The Chinese Miracle?

China’s Environmental Crisis: An Inquiry into the Limits of National Development

by Vaclav Smil
M.E. Sharpe/East Gate Books, 257 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Over the last few months the news and reportage about China have become almost incomprehensibly divided between two points of view. According to one set of reports, China is now confirmed as an economic “colossus,” shaking off all the trammels of the past, yearning to host the Olympics in the year 2000, a haven for speculative growth investments in real estate and transport “infrastructures,” bursting at the seams with raw industrial and technical energy, and with a huge dedicated work force ready, at low wages, to multiply their own and foreign investors’ profits at exponential rates.

But this same country, according to other reports, is now producing an entire new generation of illegal emigrants, men so desperate to leave their homes in rural China that they are prepared to pay up to $30,000 in agonizingly accumulated cash to Chinese smuggling gangs, in return for a dangerous and protracted boat trip to the United States, with the constant threat of blackmail, physical abuse, and even murder from their fellow countrymen. Elsewhere in China, furious farmers are sacking government offices and destroying property to protest a corrupt government’s endlessly accumulating taxes and supplementary “fees.”

Vaclav Smil, building on more than a decade of research and thinking about China’s environmental problems, has now produced an ambitious study that helps us to understand both these extreme perspectives, as well as the many gray areas in between. Indeed, he emphasizes his own determination to be eclectic by starting his study with a score of brief vignettes, urban and rural, north and south, winter and summer, that remind us of China’s range and diversity, and of the difficulty of generalizing with accuracy. His overall conclusion is deeply depressing: China’s apparent current prosperity, built on a foundation of decades of ideological simple-mindedness and ecologically disastrous agricultural and industrial practices, is inherently fragile, and faced with a host of interlocking challenges that are apparently insuperable. “There are no solutions,” as Smil puts it, “within China’s economic, technical, and manpower reach that could halt and reverse these degradative trends—not only during the 1990s but also during the first decade of the new century.” But the nature and speed of the decline itself can be at least modified by a number of actions—if China can find the leadership and the will—that would pool “rational economic strategies, price reforms, technical innovations, managerial innovations, and law enforcement.”

Vaclav Smil, a professor at the University of Manitoba, writes that he is a realist, treading his own careful way between the two schools of thought that dominate much current environmental scholarship—he calls the two schools the “catastrophists” and the “cornucopians”—because though he eschews all optimism about the constructive role of huge populations and the creative possibilities of modern science to come up with new solutions (the “cornucopian” vision) he does not therefore believe all is hopeless as the “catastrophists” do. But his list of the problems facing China is so formidable …

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