Roots of Catastrophe: What Can America Learn from China?

In May of 2000, ten residents of the Huai River town of Fuyang spent the day working along the river’s Seven-Li Trench.  They had little reason to worry about water pollution:  The year before, Fuyang was designated one of China’s ten “Clean Industrial Cities.”  This town had really cleaned itself up – the government claimed – and the Huai River was said to run purer than it had in decades.
By nightfall, all ten were in the hospital, and within a week, six of them were dead. The river turned black and rotting fish piled up everywhere.
A year later, the Haui turned black again.  The river was thick with garbage, yellow foam, and dead fish – 26 million pounds of rotting aquatic flesh. Factories had continued to dump into the river a toxic mix of ammonia, nitrogen compounds and phenols.  As a result, thousands of people were treated for dysentery, diarrhea, and vomiting.  Local officials tried to hide the extent of the disaster from visiting TV crews.  In response, villagers pelted them with eggs.
Would you want this job? Millions of rotting fish
The Huai is one of China’s four greatest rivers.  It irrigates China’s central breadbasket, and supports 150 million residents – one in ten Chinese – the size of roughly half the population of the United States.  And despite its toxic history, it’s not all that notable for pollution in China.
Instead, the Huai River epitomizes China’s water crisis.  Industrial and agricultural pollution, destruction of forests and wetlands, and excessive damming and flood control measures have sped China and the Huai down the road to ecological disaster.

Like the Huai, China’s fresh water supply is in serious trouble. The government itself gives the country only 18 more years: By 2030, they say, the country will have exploited its ENTIRE available water resources.

What happens when a quarter of the earth’s people use up their clean water?  What then?
I couldn’t guess.  And I pray that this does not happen.
But I can suggest some Chinese cultural underpinnings that might serve as lessons for Americans, as we consider the world we’re leaving to our children.  There are many Chinese choices that we might learn from.  I’m going to suggest four:
  1. A deeply-ingrained cultural assumption that nature can – and should – be harnessed for man’s benefit;
  2. A decentralized approach to protection of nature (local people can best decide for themselves);
  3. A preference for development over stewardship (jobs now, caring for creation later); and
  4. A tendency to suppress science when it’s at odds with ruling dogma.
 You may recognize some of these impulses in Western culture as well, but they’ve proved to be especially disastrous in this vast country.  Let me explain.
Harnessing Nature
For millennia, official policy toward the creation seems to have been dominated by Confucian notions:  That an impersonal but willful “heaven” above created the earth; that nature below exists to produce bounty; and that in between the two, man exists to harness and dominate nature for his own benefit.  This impulse has driven massive nature-control projects: unprecedented damming of rivers (the Huai has 195); “reclamation” of wetlands; massive levy construction to regulate water flows; irrigation virtually everywhere; and deforestation to open new farmlands.
Even here in Western-influenced Hong Kong we see this impulse.  Despite the beautiful green mountains – too steep to support buildings – any level land gets covered with gleaming towers and sweeping highways, forging nature on an industrial anvil for maximum commercial advantage.
The patron saint of human dominance is Mao Zedong – whose ubiquitous dams, backyard steel mills and mountain removal projects led to unimaginable degradation of the land and water.
But in the West, Mao has millions of unwitting disciples, who vaguely recall that their Bibles tell them about the command to “subdue the earth.”   Ten-lane highways, sprawling vinyl mansions, acres of chemically-fed lawns and fruitless landscaping, belching super-sized vehicles, and nonstop home entertainment systems seem entirely natural to many of us. And warnings of impending consequences are soothed with the prayer that technology will let us engineer our way out of the noose. 
Is any one of us unaffected?  Am I?
Let the locals decide
Back home, we think of China as a totalitarian state, tightly controlled from Beijing.  In fact, this has almost never been so – with the possible exception of portions of Mao’s rule.  Local governors and city officials have long been charged with implementing broadly-stated national goals, relying on the Confucian notion that such people must make subjective decisions to do what is right in their own eyes.  This delegation of decision-making to local leaders is especially pervasive in modern China, driven by the new maxim that “to get rich is glorious.”  It is a mistake, therefore, to swallow Communist Party declarations as reflecting the policy in any given jurisdiction.
In the realm of creation care, this practice is particularly ruinous.  The mercury toxins emitted by coal plants in Jiangsu Province always find their way into Anhui Province.  Just the way the mercury from Pennsylvania coal plants always ends up in New Jersey’s reservoirs.
In the U.S., we hear a cacophony of cries today to delegate environmental decisions to the locals.  But don’t believe the ads: What happens in Vegas does NOT stay in Vegas.  That truth is evident everywhere in today’s China.
The wages of environmental abuse; human and aquatic victims.
 Jobs Now; Stewardship Later
This slogan is official policy in today’s China: “Development now; environment later.”
In a way, it’s perfectly understandable.  The year my wife and I got married, China’s per capita GDP was only $84.  Per year.  It’s difficult for us to fathom such desperate poverty, spread over so many people.  But you can imagine that you might not care that much about spotted owls and polar bears either, if you were scraping by on less than ten bucks per month.
And give them credit:  These remarkable people have increased the wealth of their nation forty-fold in one generation.  And yet, “environment later” has a way of remaining later.  But nature, like the clock, is an inflexible negotiator.  It won’t give you a break because you ask nicely, or because you’re particularly hard-pressed just now.
And you’ve noticed that this dynamic has totally overwhelmed us in the U.S. today, haven’t you?  During Bush Administration, there was a strong national consensus – despite misgivings in the White House – that our nation simply had to act to protect our children’s world from catastrophic climate change.  But then, in 2007, Lehman Brothers collapsed under the weight of an avalanche of toxic subprime mortgages.  Then Bear Stearns vaporized, followed by Merrill Lynch.  Before you could catch your breath, all the major banks were in desperate straits, your house wasn’t worth the mortgage, and we were talking about a second Great Depression.
And you’ve also noticed (haven’t you?) that no one cares so much about the kids’ world anymore.  Business-funded think tanks and news outlets now tell us that the climate scientists are probably all wrong.  Or if not, we need the jobs now anyway.  The Chinese know this refrain by heart: The earth can wait.
But can it? Will it?
Make the Science Support our Policies
Chinese researchers are no less smart than their Western counterparts.  But under either Imperial or Communist rule, they have never been free to speak their minds in ways which might conflict with national policy.  This proved fatal to Chinese regimes facing English fleets in the 19th Century and Japanese aircraft in the 20th.  And in the 1950’s, Mao’s shackles on scientific inquiry contributed heavily to the 1959-1960 famine which killed between 20 and 43 million Chinese men, women and children.  (Really: 20-43 priceless human souls.)
This dynamic used to rule in the West as well.  Copernicus left his research unpublished till after his death; and Galileo recanted from his heresies in preference to distinctly less pleasant alternatives.  But in the following three centuries, Western scientists have been free to explore anything, whether or not it challenged the existing powers.  And the result has been growth and prosperity almost unimaginable to prior generations, offset by the new-found potential to destroy our race and the rest of creation by misuse of our powers.
But you’ve noticed a new narrative regarding science in U.S. today, haven’t you?  Congress has hauled climate scientists before committees to grill them on their research, and to threaten them with civil and criminal penalties.  State attorneys general have subpoenaed university climate research records in an effort to expose alleged fraud.  Senators, Congressmen and presidential candidates alike have labeled state-of-the-art climate science “a massive hoax.” 
Our parents’ generation would never have imagined this as possible.  But people in China understand it all too well.
So I wonder, is China destined to run completely dry in the next two decades, as some Chinese research now predicts?  I couldn’t know the answer.  But as an American, I have an equally pressing question:  Will we learn from Chinese mistakes regarding creation care in our own country, or will we repeat them?
May God give us the grace to choose wisely.
And may He bless you.
J. Elwood

Leave a Reply