A Good Book About China’s Environment

Today I finished reading Jonathan Watts’ When a Billion Chinese Jump, a book about China’s environment, and it’s problems. It’s good. It points to China’s place at the center of a lot of global environmental problems and the challenges of fixing them. Of course, climate change is a big one, but also water shortages and contamination, biodiversity loss, and deforestation. More interesting though than a list of problems is how Chinese-ness impacts the way they have been created and might be solved.

Watt’s draws a parallel between Confucian and Daoist ideas about the environment. Confucianism sees nature as something to be controlled and utilized, Daoism something wild, powerful, and beautiful to be appreciated and left to it’s own. The prevailing view has been Confucian. Perhaps nowhere is the human drive to impose it’s will on nature been more apparent than China.

Nothing epitomizes this drive like the Great Leap Forward, when China built thousands of dams and sent work teams to convert deserts, swamps, and forests into farmland. In one extreme example, work teams in Xinjiang coated glaciers with coal dust to speed melting and provide more water for farming. Since then many of the dams built in the 50s have collapsed, killing thousands and destroying villages, and farming has depleted the quality of soil and depleted water resources.

The Confucian attitude is also part of the Communist Party’s faith in engineering. Massive projects like the railway to Tibet and the Three Gorges dam are just the most quoted examples. Watts cites a retired engineer who proposed using nuclear bombs to blast a hole in the Himalayas to allow moisture from India to pass into China. Though that plan has been abandoned, China is moving ahead with a massive plan to divert water thousands of meters from the wet south to the dry north in a series of canals and pipelines.

In some area’s faith in engineering has benefits. China devotes huge amounts of resources to renewable energy development and implementation, and they are building several full-scale eco-cities. Some of the most interesting vignettes in the book center of Watt’s trips to a few these experimental developments in the North-east. Many aim to create cities out of nothing, centered around the relocation of a major polluting industrial plant to a new green location. What used to be a pollution run-off zone outside Tianjin is on the way to becoming a sustainable model-city, with 20% of it’s energy coming from renewable, rain-catchment systems, light-rail, and walkable,mixed-use development.

Another site up the coast will, if all goes to plan, be one of the worlds 20 largest ports. Caofeidian will be home to newly designed, cleaner and more efficient, industrial processing plants for some of China’s biggest steal, chemical, and energy companies. It will also have all the hallmarks of green development, from public transit to water and energy savings. The big catch is that most of these places are still plans and many are having trouble attracting residents and businesses.

Watts rightfully decries this approach as missing the big picture. The Chinese are focused on top-down mandate to solve a problem that is at bottom about human behavior. Over-consumption is the source of every environmental problem, and China is not only ignoring but encouraging more consumption. My own experience confirms consumerism in China as a pervading and deep-seated cultural passion, unique in that the desire to buy for buying’s sake is almost universal. But beyond individual attitudes the government, for all it’s environmental effort, does not even try to limit consumption. The use of resources on every front is projected to go up.

Perhaps the most salient example of the push and pull of consumption and conservation is energy. It’s been said before that China is the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, mainly because 70% of it’s energy comes from coal, and that the government has no plan to cut back either total emissions or coal burning. The government instead has chosen to improve efficiency, pledging to produce less carbon per unit of GDP. So while China leads the world in green energy supply and progressively improves the quality of their coal plants they continue to be a worse and worse polluter.

Another major challenge that Watts points to is the failure of Chinese governance. China lacks strong and consistent legal enforcement, meaning polluters can often buy, or white-wash, their way out of trouble and those that are affected or want to change the system are easily marginalized. One of the most poignant quotes in the book is from Pan Yue, a deputy environment minister, “The more I engaged in environmental protection, the more I understood the importance of democracy and the rule of law.”

There is a history of environmental activism in China, particularly after 1989 when politics was no longer an acceptable outlet for progressive action. Today there are a growing number of NGOs, authors, journalists and lawyers who work outside the system. Ma Jun, who pushes for transparency and publishes an online pollution map is an example. Yu Dan, a pop confucian scholar, and Chen Jiqun, who’s book Wolf Totem won the Man Asian Prize, are others.

The problem is that their influence is curtailed. Some of the most vocal critics have been jailed or beaten and when comments push to far they are silenced. But perhaps the biggest barrier is that the most effective tool, the law, is not available. China has some very strong anti-pollution regulations, they just simply aren’t followed.

Everything in China is big, and environmental problems are no different. But for all China’s problems, Watts doesn’t bash China. Part of his critique traces how the rest of the worlds choices are part of the problem. Over-consumption is a global phenomenon, and China as the worlds producer bears the brunt of the environmental consequences. Our desire for cheap stuff, and the ability of the Chinese system to look the other way, makes China the dirty end of a global system.

All told, Watts wrote a good book about a big multi-faceted topic that doesn’t just look at the surface effects but considers the systems that allow it all to happen.

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