Monday, July 05, 2010

In The Darkness Of The School Of Government

The average Chinese person consumes way less energy than the ordinary American. I know this is not a startling revelation or anything like that. After all, there remains a huge gap in per capita wealth between a China that is barely thirty years into its reform and opening up and a United States that is still the world's richest nation, even after the financial crisis of the past few years.

But I think there is more to it than raw wealth. Walk down a hallway or up and down a stairwell at the Peking University School of Government. More often than not, some or all of the lights are turned off. Here's the relevant comparison to the United States...Imagine scaling the stairs at Harvard's Kennedy School in near total darkness. It's an impossible thought, isn't it?

I think what is going on here is not so much a difference in wealth. Peking University is indeed the Harvard of China. Rather, there are cultural processes at work. Walk into to many Chinese homes and the lights are pretty much always turned off. The same is true for air conditioners and many other electrical devices. (The big exception here, of course, is the television, which seems to be on regardless of whether anyone is in the room, let alone watching. But that's a story for another day...)

I suppose these cultural norms will fade away with the passage of time, as younger generations who have grown up with greater wealth replace their frugal parents and grandparents. What I want to suggest, though, is that the government perhaps has an opportunity to slow this process down, through public campaigns that emphasize traditional values as they pertain to energy consumption. As for me, I would be perfectly happy to continue walking around the School of Government with the lights turned off...



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