Nature will constrain China’s growth

When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind – Or Destroy It, by Jonathan Watts, Faber and Faber, RRP£14.99; Scribner $17

Mao Zedong, the founder of communist China, liked the idea of bending nature to human will. He loved the fable of the old man, so determined to move two mountains blocking his view that he pledged his life and that of his sons, grandsons and all offspring in perpetuity to the task of shifting them. In a poem anticipating construction of the colossal Three Gorges Dam, Mao wrote of “walls of stone” creating a smooth lake and shocking the mountain goddess with a “world so changed”. His own wars on nature – to divert waters, create energy, raise crop yields, green the desert, massacre sparrows (blamed for eating crops) and to make artificial rain – mostly ended in disaster.

China’s current leaders are engineers. Hu Jintao is a hydro-engineer and Wen Jiabao a geologist. Jonathan Watts, a Guardian correspondent who spent seven years chronicling the impact of hyper-growth on China’s – and the global – environment, calls them President Water and Premier Earth. Though both espouse Mr Hu’s theory of “Scientific Development”, which urges more sustainable growth, Watts says they remain enraptured with great engineering projects. Even their “green” ideas are carried out on an industrial scale. China plants more trees than the rest of the world combined, but Watts says the result is lifeless monocultures. Worse, logging restrictions mean China has merely displaced its appetite for old-growth forest to Siberia and Indonesia. China, in short, is starting to behave like other rich countries.

The book’s title comes from a story about the potentially destructive power of China’s massive population. If they all jumped at once, Watts was told as a child, the earth could be bumped off its axis with apocalyptic consequences. But the childish nightmare contained a grain of truth. China’s 1.3bn people are all now moving – towards a western-style lifestyle. All aspire, understandably, to the living standards of those in Europe, the US and Japan, rich countries with a combined population of less than 1bn. They want to consume as much oil, coal, meat and wood, to own as many Barbie dolls, cars and gadgets and to spew out as much waste and carbon dioxide. Watts’ book contends – persuasively, but never quite decisively – that the planet simply cannot sustain a population of China’s size joining the west in its reckless consumption. “China should have the same scope to damage the planet in the future as rich nations have done in the past,” he writes. “This would be completely fair and utterly calamitous.”

The book takes the form of a journey across China’s blighted landscape. Though it benefits from a strong intellectual backbone, it reads too often like an account of a holiday organised by the world’s worst travel agent. Watts’ journey takes him through the denuded forests of Yunnan, the factory lands of Guangdong, the poisoned industrial wastelands of Henan and the coal-producing heartland of Shanxi and Shaanxi. He visits the cities, where only 1 per cent of air is fit to breathe, and the countryside where (in Gansu and Ningxia) people leave their front door open but padlock their wells, such is the scarcity of water. Some of the stories are grimly funny. One zoo serves up the exhibits in the cafeteria because it lacks the space and money to keep them. Some, such as those of deformities caused by industrial pollution, are just grim.

Watts’ assertion is that China cannot follow the path of other industrialising nations, which polluted first and cleaned up later. “This model relied on those at the clean-up stage being able to sweep the accumulated dirt of development under a new and bigger rug,” he writes, arguing that there is no rug big enough to accommodate China’s future appetites. Nor does he put great faith in technological solutions, such as the alternative energy in which China is now a world leader. “Like Gulliver, a handful of huge, high-profile, low-carbon projects are being swamped by millions of tiny, barely registered, high-carbon habits.”

The book ends up as an indictment of western-style consumption patterns, barely sustainable even if the west keeps them to itself. Now that China wants them too, Watts argues, humans need an alternative to their obsession with ever-higher gross domestic product – “that triumph of human quantity over natural quality”. It has become fashionable to argue that China will grow old before it gets rich, a prediction stemming from the nature-bending effects of its one-child policy. Watts’ forecast is different. It is that China, still poor on a per-capita basis, will hit environmental limits before it becomes wealthy. If he is right, it is a constraint that will affect the lives of people far beyond the Middle Kingdom.

The writer is an FT columnist

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