Saturday, March 19, 2011

Peter Hessler: Country Driving

As always, I'm behind with my New Yorker reading. Last week, I finished the 2010 "World Changers" edition- the yearly issue of innovations. David Owen wrote a fantastic piece (only available online to subscribers) about the "Jevons Paradox" in regards to energy efficiency. Basically, the Jevons Paradox or "rebound effect" argues that greater energy efficiency may result in short term gains, but in the long run ends up in larger use of energy. Stuff that uses energy gets cheaper because it's easier to make and power, so we use more of it. The argument has gone in and out of favor, but Owen makes a pretty good argument for it (and against things like hybrid cars: we feel virtuous for driving cars that get good mileage, so we drive more, and further). I'm reminded of a book that I read years ago by Jane Kay, "Asphalt Nation," about how cars swell to take up the roads that are built for them. It's a cycle: more cars and drivers mean that more roads are needed to ease the congestion. As more roads are built, more cars are bought/created to fill the now easier roads.

David Hessler spent 10+ years in China proving the Jevons Paradox. Okay, I don't actually know if the Jevons Paradox applies to more than just energy in the literal sense, but if it does, post-Reform China as Hessler describes it is a key example. For the majority of the book, the refrain "If you build it, they will come," echoed in my head. The first third "Country Driving" is devoted to Hessler's travels around northern China in a series of crappy Chinese cars. The sales of cars have skyrocketed, not least because a) they're cheap and b) China has been building roads at a pace that makes the American road building campaign in the middle of last century look an ant-farm next to a real ant hill. Chinese drivers are signing up for their version of drivers ed so that they can buy cars, so that they can drive on new roads. Remember the traffic jam that was all over the news last year? The way Hessler describes driving in China, it makes sense. There was no culture of driving until recently, and there's no sense to the roads or the traffic control. There's no traffic cops, and the drivers ed doesn't make sense. Driving is a sign of prestige for the individual, and a sign of making it for the country. So traffic jams are inevitable. It's Jevons Paradox at work, at least as I understand it: if it's cheap, if you build it, they will come.

In the second part of the book, Hessler finds a spot in a nearby town to do some writing, and it becomes his home away from home, out of the city. And as the road comes to the town, so does moderate economic prosperity. I'm reminded of Mexico in a way, though people move to other, richer, more modern places in China, rather than crossing any border. Hessler becomes close to a family who are in possession of the last child in town. Every other young person has moved/migrated away to somewhere better/more modern/rich. If you think about it, the "if you build it, they will come" slogan means that "they" have to come from somewhere. They come from towns like this rural one where Hessler has made his home. Hessler follows the family's upward economic mobility, trackable by things from the foods they eat, the size of the child, the types of cigarettes the dad smokes, even to the car the dad (not very successfully) purchases and drives. China is becoming notorious for its energy consumption. Energy is cheap in China (China is also notorious for cheap pretty-much-everything), so as soon as a person can afford "stuff", they buy it. Jevons Paradox again.

The final section of the book is Hessler's take on a "Development Zone," with a case study of a factory producing clothing accessories, specifically "bra rings." Yeah, the part of the bra that allows you to adjust your bra. The entire point is that the factories in development zones produce things so obscure that the profit margin is minuscule. Again, I'm reminded of maquiladoras in Mexico, and the (mostly) women who work there, having migrated from rural towns in order to improve their lives from subsistence to something slightly better, leaving only older generations surviving on remittances in rural towns, forgotten by the central government. Hessler remarks that the improvements he sees in these zones are that people begin to individualize, and move away from group-think, but acknowledges that the Chinese education system is pitiful, and does little to promote innovation. The economic boom that manifests as development zones is false, and is as bound to fail as the mortgage boom in the US. Basically, the profit margins are so small, and so based on industry without innovation that there is no there there. Roads and construction with no tax base do not make a stable economy. Combined with the destruction of rural villages and the literal reconstruction of the environment- enormous dams and literal moving of mountains- along with enormous pollution from factories and the new car culture, Hessler paints (without doing it outright) a distressing picture. The book is a fascinating, if long, take on China. Highly recommended for anyone interested in, well, how a large portion of the world lives.


thb said...

Country Driving may be the all-time 'road trip' audio book...