The Chinese Eco-Disaster
Why the green revolution in China has barely begun.
Partly, this is because the Chinese government has less control than foreign observers assume. "China's political system is neither dictatorship nor democracy," Watts observes. "At the top, the state lacks the authority to impose pollution regulations and wildlife conservation laws, while at the bottom citizens lack the democratic tools of a free press, independent courts, and elections to defend their land, air, and water." In between there stand corporations and corrupt local governments bent exclusively on profit and growth, whatever the cost. So "when it comes to protecting the environment, the authority of the authoritarian state looks alarmingly shaky." At the same time, China's leaders are—like ours—refusing to pursue the big projects that could haul us out of these dilemmas.
Watts interviews some visionary Chinese scientists who point to the real alternative. One of the most fascinating—Professor Li Can, of the Dalian National Laboratory for Clean Energy—shows him how all of China's country's energy needs could be met without any carbon emissions at all, using technology that already exists. You would need to cover a third of the Gansu and Xinjiang deserts with photovoltaic solar power cells. It would turn the barren deserts into the country's greatest asset. There have been similar proposals for harnessing the Sahara to power Europe, and America's deserts to power the United States—but none of our leaders have been visionary enough to do it. So humanity is left largely addicted to the filthy coal of millennia, steadily baking us all.
It's in the interviews with Chinese environmentalists like Li, and the ordinary victims of eco-destruction, that the question asked most frequently about China books—is it pro- or anti-China?—is exposed as fatuous. Is it anti-China to warn that the country is driving at high speed into an ecological wall? Is it pro-China to cheer that on? Chinese culture is divided—like ours—between the people who want to preserve earth's human-friendly habitat and the forces of ecocide. This argument has been going on in China for a very long time. As early as the Eastern Zhou period—700-256 B.C.—there was a saying: "People who are of ruling quality but are not able to respectfully preserve the forests, rivers, and marshes are not fit to become rulers."
In fact, anxiety about ecological destruction is the theme of some of China's most popular and disturbing recent artworks. The mega-seller novel Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong is the story of a young Han Chinese man who is sent to live with the nomads of Inner Mongolia and watches in horror as his people vandalize the lush grasslands, turning them into desert. The movie Still Lifefollows a Sichuanese migrant who returns home, after a decade away, only to find his village is empty rubble, about to be flooded for the Three Gorges Dam.
Indeed, the immediate blowback from the country's casting aside of natural processes becomes most plain when you look at its dams. China has 87,000 mighty steel and concrete dams, directing the nation's water-supplies along largely man-made routes. The nation will clear away millions of human beings if they are in the way of taming nature in this way. The mission is at the center of the new China's sense of itself: The current president, Hu Jintao, is a trained hydroengineer. It's hard not to feel a flicker of awe. They have taken on the oldest rivers and unimaginably vast torrents of water, and, for a moment, they seem to have won.
But not for long. By 1980, 2,796 dams had failed, with a combined death toll of 240,000 people. After the construction of the Three Gorges dam, it soon began to trigger landslides and deadly waves. The rivers feeding it were not able to flush out garbage, so the water became carcinogenic and threatened people in 186 cities. But the most startling effect followed the Zipingpu dam, which may well have caused the Sichuan earthquake.
When the plans were first unveiled to build the Zipingpu dam on an ancient fault line, many scientists warned it was a bad idea. True, the fault line had been dormant for millions of years. But, as Watts puts it, "Each time it filled and emptied, more than 300 million tons of water rose and fell. It was like a giant jumping up and down on a cracked surface. Several leading scientists speculated that the result was a reservoir-induced earthquake." Less than two years after reservoir first filled, the Sichuan earthquake struck, killing around 68,000 people. Discussion of this question was suppressed in China. But many distinguished scientists have argued that the country's worst recent "natural" disaster wasn't natural as all, but a direct result of government policy.
This compresses all the fears about China's current ecology-trashing binge into one single event, like a dark metaphor. What if you take on nature and lose? What if your progress today is triggering a catastrophe tomorrow that will leave you worse off than you were in the first place? Yes, 1 billion Chinese have jumped. If they jump toward renewable energy sources—as their bravest and smartest citizens advocate—they will show humanity how to save itself and be lauded by future generations as heroes. But at the moment, they are jumping off a cliff.