In Mao's War Against Nature (2001) Judith Shapiro argues that elements of society generally associated with democracy, including intellectual freedom, political participation, government accountability and transparency, and local self governance, lead to good environmental policy, while coercion and authoritarian centralization lead to environmental damage. We read Shapiro’s book last semester in my environmental class, along with a patchwork of a book by Vaclav Smil called China’s Past, China’s Future: Energy, Food, Environment (2005). I used the two books together to pose the question “What mechanisms allowed Mao to completely destroy the environment in China?” Shapiro’s account emphasizes the authoritarian nature of the Mao era, whereas Smil’s account puts more blame on the lack of private property and ensuing tragedy of the commons.
Many, many events in China right now are testing these hypotheses. I wasn’t able to cover them during the semester, other than a quick note about the wave of land-rights riots that has gripped China recently, but I hope to start tracking more of them now. This is a good time to do it, because the Chinese environmental situation is starting to get attention from the American media.
Yesterday’s NYT features another important story in this area. The central government of China is planning a new mega hydropower project: 13 dams to be built along the Nu ("Angry") River in Yunan province. The project would generate more electricity than the current record holder for hydroelectric production, China’s own Three Gorges Dam, helping the nation move away from the dreadful coal power it currently depends on. But it would rip apart Yunan province, which holds most of China’s biological, ethnic, and linguistic diversity. The area is a mountainous, temperate rainforest filled with endangered species and odd ethnic groups who have had little contact with the industrialized world.
But the story is really interesting because of the democratic element. The Communist Party originally wanted to build this dam the same way they built the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangze and before that the Sanmenxia Dam on the Yellow River, that is, they wanted to just march in, announce to everyone that they had to leave and then build the damn thing, regardless of who it hurt, or even whether the dam itself would actually do the job it promised to do. The human cost of the Three Gorges Dam--1.3 million people displaced and countless historical sites lost--is infamous. The Mao-era Sanmenxia Dam quickly became jammed with silt, and could not produce electricity. More gates were constructed to channel off the silt but, as Shapiro reports, “Eventually the dam was so pierced with holes that it became virtually worthless for either flood control or electricity generation” (2001, 63).
The Nu Dam may have been heading the way of its infamous predecessors, but small openings in the dictatorship may block this. China now allows nongovernmental organizations, including environmental ones, and a new law, the China Environmental Impact Assessment Law, was passed in 2002, which requires public hearings and environmental assessments of all major building projects. When Friends of Nature and other Chinese Environmental NGOs started questioning the dam, the project was suspended and an environmental assessment ordered. The victory was only partial, however, as the assessment has never been declassified, and the project remains in limbo.
The Times’ piece pitches this as a story about the growth of civil society in China, rather than a story about the environmental dilemmas China faces. The story is a part of an extended series about the growth of rule of law in China. Government and business in China has been conducted for decades mostly via personal relationships and networking. Many foreign investors are hoping that the industrialization of China will replace this uncertain culture of “face” with a system of explicit regulations consistently applied, something you can build a business plan around. Hence the question: will China obey its own laws and hold public hearings around the Nu dam.
I suppose some environmentalists would prefer to see this simply as a story of a partial victory over an evil dam. Sometimes it seems that environmentalists must automatically be opposed to building dams, the way that we are automatically in favor of fuel efficiency standards and a robust national park system. But let's face it, this is terribly short sighted. Hydro power is clean, and despite rhetoric about rivers running wild and free, it beats the shit out China’s main energy source, coal. The air in Chinese cities is simply Dickensian. Smil notes that many years the mean daily concentration of particulate matter exceeds recommended daily maxima in many cities (2005, 16). That's right: on the average day it is too polluted to go outside. Moreover, the system of dams being built on the Nu sounds like the sort of project that people were proposing as an alternative to hubristic mega projects like the Three Gorges and Sanmenxia dams. It is a system of smaller interventions, rather than a big, Soviet-inspired monument plopped down in the middle of a river.
For this reason, I think The Times took exactly the right angle on the story. I don’t know whether the Nu river dams should be built, nor do I particularly feel like I should tell the Chinese how to manage their rivers. But I am obligated to give support to the democratic process here. A major reason why the Sanmenxia dam was such a fuck-up was that Mao silences all of the experts who tried to warn him that the dam would not work. Shapiro tells the story of Hydro-Engineer Huang Wanli, who warned that the Sanmenxia dam would silt up. The incident was a nasty case of Lysenkoism that some contemporary world leaders should pay attention to. Mao claimed that Marxist ideology disproved any scientific objection to his plan, and Huang replied that he “could not simply order the sun to orbit the earth” (Shapiro 2001, 60). His ideas were repressed and he was sent to be reeducated in a labor camp. The dam silted up in three years.
I am in no position to assess the Nu river project, and I doubt any of my 50 or so readers are either. However I am quite certain that no one, not even the people involved in the project can know anything about it, unless it is subject to proper public debate. (Declassifying the environmental impact statement would be a start.) Without that, at most all one can have is true belief about the project.
Shapiro’s thesis--that features of civil society associated with democracy are good for the environment--suffers from an ambiguity: “good for the environment” is simply never defined. As an environmental philosopher, I can assure you that it is no easy phrase to define, either. I am certain of two things about the good of the environment, however. A good environment is one that is just for the humans that live in it. The burdens of pollution and environmental degradation must be shared justly across a society. If some are to be displaced so that all can have cleaner air, this must because this is the fairest distribution of environmental goods. I am also sure of a second fact about the environmental good: we won’t know what it is unless we approach it with all the tools of good science. Both of these facts tell me that the aspects of civil society associated with democracy are not only good for the environment, they are actually constitutive of it. We just wouldn’t call it a healthy environment if it weren’t managed by other means.