Last week, much of the news revolving around Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s diplomatic visit to China was focused on the human-rights concerns surrounding blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng. His developing case overshadowed some of the more ho-hum activities on the State Department’s agenda, such as successfully convincing China to sign on to several new “eco-partnership” projects — for instance, joining the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. Clinton launched the public-private initiative two years ago, and the premise of its mission statement, “to save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women, and combat climate change by creating a thriving global market for clean and efficient household cooking solutions,” may be well-meaning but in practice is patently ridiculous:

“This illustrates once again that the United States and China can and will work together in new ways and through many channels to address our common challenges on energy and the environment, two issues that transcend politics,” Clinton said at a ceremony marking the cookstove agreement. She did not address the Chen situation in her remarks. …

The total U.S. commitment to the cookstove project so far is $105 million. …

“By joining the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, China is taking an important step towards reducing the enormous health, gender, economic and environmental risks associated with inefficient and polluting cookstoves, both in China and in developing markets around the world,” the U.S. State Department said.

China will help establish global performance standards for cookstoves and work with domestic manufacturers to meet these standards. It also will launch an international stoves research center to create high-performing domestic stoves for global markets.

Many environmentalists are quite taken with the whimsical notion that prosperous societies are the world’s most dangerous polluters, and that, if we would all just commit to leading more simple, rustic lives with less technology, the planet would be better off — but they could not be more mistaken. Modern conveniences contribute to a level of efficiency that allow more people to live better lives using fewer resources, and free-market innovations and progress contribute to bettering the planet on a daily basis. People who aren’t worried about scratching out a bare-minimum survival level also have the luxury of choosing alternatives in considering how their actions will affect the planet. Wealthier societies are, in fact, healthier societies!

The World Health Organization estimates that there are more than 540,000 premature deaths in China every year as a result of 80 percent of households relying on ‘solid fuels’ (such as wood and dung) for their energy needs. But these people aren’t burning solid fuels because of a lack of “global performance standards for cookstoves” — they do it because they are veritable peasants living under the inescapable, crushing poverty of a totalitarian communist regime and have to resort to burning refuse to stay alive.

The root of the real problem here is, of course, communism — and perhaps, in the long term, shallow feel-good ties like “eco-partnerships” will eventually help to move China away from its evil communist ways toward a more open, free-market society. That’s why I think Chen Guangcheng’s story is an important one: only good can come from shedding light on the disgusting state of human rights in China and demonstrating to the world that America is a safe haven of freedom. I just hope the State Department isn’t operating under the delusion that promoting worldwide cookstove standards is going to be a penetrating, productive tool in lifting China’s peasant hordes out of poverty and misery.