BY DON C. BRUNELL
The United States is up to its neck in debt with our trading partners, and the red ink is rising. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, our trade deficit jumped $68.5 billion in January, 5.3 percent more than in December.
According to the government, rising oil prices and Americans' seemingly insatiable appetite for Chinese cell phones, clothing, textiles and shoes, coupled with Japanese cars and French wines, piled on to the deficit.
In the end, our country could set another record for trade imbalance this year, topping last year's $723.6 billion.
The question is how to start reducing this debt.
First, there are no walk-off home runs, but there are steps we can start taking.
For example, the same newspaper that carried the story about our trade deficit had an article on page 12 about warnings from China's director of the State Environmental Protection Administration. In a press conference, Zhou Shengxian warned that China must sharply improve its environmental protection, or it could face disaster after two decades of breakneck growth that poisoned its air, water and soil.
Speaking at a press conference, he admitted that China's cities are the world's smoggiest and pointed out that more than half of China's 21,000 chemical companies are near the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, which supplies drinking water for tens of millions of people. An accident, he warned, could have "disastrous consequences."
The same is true in eastern Europe where the famed "Blue Danube River" is polluted with raw sewerage and industrial waste. The river is fed from crystal clear streams flowing out of the Austrian Alps, but by the time it dumps into the Black Sea in Romania, black is the operative color.
Five major rivers and 165 million people in 17 countries pour pollution into the Danube. The river absorbs raw sewage from cities, pesticides and chemicals from farmers' fields, waste from factories, and bilge oil from ships, and much of it comes from the war-torn former Yugoslavia.
India has more than 20 cities with populations of at least 1 million, and some of them-including New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata-are among the world's most polluted. Urban air quality ranks among the world's worst. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency-of the 3 million premature deaths in the world that occur each year due to outdoor and indoor air pollution, the highest number occur in India.
How does this connect to our trade deficit?
The United States has cutting edge pollution abatement technology, and the experts to assist governments around the world to make their air, water and soil cleaner. In fact, our nation has been the testing grounds for the last 35 years as we've taken major steps to clean up toxic sites, surface and ground water, reduce waste, save energy, and cleanse our air.
We are positioned to sell billions of dollars worth of clean-up equipment and expertise to these countries as they use their new wealth-gained largely from us-to mitigate the unintended consequences of their explosive economic growth.
Washington, the nation's leading exporting state, has the cutting edge technology and practical know-how to go to China, India or Romania and build treatment facilities. We just have to figure out better ways to market those capabilities to our trading partners.
In the end, by focusing on environmental clean-up as an emerging industry, the United States would not only be better off financially, but the world would be healthier and safer as well.
Don C. Brunell is President of the Association of Washington Business.