China’s Great Train: Beijing’s Drive West and the Campaign to Remake Tibet by Abrahm Lustgarten; Times Books (2008); US$19.99
The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future by Elizabeth Economy; Cornell University Press (2004); US$19.95
China’s Water Crisis by Ma Jun; Voices of Asia (1999); US$29.95
Climate Wars by Gwynne Dyer; Random House (2008); US$19.95
Environmental awareness is the Johnny-come-lately of Chinese domestic policy. The ecological impact of economic large-scale construction was, for many years, rarely considered or completely ignored.
Consider the Chinese government’s fixation on moving forward with one globally impressive infrastructure project after another: Three that come to mind are the Three Gorges Dam, the south-to-north water diversion project and the incredibly complex railway link to Tibet. All are notable not just for their scale, but for their effects on local ecologies.
American journalist Abrahm Lustgarten tells the story of the remarkable Tibetan railway – which was long considered impossible due to the challenging terrain – in his recent book, China’s Great Train. Lustgarten’s approach is one of journalistic clarity, focusing on the massive engineering difficulties and the impact on local communities. The project’s environmental impact is a recurrent theme.
"Tibet’s geologic bounty appeared to be a trifle compared to the cost of extracting it and transporting it thousands of miles across the wilderness," notes Lustgarten.
The train is intended to move passengers and not cargo, but cargo and greater foreign involvement in the region will inevitably follow. None of this is good environmental news; it opens up untapped natural resources for exploitation, creates bigger cities and leads to environmentally unfriendly industrial activity. As far as China is concerned, this is a path well trodden.
In 2004, Elizabeth Economy wrote The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future, a depressing picture of a country run asunder by unchecked growth. It is perhaps the seminal work on China’s worsening environment by a Western author. Economy clearly tracks the correlation between economic growth and environmental damage, describing how systemic challenges are made worse by a tradition that puts people well above nature.
"Chinese folktales more often portrayed nature as a force to be overcome and utilized for human purposes," she explains. With that cultural background, early, modest efforts at environmental protection were quickly set aside by Mao Zedong in favor of land reclamation projects for planting grain. In the post-Mao years, little changed, as officials were rewarded handsomely for economic growth regardless of environmental cost.
Economy’s book built on an earlier work by Chinese journalist Ma Jun, whose China’s Water Crisis was published in English in 1999. Ma’s approach is based on the simple premise that China does not have enough water to support its population for much longer. Ma’s vision was a little too pessimistic – he predicted the north would not have any water around now – but his work was groundbreaking.
A divisive issue
In the last few years, climate change has become a much more divisive and sensitive subject. Ma’s work is a ray of hope compared with Climate Wars by Gwynne Dyer, a Canadian journalist who looks at climate change through the prism of international relations. He devotes an entire chapter to China.
Dyer draws up a series of speculative scenarios for a future world as countries take (or fail to take) action to tackle global warming. In one, governments around the world become increasingly belligerent about the impact of environmental and climate control policies, and take active steps to change the climate, such as encouraging rain through cloud seeding. Unfortunately, these unilateral climate-change efforts become issues of contention; what one country does invariably affects another. The scenario leaves the world three decades from now on the brink of nuclear war as nations consider unilateral action to artificially alter their climates.
In some ways, change is underway. China has started putting more value on environmental protection. Already, Ma’s bleakest predictions have failed to come true as the government, ever so slowly, pushes forth environmental protection policies, in turn changing the dangerous status quo suggested by Economy.
All these books are important reading, however, and guaranteed to make even the most indifferent reader appreciate the importance of putting environmental policies on par with – or higher than – economic ones.