Wednesday, November 2, 2011

My plug for When a Billion Chinese Jump

This might seem a bit out of my patch, but I have to make a plug for When a Billion Chinese Jump – simply because what happens in China has such an enormous impact on the world. The Guardian’s Asia Environment Correspondent Jonathan Watts drove to the remotest corners of China to visit coal miners, conservation biologists, hydropower projects, and nature reserves while providing unparalleled insight into what China’s rise means for the fate of human existence on the planet.

I’ve fallen a bit into the trap of thinking of China as one huge Superfund site that is steadily making itself uninhabitable for human beings at a rate never witnessed by mankind. The book’s somewhat optimistic sub-title “How China will save mankind – or destroy it” left me hoping there was some considerable amount of good news I was overlooking. I have to admit I found the book gave more on the “destroy” side than the “save” side.

I’ve never seen such an extensive documentation of the environmental situation in China. The chapter on China’s quest to controlling water through endeavors such as the Three Gorges Dam and myriad other hydropower projects reminded me of an exponentially larger version of U.S. efforts to stitch up every river in the American West that is so clearly chronicled in Cadillac Desert (Brazil is working toward this in the Amazon as well).

The chapters on Chinese medicine shows how traditional 5,000 year-old remedies made from animal body parts – bear bile, tiger bones –are decimating species. It’s a stark example of how traditions that may have made sense centuries ago are simply not sustainable when scaled up the industrial level required by modern human existence. In something of a banal metaphor, it reminds me a bit of how Brazil’s carnival has gone from being a simple celebration of the pleasures of the flesh into a behemoth, corporate-sponsored mega-event whose parades all are filled with wall-to-wall sponsorship and whose street parties have gotten so crowded that they’re not much fun anymore.

The starkest images came from the trips to Xinjiang, where decades of settlement campaigns meant to fill the area with Han Chinese have put enormous strain on water resources, or Inner Mongolia, where modern irrigated farming is threatening the future of the grassland ecosystem.

I’ll confess –I wish I could write this book about Brazil. It would never have the ominous gravitas of a chronicle of the world’s most populous nation. Brazil is never going to be the ultimate stopping point for the world’s dirtiest industries. But this is the kind of writing I’d like to see more of. Environment issues are somehow simultaneously sexy and high-profile and yet eternally ignored by media (even by bloggers, I’m surprised to find) and overlooked on concern that they don’t matter to anyone but a handful of urban upper-middle-class organic-vegetable-eating do-gooders. This book is a reminder of why the environment matters to everyone. And it’s a true tour de force. My congrats to Watts.

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