Saturday, April 5, 2014

Book Reviews: The Devouring Dragon

The Devouring Dragon: How China's Rise Threatens Our Natural World
by Craig Simons
I'd like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species, and I realized that humans are not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment; but you humans do not. Instead you multiply, and multiply, until every resource is consumed. The only way for you to survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer on this planet, you are a plague, and we... are the cure.
Agent Smith 
This book details the numerous ways (warming skies, shrinking forests, vanishing animals, poisoned rivers and seas, floods, etc) in which China's growth harms the world environment. China leads the world in CO2 emissions. It produces double the amount that the United States does. China burns most of the world's coal. Forests are disappearing and animals are being hunted to extinction because of Chinese demand. Starting this book it is initially difficult to avoid the conclusion that China in particular and the world in general are overpopulated. The Chinese market threatens almost every worldwide natural resource. Simons argues that China is raising the world's metabolism with grim results. Disturbing and frankly deficient Chinese cultural practices like poaching tigers, elephants, rhinos, or sharks to near extinction are detailed. Unfortunately so-called traditional Chinese medicine targets such animals for alleged medicinal or sexual value. The more normal worldwide practice of building dams, increasing industrial productivity, and expanding human settlement into previously untouched areas causes problems within and beyond China. I am sympathetic to wild animals. So I was angered by detailed descriptions of various Chinese cruelties (taking bile from a bear by the sadistic, senseless and cruel method of sticking a knife into a live bear's liver and letting it bleed out). But putting aside odd culinary and cultural aspects, China is doing very little that so-called Western nations haven't done. Chinese partisans point that out whenever China is correctly criticized for its environmental devastation and degradation.

Westerners have criticized the Abrahamic religious view that man has dominion over the world and its flora and fauna. This Western view of man as being above and outside of nature is echoed in Confucian views of man establishing dominance over nature.

So we should dismiss prejudice and look at the facts. There are fewer wildernesses and wild animals remaining in Europe and the Americas precisely because as generally "Western" nations, most of the countries on those continents pursued an unsustainable mode of development that wreaked havoc on the natural world. But today those nations have a higher standard of living than other nations. Just speaking of the United States, I can drive long distances, have my home as hot or as cold as I like it at any time of the year, purchase any kind of food anytime I want regardless of local season, and waste water or electricity with abandon. All of this has a cost. The problem, as this author repeatedly says, is something which economists have called the tragedy of the commons. You can read more about it here. The basic concept is pretty much the same as externalities. If some process which is important to me causes problems to you but you lack ownership over the resource I'm using, then I have no incentive to change. And unless you want war it's hard for you to stop me. This is doubly true if:
  1. I don't like you anyway.
  2. I'm convinced that your complaints are really the hypocritical bleats of a rival/competitor.
  3. I'm positive that success requires my actions.
All of these things may be true with regards to China and the Western powers. Under a purely cold hearted capitalist model China may not care if pollution created in China wafts over to the western coast of the US.

  • The population of China is equivalent to the population of North America, South America, Australia, New Zealand, and all of Western Europe -- combined.
  • The population of China is equivalent to the combined population of the former Soviet Union, plus Pakistan, Afghanistan, Finland, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, and Hungary. Oh, and all of Southeast Asia, Japan, and both Koreas.
  • The population of China is equivalent to the population of Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East put together. 
  • The population of China is equivalent to that of the world's second most populous country, India, plus that of Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh.
The days when the West could make China bend the knee by dispatching a few battleships to its coast are gone. China can't be forced to act against its will. China will only alter its approach if the United States and other advanced economies stop offshoring so much capital investment and labor to China and/or if China itself sees a benefit, real or imagined, to adapting to a more sustainable lifestyle and economy. Currently the incentives generally run in the opposite direction. And few people in the non-Western world are going to listen to Westerners lecturing them about sustainable lifestyles. They all want cars and nice clothes and air conditioning and meat and cigars and fur coats and everything else that they see rich (Western) people in advertisements enjoying.
Simons is fully aware that we can't force Chinese change. But he still ends the book by saying he is optimistic. He thinks that if the US can lead the way China will respond, especially as the costs of despoiling their environment become more obvious to Chinese citizens. 
I can't really share his optimism. As a Chinese zoologist quoted in the book said, " As a CITES negotiator I've been to thirty or forty countries over the years. I've met people all over the world. And I often tell them that I've never found a nation with a more selfish attitude toward wildlife than we Chinese have. This is not an exaggeration. If we're going to save any wildlife we have to be honest about it. Traditional Chinese medicine and our traditional idea that we should eat everything are the problem. If we can't change our mentality, all of our wildlife and all of the wildlife in the neighboring countries will be gone." To conclude, although this book may wrongly be seen and dismissed by some as the latest invocation of Yellow Peril, it actually is a reminder of just how much every living creature on this planet is connected to everyone else. If you remove wolves, deer get out of control and destroy grasslands and forests. And so on. It is not that China must change so that it may be kept down. Everyone must change for the good of the world community. And it must be the Chinese themselves who lead the way in abandoning their outmoded practices. Shame will probably need to play a role. This book is short, direct and to the point.
blog comments powered by Disqus