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Learning From China

Updated: November 26, 2011 11:00 am

As China became the biggest workshop of the world, the Gross Domestic Pollution increased alongside the Gross Domestic Product. But even as the environment paid a heavy price for the country’s swing from communism to consumerism, there are signs that Red China may turn green.


Some months ago the former minister for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh gave a speech on growth versus the environment. In essence, his statement was understood by many to signify that if India was to travel the path of high growth, certain environmental concerns would have to take a backseat. For those who are anxious to traverse the high growth path and for those who are concerned about the environment, the book When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind or Destroy It by Jonathan Watts (Scribner, New York, 2010) makes essential reading.

Watts describes China in the period between 2003-2005 as “the former basket case nation completed the world’s highest railway, the most powerful hydroelectric dam, launched a first manned space mission and sent a probe to the moon. This was the period when the population increased at the rate of more than 7 million people per year, when more than 70 million people moved into cities, when GDP, industrial output and production of cars doubled, when energy consumption and coal production jumped 50 per cent, water use surged by 500 billion tonnes and China became the biggest emitter of carbon in the world.”

As China’s economy boomed and the country sharply swung from a communist to a consumerist culture, a price was paid—and heavily—by the environment. In the book, the author takes us across the country from the plateau of Tibet to the Gobi desert. From the heat of Guangdong to the chill of Heilong Jiang which shares a border with Russia, and shows us how in the name of progress and development, first the communist model and subsequently the new growth model have irreparably scarred the environment in region after region.

Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism , communism and now more recently capitalism driven by consumerism have layered the country .This can be seen even in a 10-km stretch of the river Min, one of the Yangtze’s tributaries . At one end lies the Dujiangyan, a 2,200-year-old Taoist eco-engineering system that harvests water seasonally for irrigation and is considered a world heritage site, and at the other end sits Zipingu, a recent concrete megadam which obstructs the flow of water. Although dams and dykes have been at the heart of the country’s civilisation for over 2,000 years the recent years have been quite dismal. From 1950-80 2,796 dams had failed, with a combined death toll of 240,000.

As certain resource- and energy-rich industries in the West became uneconomical because of tightening environmental regulations and escalating labour costs they shifted to China, Japan and Korea to improve their air and water quality by investing in more efficient and clean technologies and simultaneously moving their dirtiest industries into China. As China became the biggest workshop of the world, both the Gross Domestic Product and the Gross Domestic Pollution increased. The annual cost of pollution in China in 2007 stood at 5.8 per cent of its GDP. This was a conservative estimate which did not factor in costs of erosion, desertification, soil decline and overall environmental degradation. Infinite growth in a planet with finite resources is not possible.

Wildlife, biodiversity, glaciers, rivers, wetlands , grasslands, desertscapes and urbanscapes have relentlessly borne the brunt of economic progress. Due to various anthropogenic reasons species are dying, forests are emptying, fish stock declining, water shortages growing, deserts encroaching and glaciers melting. China is home to some exclusive species of wildlife—the famous giant panda, the lesser known baiji, the huge Himalayan griffin, the world’s largest salamander. China also has tigers, black swans and bear. As described in the book, it’s not that efforts have not been made to preserve these species. However, rather than ensuring their habitat remains intact these animals are today bred in captivity and sometimes even harvested for parts used in traditional Chinese medicine. The choices thus have been farm animals over wildlife, monoculture over biodiversity, concrete over earth.

But it’s not all gloom, and tucked into the pages are stories of hope and of people who have dared to be different and are looking at alternatives. The smog has reduced in certain cities, low carbon technologies are being openly discussed and Red China may well turn green even though the colour dominating the horizon today is various shades of grey. As the author writes somewhere in the beginning of the book: “In the 19th century, Britain taught the world how to produce. In the 20th, the US taught us how to consume. If China is to lead the world in the 21st century, it must teach us how to sustain.” (Infochange)

By Nitya Sambamurti Ghotge

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