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.” 

Movie Review: Even the Rain


Spain's official submission to this year's Academy Awards, También la lluvia, is a film that draws parallels between the historical European colonization of Central and South America and the more ambiguous economic colonization by multinational corporations today. The common denominator in both is access to natural resources.

The plot follows a fictional film crew as they shoot a movie in Cochabamba, Bolivia on Christopher Columbus' arrival in today's Cuba. Much to the crew's befuddlement and anxiety, the shoot coincides with a resistance movement that flares up when foreign companies attempt to privatize the city's water supply. The film muddies the distinction between the events so that history is shown to exist in the present.

While the events themselves made the movie exciting (this was the first time I'd heard of the real-life Cochabamba Water Wars), it was the characters' responses to them that I was drawn to. Despite the obvious connections the film makes between colonization in the past and present, the characters resist acknowledging them. Director Sebastián (played by Gael García Bernal) is visibly moved by the story of Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas who defended the indigenous people against the Spaniards, but he lacks heroism when it comes to speaking out for the indigenous actors in his film. We are not made to despise his cowardice though - his avoidance shows why fictional heroism is so difficult to translate to the real world.

The jaded, alcoholic Antón who plays Columbus (Cristóbal Colón, if you want to be accurate - played by Karra Elejalde) is ironically the only non-indigenous character that understands his relationship to history and the persistence of greed. At one point, the crew is invited to the local government official's office and Antón sarcastically taunts the official with cries of "Let them eat cake!" as riots erupt outside.

También la lluvia illuminates in a simple and entertaining way why neoliberalism has led to revolution and reform in much of Latin America and perhaps gives us a glimpse of water wars to come. It also encourages the viewer to ask uncomfortable questions about their own moral responsibilities in a living history.

Environmental News Roundup: The Philippines

Astronaut photograph of coal mine on Semirara Island, the Philippines
"Japan has allocated 9.24 billion yen in official development assistance (ODA) to the Philippine government’s forest management programs in Luzon and the Visayas, the Japanese Embassy announced." - Japan extends P5B aid to Philippines for forest management

"In 2002, 250 hectares were selected as the site for the development of Manila's first transit-oriented mixed-use central business district (QC-CBD). At the same time long-established informal settlements — some more than three decades old and home to more than 25,000 people — occupy much of the land earmarked for development." - An inside view of community organising in Quezon City's slums

"Philippine President Benigno Aquino III ordered security for mining companies beefed up Tuesday after raids by communist rebels shut down operations of the country's largest nickel producer and sent its stock plummeting... The rebels accuse mining operators of destroying the environment and exploiting workers." - Philippines beefs security after rebels raid mines

"Most people will have seen at some time, a depiction of one of the Philippines most famous sights, the 2,000 year old Rice Terraces in the Philippine Cordilleras. These too, have been severely damaged in major mudslides, when Typhoon Nesat blew across the Ifugao Province." - Flooding in S.E. Asia: Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam Philippines

"Chad Oppenheim unveiled the first certified “Green Project” in the Philippines, under the county’s own new green building rating system, BERDE (Building for Ecologically Responsive Design Excellence). As the first design under the BERDE rating system, the Net Lima, is one of three towers under construction at Net Metropolis." - Chad Oppenheim Selected to Design the Philippines' First Certified Green Project

"While rigid rules are imposed on environmental and social practices of large-scale mines, small-scale mines do not go through such stringent scrutiny. This has induced destructive environmental practices among some small mines, which impute a bad reputation on the entire industry, the chamber said." - DENR asked to regulate small mines

"Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam lose about $9bn a year, 2% of their combined GDP, due to problems caused by poor sanitation. According to the study, households in these countries see up to seven times their initial investment in basic sanitation improvements, such as building a pit latrine." - Facing up to the global water crisis

""If you put garbage in Salambao, Obando River, it will be like putting garbage in our plates, because this is where our food comes from," said Mercy Dolorito, former barangay chairman of Salambao where the 44 hectare landfill is proposed to be set-up." - Obando folk oppose landfill plan

"A lawmaker Saturday filed a bill seeking to promote agricultural and farming activities in highly urbanized areas, particularly Metro Manila. In House Bill 4750 to be known as the “Urban Agriculture Act of 2011,” ALE Party-list Rep. Catalina Bagasina said Metro Manila has a huge area where food production through agriculture can be pursued." - Urban farming in Metro Manila, Philippines sought

""We haven’t seen any progress as to the DENR’s effort to combat climate change, especially in reducing carbon emissions. Also, as long as we allow mining entities (which are dependent on HCFCs) to flourish in this country then this phase out plan will just go to waste," ICSC executive director Red Constantino said." - Philippines to cut imports of ozone-depleting substances by 2013

Book Review: Something's Rising

I come from the flat land of Michigan so when I flew into Appalachia for the first time, I was taken aback. From the sky, those gentle old mountains looked like elders gently watching over the little valley towns beneath them. In grade school we were told that while the Rockies might provide the more stunning vistas, the Appalachian Mountains dwarf them in age. There’s something there that demands reverence, “respect your elders” and all that, but this imperative has gone blatantly unheeded by the perpetrators of mountaintop removal mining.

Coal mining has a long history in Appalachia, of course, but it’s only since the 1990s that mountaintop removal has become widespread. Somehow coal companies have managed to convince many folks that this sick practice is part of the respectable coal mining traditions of yore when in fact it destroys that legacy. The many local voices speaking out in Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal have devoted their lives to combating this myth and the practice of MTR at the risk of social stigmatization and in some cases, physical danger. Though their life circumstances are diverse, they share some surprising commonalities. The one I found most intriguing was the prevalence of a shy personality. These people weren’t born activists; they were forced from their very nature as demure people by circumstance. When loads of toxic mining waste is dumped in local rivers, when boulders removed by excavating machines crush little children while they sleep in their beds, when mountains are blown up before one’s eyes, well, even the shy get audibly livid.

“The canary in the coal mine” is an apt metaphor for what’s happening in Appalachia and in many other parts of the world where the promise of resource wealth never (surprise surprise) manages to cultivate the local economy or well-being. Sure some folks will get jobs and buy new trucks and TVs, but one day they’ll look around and notice that all the shops in town are boarded up and that they get sick when they drink the tap water. Renowned activist Judy Bonds’ blisteringly honest thoughts on the matter leap right off the page.

Every story in this book is heartrending, but I was particularly moved by steadfast witness of folk legend Jean Ritchie and the spotlight on despicable political maneuvering by Jack Spadaro. The voices here have different cadences and histories but the collective picture that emerges is undeniable: the slick promises of dirty fuel corporations should never be trusted, nor, sadly, should the politicians who essentially work for these companies instead of their constituents. Something has certainly risen by the time you finish this book: your own fury.

Movie Review: Waste Land



Before artist Vik Muniz travels to Rio de Janeiro to work on a new project at one of the world’s largest landfills, he expects to find a rough crowd working there, drug addicts surely. His wife, supportive but visibly anxious about the idea, asks him pointed questions. “This is the end of the line,” he says, pointing to a satellite shot of Jardim Gramacho, implying that society’s “garbage”, at least in the eyes of Rio’s middle class, probably ends up there too. Not only are the recyclable pickers (catadores) that Muniz finds when he arrives very normal people though, they have warmth and wisdom and tremendous dignity. Garbage is revealing and these folks have a penetrating view of humanity because of their work with it.

Muniz employs a handful of the catadores to help him construct huge portraits of the pickers themselves, made from the very materials they collect. The proceeds from the work are then donated back to the picker’s “union”. Along the way, Muniz befriends the catadores and reflects on how little it would have taken for him to end up in the same situation as a relatively poor kid growing up in Rio.

Viewers will come away from the film with great respect for the catadores who must confront daily, with great personal danger, the detritus of everyone else’s wasteful lives. The landfill itself is a fascinating, post-apocalyptic setting for the story. Muniz is perhaps a little too self-righteous about his ability to make a difference in the lives of these people through his particular vision (and he’s challenged on it by his friends halfway through the film). But overall the film is respectful and does a great job illuminating the lives of the catadores (and the relationship they have with our trash) for the rest of us.

For a more complete summary of the movie, visit Street News Service.

Organic for the Sake of Farm Workers

The Washington Post hosted an event entitled “The Future of Food” last week at Georgetown University. Speakers included all the big names in sustainable ag – Eric Schlosser (who just published an article defending "foodies" from calls of elitism), Wendell Berry, Marion Nestle, Vandana Shiva, and… the Prince of Wales?! (who knew? And fresh from his son’s wedding). I watched part of a panel that included Wes Jackson and some businessmen that felt a bit scattered. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition noted that USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack stuck to his script when pressed on his organization’s decision to deregulate genetically engineered alfalfa earlier this year. I like this exchange:
Likening conventional agriculture and sustainable agriculture to two sons, Vilsack asserted that he loves both of his sons equally. “One of your sons is a bully,” Koons Garcia responded, noting that GE crops can contaminate non-GE crops, but that contamination is not a concern in the other direction.
Also check out Schlosser’s piece about how pesticides affect more than just consumers and the environment:



After I wrote this post, I called the Safeway customer service line to request that they stock organic bread in my local store (where there currently don't carry any). The CSR was a friendly guy from Oklahoma who, coincidentally, grew up on a wheat farm. He didn't know much about organic food though and I filled him in. He said his old farm didn't use pesticides (there wasn't much need to), but they did use petroleum-based fertilizer. It was an interesting conversation.