Monday, July 29, 2013
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
China-resident American journalist and environmentalist Craig Simons nails his colours to the mast very early in The Devouring Dragon, which is subtitled How China’s Rise Threatens the Natural World.
In the book’s prologue, he visits an American small town, which used to have a booming economy based on coalmining. The town has been in economic decline for years, because American and European demand for coal has fallen away drastically in more environmentally conscious times. American and European factories and power-plants are no longer coal-fired. But suddenly the small town is booming again, because an important foreign customer wants coal – China. In fact, across much of the world (including New Zealand), old coalmines are being re-opened to feed this gigantic customer.
As Simons remarks:
“I suspected that China was more than a peripheral part of [the American small town’s] story. In 2009, China burned 3.5 billion tons of coal, almost half the world’s total. But it was China’s potential demand that was creating a global mining renaissance. In 1976, when Mao Zedong…. died, the country had used only 550 million tons of coal each year, one sixth of today’s total. By 1997, its demand had exceeded that of the United States, but it still used what now looks like a quaint number: 1.4 billion tons. Then – in the thirteen years from 1997 to 2009 – China added over 2 billion tons of annual coal demand, the equivalent of two new nations as voracious as the United States, which – until China surpassed it – had been the world’s biggest coal consumer. And experts predicted that China’s growing energy appetite wouldn’t peak for many years.” (Prologue Pg.2)
So, after a quick survey of China’s impact on global economies and the global environment, Simons announces his main theme:
“This is a book about how China’s rise is changing the physical planet. For many readers the facts about how quickly China has grown since the late 1970s and what that means for the global economy and geopolitics will be familiar, even if we don’t always keep the facts straight. Many will have heard that China is not only the world’s fastest-growing large economy, but also that it is the only large economy that has ever sustained such a high growth rate – roughly 10 per cent each year for the last three decades, enough that it has moved from being the world’s tenth largest economy (in 1979 wedged between the Netherlands and Spain) to its second largest today. Only the United States earns more each year, and much of that is derived from investments and outsourcing, not from actually making anything. Most economists predict that the Middle Kingdom…. will surpass the United States as the world’s top economy during the next two decades.” (Prologue Pg. 8)
But this unprecedented economic growth of China is happening at the very time that the world is becoming choked with pollutants and environmentally degraded by greenhouse gases and perceptible global warming. “The more I read, the more I realised that China was hitting its stride just as the planet is reaching environmental tipping point”, says Simons (Prologue Pg.17). He illustrates how China’s fossil-fuel-burning economic boom has created great middle-class wealth in China itself, and a huge appetite for all the material goodies associated with the capitalist West. But it has also created huge social inequality. And, more crucially for the rest of the world, it has battered China’s ecological systems and threatens the “commons” (the Earth’s shared environment). Sixteen of the world’s twenty most polluted cities are in China, where the urban air is almost unbreathable. The great Yangtze River is rapidly becoming a running sewer. Species are being made extinct (such as the Yangtze River dolphin).
Thus says Simons in his 20-page prologue.
The rest of The Devouring Dragon is essentially an illustration of this thesis.
Three chapters (1,2 and 3) focus on the Yangtze River and the colossal Three Gorges Dam, which has destroyed much of the environment, and much of China’s essential fresh-water supply. This ecological disaster could have been avoided (as even some Chinese commentators noted) if a series of more modest dams – capable of generating just as much power - had been built on the Yangtze’s tributaries. But the Three Gorges Dam became a prestige project for China’s leadership; a symbol of Chinese power and technological modernity; and they could not cancel the project without losing “face”. As it is, the great river is now unable to flush out toxins like mercury and cadmium, creating massive pollution and wiping out species that have lived there for millions of years – the Chinese sturgeon among them. With little unpolluted water supply, farming in its neighbouring provinces becomes less practicable.
While Simons does not write his polemic with any xenophobic agenda, he does suggest that there is something ancient in the Chinese mentality that leads to an extreme exploitation of the environment:
“To understand China’s modern environmental crisis, one needs to grasp those historical roots: Confucian ideology both bolstered the belief that the natural world should be controlled to serve man and created a top-down political system with weak support for civil society – the checks on power provided by democratic elections, a free press, an active nongovernmental sector, and the rule of law. Mao Zedong sharpened those historical forces by nurturing a revolutionary zeal that often ignored and silenced science and common sense. And China’s post-Mao era has greatly increased the speed of environmental damage and pushed it far beyond the nation’s borders.” (Chapter Two, Pg.48)
Turning from China itself, Simons then devotes three chapters (4, 5 and 6) to the way the Chinese demand for traditional medicines has become a major threat to species in many parts of the world. Tiger bones, shark fins, pangolin shells and rhinoceros horns are all components of traditional Chinese medicine, and turtle is regarded as a great delicacy. However, before the recent exponential growth of a wealthy Chinese middle class, most Chinese were unable to afford these things. Now there is a huge paying market for them, even though most of them offer no real medicinal benefit whatsoever (apart, perhaps, from a placebo effect).
Result? The existence of India’s few remaining tigers is threatened by a huge illegal trade with China. Turtles have virtually been wiped out of southern Asia. China is becoming “the vacuum cleaner” of marginal species.
In like fashion, three chapters (7,8 and 9) deal with the loss of ancient and native forests elsewhere, because of China’s demand for both hardwood furniture and palm oil. Simons takes the example of the extinction of the kwila tree in New Guinea to service markets in Shanghai and the new cities of China’s hinterland. Russia’s far eastern forests are rapidly disappearing for the same reason; while every year hundreds of square miles of Amazonian rain forest are destroyed so that palm oil can be harvested.
The final two chapters (10 and 11) move to the impact of China’s use of fossil fuels on the Earth’s atmosphere. Simons first looks at apparently idyllic environments, but then shows how each of them is being affected by climate change, related to China’s pumping out of greenhouse gases. There is the example of pockets of rural China itself, where the air is still breathable but perhaps won’t be for long. There is the example of the Pacific atoll of Tuvalu, which may soon sink beneath rising seas. There is India’s Bihar province, where the monsoons become more intense and destructive each year. Simons gives a disenchanted account of the 2009 Copenhagen conference on climate, complete with the grandstanding of some Western countries, but also with China’s firm veto of any attempts to curb the burning of fossil fuels.
“If China maintains its current policies, its total demand [for energy] is expected to almost double again by 2035, adding demand equivalent to what the United States now uses. According to the International Energy Agency…. it would meet that demand roughly as it does today: 87 per cent would be generated by burning fossil fuels. And it has become a model for other rapidly developing nations [such as India, Russia and Brazil]” (Chapter 10 pp.187-188)
As you might expect, the book ends with a call to real action on climate and conservation.
One major point I take away from this book is the sheer scale of the Chinese enterprise. To quote one example of the many hundreds that are given in The Devouring Dragon, by 2025, China will have 221 cities with populations above one million. Europe has only 35 such cities. (p.201)
It must be emphasized that Simons is not pointing the finger at a people, but at a system. It is often said that what China is doing today is no more nor less than what Western countries have done in the past in order to accumulate wealth – destroying whole environments to feed coal-fired industry, and creating massive ecological messes. Simons is fully aware of this. When he discusses the pollution of the Yangtze, he compares it with similar pollution in the United States in earlier phases of American capitalism. When he speaks of the extinction of species, he discusses the fate of the North American bison.
He understands that the problems China now creates spring from its people’s desire to have a wasteful consumerist life based on a Western model. He also notes that individual Chinese consumers are far less prodigal with the Earth’s resources than individual American consumers are. Per capita, Chinese still drive only a fraction of the automobiles that Americans do. Per capita, Chinese use far less petrol and oil. Indeed, says Simons, if Chinese were as wasteful of paper and wood as Americans are, then China would consume the world’s total yield of timber. The desire to do as Americans do also inspires those New Guineans who wield chainsaws against native forests in return for hard Chinese cash. They too want to have colour televisions and i-pods and air conditioners and all the commodities of the American home. Simons quotes the remarks of environmental biologist Thomas Lovejoy:
“Everybody’s basically mimicking what America did, but the reality is that in the end, there’s just not enough world to go around for everyone to live a top-of-the-food-chain American or European lifestyle…. Biodiversity loss can look sort of like a stream – and with the addition of China it’s a much more rapidly flowing stream now – but we have to realise that there are going to be some big thresholds that are crossed and there’ll be large chunks of biodiversity lost.” (Chapter 6 pp.117-118)
As a very minor criticism of this book, I should note that there are some sections in which Simons becomes perhaps a little too lyrical. He comes over all mystic when he sees a tiger in its (protected) natural environment in India’s Corbett National Park. He can’t help (a little unrealistically, I think) comparing Hindu oneness-with-nature favourably with more pragmatic and hierarchical Confucianism. Sometimes he quotes from the nineteenth century writings of Alfred Russel Wallace to remind us of how pristine the forests of the Malay Archipelago once were.
But I’m quibbling. This is a very forceful polemic, well indexed, and substantiated with forty pages of endnotes. In simply summarising my reading of it, I hope I have given you an accurate idea of how worth reading it is.