Monthly Archives: January 2012

Sea! I Command You to Come No Further!

I remember as a child reading of King Canute, the 11th century Viking ruler of England. Canute famously silenced his fawning courtiers by having his throne placed at the fringe of the rising tide, and audaciously commanding the waves to come no further. His point? Though the deeds of kings might appear to be great in the minds of men, they are as nothing in the face of God’s power.

In the last few days, I have seen this narrative unwittingly played out again in the industrial juggernaut called the Pearl River Delta of South China. The “PRD” is by far the greatest exporting region in the world, and its growth is without equal anywhere on earth. From cities like Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Dongguan and Shenzhen, the 46 million residents of the PRD provide the electronics, clothing and consumer products used by the whole world. And these cities display unbelievable growth and opulence as the reward for their hard work and innovation.

There seems to be nothing that they cannot do.

Except – like Canute – hold back the sea.

The PRD – we have learned – is in the path of trouble. Serious trouble. Its principal city, Guangzhou, is among the most exposed in the world to sea level rise and other effects of climate change. Only Miami stands to suffer greater loss of asset value. And worldwide, only Calcutta, Mumbai, and Dhaka stand to suffer greater loss or displacement of human life. What’s worse for this delta, ranked right behind Guangzhou are nearby Shenzhen and Hong Kong.

How do we know all this? In 2007, the 34 countries of the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) conducted a survey of all 136 global seaside cities with a population of at least one million inhabitants. They examined the impact on each city from rising sea levels, coastal flooding and land subsidence resulting from human-caused climate change. First, they considered which cities stood to lose most value; then, they looked at which cities had the most people exposed to rising floods.

Guangzhou, sadly, ranked among the very worst in both categories. By the year 2070, Guangzhou (pronounced “Gwong-Joe”) is projected to lose $3.4 TRILLION in value due to inundation from higher sea levels and more intense coastal storms. In perspective, that’s about a quarter of the entire U.S. national debt, all lost in one city.

Now, to be sure, Guangzhou’s loss will be a bit less than Miami’s, and we’ve written extensively about that. But Guangzhou has neighbors. Having been here, I can see that nearby Shenzhen (10.4 million people), Dongguan (8.2 million), Foshan (7.2 million) and Hong Kong (7.0 million) will suffer alongside Guangzhou’s 12.8 million residents. When the rising sea sweeps through this city, it will take the neighbors with it as well – each one of them about the size of New York City.

And how many millions of those Pearl River residents will be at the mercy of the floods? The OECD estimates that by 2070, rising sea levels and storm surges will imperil 10.3 million people in Guangzhou alone. Apply some quick math to the neighboring cities, and the PRD may see 40 million human souls threatened or displaced by rising seas by 2070.
That’s not a typo: Forty million precious human souls awash in a region smaller than New Jersey.

How will it happen? A leading Hong Kong think tank has filled in the details: storm surges will overwhelm coastal levies (much like Katrina); Hong Kong’s airport and other landfill areas will be reclaimed by the waves; salt water will contaminate drinking supplies; damage to roads and rail lines will cut communities off from each other; sea and river port terminals will be inundated or landlocked behind new levies; tropical diseases will accelerate and spread; and – of course – people’s homes and livelihoods will be destroyed.

Can we turn back the rising sea? Sadly, no more than King Canute could. God’s good earth is working exactly the way He designed it. We’re continually thickening the blanket of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and His earth is heating up just like you’d expect.

But we can do something to reduce he harm to the port cities of our world, including our own Miami, New York and New Orleans. We can demand that our politicians stop denying what is known by every country in the world about the ruinous effects of our fossil-fuel gluttony. We can demand that they take action now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at home, and get serious about joining in international efforts to do the same.

More importantly, we can begin talking to each other about climate change and the threat to our children and millions of exposed people around the world. When 40 million people in this one river delta are in the path of deadly rising seas, it’s hard to understand how silence can remain an option for people who honor God and his possessions – or for any person of goodwill.

Inaction for the last decade has cost the creation dearly. But it’s never too late to make things better than they could be. Forty million souls on the Pearl River are depending on us.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Toto, I Don’t Think We’re in Hong Kong Anymore

We’ve just come from capitalist Hong Kong, where about 30% of the population lives in public housing, and no one can be denied a college education for lack of money. But here in smog-choked Shenzhen of the socialist People’s Republic, we are besieged by beggars: old widows and young people with birth defects, standing or squatting in the shadows of unimaginably futuristic skyscrapers and luxury hotels. 

And tonight, I was treated to a shock. I went out alone to stroll around the district and find a bowl of curry rice, when I wandered down a street-market block. Old women dancing for alms, accompanied by young people afflicted by every sort of birth defect; massage parlor peddlers clinging to my elbow; invalids crouched against walls. I felt like Bogart in some sordid Kasbah, or Han Solo in that weird bar.

And then she appeared. A haggard woman, pushing a flat cart, like the kind they use at Home Depot. At first, I didn’t look at the cart, not wanting to meet eyes. But there was no avoiding it: There was a human body lying on that cart! A swollen, bug-eyed young man. The eyes were red and wet, and I doubted the eyelids could cover them. Dead? No, alive. Or somewhere in between. And there was a bucket on his middle for alms. My stomach churned, and my eyes fled in horror.

My mind raced back to a remote village clinic in Uganda, when medical missionary Jennifer Myhre motioned to me to go outside lest I succumb to my nausea right there in the malnutrition ward. But that was a tiny village on the furthest outpost of one of Africa’s smaller countries. This is one of the most vibrant cities in the world’s largest country.

We are, I’m afraid, glimpsing the future for the almost 20% of the world’s population that lives in China. Birth defects and environmental threats to public health are spinning out of control.

Here’s the bottom line: Approximately every 30 seconds, a Chinese baby is born with birth defects due to pollution. And beyond them, diagnosed birth defects are driving a tsunami of abortions by desperate parents unable or unwilling to care for a deformed baby.

The Chinese government itself reported this in 2009. Jiang Fan, China’s Vice Minister of National Population told the China Daily: “The number of newborns with birth defects is constantly increasing in both urban and rural areas.”

They are worst in coal-producing regions, far from where we today. Chinese authorities discovered that birth defects increased 40% between 2001 and 2006, as China’s explosive growth drove massive increases in coal burning, without effective regulation of emissions and toxic waste.

“So many people are wondering why, when our lives are supposed to be getting better, there are more and more babies born with birth defects and couples who are infertile,” said Huo Daishan, an environmental activist from Henan province who has been fighting factories whose pollution he believes has caused disease clusters along the Huai River.

By contrast, you’d think (wouldn’t you?) that Americans would be thankful for the environmental protections we enjoy. So you might be surprised to hear the howls from many in Congress and in the presidential primaries last month when the EPA finally issued rules governing emissions of mercury and other toxins from coal-fired power plants. They’ve promised to reverse those rules as soon as they get the chance.

I can only wish that they had the chance to wander the nighttime streets of Shenzhen with me. It’s a shocking sight, and there’s no guarantee that it can’t happen in our country.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood

Twelve Things I Like About Hong Kong


  1.  People have a natural sense of fairness and law.  They await the light at crosswalks, with no police around.  The run after you at shops because you forgot to take your change.  No one fears for their safety in any neighborhood.
  2. Hong Kong people are warm and expressive.  Whatever my preconceptions about Oriental reserve, these people touch each other, laugh with each other, and enjoy each other’s company.
  3. They say the whole world loves lovers.  And Hong Kong lovers are a delight.  On a crowded subway car, they whisper and laugh, nose to nose, hanging onto each other as the car races along.  They’re delighted to have you take their picture together.
  4. Public transportation is the best.  The subways are clean and quiet, offering all kinds of amenities, and going everywhere.  Stations always open into shopping malls! The buses are double deckers, and thoroughly modern.  You pay for all fares with a single card that can be recharged anywhere, including any 7-Eleven (you’d think that company was based here!).
  5. Hong Kong society is generous.  Real estate is incredibly expensive, so they provide public housing for 2 million of their poorer citizens.  The public housing is clean, and many projects are quite modern.
  6. Whether they live on the 2nd floor or 42nd floor, Hong Kong people hang their laundry out to dry. (Naturally, the Clothesline Report goes for that!)  It’s quite a spectacle to see skyscrapers bedecked with shirts and towels waving in the breeze.
  7. The apartments are small, so Hong Kong people spend their leisure time in parks, shops, libraries and playgrounds. Older people stretch and exercise in the park, or play games together on park benches. And because they’re outdoors so much, most everyone is thin and fit.
  8. Hong Kong girls walk arm in arm with each other.  It’s nice to see people holding their friends close in a crowded place.
  9. There are churches and Christian social services everywhere.  This is a place where mercy and justice really seem to be well connected with the gospel message.
  10. For a stranger, remembering the names of places is a fun game in itself.  You need to stop at Tsim Sha Tsui.  Easy, right?  Or wait!  Maybe it’s Tin Shui Wai.  Or was it Sham Shui Po?  Yoy!
  11. The people here will do anything for the elderly.  They deeply respect the old and and care for the frail.  Believe me, I know.  Young women even offer me the open seat on the subway.  (Maybe they just think I’m distinguished, no?)
  12. In church on Sunday, they pray for the leaders of China and the United States, and especially that they would act to spare the world from the ravages of climate change.  “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.”

So if I ever get the chance, I will gladly come back to this lovely place.  Tomorrow, we cross that thin line, and enter the mainland for the first time, filled with anticipation.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Must Read: China Eyewitnesses Report to the Clothesline

Some of you have already seen this report we received two days ago from a couple in China.  I don’t know their names, but “P&C” live in Fuzhou and Jiangmen.  Jiangmen is near two cities where we’ll be traveling, so just maybe, we’ll find a way to connect again.
But here’s why I’m so excited.  When we prepare posts like the “Perfect EPA” story, we do our best to get the information right, and try offer measured analysis of the topic at hand.  In this case, it was a story of almost unspeakable harm to people and the earth from failure to regulate industrial waste.  But the statistics were so outlandish; I was a bit concerned, despite authoritative sources.  Had I been naïve?  Was the data somehow exaggerated?
And then P&C showed up on the Clothesline, and offered this amazing comment:
My husband and I have been living in China for the past 8 years and have seen this trend [China’s environmental collapse] accelerating at an alarming rate. The consequences and direct impact to the Chinese people are staggering.
Last I heard, there are over 700 pedestrians killed every day as the Chinese “upgrade” from bicycles to autos and scooters. That was about two years ago.
Just one of many unfortunate examples we’ve encountered regarding the devastating environmental issues was a shocking report from our colleagues up North about a village of 200 people who died almost instantly when a toxic chemical plant emptied its waste into their river. Just heart-wrenching, especially when the situation seems so vast and, thereby, seemingly hopeless.
We appreciate your blog and sincerely hope the word gets out as to what the negative consequences can be to countries who subscribe to the mantra “First development, then environment.”
Many thanks. P&C, Fuzhou (Fujian) and Jiangmen (Guangdong), China
Thank you, P&C, for your on-the-ground reporting.  We are indebted to you for speaking up with what you see happening.  And in case it’s even possible, I’d love to meet you when I’m nearby.  You could contact me at elwood.john.m@gmail.com.  Or if I can get a free day, I’d try to make it to you. Of course, if prudence dictates greater discretion, I fully understand.
And one impression I’d like to correct: China isn’t important because it’s a warning flag to the U.S. about what to avoid.  China is important because God made it and it belongs to Him; because He’s got more than 1.3 billion precious souls living there; because He loves and demands justice for everything that He has made.
I’m afraid that my prior focus – while important for Americans – neglects the obvious: the entire creation and all people are precious, as we all know upon reflection.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood

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

I’ve Found the “Perfect” EPA!

You remember those primary debates, right?  Every single candidate wanted to fundamentally curtail the Environmental Protection Agency.  And didn’t Herman Cain want to get rid of it entirely? 
The themes were consistent: stop issuing job-killing regulations; give environmental authority “back” to the states; put an end to radical environmentalism, etc.  The perfect EPA in these debates was smaller, pro-business, and state-controlled.
Well, the Clothesline is over here in China, and we’ve stumbled onto the model for the perfect EPA!  It’s called the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) of the People’s Republic of China.  It’s small – only 1/6th the staff of the EPA.  It’s job-conscious – all those factories making shoes, jeans and toys for the whole world hum along without much interference.  And it’s locally managed – provincial and city officials get to decide how or whether to enforce the rules.
So if we want to see how the EPA should be run, we need look no further than China’s MEP.
While we’re at it, I’d suggest we look at a few other Chinese facts on the ground:
  • 700 million Chinese drink water contaminated by human and animal waste; 
  • 20 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities are Chinese
  • 75% of water flowing through Chinese cities is unsuitablefor human contact or fishing; 
  • 23 of China’s 40 largest lakes are “eutrophic” – with algae-green bacteria blooms sucking the life out of the water;
  • With surface water contaminated, China now relies on its groundwater, resulting in a 50-meter drop in water tables, and counting; 
  • An estimated 40 million Chinese migrant workers have fled their homes and villages due to environmental degradation and pollution;
  • Every year, Chinese environmental-damage expenses equal 8-12% of its GDP
  • Acid rain from coal-burning now affects 33% of Chinese territory, and the number grows with each new power plant; 
  • Every year, an area the size of New Jersey gets added to China’s growing deserts
  • AND, if all that’s not enough, one Chinese baby is born with birth defects every 30 seconds due to pollution. 
Now, you’re going to get the idea that I don’t like this place.  Not at all.  The Chinese people seem to be remarkably industrious and resourceful.  They exhibit a profound commitment to family and community.  And in the last 30 years, they have pulled their country up from unspeakable  poverty to become a world leader. 
No place for the laundry, or for the woman washing it.
And they deserve much, much better than the flimsy protection they’re getting from the MEP.
What’s the problem?  Among many, here’s the core:  Whatever China’s MEP says, enforcement is controlled by local officials who get rich off new factory openings, not newly-cleaned lakes and rivers.  And those officials march to the daily mantra: “First development, then environment.”
Thou leadest me beside still waters: sheep drinking textile poisons.
Let’s talk sense: There has never been any environmental protection that didn’t initially threaten someone’s job.  But before long, those jobs might seem like poor compensation for the resulting toxic water, dry wells, growing deserts, mounting cleanup costs and deformed babies.
So before they hold another debate, I wish the candidates would come over here for a closer look at the new, improved EPA they’re longing for. 
But first, I’d give them this bit of friendly travel advice: Don’t drink the water.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood
Waterfront street vendor: 75% of city rivers are contaminated

Happy New Year from China!

What’s an old guy from New Jersey doing way over here?   I don’t blame you for wondering.
My good friend Janel Curry asked me to join her and a group of her students from Calvin College, to spend most of January learning about economic development and environmental challenges in the Pearl River Delta (PRD).  The PRD is China’s most vibrant industrial nerve center, boasting historic cities like Guangzhu (Canton), Hong Kong and Macao, plus the overnight burgeoning “factory cities” like Dongguan and Foshan. 
46 million souls live in this delta.  46 million: That’s only 3.5% of China’s 1.4 billion people, but generating 29.8% of its massive exports around the world.  The shoes you’re wearing now were probably made here.  Maybe your cell phone and laptop too.
Hong Kong’s beautiful Stonecutter’s Bridge took us in from the airport.
Riding the crest of Deng Xiaoping’s declaration 30 years ago that “To get rich is glorious,” the PRD has achieved incredible results.  Chinese per capita GDP has increased forty-fold over 24 years: from $84 in 1984 to $3,259 in 2008.  Forty fold! Unbelievable!
 But there’s been a price, and it’s being felt all over the China, and the world.

  • 20 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities are here.
  • 150 million Chinese have left their homes to become migrant workers (as many as ALL U.S. workers!), and 40 million of them have been forced to move due to environmental damage.
  • Every year, an area the size of New Jersey succumbs to desertification as a result of Chinese exploitation of the creation.
  • 700 million Chinese drink water contaminated by human and animal waste.
  • And when I was a boy of six, 35-50 million Chinese died from one single famine.

Despite their great achievements, humans have not had the last word.  The potential — indeed, the certainty — of massive challenges to people and to the earth from wanton exploitation can be easily foreseen from the past. The sheer scale of opportunity or potential further harm in this enormous country is almost mind boggling.  And since human impact on the creation knows no national boundaries, the wider world is watching with keen interest and trepidation…
…Just like they’re watching the U.S.
So, for the rest of this month, I’m going to look for opportunities to post from this amazing country.  I hope that we all end up with a clearer picture of what justice and healing might look like for this amazing, complex and injured world.
It doesn’t belong to the Chinese, or the Americans.  This is our Father’s world.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood