forest with the help of the forest products industries and aggressive State policies. Why is this story so completely untold in the West? Why is it not part of the debate when Congress is deciding they need to punish the Chinese paper industry with punitive tariffs, when actually, the Chinese paper industry (at least based on my knowledge of APP) has environmental standards and achievements that are typically better than those that are standard for Europe and North America. But recognizing the remarkable environmental achievements of that industry, including its contribution to rapid afforestation through sustainable plantations, does not fit the agenda of some the West.

China has had its environmental problems and still has a lot of progress to make in terms of pollution, but it’s an issue that is taken seriously and remarkable progress is being made. In the forest products industry, the worse polluters are being shut down, hundreds of inefficient, highly pollution paper mills every year are being shut down as standards are progressively tightened. Come see for yourself and visit some of the beautiful, clean paper mills I’ve seen here in China. And before you try telling the people of China how or what to eat because of your enlightened knowledge of all things environmental (if, perhaps, you are as wrong as I was about the realities of China before coming here), you might want to get your chopstick facts straight. Chopsticks and forests are one of many issues where the West grossly misunderstands China.

A Hopeful Kite Flying in Front of Shanghai's Oriental Pearl Tower

A Hopeful Kite Flying in Front of Shanghai's Oriental Pearl Tower

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