There’s an awful lot of reasons to be pessimistic about the way things are going not just in China, but because China’s environmental decline is pretty much a result of what humanity has been doing for the past 200-odd years to the planet. It’s sort of reached a peak here after accumulating over all this time. So you really have to be reinventing things because the global economy has started to hit an ecological wall here in China. By that I mean the fact that the rivers are so overexploited, the deserts are creeping up on cities and farm fields, you’re seeing a much more changeable climate, glaciers melting, there are cancer clusters around some of the worst-regulated factories, particularly in the countryside.
So there are an awful lot of ways in which the environment is a mess. It can be pretty grim to cover. And yet, this is also the place where, because the economy is growing so fast, because the central government really does have control over so many economic and financial levers, it’s able to pour money into the search for a solution, and that’s sort of when the positive side of what’s going on in China comes out, in that the renewable energy sector is just surging, almost to the point of creating a new bubble.
For example, China is now erecting wind turbines every hour—the old Silk Road is lined with wind turbines. The government also has promised to do more to promote the domestic industry in geothermal energy, to do more on biomass. There are a lot of car manufacturers here that are hoping they can leap over big companies in Japan and the US by going almost directly to hybrid cars and electric cars, and trying to, they hope in the future, mass-produce them and conquer the market in that area. Also, because China is urbanising so quickly, this is also the place where architects are experimenting with eco cities and trying to build whole cities from scratch that are more pedestrianised, that rely less on car culture, that have more self-sufficiency in terms of energy generation and so on.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
If you want, you can look at China and paint a totally grim and negative picture. But at the same time, you can also look at China and paint a wonderful picture of: ‘This is the country that can save the world.’ That is typically China; it just spans the extremes. I think the truth is somewhere between the two.
All that said, I guess I’d have to give a cautionary note and say that overall, I think my impression is more on the negative side. It’s funny, in the process of writing the book, I guess my views and my approach changed a great deal. When I started out, I figured a book about the environment in China would be about pollution, and would be about climate change, and would be about the Communist Party’s lack of transparency, and traditional medicine making conservation worse. And all those things are significant and important. But in the process of writing, I spent a lot of time trying to put all of those problems into a historical and geographical context. And one of my conclusions is that I’m actually more worried now about consumption.