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China’s Unknown Political Future (September 2015): Chinese Environment

By Xiaofei Li

Chinese Environment

In the early 1980s, Vaclav Smil’s The Bad Earth: Environmental Degradation in China characterized the state of China’s environment in order to suggest a suitable development mode that could help move the country forward.  In the early 1990s, Richard Louis Edmonds wrote Patterns of China’s Lost Harmony: A Survey of the Country’s Environmental Degradation and Protection, which attempted to perform a similar service (i.e., offer a survey of the state of the environment).  Most recently, The River Runs Black by Elizabeth Economy complements these early works, picturing China’s environment mainly from a policy perspective at the start of the twenty-first century.

In his second work, China’s Past, China’s Future, Vaclav Smil looks back upon his early, pioneering work on China’s biophysical foundations as well as updates and reassesses his initial analyses and predictions.  The author documents the changes in energy, food, and environment to present an extremely accurate and progressive picture of how China is changing.  In this updated volume, Smil notes the typical Chinese dichotomy in energy; there are extensive energy shortages in China’s rural areas with its declining dependence on traditional fuels, on the one hand, and a significant decline in overall energy/GDP intensity, on the other hand.  Smil also dismisses the myths of China’s catastrophic food crises.  In addition, Smil outlines the prevalent deforestation, unendurable air pollution, water contamination, loss of arable land, and decline of biodiversity, along with a concise, brilliant discussion of the South-North Water Transfer Project in China.  Smil advises readers not to construct extreme scenarios when studying China.  Instead, he urges the Chinese to realize that China’s “fate, so fundamentally dependent on its supply of energy and food and on the maintenance of a healthy environment, will be determined more by the future choices and actions of its people than by either its ancient cultural heritage or its natural endowments and challenging environment.”  This is one of the most accurate and complete studies on environmental issues, and is appropriate for those who want to follow the progress of the environment, food, and energy in China.

Elizabeth C. Economy in The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future presents readers with three scenarios for China’s future: green, steady, or tanned state.  Although Economy wisely makes no prediction herself, readers may get the sense that if China becomes a more democratic country, it will have an improved environment.  The only hope, as Economy sees it, is that China join the international community, which will lead to better environmental protection.  The book is especially valuable because it makes the connection between environmental problems and political development.  In particular, Economy contends that bad environmental policies may lead to political instability throughout China.  She is, therefore, concerned with policy.  As such, this book represents at the current time the best read for someone interested in Chinese environmental policy and is highly recommended.

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