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China and the Environment

The current (March) issue of National Geographic magazine includes a fascinating article ("China's Growing Pains") on the current state of environmental consciousness in the People's Republic of China. The full text of the article isn't online, but an excerpt is; the full article is much longer, and very much worth seeking out and reading.

All this made me wonder whether the Chinese have not so much been creating an economic superpower as committing ecological suicide. China's leaders may be wondering the same thing. "Never has the Chinese government put the environment issue in such an important position," declared Xie Zhenhua, director of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), in a 2002 press report. "It is vital to the stability and the prosperity of our country and people."

Certainly, if you look below the surface, you will find signs that a new consciousness is beginning to seep like rainwater through the layers of Chinese society. Not only are people coming to accept that the country's prosperity is bound up with caring for the environment, but they're now also aware that efforts at environmental protection are in turn bound up with improving systems of law and government. Good laws mean nothing when, as is often still the case, leaders don't have the will or means to enforce them, so some Chinese --those desperate enough -- are testing the limits of political constraints through acts of civil disobedience. Others, meanwhile, are looking to the outside world for expertise and money to help with conservation projects. And still others are pioneering new ways of thinking about how to live more harmoniously with nature. But promising as all this is, it still seems that every environmentally friendly measure is offset by a greater number of abuses. China's shift away from old habits and attitudes has only just begun.

Even if you've already read the print article, the web page is worth visiting, as it includes a variety of links to different environmental groups active in China, as well as a bibliography of books and articles about China's environmental condition.

Despite our ongoing frustration with U.S. environmental policies, the real focus of concern for the 21st century climate has to be China. 75% of China's power still comes from coal, and current trends don't change, China could overtake the U.S. in terms of greenhouse gas output within a few decades. If the Chinese economy continues to grow, demand for cars, consumer goods, bigger homes -- all of the lifestyle accoutrement of a modern nation -- could be environmentally disastrous, if China adopts the same technologies and infrastructure as the West. But if the Chinese economy collapses, they will be unable to afford the changes in technology and infrastructure required to clean up their already massive environmental problems.

This is a situation that screams out for a "leap-frog" solution. Distributed power, alternative energy, smart building materials... China could be a showcase for what an electric green developed nation can look like. But will they take that road?

Comments (2)

Garry Peterson:

The March 10, The NY Times had an article on China's changing attititude towards large dams:

There has been a lot of unsuccessful organizing against the Three Gorges dam, that has probably spread awareness of the size of their social, economic and ecological costs. For on that see: http://www.dams.org/

Quotes from the NYTimes article:

Unlike the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest hydroelectric project and the subject of a bitter international debate, the Nu River plan has barely stirred a ripple outside China. But in China the project, which calls for 13 dams in all, has unexpectedly touched a nascent chord of environmental awareness and provoked rare public rifts within the government.

The reason is that the Nu is one of the last pristine rivers in one of the world's most polluted countries, running through a canyon region unlike any other, which a United Nations agency has designated a World Heritage Site. Last year, China's State Environmental Protection Agency and the Chinese Academy of Sciences publicly criticized the Nu project.

"If this river system is destroyed, it would be a terrible blow," said Li Bosheng, a prominent Chinese botanist. "This area has been called the Grand Canyon of the Orient. It forms one of the world's most special canyon environments."


The dam proposal became public last August after reports appeared in the Chinese news media, including China Environment News, the official newspaper of the national environmental agency. It ran several front-page articles, including one titled "The Pristine Environment of the Nu River Should Be Preserved."

Experts who attended closed government-sponsored meetings on the project said the fact that critics were allowed to voice concerns represented a significant change for China. Still, they expect the project to be approved in some form and are pushing for an independent environmental review and other safeguards.


there were also some eye-opening stats in the article (not included on the web sampler) that kinda make you think :D




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