Unusually for an environmental work, Watts bases his writing on his travels and specifically his encounters with individuals, often ordinary people on the frontline of the impact and the battle against climate change. Here are Chinese workers, farmers and migrant labourers, as well as officials, bureaucrats and business leaders.
Almost every book about China, its economy, environment or people begins with the scale of the country and its population. China's enormous economic power and, crucially, its cheap labour has allowed the current regime and previous ones to literally move mountains in the pursuit of economic improvement. Needless to say that historically this has had a devastating impact upon Chinese environment, an impact that seems to be growing worse by the day. Often current practise has been shaped by what has gone before:
[China's] waterways are now blocked by almost half of the world's 45,000 biggest dams... China's president Hu Jintao is a trained hydro-engineer. His view of the world - now imprinted into the communist ideological canon as a 'Scientific Outlook on Development' - has been shaped by his knowledge of water and how it can be controlled.Hu Jintao's Presidency ended in 2012, yet it is fair to say that this approach continues, along with an belief that technology and science can cure the threat of environmental disaster. Famously we see this with the Three Gorges Dam, designed to harness the massive waters of the Yangtze River yet it brought along with it massive environmental and social disruption, and Watts dams tend to attract heavy industry enthused by the possibility of cheap and accessible electricity.
Despite whole areas of China being famed for their beauty and ecological diversity, much is under threat from industrial, agricultural and urban expansion. The global biodiversity crisis is enormous, but "the situation is particularly grim in China, where the die-off is reckoned to be taking place a twice the speed of the global average. According to the China Species Redlist, it is accelerating."
Much of Watts book looks at the different aspects of China's environmental crisis - water shortages, air pollution, fossil fuel expansion and so on. But the reason the book is useful is that he doesn't simply focus on these and the human tragedies that flow from them. He shows how the environmental crisis is not new - there were plenty of environmental mistakes, disasters and errors made throughout the 20th century - but how the current crisis is closely linked with the rise of industrial production for consumerism. In part this is due to demands of the Chinese population, a large section of which has far more wealth than ever and wants to emulate the lifestyles of the West. There's a fascinating section where Watts interviews Kan Yue-Sai, a multi-millionaire who got rich through marketing cosmetics who prides herself in helping launch China's "consumer culture" and for whom environmental problems were simply buzzwords to spout during the interview.
But crucial to the immense destruction caused by Chinese manufacturing is the outsourcing of emissions from the developed world. Western companies, attracted by cheap wages, low costs and minimal environmental restrictions have effectively moved emissions and waste to China. Pan Yue, a minister for environmental protect told Watts, "they raise their own environmental standards and transfer resource-intensive and polluting industries to developing nations; they establish a series of green barriers and bear as little environmental responsibility as is possible."
This is of course not to let China itself off the hook. Not every factory is manufacturing goods for the west, the coal mines being dug and the land being destroyed are assisting the development of China's economy too. But this does help locate the problem in the right place. China is attractive to the west because it has low costs and high wages, something that its own capitalists are keen to exploit.
Thankfully there is resistance. The Chinese have to acknowledge 1000s of "mass incidents" and Watts sees the aftermath of them, as well as often coming across accounts of protests, petitions and movements that have (sometimes successfully) challenged environmental destruction. In part this, as well as the very obvious destruction, has led the Chinese government to implement various pieces of environmental legislation. Sadly these are all too often ignored, or bribes ensure that no one is ever prosecuted. But it would be wrong to say there is no awareness of the problem.
The problem is that China's headlong rush to industrialise is done, not in the interest of people, but of capital. The need to compete with the United States, and the potential for a minority of people to get extremely rich, helps to undermine environmental laws. The immense bureaucracy doesn't help, nor does the short term interests of capital. It's staggering to read, for instance, that 1/3 of China's wind turbines are not connected to the grid and simply rotate pointlessly. Without fundamental change, the situation will not improve. Take agriculture:
China is the new frontier for agriscience. With a fifth of the world's population to feed on a tenth of the planet's arable land, the temptations of biotechnology have been enormous. Urbanisation and industrialisation add to the pressures by taking land for factories, roads and housing blocks. With the population expanding and appetites growing, China faces and uphill struggle to feed itself. As Vaclav Smil noted: 'All of the world's grain exports together would fill less than two-thirds of the country's projected demand for food.Alongside technical fixes for agricultural comes threats to the environment, and while Watts highlights a few examples of more environmentally sound farming, they are far and few between (and some of them don't work at all).
Those that suffer are inevitably the poorest. "The rich folk have already moved out... It has become a slum" notes one woman about their polluted town. Though few in the country except the very rich can escape the worst pollution. In one of Watts' more startling statistics, he points out that only 1 percent of China's population breath air deemed safe, for a country of over 1.3 billion, that's a lot of illness.
Jonathan Watts concludes by saying that China cannot save the world, but it forces us to "recognise we are all going in the wrong direction". He highlights that there are many in the country who are struggling for a sustainable future, but focuses on individuals to change their behaviour to solve the problem. This seems barely credible given the scale of the problem he describes, and I tend to agree more with an old man he meets on a train who, when discussing the environment points out "The problem of a corrupt bureaucracy cannot be solved by bureaucrats. We need a mass movement to clear them out. I think there will be one within five years". The old man hasn't been proved right yet, but if we're to survive the 21st century as a global society it increasingly looks like we should follow his dream.
Lafitte - Saving Tibet
Shapiro - China's Environmental Challenges
Au Loong Yu - China's Rise: Strength and Fragility
Gittings - Changing Face of China