China’s huge environmental challenges affect not only the health and well-being of China but the very future of the planet. I wrote China’s Environmental Challenges to provide students, teachers, and the general public with a way of organizing a topic of utmost importance and great complexity.
I hope that the book will encourage teachers to shine a spotlight on the ways in which China is interconnected with the rest of the world and help students appreciate that China’s environmental problems cannot be divorced from their own consumption patterns.
I lectured on the book in China this past June. Many Chinese policy makers treat environmental problems as technical problems to be solved by engineers and scientists – while the book argues that they are essentially political and social problems.
I was in China at a time of political tightening and government insecurity, even crisis, in the lead-up to the 18th Party Congress. Yet the message of this book was strongly welcomed, not only by policy-makers at the Ministry of Environmental Protection who are questioning whether China should continue to foul its own nest on behalf of the rest of the world, but also by young environmental scientists who, after reading excerpts from the book, told me they wished to broaden their horizons from their wastewater treatment laboratories and start to support green public citizens’ groups.
I was newly impressed by the courage and innovation of groups like Greenpeace, which is conducting clandestine tests of effluents in preparation for launching public campaigns to “shame and blame” key corporations, and the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs which has developed an analytical tool to attempt to “green” production supply chains and press for information transparency.
I was struck by how quickly Chinese people mentioned high levels of air and water pollution and poor food safety, even without my prompting, and how unhappy they were about this situation.
Yet I was also chilled by how blithely one Qingdao resident accepted the displacement of environmental harm to politically weak populations, one of the book’s main concerns: “Oh,” he said, when I asked about his seaside city’s comparative lack of air pollution. “It’s all been moved out.”
In this statement we see our core blind spot and greatest challenge: In a world of increasing limits on resources, is it possible to create a system in which people enjoy equal access to resources and protection from extraction without harming the vulnerable or stealing from future generations?
The book focuses on five themes: broad trends such as population increase and globalization of manufacturing; the challenges of governance in a country where state authority is weak and official corruption at the top of people’s concerns; contested national identity in which concern for “face” influences development choices; the dramatic evolution of environmental green groups and civil society; and problems of environmental justice and displacement of environmental harm, which threaten to delay our planet’s confrontation with the limits of its resources.
China’s struggle to achieve sustainable development is occurring against a backdrop of acute rural poverty and soaring middle class consumption. Surely, the Chinese people have the right to the higher living standards enjoyed in the developed world.
But the Chinese government faces difficult, contradictory tasks: it must meet the material needs of the millions who have been left behind in the breakneck quest for growth, in part by continuing to assume the burden of the pollution that is a byproduct of manufacturing the world’s consumer items; at the same time it must confront public dissatisfaction with high pollution burdens that may shake the government’s stability, legitimacy and control.
Whether China can “leapfrog” prior models of industrialization and show the world a new development path is still, I believe, a possibility worth fighting for.