On the final day of the record-breaking Shanghai Expo 2010 (Oct. 31), the urban-themed world's fair featured a summit on sustainability. That, in fact, was the whole conceptual point of the exposition. Its purpose was to model "Better City, Better Life," which meant trying to find ways of making metropolises more planet- and human-friendly while accommodating massive growth.
Already, more than half of humanity lives in cities. The issue is global, but China, as the largest "developing nation," is seen as a laboratory for sustainability because in many respects its development is leaping from the 19th century to the 21st, without having gotten too bogged down in the mistakes of the 20th. It is also traveling at light-speed and has adopted a plan to move much of its population from the countryside into the city, a great leap forward marked in a film shown in China's national pavilion called "The Road to Our Beautiful Life." It might be a road, but the pace is strictly maglev (magnetic levitation). Last month, China also launched the world's fastest train.
It's a strange contrast to come from the Shanghai summit meeting, a gathering of world leaders, Nobel laureates, and the U.N. Secretary General, who discuss global warming as an unquestioned reality, and return to a country where much of the political leadership thinks man-made global warming is a hoax, and where the new Congress looks like it will derail meaningful climate legislation. What was in the Tea Party's cups? Oil.
The end-of-the-expo summit was marked by the release of the "Shanghai Declaration," a commitment on the part of the Expo's participants (some 190 countries) to make a path to a low-carbon future. The day after I returned to the U.S., a Republican tide, helped along by economic frustration and Tea Party rage, moved America further out of the global warming mainstream.
Fifty per cent of the newly elected GOP members of Congress deny that climate change has anything to do with human behavior. Most of the rest of the world accepts the opposite not just as a fact but also as something on which to base action. In China, low-carbon goals are cemented into the newest five-year plan, according to Premier Wen Jinbao, who spoke to the Shanghai assemblage. Even conservative, Western governments in Britain, France, and Germany accept that tackling global warming is imperative.
This is not to say that China, like most of the developed and much of the undeveloped world, is not a living contradiction. While a post-carbon future was imagined at many of the pavilions, including the SAIC-General Motors showcase featuring a 4-D film highlighting zero-carbon transportation in the Shanghai of 2030, there was some dissonance between the sustainability theme and the messages of some exhibitors.
Auto companies have long used fairs to sell their vision of the world, including sprawl and freeways. GM and Ford have both featured actual auto assembly lines in pavilions to dazzle visitors. At Seattle's Century 21 fair in 1962, we were promised nuclear-powered cars that looked like Batmobiles. In Shanghai, automakers pushed new technologies even while their vision of 2030 seemed like a faster, bigger version of Shanghai in 2010, crisscrossed with wide (though not congested) freeways. The push was still for single-occupancy vehicles, albeit they were supposed to be non-polluting. The SAIC-GM film ended with a display of smart electric cars surrounded by what looked like dancing Power Rangers.
Nearby were representatives of the unrepentant oil industry, a popular player at the Shanghai Expo. Oil producers created some of the most well-attended pavilions (Saudi Arabia, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Russia), and the Chinese oil companies sponsored the China Oil Pavilion, an unapologetic temple to fossil fuels. It was a throwback to U.S. fair pavilions of the 1930s or 1960s when oil companies like Sinclair featured giant mechanical dinosaurs to delight the kids.
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