Women spray to kill flies in the interest of public health, but such pesticides play havoc with the environment. Simao, Yunnan Province. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Whether from the pursuit of political and military power or from population pressure, China has suffered from unsustainable development for most of the past 3,000 years. The study of environmental issues in China is a relatively recent but rapidly growing science benefiting from the participation of scholars across several disciplines.
Since the later half of the twentieth century, environmental problems have become a major concern of the international community. In the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is even more evident that these problems must be solved to ensure the survival of humankind. China, a country that has suffered from unsustainable development for most of the past three thousand years, and which is now one of the most rapidly growing consumers of energy on the globe, will play an increasingly crucial role as both a subject of and player in the field of environmental studies.
Voices in a New Field
The environmental history of China emerged as a new field of historical study in the 1970s in response to contemporary environmental crises. Environmentalists, social theorists, historians and other scholars in cross-disciplinary fields then began to write books on the subject and publish articles in journals, some of which devoted entire issues to the topic: In August 1972, the Pacific Historical Review concentrated on environmental history, and in June 1974, the Annales: Economie, société, civilisations published a special issue on the subject. Richard H. Grove traced the origin of environmental history to works of historical geographers dating from the mid-nineteenth century on. The social theorist James O’Connor argued that the socioeconomic and environmental crises of our time are interconnected and, going further, that capitalism was much to blame for current environmental problems.
In a 1993 article, Mark Elvin contended that unsustainable growth was observed in the past 3,000 years of Chinese history. He pointed out that in the early phase of this long period, the major impact on the environment came mainly from the pursuit of political and military powers, and in the later phase, from population pressure. He also described the process of deforestation and analyzed the over-development of irrigation systems. In 2004, Elvin published his major works on the environmental history of China in a huge volume, The Retreat of Elephants.
Elvin also organized the first conference on the environmental history of China, held in Hong Kong in December 1993, and invited scholars from multiple disciplines to participate. This conference produced two symposiums titled Sediments of Time, one published in 1995 with twenty-four Chinese articles and the other in 1998 with twenty-one English articles; they dealt with issues related to physical environment, human settlement, frontier, water, climate, disease, official representations of the environment, literary and popular sensibility, as well as case studies on the environment and modern economic growth in Taiwan and Japan. Following the 1993 conference, other conferences on the subject were held at Academia Sinica in Taipei in 2002 and 2006, and at Nankai University in Tianjin in 2005. The selected papers of the 2005 conference were published in 2007 and those of 2006 are forthcoming.
In the 1990s and 2000s, many works on the environmental history of China were written by younger scholars. Wang Xingguang explored the ecological and environmental changes and the rise of the Xia dynasty (2100–1766 BCE) with data discovered by archaeologists and palynologists (scientists who study pollen and spores), and as well with materials contained in ancient texts. Motoko Hara analyzed various ancient texts on the development and environment in ancient China, focusing on types of soil, trees and grasses, hills and mountains, dry land agriculture, irrigation, and cultivated crops. Robert Marks traced the development of the Lingnan region in south China from the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) to the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), focusing on settlement and ecological changes, population increase, climate change and agricultural production, grain trade and granary, land reclamation and development of mulberry fields, exploitation of the mountain areas, and the disappearance of tigers. Wang Lihua studied the dietary culture of northern China in the medieval period by focusing on climate, water, forest, food production and processing, as well as carrying capacity and population. Chao Xiaohong studied social and ecological changes in southern Shanxi during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing dynasties by focusing on climate change, deforestation, soil erosion, water control systems, and management. James Reardon-Anderson discussed land use in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia during the Qing dynasty with an emphasis on migration and deforestation. John Richards described deforestation and intensified land use in China’s internal frontiers, including Hunan Province, the Yangzi (Chang) highlands, Guizhou Province, and Manchuria. Zhao Zhen studied the ecological changes in northwest China during the Qing dynasty by emphasizing migration, deforestation, and water resources. Bao Maohong gave a quite thorough review of studies of Chinese environmental history and pointed out four major aspects to be strengthened in the future:
? The theoretical basis of research
? The knowledge of ecology and environmental science and the moral concerns of contemporary environmentalism among historians
? The research on modern and contemporary environmental history of China
? The research on other countries for enhancing comparisons and academic exchanges.
Environmental Issues Explored
Since the 1980s, foreign researchers have bluntly disclosed environmental degradation and pollution in China. For instance, Vaclav Smil’s book The Bad Earth was finished in 1983 and was soon translated into Chinese as a restricted publication available only to an inner circle of scholars. Ten years later Smil published China’s Environmental Crisis, which discussed the environmental implications of population growth, land degradation reflected in soil erosion, desertification and toxification, highly unequal distribution of water resources, massive deforestation, unsustainable farming, economic modernization and the quest for a higher quality of life, rural energy shortage, and air pollution in cities. After assessing the gains and losses brought fourth by China’s modernization plans, Smil (1993, 192) wrote: “China is obviously not alone in facing a prospect of continuing decline in the quality of its environment, nor it is alone in having to deal with it from a position of relative poverty and limited technical, research, and managerial capabilities. But its relatively limited natural resource endowment, the already dismal state of its environment, its huge and far from stabilized population, and the magnitude of its modernization plans present a uniquely incompatible combination.”
Reeitsu Kojima traced the development of industrializing Asia during the four decades between the 1950s and the 1990s and contended that mainland China had grown into the world’s largest source of environmental pollution. Kojima pointed out the following negat
ive environmental conditions of China. First, China’s precipitation is comparatively much lower and its coastal stretch much shorter than that of Japan, implying its weak capacity to cleanse pollution. Second, China depends on coal as its primary source of energy and this implies lower energy efficiency, larger sulfur content, and the problem of cinder disposal. Third, the lavish use of chemical fertilizers and agricultural chemicals has caused soil and water pollution which, in turns, affects the growth of aquatic plants and fish. Fourth, the development of small- and medium-size industries in rural areas implies the danger of spreading pollution all over the country. Fifth, rapid urbanization has a consequence of rapid increase of household waste and sewage. Moreover, Kojima pointed out that in the early 1980s the advanced industrial countries made relatively large investments into environmental protection. For instance, the share of environmental investment in gross national product (GNP) was 1.85 percent in West Germany, 1.8 percent in the United States, 1.3 percent in Japan, and 1.1 percent in France. In 1990, the government statistics of China claimed that 0.7 percent of GNP was invested for environmental protection. This environment investment/GNP ratio was exaggerated, however, compared with the adjusted estimate of 0.28 percent. Thus, Kojima suggested that unless the ratio was raised by 2.5–3.0 percent, no environmental improvement would actually take place in China.
Elizabeth Economy, the author of The River Runs Black, mentioned the following indicators to show the seriousness of China’s environmental degradation:
? Sixteen of the twenty most polluted cities in the world were in China.
? Air pollution alone caused 300,000 premature deaths per year.
? More than 70 percent of the water in five of the seven major river systems was unsuitable for human contact.
? More than 25 percent of land had become desert, with the desertification rates twice those of the 1970s.
? Approximately 8 to 12 percent of China’s gross domestic product (GDP) has been lost due to environmental degradation.
The sinologist Judith Shapiro has analyzed the dynamics of anthropogenic environmental degradation in China during the era of Mao Zedong (1949–1976) in many journal articles as well as in her 2001 book Mao’s War against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China. Shapiro contended that problems such as population explosion, arable land limits, poverty, misguided policies and mistaken beliefs, and irrational price structures due to state ownership were often linked to environmental degradation; however, the underlying dynamics of such degradation lay in a nationwide war against nature. Shapiro analyzed this war against nature through four themes: political repression, utopian urgency, uniformity that ignored regional variation and time-tested local practices, and state-sponsored relocation into wilderness areas. This militarization of Chinese society in a war against nature had helped promote modernization projects that transformed the landscape and degraded the environment.
Shapiro also pointed out that, with the legacy of the Mao-era still at work, China’s explosive economic growth and the rush to industrialization since the 1980s were obvious sources of unfolding environmental crisis. Yet some signs of hope also appeared: Environmental nongovernmental organizations, student environmental clubs, and activist groups started to function and share information with overseas counterparts. For example, Global Village Beijing was awarded a major international environmental prize; Friends of Nature in Beijing and the Shaanxi Mothers Environmental Protection Association organized public cleanups and efforts to save endangered species. The traditional Chinese concept of “harmony between the heavens and the humankind” was also reemphasized by people from all walks of life. It seems that China’s government is determined to wash off the country’s reputation as one of the most polluted in the world.
Training a New Generation of Environmentalists
Since the 1970s, many Chinese universities have recognized the importance of training students in environmental sciences; since the 1990s, several have established Colleges of Environmental Sciences and Engineering (CESE). Peking University in Beijing started air pollution research in the 1970s and invited Professor C. S. Kiang of the Georgia Institute of Technology to be the Founding Dean of the College of Environmental Sciences in 2002; they further established the CESE in 2007 with an emphasis on interdisciplinary training and research. Nankai University in Tianjin started a course on environmental protection in 1973, set up the Department of Environmental Sciences in 1983, and established their CESE in 1998. Tongji University in Shanghai started to do research on industrial waste water in the 1960s, with an emphasis on water pollution; they established the College of Environmental Engineering in 1988 and their CESE in 1998. Zhongshan University in Guangzhou (Canton) started research and teaching on environmental sciences and established their CESE in 2002, with emphases on water pollution control and wetland ecology. Chang’an University in Xi’an set up their CESE in 2003 with emphases on water control and geological resources. Kunming University of Science and Technology set up the Department of Environmental Engineering in 1978 and further developed the CESE in 1999 with a stress on pollution control in Yunnan Province. The Southwest Jiaotong University in Chengdu established the Environmental Engineering Department in 1998 with emphases on water pollution control, treatment of solid waste, and protection of built environment. Undoubtedly, these university programs have trained a number of experts to undertake the task of environmental protection and control in China.
The Official Approach
Since 1972, Chinese officials have participated in international environmental meetings, familiarizing themselves with world scientific knowledge and concern about growing environmental problems. At the same time, they began to link with international environmental organizations and donor institutions, such as the World Resources Institutes, Resources for the Future, and the Ford Foundation, which were seeking permission to conduct projects in China. Moreover, persisting environmental problems forced them to reevaluate China’s development path. They also wished to leverage environmental issues to achieve other foreign policy goals. For instance, in 1994 the State Council approved China’s Agenda 21—a document aimed at guiding China’s sustainable development in the twentieth-first century in four major aspects: the overall strategy for sustainable development, social sustainable development, economic sustainable development, and rational utilization of resources and environmental protection—to echo that resolution of the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. These factors have contributed to the central government’s strong commitment to environmental protection.
During the 1980s and 1990s, China developed a large body of environmental laws, and in 1998 the National Environmental Protection Agency was elevated to a ministry-level administration and renamed the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA). The SEPA was renamed Ministry of Environment Protection at the 2008 National People’s Congress. Although the post-Mao decentralization of power to the provinces and the emphasis on economic growth at the local level has prevented certain environmental policies from being implemented efficiently, China’s integration into the global economy has permitted the country to feel secure about its food supply, and this has allowed policy makers to think more abou
t slowing down aggressive land reclamation. Moreover, floods in 1998 and 1999 encouraged Chinese scientists to analyze the role of logging, erosion, dikes, and the filling in of wetlands in promoting floods, leading the government toward a new appreciation of the environmental benefits of forests and wetlands. China’s central government now understands that environmental sustainability should be integrated into the country’s economic development.
Progress and the Future
What are the official viewpoints regarding China’s achievements in environment protection from the 1950s to the early 2000s? According to Jiang Chunyun, the editor of a team-compiled report on China’s environmental changes and controlling strategies, the achievements can be quantified from six aspects. First, in 2003 the planted area of forest reached 1.59 billion hectares and the forestry coverage rate was 16.6 percent, compared to 8.6 percent in the 1950s. Second, the annual area of grassland increased from 1.05 million hectares (1981–1985) to 2.6 million hectares (1991–1995), and from 1996 onward, the average annual increase of grassland was more than 2.7 million hectares. Third, the program of protecting biodiversity was initiated in the early 1980s, and by the end of 2003, the government had established 1,999 nature conservation sites with a total area of 14.4 million square kilometers, of which 13.8 million were on the land, which account for 14.37 percent of China’s total land area. Fourth, there was already some progress in controlling desertification since 1991, and a law controlling desertification was published on 1 January 2002. Fifth, a law controlling water and soil erosion was published in 1991, and by the end of 2000, there were 380,000 square kilometers brought under control. And finally, the pollution control in various aspects started to show recognizable effects. By the end of 2000, the total amount of pollutants was reduced by about 15 percent from 1995 levels.
Regardless of these achievements, environmental degradation has not been brought to a standstill. There are still several issues are of particular concern:
? The shortage of water resources
? The total disappearance of natural forests
? The expansion of desert area
? The aggravated erosion in certain localities
? The continued decrease of biodiversity
? The increasing frequency of natural disasters
? The lack of effective control of environmental pollution
Given these concerns, the impacts of environmental degradation on human health and national security are well recognized by the government.
According to the 2000 plan of the State Council, environmental programs in China will proceed in the first half of the twenty-first century with the following goals: to hold back environmental degradation from 2000 to 2010; to ensure ecological and environmental security from 2011 to 2030; and to establish an ecological civilization from 2031 to 2050. In order to reach these goals, nine strategies have been proposed:
? Overall planning and coordination
? Transformation of production mode
? Adoption of recycling economy
? Ecological rehabilitation
? Utilizing alternative energy
? Innovation in science and technology
? Development of ecological industry
? Building industrial demonstration belt
? Regional multiple renovation
In short, “If we do not solve the environmental problem in China, the world is going to be in a very bad way,” said Professor C. S. Kiang in 2007, reflecting the seriousness of the situation. There is no doubt that China’s environmental choices impact the world, and, as one of the most rapidly growing consumers of energy on the globe, China will play an increasingly crucial role as both a subject of and player in the field of environmental studies.
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A birdwatcher from Shenzhen Bird Watching Society is monitoring water birds and the possible occurrence of bird flu in Shenzhen Bay. PHOTO BY WEN BO.
New construction towers over older-style architecture. Chinese efforts to modernize construction techniques have led to drastically more efficient buildings, but the expanding Chinese construction industry continues to be a major contributor of environmental and health problems. PHOTO BY BERKSHIRE PUBLISHING.
Trash dumped in unauthorized land in New Territories, Hong Kong, is just one source of countryside pollution. Cows forage through the garbage. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Environmental Studies (Huánjìng wèntí yánji? ??????)|Huánjìng wèntí yánji? ?????? (Environmental Studies)