As regular readers of my blog know, I had the pleasure of working in China for about five years. It was impossible not to be impressed by the rapid progress being made as the country modernized at breakneck speed. Every six months I would see huge changes in terms of new infrastructure, more traffic, and other signs of progress. Of course it was also impossible not to notice the negative impacts, particularly with regard to the environment. I worked in places such as Taiyuan where ‘blue sky days’ were an extremely rare event: all you had were smog laden skies.
Even though I am no longer working in China, it is still a place that I hold in high regard and have a lot of interest in. For that reason I was very keen on the new book by the Guardian’s China environmental correspondent Jonathan Watts ‘When a Billion Chinese Jump’. As he journeys the length and breadth of China he observes the impact of China’s—and the world’s—development on the land, flora and fauna. It is a very sad and worrying tale, which fills in many of the pieces of the puzzle that I saw while working there.
I didn’t appreciate that while we were busy planting trees on our road projects, that they came from but two types of poplars and the lack of biodiversity is having a major negative impact on the bird life. While I saw the grim conditions of many workers, I didn’t know that much of what we recycle in the west ends up in these dark, dank factories in China where it is processed with no regard to the workers or the environment. I knew that by building improved infrastructure we were permitting factories to relocate inland, but I didn’t appreciate that this was also transferring the pollution problem inland. I always was worried about the quality of the vegetables and other products, now I see that there was good cause to be.
After cataloguing the litany of problems faced by China, the author turns to the possibilities in terms of the adoption of green technologies, etc. Unfortunately, against the backdrop of the problems one has to wonder whether China has passed a point of no return with addressing its environmental issues. I do hope not, but the signs are not good.
This is a must read book for anyone involved with development in China, or who are interested in the environment and sustainability. Both fascinating and disturbing, the author deserves credit for the breadth and scope of his work.