The dystopic image of a gigantic electronic sign blasting a photograph of a beautiful sunset struck a deep chord in the global conscience. Even when the photo was exposed as an editorial hoax—it was in fact just a tourism advert, not a government campaign to make people living in the devastated landscape feel better—the gut wrenching feeling of shock never left those who saw it. Most news outlets refused to correct their stories because, even though it was a lie, it was somehow still true.
Why did this false image permeate so far into the infosphere? Certainly, the Western media’s predisposition toward apocalyptic Chinese narratives played a role, but that is only a part of it.
Truth is, China scares the crap out of us.
Everything America, Europe and the former Soviet Bloc have done to the planet, China has managed to do at a scale and pace former empires could only have dreamed. The Three Gorges Dam. Skyscrapers built in a matter of months. Nearly an entire nation lifted out of abject poverty in less than two generations. And it has all come at an unprecedented environmental cost.
Mega cities engulfed in a toxic haze where breathing kills. Places where recycled sewage water is the only safe water to drink. Beaches where the entire shoreline is draped in a squishy layer of algae and plastic.
With 1.3 billion consumers eager for their share of the planetary feast, China is the canary in the global coal mine. We can all feel the catastrophe coming and any hint of it causes us to stop, look, and think of nothing else but our own future of electronic suns.