Published: August 5, 2008

For so long now, there has been almost nothing but bad news about the likely fate of gorillas. They have been the victims of deforestation and incessant warfare in Central Africa. They have been hunted for meat. They are susceptible to the Ebola virus. Estimates in the 1980s suggested that there were roughly 100,000 western lowland gorillas — one of four subspecies. Since then, that number was thought to have declined by half.

But a rigorous new census of western lowland gorillas conducted by scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society has found as many as 125,000 of them living in two northern regions of the Congo Republic — more than double the number thought to exist elsewhere throughout their range.

This news is that rarest of things: a second chance for a critically endangered species. The number itself — and the scientists’ confidence in it — is the result of an intensive search of inaccessible rain forests and swamps. It also resulted from counting gorilla nests, rather than the secretive creatures themselves.

These gorillas have been protected by their remoteness and by the inaccessibility of their habitat. But remoteness will ultimately be no deterrent to the threats that have decimated them elsewhere. This extraordinary discovery should be a powerful incentive to create new protected areas to help western lowland gorillas the way other national parks in the Congo Republic have already done. But it will take more than that. Without careful management of the forest resources that surround protected areas — and strict enforcement — a national park is nothing more than a line on a map.

This news is an utter exception to the fate of primates across the globe. A recent, comprehensive survey, presented at the same conference as the news of the gorilla census, indicates that more than half of primate species face extinction. Scientists are finding new species — 53 since 2000 — but too often finding a new species simply means having a chance to watch it die away.


Published: July 29, 2008

When science is testing new ideas, the result is often a two-papers-forward-one-paper-back intellectual tussle among competing research teams.

When the work touches on issues that worry the public, affect the economy or polarize politics, the news media and advocates of all stripes dive in. Under nonstop scrutiny, conflicting findings can make news coverage veer from one extreme to another, resulting in a kind of journalistic whiplash for the public.

This has been true for decades in health coverage. But lately the phenomenon has been glaringly apparent on the global warming beat.

Discordant findings have come in quick succession. How fast is Greenland shedding ice? Did human-caused warming wipe out frogs in the American tropics? Has warming strengthened hurricanes? Have the oceans stopped warming? These questions endure even as the basic theory of a rising human influence on climate has steadily solidified: accumulating greenhouse gases will warm the world, erode ice sheets, raise seas and have big impacts on biology and human affairs.

Scientists see persistent disputes as the normal stuttering journey toward improved understanding of how the world works. But many fear that the herky-jerky trajectory is distracting the public from the undisputed basics and blocking change. “One of the things that troubles me most is that the rapid-fire publication of unsettled results in highly visible venues creates the impression that the scientific community has no idea what’s going on,” said W. Tad Pfeffer, an expert on Greenland’s ice sheets at the University of Colorado.

“Each new paper negates or repudiates something emphatically asserted in a previous paper,” Dr. Pfeffer said. “The public is obviously picking up on this not as an evolution of objective scientific understanding but as a proliferation of contradictory opinions.”

Several experts on the media and risk said that one result could be public disengagement with the climate issue just as experts are saying ever more forcefully that sustained attention and action are needed to limit the worst risks. Recent polls in the United States and Britain show that the public remains substantially divided and confused over what is happening and what to do. Some environmentalists have blamed energy-dependent industries and the news media for stalemates on climate policy, arguing that they perpetuate a false sense of uncertainty about the basic problem.

But scientists themselves sometimes fail to carefully discriminate between what is well understood and what remains uncertain, said Kimberly Thompson, an associate professor of risk analysis and decision science at Harvard.

And, Dr. Thompson said, the flow of scientific findings from laboratory (or glacier) to journal to news report is fraught with “reinforcing loops” that can amplify small distortions.

For example, she said, after scientists learn that accurate, but nuanced, statements are often left out of news accounts, they may pre-emptively oversimplify their description of some complex finding. Better, but more difficult, Dr. Thompson said, would be to work with the reporter to characterize the weight of evidence behind the new advance and seek to place it in context.

To support clarity, Stephen H. Schneider, a climatologist at Stanford, helped create a glossary defining what is meant by phrases like “very likely” (greater than 90 percent confidence) in the reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In a news media universe where specialized reporting is declining and a Web mash-up of instant opinion and information is emerging, Dr. Schneider said, it is ever more important for scientists to take responsibility for communicating in ways that stick, while sticking with the facts.

Dr. Thompson said climate science presented particularly tough challenges, given the long time lag before the worst effects kick in and the persistent uncertainty about the likelihood of worst-case outcomes. She said the news media sometimes overplayed the uncertainty by balancing opposing views in a story without characterizing the overall level of confidence in either side. And sometimes they do the opposite, sacrificing accuracy for impact, she said.

“Words that we as scientists use to express uncertainty routinely get dropped out to make stories have more punch and be stronger,” she said, adding that those words are important to include because “they convey meaning to readers not only in the story at hand, but more generally about science being less precise than is typically conveyed.”

Public-relations offices at leading scientific journals and hubs for research also could do more to avoid overplaying incremental research results, she and several other experts said.

Donald Kennedy, a Stanford professor emeritus who was the editor in chief of the journal Science from 2000 until earlier this year, said the flow of papers on climate, glaciology and relevant ocean sciences greatly increased in his tenure. “I do think we grew more sensitive to the need for critical review of papers likely to initiate or continue the kind of controversy that results in a whiplash effect,” Dr. Kennedy said.

Roger A. Pielke Jr., a political scientist at the University of Colorado, warned that the focus by the public and media on the stream of evolving climate science could distract from the need for policies now that made sense regardless of uncertainties. “The example of reducing losses to hurricanes is a good one,” Dr. Pielke said, “where the actions that make the most sense are really independent of the debate over greenhouse gases and hurricane behavior.”

“The same might be said for many health studies on fat, coffee, carbs,” he added. “The lesson from experts is to eat a balanced diet and get plenty of exercise,” which stays the same despite the various disputes.

He said his advice for scientists who wanted to “dampen the whiplash effect” was to “discuss the ‘So what?’ implications of the work explicitly, rather than leaving that step to advocates or politicians, or reporters.”

Increasingly, scientists are taking their message straight to the public. Realclimate.org, Climatepolicy.org and Climateethics.org are among Web sites where issues are explored in an ongoing way, rather than in response to news releases and scientific papers. Other new Web ventures, like ClimateCentral.org at Princeton and the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, focus on improving media coverage.

Robert J. Brulle , a sociologist at Drexel University, said it was hard to be optimistic about such efforts. “In this public sphere,” he said, “it is assumed that the better argument, backed up with solid scientific evidence, will prevail.” He said many studies had shown that people tended to sift sources of information to reinforce existing views.

Morris Ward, the editor of the Yale effort (yaleclimatemediaforum.org), says that it will be up to the public to choose to be better informed on momentous issues that do not fit the normal template for news or clash with their ingrained worldviews. “At some point,” he said, “the public at large has to step up to the plate in terms of scientific and policy literacy, in terms of commitment to education and strong and effective political leadership, and in terms of their own general self-improvement.”

Published: June 26, 2008

BRUSSELS: The European Union reached a landmark agreement Thursday to cap emissions from aircraft, raising the stakes in an increasingly ferocious battle with the United States over how to regulate global greenhouse gases.

In the first requirement of its kind, all airlines arriving or leaving from airports located in the EU would be obliged to buy some pollution credits beginning in 2012, joining other industrial polluters that trade in the European emissions market. That includes non-European carriers like American Airlines and Singapore Airlines.

Including airlines in that system is the boldest move yet by the EU to stamp its environmental policies on the rest of the world.

For consumers, such rules could mean further fare increases in the wake of a steady rise in fuel surcharges imposed by airlines – a trend that looks set to continue. On Thursday the president of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries warned that oil prices could reach levels of up to $170 a barrel this summer.

“At the end of the day it’s the people who fly” who will pay more under the new system, warned Anthony Concil, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, the industry’s biggest lobbying group.

U.S. officials immediately warned that the requirements probably would be illegal under the convention governing international civil aviation.

“The mandatory application of the European Emissions Trading System to U.S. airlines and airlines of other non-European countries is, we think, both contrary to international law and ultimately unworkable,” said Robert Gianfranceschi, a spokesman at the U.S. Mission to the EU in Brussels.

The compromise was reached Thursday by representatives of the European Parliament and by EU governments represented by Slovenia, which currently holds the revolving presidency of the EU. It states that the EU “should continue to seek an agreement on global measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from aviation,” according to a copy of the text seen by the International Herald Tribune.

But EU plan “may serve as a model for the use of emissions trading worldwide,” the draft law states.

The proposal still needs the assent of the full European Parliament and individual EU governments. But people involved in the negotiations said those steps were likely to be a formality, given the political agreement.

Including airlines also is a victory for European regulators, who are seeking to include more polluters in the system. That could help blunt criticism of the EU by those who see it as unfairly targeting heavy industry. The carbon trading market, which was started in 2005, caps the overall amount of pollution emitted by industries like electric utilities and steel makers in the EU.

Concil, the IATA spokesman, said the costs to the airline industry of buying permits to comply with European emissions regulations would be more than $4 billion. Imposing new, costly rules on airlines was “incredible” at a time when the industry is expected to lose more than $6.1 billion this year, he said.

Opponents of the plan argue that it will be an ineffective regional attempt to tackle a problem that requires a global solution. European airlines and charter companies also have said they would be at disadvantage to overseas competitors that operate fewer European routes.

Giovanni Bisignani, the director general of IATA, took out full-page advertisements in newspapers this week calling the plans “crazy” and saying that support for the proposals by European governments meant that they had “lost the plot.”

Bisignani said that the aviation industry already was doing enough to reduce its carbon footprint by investing in new technology and using less fuel. He said negotiations on the creation of an emissions trading program for the world’s airlines should be conducted by the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, a United Nations body.

Including airlines in the current European system “will only invite international legal battles,” he warned.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, which first proposed the rules, has said a global deal would take too long for Europe. EU officials were determined to put forward their own plans, which would cover the emissions from aircraft flying both legs of journeys to and from major destinations like London, Paris and Frankfurt.

Even so, the agreement reached Thursday reduced the chances of international disagreement, said one person closely involved in the negotiations. He would not be identified in order to allow EU governments to make an official announcement about the accord in the coming days.

He said that if other countries introduced approximately similar measures, the EU would drop its jurisdiction covering emissions on flights leaving non-EU countries like the United States, to avoid double regulation.

Most of the initial permits would be allocated to airlines by the European authorities, but airlines would be obliged to buy 15 percent in auctions. A decision on whether airlines would be obliged to buy more permits in later years could be made in coming months depending on negotiations on overhauling the European trading system and the price of oil, he said.

The aviation industry in general has long sought to play down its impact on the environment, saying it accounts for just 2 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. Environmentalists say that measure underestimates the true impact of flying.

Aircraft release other gases and vapor trails at high altitudes, meaning the CO2 impact from aviation should be multiplied up to four times and could equal up to 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe, James Leape, the director general for the World Wide Fund for Nature, said at a conference on aviation in April.

Concerns also surround aviation because the industry is growing so rapidly – driven in large part by the expansion of low-cost carriers.

Published: May 1, 2008

After decades of research that sought, and found, evidence of a human influence on the earth’s climate, climatologists are beginning to shift to a new and similarly daunting enterprise: creating decade-long forecasts for climate, just as meteorologists routinely generate weeklong forecasts for weather.

One of the first attempts to look ahead a decade, using computer simulations and measurements of ocean temperatures, predicts a slight cooling of Europe and North America, probably related to shifting currents and patterns in the oceans.

The team that generated the forecast, whose members come from two German ocean and climate research centers, acknowledged that it was a preliminary effort. But in a short paper published in the May 1 issue of the journal Nature, they said their modeling method was able to reasonably replicate climate patterns in those regions in recent decades, providing some confidence in their prediction for the next one.

The authors stressed that the pause in warming represented only a temporary blunting of the centuries of rising temperatures that scientists have projected if carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases continue accumulating in the atmosphere.

“We’re learning that internal climate variability is important and can mask the effects of human-induced global change,” said the paper’s lead author, Noel Keenlyside of the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences in Kiel, Germany. “In the end this gives more confidence in the long-term projections.”

The new study focused on relationships between short-term climate trends and a system of currents in the Atlantic Ocean, called the meridional overturning circulation, which undergo periodic changes. The predictions were made by repeatedly running a simulation of the global climate and adjusting conditions in the simulated oceans to match temperature measurements.

To get a computer-generated simulation of the climate for the 1990s, for example, the model ran from the 1950s through the 1980s, with sea temperatures adjusted to reflect the real world, then ran without further inputs for 10 more years.

The model is a rough replica of conditions, the scientists said. While it reliably reproduced climate patterns in Europe and North America, the model could not replicate patterns over central Africa, for example.

In e-mail exchanges, several climate experts not associated with the study expressed a variety of views on the new cooling forecast. But they agreed that the work served the important function of at least trying to chart what will assuredly be a winding climatic journey toward a generally warmer world.

Other researchers, including NASA scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., reported separately on April 21 that a slowly fluctuating oscillation in Pacific Ocean temperatures had shifted into its cool phase, a condition that is also thought to exert an overall temporary cooling of the climate.

These natural variations can also amplify warming, and that is likely to happen in future decades on and off as well, experts say.

The global climate will continue to be influenced in any particular decade by a mix of natural variability and the building greenhouse effect, said Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. He said efforts to build forecasts by mixing modeling and measurements were vital in a world with rising populations in places where poverty leads to vulnerability from climate-related threats like flooding and famine.

It should also help the public and policy makers understand that a cool phase does not mean the overall theory of human-driven warming is flawed, Dr. Trenberth said.

“Too many think global warming means monotonic relentless warming everywhere year after year,” Dr. Trenberth said. “It does not happen that way.”

Published: April 26, 2008

Cod caught off Norway is shipped to China to be turned into filets, then shipped back to Norway for sale. Argentine lemons fill supermarket shelves on the Citrus Coast of Spain, as local lemons rot on the ground. Half of Europe’s peas are grown and packaged in Kenya.

In the United States, FreshDirect proclaims kiwi season has expanded to “All year!” now that Italy has become the world’s leading supplier of New Zealand’s national fruit, taking over in the Southern Hemisphere’s winter.

Food has moved around the world since Europeans brought tea from China, but never at the speed or in the amounts it has over the last few years. Consumers in not only the richest nations but, increasingly, the developing world expect food whenever they crave it, with no concession to season or geography.

Increasingly efficient global transport networks make it practical to bring food before it spoils from distant places where labor costs are lower. And the penetration of mega-markets in nations from China to Mexico with supply and distribution chains that gird the globe — like Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Tesco — has accelerated the trend.

But the movable feast comes at a cost: pollution — especially carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas — from transporting the food.

Under longstanding trade agreements, fuel for international freight carried by sea and air is not taxed. Now, many economists, environmental advocates and politicians say it is time to make shippers and shoppers pay for the pollution, through taxes or other measures.

“We’re shifting goods around the world in a way that looks really bizarre,” said Paul Watkiss, an Oxford University economist who wrote a recent European Union report on food imports.

He noted that Britain, for example, imports — and exports — 15,000 tons of waffles a year, and similarly exchanges 20 tons of bottled water with Australia. More important, Mr. Watkiss said, “we are not paying the environmental cost of all that travel.”

Europe is poised to change that. This year the European Commission in Brussels announced that all freight-carrying flights into and out of the European Union would be included in the trading bloc’s emissions-trading program by 2012, meaning permits will have to be purchased for the pollution they generate.

The commission is negotiating with the global shipping organization, the International Maritime Organization, over various alternatives to reduce greenhouse gases. If there is no solution by year’s end, sea freight will also be included in Europe’s emissions-trading program, said Barbara Helferrich, a spokeswoman for the European Commission’s Environment Directorate. “We’re really ready to have everyone reduce — or pay in some way,” she said.

The European Union, the world’s leading food importer, has increased imports 20 percent in the last five years. The value of fresh fruit and vegetables imported by the United States, in second place, nearly doubled from 2000 to 2006.

Under a little-known international treaty called the Convention on International Civil Aviation, signed in Chicago in 1944 to help the fledgling airline industry, fuel for international travel and transport of goods, including food, is exempt from taxes, unlike trucks, cars and buses. There is also no tax on fuel used by ocean freighters.

Proponents say ending these breaks could help ensure that producers and consumers pay the environmental cost of increasingly well-traveled food.

The food and transport industries say the issue is more complicated. The debate has put some companies on the defensive, including Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket chain, known as a vocal promoter of green initiatives.

Some of those companies say that they are working to limit greenhouse gases produced by their businesses but that the question is how to do it. They oppose regulation and new taxes and, partly in an effort to head them off, are advocating consumer education instead.

Tesco, for instance, is introducing a labeling system that will let consumers assess a product’s carbon footprint.

Some foods that travel long distances may actually have an environmental advantage over local products, like flowers grown in the tropics instead of in energy-hungry European greenhouses.

“This may be as radical for environmental consuming as putting a calorie count on the side of packages to help people who want to lose weight,” a spokesman for Tesco, Trevor Datson, said.

Better transportation networks have sharply reduced the time required to ship food abroad. For instance, improved roads in Africa have helped cut the time it takes for goods to go from farms on that continent to stores in Europe to 4 days, compared with 10 days not too many years ago.

And with far cheaper labor costs in African nations, Morocco and Egypt have displaced Spain in just a few seasons as important suppliers of tomatoes and salad greens to central Europe.

“If there’s an opportunity for cheaper production in terms of logistics or supply it will be taken,” said Ed Moorehouse, a consultant to the food industry in London, adding that some of these shifts also create valuable jobs in the developing world.

The economics are compelling. For example, Norwegian cod costs a manufacturer $1.36 a pound to process in Europe, but only 23 cents a pound in Asia.

The ability to transport food cheaply has given rise to new and booming businesses.

“In the past few years there have been new plantations all over the center of Italy,” said Antonio Baglioni, export manager of Apofruit, one of Italy’s largest kiwi exporters.

Kiwis from Sanifrutta, another Italian exporter, travel by sea in refrigerated containers: 18 days to the United States, 28 to South Africa and more than a month to reach New Zealand.

Some studies have calculated that as little as 3 percent of emissions from the food sector are caused by transportation. But Mr. Watkiss, the Oxford economist, said the percentage was growing rapidly. Moreover, imported foods generate more emissions than generally acknowledged because they require layers of packaging and, in the case of perishable food, refrigeration.

Britain, with its short growing season and powerful supermarket chains, imports 95 percent of its fruit and more than half of its vegetables. Food accounts for 25 percent of truck shipments in Britain, according to the British environmental agency, DEFRA.

Mr. Datson of Tesco acknowledged that there were environmental consequences to the increased distances food travels, but he said his company was merely responding to consumer appetites. “The offer and range has been growing because our customers want things like snap peas year round,” Mr. Datson said. “We don’t see our job as consumer choice editing.”

Global supermarket chains like Tesco and Carrefour, spreading throughout Eastern Europe and Asia, cater to a market for convenience foods, like washed lettuce and cut vegetables. They also help expand the reach of global brands.

Pringles potato chips, for example, are now sold in more than 180 countries, though they are manufactured in only a handful of places, said Kay Puryear, a spokeswoman for Procter & Gamble, which makes Pringles.

Proponents of taxing transportation fuel say it would end such distortions by changing the economic calculus.

“Food is traveling because transport has become so cheap in a world of globalization,” said Frederic Hague, head of Norway’s environmental group Bellona. “If it was just a matter of processing fish cheaper in China, I’d be happy with it traveling there. The problem is pollution.”

The European Union has led the world in proposals to incorporate environmental costs into the price consumers pay for food.

Switzerland, which does not belong to the E.U., already taxes trucks that cross its borders.

In addition to bringing airlines under its emission-trading program, Brussels is also considering a freight charge specifically tied to the environmental toll from food shipping to shift the current calculus that “transporting freight is cheaper than producing goods locally,” the commission said.

The problem is measuring the emissions. The fact that food travels farther does not necessarily mean more energy is used. Some studies have shown that shipping fresh apples, onions and lamb from New Zealand might produce lower emissions than producing the goods in Europe, where — for example — storing apples for months would require refrigeration.

But those studies were done in New Zealand, and the food travel debate is inevitably intertwined with economic interests.

Last month, Tony Burke, the Australian minister for agriculture, fisheries and forestry, said that carbon footprinting and labeling food miles — the distance food has traveled — was “nothing more than protectionism.”

Shippers have vigorously fought the idea of levying a transportation fuel tax, noting that if some countries repealed those provisions of the Chicago Convention, it would wreak havoc with global trade, creating an uneven patchwork of fuel taxes.

It would also give countries that kept the exemption a huge trade advantage.

Some European retailers hope voluntary green measures like Tesco’s labeling — set to begin later this year — will slow the momentum for new taxes and regulations.

The company will begin testing the labeling system, starting with products like orange juice and laundry detergent.

Customers may be surprised by what they discover.

Box Fresh Organics, a popular British brand, advertises that 85 percent of its vegetables come from the British Midlands. But in winter, in its standard basket, only the potatoes and carrots are from Britain. The grapes are South African, the fennel is from Spain and the squash is Italian.

Today’s retailers could not survive if they failed to offer such variety, Mr. Moorehouse, the British food consultant, said.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “we’ve educated our customers to expect cheap food, that they can go to the market to get whatever they want, whenever they want it. All year. 24/7.”

Daniele Pinto contributed reporting.

Published: April 24, 2008

SHUANG MIAO, China — Li Rifu packed a lot of emotional freight into his first car. Mr. Li, a 46-year-old farmer and watch repairman, and his wife secretly hoped a car would improve the odds of their sons, then 22 and 24, of finding girlfriends, marrying and producing grandchildren.

A year and a half later, the plan seems to be working. After Mr. Li purchased his Geely King Kong for the equivalent of $9,000, both sons quickly found girlfriends. His older son has already married, after a short courtship that included a lot of cruising in the family car, where the couple stole their first furtive kisses.

“It’s more enclosed, more clandestine,” said Li Fengyang, Mr. Li’s elder son, during a recent family dinner, as his bride blushed deeply.

Western attention to China’s growing appetite for automobiles usually focuses on its link to mounting dependence on foreign oil, escalating demand on natural resources like iron ore, and increasing emissions of global warming gases.

But millions of Chinese families, like millions of American families, do not make those connections. For them, a car is something both simpler and more complicated.

J. D. Power & Associates calculates that four-fifths of all new cars sold in China are bought by people who have never bought a car before — not even a used car. That number has remained at that level for each of the last four years. By contrast, less than a tenth of new cars in the United States are purchased by people who have never bought a new car before, and fewer than 1 percent of all new cars are sold to people who have never bought a new or used car before.

China’s explosive growth in first-time buyers is the driving force behind the country’s record car sales, up more than eightfold since 2000. It is the reason China just passed Japan to become the world’s second-largest car market, behind the United States.

One change in Chinese attitudes is already clear and likely to have broad implications worldwide: even first-time buyers are becoming more sophisticated and want better cars.

China’s domestic carmakers like Geely and Chery, once feared by Detroit and European automakers as eventual exporters to Western markets, have watched their sales gain modestly, stagnate or drop in the last year — even while the overall Chinese market has continued to grow roughly 20 percent a year.

The beneficiaries have been the joint ventures of multinationals that sell cars here that are designed overseas, like the Buick Excelle, Volkswagen Jetta and Toyota Camry. Practically every auto expert had expected the multinationals to lose market share rapidly to low-cost domestic automakers.

Instead, Chinese car buyers, including first-time buyers, have become more discriminating about the comfort, styling and reliability of the cars they buy. As a result, instead of planning to conquer overseas markets, local manufacturers are having to redouble their efforts in this market.

“Customers are moving up, they want the bigger, more established brands,” said Michael Dunne, the managing director for China at J. D. Power. “They’d rather wait, save and buy higher on the ladder instead of buying a smaller car.”

Back in the fall of 2006, the Li family did not want to wait, especially Mr. Li.

When the Li family bought their car, they agreed to extensive interviews with each family member in Shuang Miao, a rural village in east-central China’s Zhejiang Province. They later agreed to follow-up telephone interviews over the last year and a half and then a long family dinner in Shuang Miao last week to review their experience as first-time car owners. What emerges is a portrait of the rapidly expanding role of cars in the fast-changing ways in which China’s people socialize, marry, raise families and, possibly, die.

Li Rifu was so excited on the day that he bought his first car in September 2006 that he woke before dawn. He fixed breakfast for his wife and two grown sons, then climbed on his white motorcycle for a short trip he had been anticipating for many years.

Mr. Li had spent most of his life here in his ancestral farm village, nestled at the base of a steep hill. The embodiment of China’s version of the American dream, he is largely self-taught. He learned to fix watches, and got a job as a foreman in a coal mine in nearby Anhui Province by fixing the mine owner’s watch. After saving some money, he came home to start a successful business that now employs five peasants raising flowers for landscapers.

That September morning, Mr. Li rode down the dirt alleys of his village and over a muddy, bamboo-lined stream where local women washed clothing on rocks jutting out into the sluggish current. He reached a four-lane paved road, then a six-lane road, and puttered on to his destination in the nearby city of Taizhou: a car dealership.

Over the course of the half-hour journey, Mr. Li was too excited to heed the persistent and unexplained pain at the base of his back.

He had really wanted a black car. But his sons preferred white, saying that it was a more popular choice for their generation, and Mr. Li had given in before he ever set out for the dealership.

“Without this car, my two sons wouldn’t be able to find wives — the girls would not marry them,” he said, recalling that when he courted his wife in the early 1980s, he needed only a bicycle. He ruined a half-dozen tires carrying her on the back of the bicycle for their outings.

Mr. Li took a white Geely King Kong compact sedan for a short test drive, then returned to the dealership and climbed three flights of stairs to a cashier’s office. He pulled a stack of currency thicker than a brick out of a black shoulder bag and paid the equivalent of $9,000 for the car; he would later pay an additional $1,000 for a license plate.

“The next few days, everyone will want to drive it,” he said proudly, a prediction that proved true. Mr. Li talked of his dream of someday driving across China to visit Beijing and Tibet, while acknowledging he would need more driver’s education classes before those days-long journeys would be possible.

Car ownership helped Mr. Li bid for bigger contracts for more flowers. “My customers said, ‘Wow, you came to visit me in a car’ — it puts the negotiation on a whole different level,” he said.

Several months after he bought the car, Mr. Li’s elder son, Fengyang, did indeed find a girlfriend, Jin Ya, a beautiful young saleswoman for China Mobile, a cellphone service. In the space of five months, they had gone to the local marriage registry and been legally wed. Today, both say they want a child someday.

At the family dinner this week, Ms. Jin bridled at the idea that young women in China consider a man to be marriage material only if he can take them on dates in a car.

“Not me, not me!” she said passionately, before reluctantly acknowledging that “other girls do say that you need a car.”

But as their Geely King Kong was bringing the Li family new joy — Mr. Li’s increased business, Fengyang and Ya’s courtship — tragedy struck: Li Rifu and his wife, Chen Yanfe, were each found to have cancer.

Ms. Chen’s reproductive tract cancer has gone into remission after $7,000 in medical bills. But Mr. Li’s fist-size malignant prostate cancer tumor — which turned out to be the cause of the mysterious back pain that was bothering him when he first bought the car — has resisted two operations and four rounds of chemotherapy. The cost: more than $40,000.

With payments from the local health insurance fund capped at $4,300 a person per year, Mr. Li has had to sell many of his possessions, and still he has had to go into debt. He wore a cap to the family dinner this week, self-conscious about the loss of his hair from chemotherapy.

In two weeks, he will go to a leading hospital in Shanghai for more surgery, a five-hour drive to the north, followed by two more rounds of chemotherapy. But he will not be going in the family car: he sold it for nearly $8,000 last year to help cover his medical expenses.

It is a common occurrence in this country, nominally communist, but with little or no safety net. While many families are scrambling into the middle class and buying cars, others are falling out of the middle class because of business reversals, medical bills or other problems, and are unable to buy replacements for their first car.

Zhu Jinyung, a machinery repairman who lives close to Shuang Miao, said that his family had bought a cheap domestic car in 1994 after enjoying initial success in the plastic injection molding business.

“The business didn’t work out,” and the car had to be sold, he said.

Sadly, the Li family has known new tragedy recently. Their younger son, Fengwei, had also found a girlfriend with the help of the family car, the daughter of a manager at a large factory, an impressive person to Li Rifu. But the girlfriend’s father was killed two weeks ago when a construction crane at the factory accidentally dropped its load on him after a steel pin broke.

Despite it all, Li Rifu tries to remain optimistic. He now dreams of regaining his health, earning back the money he has spent on medical care and then — like a growing number of his countrymen — buying a bigger, more impressive car than the Geely compact he had to sell.

“If I get another car,” he said, “I’ll get a better-quality car, with even nicer seats and better steering.”