But China is now also one of the world's largest consumers, straining already limited resources and pushing prices up. China increased oil consumption by 11 percent in 2004 and is now the second largest oil consumer after the United States.
Mastny says some 240 million Chinese people are now in the consumer class, buying the type of goods and services that most people in Western nations purchase. While that number is the same as in the United States, it represents only 19 percent of the total Chinese population.
"The potential number of Chinese people who could become consumers in the future is enormous," Mastny said. "Think about what that means in terms of availability of resources and the environmental impact."
Take cars, for example. In the 1980s there were virtually no private cars in China. In 2003 there were 14 million. In 2015 China will have an estimated 150 million cars.
"This is unsustainable," Mastny said. "We're not blaming China. It's just that if all the countries that are entering the consumer society try to emulate the patterns of the United States and other countries, clearly there is not going to be enough [resources] to go around."
China's economic boom has come at a steep cost to its environment. Land needed for industrial development is quickly being gobbled up. China has about 20 percent of the world's population, but only 7 percent of the world's farmable land. At least a fifth of the country is already desert.
Scores of rivers have dried up in northern China over the past 20 years. More than 75 percent of river waters are not suitable for drinking or fishing.
China's cities are an environmental disaster, since urban infrastructure has not kept up with the influx of people. Many cities face serious sanitation problems, with sewage and wastewater going straight into rivers.
Large cities, including Beijing, are smothered in smog. Old and weak people are often warned to stay indoors. Between 2001 and 2020 almost 600,000 people in China are expected to suffer premature death every year due to urban air pollution.
Much of the air pollution stems from China's overwhelming reliance on low-quality, high-sulfur coal as its main source of energy. Coal makes up almost three-quarters of the country's energy needs. Acid rains that fall on 30 percent of China's cities are blamed on the burning of coal.
"Public health, social stability, and continued economic growth are all at risk as China continues to pollute its way to prosperity," said Elizabeth Economy, of the Council of Foreign Relations. Economy is the author of The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future.
China also has a significant impact on the regional and global environment. The burning of coal is responsible for about half of the world's sulfur dioxide emissions and causes acid rains throughout East Asia.
"We even see huge brown clouds of sulfur making their way across the ocean," Mastny, the Worldwatch Institute project director, said. "The haze in L.A. is not just from L.A. anymore."
Free E-Mail News Updates
Sign up for our Inside National Geographic newsletter. Every two weeks we'll send you our top stories and pictures (see sample).
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES