When a Billion Chinese Jump tells the story of China's - and the world's - biggest crisis. With foul air, filthy water, rising temperatures and encroaching deserts, China is already suffering an environmental disaster. Now it faces a stark choice: either accept catastrophe, or make radical changes. Travelling the vast country to witness this environmental challenge, Jonathan Watts moves from mountain paradises to industrial wastelands, examining the responses of those at the top of society to the problems and hopes of those below. At heart his book is not a call for panic, but a demonstration that - even with the crisis so severe, and the political scope so limited - the actions of individuals can make a difference. Consistently attentive to human detail, Watts vividly portrays individual lives in a country all too often viewed from outside as a faceless state. No reader of his book - no consumer in the world - can be unaffected by what he presents
|FABER & FABER|
the guardian Fri 16 July 2010
It's always wise to be careful what you wish for. When China was poor and communist, its government disdained consumption and castigated the evils of capitalism, while in the west we argued that happiness lay in the joy of stuff. The good news is that China now agrees about the stuff, embracing a strange hybrid capitalism with distinctly Chinese characteristics. But that is also the bad news, as Jonathan Watts memorably explains in When a Billion Chinese Jump.
The title derives from a boyhood nightmare: the Chinese, Watts thought then, were so numerous that if they all jumped together they could knock the world off its axis. Now that most of China's 1.4 billion people prefer to live better today than to trust the promise of a socialist paradise tomorrow, the shock to the world's economy, atmosphere, soil, water, forests and natural resources seems set to trigger his boyhood terror: the demands of a billion Chinese bent on becoming prosperous consumers could indeed, on China's present trajectory, knock the world off its axis.
Each industrial revolution has been dirty and environmentally damaging and the cumulative unintended consequences include changing the climate on which human civilisation depends. But while industrialisation was confined to a handful of relatively small countries, the environmental impacts, climate aside, were relatively local. In China, though, carbon-fuelled industrialisation and unsustainable development has metastasized by virtue of its scale and speed into the global game-changer of Watts's title. The west invented unsustainable living; China has taken it up with enthusiasm.
We are barely three decades in to China's industrial and consumption revolution. There are still hundreds of millions of poor Chinese who wish to prosper and consume in a country that wastes so much energy that its average per capita carbon emissions already equal those of France. The most worrying thing about the Chinese industrial revolution is not even the appalling damage that Watts meticulously chronicles, but the capacity for more that is still in the system.
China's growth was kick-started by the export of cheap goods produced by low-paid country women labouring in the factories of eastern China. More, cheaper, faster does not easily accommodate cleaner or sustainable, but for the first 20 years, few people cared. The rivers turned black, the air was fouled, the land and its produce was poisoned; rates of cancer and other diseases of pollution soared. (Death rates among Chinese farmers are now four times the global average for liver cancer and twice the global average for stomach cancer.) Kentucky Fried Chicken has become the biggest restaurant chain in China and one in seven Chinese adults is now obese.
Few were counting the cost in the first giddy decades, but in the past 10 years, the bills have begun to come in: they include acute and chronic water shortages, toxic algae blooms, desertification, acid rain, dying grasslands and angry people. The new middle classes in the prosperous cities of eastern China now want dirty factories closed or cleaned up, but the inland provinces further back in the queue for prosperity are keen to welcome them. In 2007, the World Bank conservatively estimated the cost of Chinese pollution at 5.8% of GDP. (Others have put it as high as 8 to 12%.) If we subtract these sums from China's headline growth, the present looks substantially less impressive and the future more worrying still. Illegal deforestation in China continues, despite belated prohibition; the pollution carried down China's rivers poisons the sea from the Bohai Gulf to the Pacific; particulates are carried on the winds to other countries and China's contribution to the great brown cloud helps to create a giant smog blanket even over otherwise unpolluted areas of Asia.
In Beijing there are efforts to turn to a less destructive course. Sustainable development is now the mantra of government policy and China is committed to a low-carbon economy, not least in order to dominate the technologies of the future. But as Watts discovers, to accomplish this unprecedented feat at this stage of development requires more than shaky legislation and a fiat from the top. It requires a profound cultural shift away from the entrenched idea that nature exists to be exploited and plundered and that any environmental problem can be fixed by engineering.
Watts's journey takes us to nature reserves where the animals are served up in official banquets, to the tragic province of Henan, once held up as an exemplar of Maoist development, now stricken by poverty, soil exhaustion, corruption and an Aids epidemic traceable to an official blood-selling scheme. Then there is Linfen, a coal town in Shanxi province, said to be the most polluted place in the world, where birth defects run at six times the national average which, in turn, is three to five times the global norm; where the miners' death rate per ton of coal is 30 times that of the United States and nearly a million people's homes are affected by subsidence; where the cost of damage to human health and the environment in the province in 2005 was estimated at £2.9bn.
The Yellow river, the birthplace of Chinese civilisation, is all but destroyed. The government has encouraged people to move west from the overpopulated heartland into the arid and mountainous lands of the Uighurs and the Tibetans, places able to support sparse populations but where ecosystems rapidly collapse under the weight of numbers. The days of the last remaining paradise, the astonishingly biodiverse province of Yunnan, according to Watts's account, are numbered.
If this is a bleak story, it is because the prospects are bleak. Watts tries to balance this journey through dystopia with signs of hope, but we sense he would wish to be more convinced than the evidence allows. This book is not simply an indictment of China's development path: it is a lesson for us all in the dangers of how we live. Will we heed the lesson and will China's bid for sustainability prove more than a rebranding exercise? Any reader of When a Billion Chinese Jump must hope so.
Isabel Hilton's The Search for the Panchen Lama is published by Penguin.