Academic journal article Social Justice

Toxic China? A Review Essay

Academic journal article Social Justice

Toxic China? A Review Essay

Article excerpt

Elizabeth Economy, The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future. Second edition. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010. 364 pages. US $73.95 cloth; $19.95 paper; $10.88 e-book.

Judith Shapiro, China's Environmental Challenges. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2012. 200 pages. US $69.95 cloth; $22.95 paper; $18.99 e-book.

Sam Geall, ed., China and the Environment: The Green Revolution. London: Zed Books, 2013. 247 pages. US $135.95 cloth; $29.95 paper; 16.98 [pounds sterling] e-book.

CHINA'S ENVIRONMENTAL FOOTPRINT HAS BEEN RAPIDLY DEEPENING BY MANY measures--in total weight, in per capita terms, more quickly than that of humanity as a whole, and beyond its jurisdictional borders. With a fifth of the world's population, for instance, the People's Republic of China accounts for at least one-quarter of current carbon dioxide emissions. The Chinese people and their leaders are increasingly concerned about environmental issues, and are seldom prone to skepticism about their seriousness. Nonetheless, as elsewhere in the world, policies and personal choices are not changing as quickly as the problems are growing. In large part, this is because those of us whose national footprints grew earlier, and who individually emit more greenhouse gasses than the average Chinese person, have been so slow to act. It is therefore urgent that we understand China's crisis, how it fits into the global picture, and how we can cooperate to reduce humanity's destructive footprint. Unfortunately, the contours of China's environmental footprint can be difficult to grasp, for observers inside and outside of the country. The crisis has many facets and is worsening quickly in conditions where journalists often lack access, norms of official transparency are just beginning to take hold, and government public relations efforts announce that China is at the vanguard of the global movement to achieve ecologically sustainable growth. Outlining the shape and origins of China's crisis and providing glimpses of citizens' political responses, these three books provide informative overviews, astute analysis, and guidance for further study

Elizabeth Economy and Judith Shapiro use the neutral word "challenge" in their book titles, but convey grave concern about deepening patterns of environmental destruction. Like the proverbial elephant examined by blind men, China's environmental challenge presents itself to them in varied ways, and they report on it from historical, official, local, and international viewpoints. Their accounts 5are broad ranging and rather loosely organized as a result. Despite having six different authors, Sam Geall's edited work is the most cohesive of the three and complements the other books by focusing on citizens' responses to ecological risks. Geall and his colleagues review how citizens seek to defend themselves when state-sponsored industrial and hydropower construction projects threaten their homes and livelihood. By forming groups, protesting publicly, petitioning authorities, demanding information, declaring their rights, and seeking justice in the courts, citizens all over China are wrestling daily with their nation's swelling footprint. Their actions in the face of constant setbacks and harsh punishments are remarkably courageous. Although they are not yet winning the struggle, popular environmentalism is changing Chinese politics.

All three books recount the trampling of the Chinese people's personal health and welfare, and also make clear that it is not for lack of legislative protection that toxins are filling their air, water, and soil. In their fourth and third chapters respectively, Economy and Shapiro describe regulatory systems built up since the 1970s and explain the lack of enforcement of the laws designed to protect the environment and human health. On paper, the relevant legislation is comprehensive and sophisticated. A lack of fit with political realities, however, hinders implementation. …

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