Book Review: China's Environmental Challenges


China’s environmental story is full of contradictions. What does one make of a country where the government severely limits the freedom of NGOs, yet has some of the most thorough environmental laws and most sustainably-minded leadership in the world? A place where the opening of a nature preserve is celebrated with a banquet that includes endangered animals? A country that builds the most wind turbines—and burns the most coal?

Judith Shapiro’s readable new book, China’s Environmental Challenges, untangles these contradictions and provides a snapshot of China as it teeters on the edge of unprecedented ecological limits. Shapiro was one of the few Americans to enter China before relations between the two countries were normalized in 1978 and now teaches global environmental politics at American University. In the book, she looks at how national identity, government structure and civil society play into China’s approach to environmental issues.

By now, we’re familiar with news of polluted cities and “cancer villages,” enormous factories and contentious dam projects, rapid desertification and a growing middle class eager to model the West’s worst consumerist excesses. With news like this, one gets the impression that Chinese society is a monolithic ogre blindly pulling its people, and the world, toward environmental ruin.

But according to Shapiro, the country’s domestic realities and international relations are complex.
She reveals that China’s leadership under Mao Zedong was just as undeniably brutal to nature as it was to millions of Chinese during the “Great Leap Forward” (1958-1961): swaths of forests were felled for unusable steel smelters, sparrows were systematically killed as “pests” despite their important role in defending crops from insects, and ecologically-sensitive areas throughout the country were converted to  experimental farmland, leading to famine (Shapiro’s 2001 book Mao’s War Against Nature digs further into this period).

But China’s government has become increasingly more fractured and sensitive to environmental issues in the last few decades, just as the stakes have been raised. Echoing Jonathan Watts in When a Billion Chinese Jump, Shapiro writes that it’s not the national government, but an entrenched network of corrupt and uncontrollable developers and local officials, that are driving most of the country’s environmental problems today.  

A Factory on the Yangtze River / Wikimedia Commons
The same rich countries that lament China’s environmental record are far from blameless either. For decades, the US and Europe have displaced environmental harms to China, especially in the textile and electronics industries. Now China, with its rising economic prowess and disgruntled, savvy middle class, is exporting harms itself: to poorer areas domestically, and to Southeast Asia and Africa.

Though they’re hampered by repressive rules about activism and fundraising, Shapiro describes China’s community of environmental groups as large, active and, for the most part, respected. She delves into the contours of this community in what turns out to be the most encouraging part of the book.

Chinese NGOs have attended the last few UN climate negotiations to pressure their government and the global community to take bolder action on climate change. Famous journalists-turned-activists like Liu Jianqiang and the 2012 Goldman Prize winner Ma Jun are well-known for their publicizing environmental harms and challenging corporations and government projects.

Low estimates put the number of environmental protests at 5000 each year, many of them originating from the same middle class that fuels the country’s resource consumption. While the difference between human rights abuses and environmental damage isn’t as distinct as it might be in developed countries, Shapiro says environmental groups enjoy a greater level of freedom than other types of political organizations.

Protesting a Chemical Plant in Dalian, August 2011 (Getty)
Any hope of addressing China’s enormous environmental problems will involve strengthening this mostly feeble civil society sector, giving voice to the rural and minority populations most affected by environmental damage, and tapping into China’s home-grown notions of sustainability found in its religious and cultural traditions. With Western-style consumerism ascendant and free speech still stifled, the prospect of such a shift happening is slim, but the seeds of change do exist. One suspects that US leadership on climate change, which is currently lacking, may also influence China’s actions on the global stage.

Although Shapiro’s book is aimed at students (each chapter ends with discussion questions), general readers will find the book helpful when placing news items like the recent US-China clean technology trade tensions or friction over embassy smog reporting in context. Those wishing for more in-depth discussions on particular issues will need to look elsewhere.

It’s impossible to be a globally-minded environmentalist today without considering the role China plays. Shapiro rightly says that “it is within China that much of the future of the planet will be decided.” 

Book Review: Detroit: 138 Square Miles

There are many haunting images in this gargantuan photography book by Julia Reyes Taubman, but the one that devastates my dad is a picture of two disintegrating steam Bob-Lo boats docked next to a US Steel plant in west Detroit. For nearly 100 years, the boats carried generations of Detroiters to Bob-Lo Island amusement park on the Detroit River. I vaguely remember riding in one myself as a kid - if there was anything exotic and exciting about living there, that was it.

To my dad, the abandonment of these boats is nothing less than the desecration of our elders. The rusting stacks, the ghostly white sheets hanging off the sides: these images are hard to look at for someone with affectionate memories. That the boats are now docked next to a steel manufacturing plant is weirdly insulting.

Photos of abandoned Detroit, aka "ruin porn" are pretty cliche at this point. Everyone's seen a photo of the empty Michigan Central Railroad Station or crumbling ceiling in some old factory. On the other hand, it's hard not to take a photo of abandoned buildings in the city - they're everywhere. Taubman's book contains many pictures of these ruins, but they don't feel like a rehash. The color tones, the sometimes ethereal perspectives seem to come from a place more of empathy and history than exploitation.

The East Side's empty lots (Photo: Taubman)
As an environmentalist, I was drawn to Taubman's photos of heavy industry. From the Marathon Oil tank farm and piles of coal on Zug Island to the Detroit salt mine and Ford River Rouge Plant, there are some epic images of the guts of our country's manufacturing legacy. Even my dad, who's been to some of these sites at ground level was surprised at the extent of the operations in Taubman's areal views.

"US Steel's manufacturing operations entirely occupy Zug Island" (Photo: Taubman)
The book provides visual confirmation of why zip code 48217 was recently identified as the most polluted region in the state. Michigan Radio's Environment Report has been following the expansion of the Marathon Oil refinery (the only oil refinery in Michigan) in the last month, particularly the buy-out offer Marathon's given to people living in surrounding neighborhoods. The expansion would "upgrade" the plant to allow it to process -- surprise, surprise -- tar sands oil from Canada. In Taubman's photos, the refinery's impossible tangle of pipes and smokestacks is fascinating and creepy.

There are people in Taubman's book too, but they are usually overshadowed by their surroundings. For instance, there are a few grainy, snap-shot quality photos of smiling people hanging out in dim bar rooms. After being inundated with images of architectural emptiness, these informal shots feel more weighted than they might be otherwise because we want to know what it takes to live here.

In the introduction, Jerry Herron describes Detroit as "the most fully-realized American place", a place created by leaving and forgetting, by immigrating "moment by moment to someplace we hadn't dreamed of yet", a place where we sacrificed the past for material plenty. By documenting the results of this driving character, Taubman forces us to question our cultural values.

Revisiting Cradle to Cradle a Decade Later

The trees outside my window are rapidly turning red and yellow and after their leaves drop, bacteria and fungi will have a feast, eventually turning valuable nutrients back to the tree. McDonough and Braungart use trees as a metaphor for how humans should be re-envisioning the design and manufacturing process to one that doesn’t include the notion of waste. When they came out with Cradle to Cradle nearly ten years ago, the concept had already been around since the 70s, but the book solidified its practical application in modern industry.

The problem, they say, is that we’ve meshed “technical” nutrients (metals, plastics, etc.) with “biological” nutrients (stuff that will decompose naturally) in a way that makes it nearly impossible to use those materials more than once. And then they sit around, festering and poisoning the biological systems around them. Their view is admirably holistic, going beyond more limited notions of recycling and efficiency to scrutinize the entire lifecycle and context of a material.

The concept is grand (and perhaps too reliant on design as a silver bullet for environmental problems), but has industry implemented these ideas in a meaningful way since the book’s publication? The authors’ firm, MBDC, has established a Cradle to Cradle certification system and consults for a lengthy list of clients including Ford, FedEx, Nike and PepsiCo. Most of the certified products seem to fall into the “Silver” category with none apparently meeting the stringent “Platinum” level. Herman Miller chairs are probably the most well-known example of a C2C-certified product.

The dilemma (and opportunity) is that products exist within a system influenced by more than the company selling the product. The notion of C2C requires multiple parties complying with standards – the transportation system that gets recyclable materials back to the factory, the chemical manufacturers that supply the raw materials, and the farms that grow the natural fibers woven into the textiles… it’s a big, complicated network that can’t be easily encapsulated by a single product’s certification. But it’s a start and it begins to pressure the system.

A video from the UK’s Ellen MacArthur Foundation expressing C2C ideals (without mentioning C2C) was featured in the Guardian earlier this year and took off on YouTube:


The authors also tout Ford’s newish River Rouge Assembly Plant which I had a chance to visit a few years ago (and watch people on the line assemble F-150 pick-up trucks – very educational!). Daylighting for the factory floor, natural storm water management, a huge 10-acre sedum green roof all make the factory a more sustainable operation, but it’s also just one building in the enormous River Rouge complex (and they're building trucks there, of course). I don't want to diminish the foresight and investment on Ford's part, but we've clearly got a lot of paradigm-shifting ahead of us.

The Aesthetics of Pollution

Jerry James Stone of the Atlantic and TreeHugger recently highlighted the work of photographer J Henry Fair. Fair's work captures the nearly-neon intensity of coal mining, aluminum production, oil spills and other industrial nightmares. As Stone points out, the photos have a certain beauty.
"His color palette is so flirtatious you might actually question their authenticity, but Fair confirms that 'what one sees in the photos is what was there [on land.]'"
"Herbicide manufacturing waste swirling with limegreen highlights"

Spring's Herbicides

Ah, spring, the sweet smell of... herbicide. And next to the kids' playground no less. They applied this stuff all around my neighborhood last week. The smell was weird - an anti-smell really. Kind of burning, metallic. It's amazing how hard it is to avoid a truck filled with noxious green fluid in the springtime. In related news, the EPA is reviewing the safety of the chemical glyphosate in the popular pesticide Roundup. They've given themselves a 2015 deadline to make a decision. Glyphosate has become increasingly less effective over time. Is anyone really surprised by this?