Many people carry the belief that humans can think their way out of any issue. Though there are a large number of crises facing our world, many choose not to fret over the future because they are sure that someone will be able to devise a solution. This concept that there will always be a way for a human to save the day is based on the belief that the human race has the infallible ability to create an ultimate, all-encompassing solution known as a tech fix. When tech fixes are applied to the real world, however, they often act as a double-edged sword, so to speak.
China, for example, suffers from a scarcity of resources resulting from its overpopulation, and its government decided to encroach on neighboring lands in an effort to use their natural reserves as a tech fix. Clean water and precious metals are especially lacking, leading China to look for resources in ecologically pristine Tibet. Ultimately, China’s industrialization of Tibet negatively impacted the Tibetan Plateau and only functioned as a temporary solution that still contributes to the challenges of unclean water and insufficient raw materials today. Through its attempt to industrialize Tibet as a tech fix for the consequences of its overpopulation, China has greatly damaged the natural environment of the Tibetan Plateau by altering Tibetan water sources and precious metal reserves.
Image 1: A Beach in China
China’s enormous population has driven the Chinese government’s search for a tech fix that will sate its increasing rates of consumption. Overpopulation poses a unique challenge in that it is the source of many other issues, especially those that stem from a community that has been drained of its resources. In order for just one human to live 70 years, for instance, he or she will consume 56,000,000 gallons of water and 21,000 gallons of car fuel (Dolan, 1974). More people need more vehicles, which leads to an upsurge of greenhouse gas emissions and an increase in pollution that dirties waterways (Kukreja, 2016). A lack of potable water can drive a country to war in the search for more clean water sources, meanwhile disease from the polluted water would spread quickly throughout the large population (Kukreja, 2016). Crime rates and thievery increase as the amount of job opportunities available cannot accommodate for the overabundance of people, and poverty and starvation follow close behind (Kukreja, 2016).
Estimates suggest that the number of humans that the earth can actually support well is about 2 billion (Southwick, 1996). In the 1970s, however, the human population reached 4 billion, and began to follow a trend in which it doubled every 35 years (Dolan, 1974). China alone contained 800 million people at this time (Wang & Wei, 2010). In an essay entitled Environmental Scarcity, Population Growth, and Inter-Group Conflict, classmate Marissa Vahlsing suggests that the human population has continued to increase following a pattern of exponential growth (Vahlsing, 2003). At the same time, the natural resources available to sustain the population have decreased (Vahlsing, 2003). This could be observed by the 1990s, when 1/3 of the global population lacked sufficient health care and fuel for heating and cooking (Southwick, 1996). Vahlsing also recommends two possible solutions to the dilemma of overpopulation: either humans change the rate at which they consume, or pursue a way to create more resources (Vahlsing, 2003). In the case of China’s overpopulation, the government has opted to undertake the latter option in a search for a tech fix. This tech fix has ultimately taken the form of encroachment on neighboring countries that contain enough resources to help satisfy China’s overpopulation.
Image 2: China’s Population Growth Between 1950-2016
Water and precious metals are two of China’s most direly needed resources. This country contains 21% of the human population, yet only has access to 6.2% the 0.3% of the earth’s water that is available for human use (Wang & Wei, 2010). As the population expands, increasing amounts of water are required in order to grow more food, to be consumed directly in domestic use, to treat waste, and to be used in manufacturing goods (Wang & Wei, 2010). In 2010, 43% of China’s citizens lived north of the Yangtze, where they were completely dependent upon only two water sources: the Huai and Yellow rivers (Wang & Wei, 2010). These rivers only constitute 14% of the water resources available in the entire country, as past digging for groundwater has resulted in a decline in natural water tables and a spread of desert regions around this area (Wang & Wei, 2010). Ironically, the size of China’s population has also increased the pollution in its waterways, further intensifying the need for clean freshwater (Wang & Wei, 2010). This has caused neighboring countries that have access to clean water to become increasing objects of interest to China. Tibet, for example, contains the third-largest accumulation of freshwater in the form of ice worldwide, and its rivers feed a large number of other Asian rivers (Tibet’s Environment, 2015). This water could be used to feed China’s citizens, provide them with hydro-electric power, and even give the country a hold over the other Asian countries that whose rivers stem from those in Tibet (Tibet’s Environment, 2015).
In addition to new water sources, China is also in need of mines and precious metals. The country’s surging economy has increased its demand for raw materials to the extent that China has become increasingly reliant on expensive imports (Ramzy, 2007). Prices for imported iron ore, for example, raised by over 160% between 2004 and 2007 (Ramzy, 2007). Just as with water, neighboring countries with mines have become more prominent in the eyes of the Chinese government. Tibet, for instance, encompasses mines that hold about as much copper, lead, and zinc as China’s mines did (Ramzy, 2007). In total, Tibet’s reserves are estimated to contain $128 billion worth of precious metals (Ramzy, 2007). China’s need for clean water sources and increased amounts of raw materials has thus driven it to encroach on and industrialize Tibet.
Image 3: Hydropower Dams on the Tibetan Plateau
As a result of China’s use of Tibet as a tech fix, Tibet’s already delicate environment has become increasingly fragile. Before the Chinese modified Tibet’s environment, the Tibetan Plateau was a pristine natural preserve that housed endangered snow leopards and Tibetan antelope (Ramzy, 2007). The plateau was free from damming, drained wetlands, excessive hunting, destroyed grasslands, and its soil had sequestered a large amount of carbon (Tibet’s Environment, 2015). After the Chinese began to industrialize Tibet, however, much of this carbon was released into the atmosphere and many untouched natural areas were destroyed. In terms of water resources, global warming has been causing Tibet’s glacier to melt, and China’s industrial enterprises further this phenomenon (Tibet’s Environment, 2015). Mining, damming, and clearing forests on the Tibetan Plateau have also been large contributors to global warming, and thus have been accelerating the rate at which the glacier has been melting (Tibet’s Environment, 2015). In its attempt to provide 300 million Chinese citizens with more water, China has also been building dams to redirect many of Tibet’s streams (Tibet’s Environment, 2015). These artificial embankments have altered native ecosystems by creating new ponds and tampering with water flow (Tibet’s Environment, 2015). They also prevent silt from being deposited in its natural channels, decreasing the land’s fertility (Tibet’s Environment, 2015).
In terms of precious metals, the Tibetan Plateau contains 1 billion tons of iron ore, 40 million tons of copper and lead, large amounts of zinc, uranium, molybdenum, asbestos, and more (Ramzy, 2007; Tibet’s Environment, 2015). China’s sole source of chromium and lithium, which are used in the production of cellphones and computers, is located within the Tibetan Plateau (Tibet’s Environment, 2015). With Tibet’s reserves under its control, China has become the number one producer in the international market, though at a cost to the environment (Tibet’s Environment, 2015). Most of the copper, gold, and silver mining that occurs in Tibet takes place near water sources, further polluting them and altering the local ecosystem (Tibet’s Environment, 2015). Ironically, China’s mining projects are dirtying the very water that this country needs to feed its citizens. Such industrial practices have also displaced Tibetan locals by destroying their homelands (Tibet’s Environment, 2015). This has put an end to the locals’ sustainable methods of agriculture in the Tibetan grasslands, which have played a large role in preserving the Tibetan Plateau for hundreds of years (Tibet’s Environment, 2015). Altogether, China’s overpopulation has induced the country to industrialize and so damage the environment of Tibet in an attempt to use Tibet as a tech fix.
Image 4: A Coal Mine in the Tibetan Grasslands
Through its manipulations of Tibetan water sources and precious metal reserves, China has greatly damaged the environment of Tibet in an attempt to industrialize its neighboring country as a tech fix for the consequences of having an enormous population. China’s overpopulation has created such a large demand for resources that the government has attempted to create new resources through this tech fix. The need for clean water reserves and precious metals drove China to encroach on its naturally pristine neighbor, Tibet, where China’s industrialization enterprises have adversely impacted the already fragile environment of the Tibetan Plateau. Though the industrialization of Tibet may seem like a tech fix, in reality, it has only prolonged the search for a true solution to the challenges that result from an overpopulation. The Tibetan Plateau does not contain an infinite amount of resources, and China’s attempt to harvest these resources has made many of them unusable. For example, Chinese mining has polluted the Tibetan streams that are needed to feed China’s people. Reliance on an alleged tech fix thus may be almost as harmful as the issues the tech fix was created to solve, especially because such solutions only temporarily prolong already existing conditions. Ultimately, China’s industrialization of Tibet is, in truth, only a temporary solution that continues to contribute to the challenges of dirty water and insufficient raw materials of an overpopulation.
Dolan. (1974). Coping With the Population Explosion. In The Economic Strategy for Environmental Crisis (p. 55-72).
Kukreja, R. (2016). Overpopulation: Causes, Effects, and Solutions. Retrieved from http://www.conserve-energy-future.com/causes-effects-solutions-of-overpopulation.php
Tibet’s Environment. (2015). Retrieved from https://freetibet.org/about/environment
Ramzy, A. (2007, February). How to Strip-Mine Shangri-La. Time Magazine. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1592687,00.html
Southwick. (1996). Human Populations. In Human Impacts on Planet Earth (pp. 159–182). Oxford University Press.
Vahlsing, M. (2003). Environmental Scarcity, Population Growth and Inter-group Conflict. Retrieved from http://fubini.swarthmore.edu/~ENVS2/S2003/Marissa/fourthessay.htm
Wang, M., & Wei, D. (2010). Population and Natural Resources case study: What are the challenges of meeting the resource needs of a very large population? Focus: China. Retrieved from http://cgge.aag.org/PopulationandNaturalResources1e/CS_China_July09/CS_China_July09_print.html