Environmental economists talk about the relationship between affluence and environmental values – the idea that a society’s desire for things like clean air and water are low when folks are poor, but as basic needs for food and shelter are satisfied, environmental desires rise. It’s captured notionally in the “Environmental Kuznets Curve”. It’s not a perfect tool (lots of argument over the cases in which it doesn’t seem to have much explanatory power – see the Wiki page for a good discussion), but I think it’s a useful tool.
Which is a circular way of approaching the current discussion in China over Three Gorges Dam. Elizabeth Economy at CFR explains the Chinese government’s willingness to acknowledge the dam’s enormous problems:
It has only taken ninety years, but China’s leaders have finally admitted that the Three Gorges Dam is a disaster. With Wen Jiabao at the helm, the State Council noted last week that there were “urgent problems” concerning the relocation effort, the environment and disaster prevention that would now require an infusion of US$23 billion on top of the $45 billion spent already.
This strikes me as a project that was planned and begun when China was well down on the EKC, when of course it made sense to build a big giant dam regardless of those pesky environmental (and other) consequences because it would help make them less poor. As China’s affluence drags it up the curve, remorse is setting in.