A way forward for China’s environmental movement

Will development really save the environment? Tang Hao's regular column continues with an incendiary analysis of China's growth, its political future and the way out... before the collapse.

On August 23, 2007, NASA released satellite photographs of the Pearl River delta taken in 1979 and 2003. The impact of the years since the start of the reform era have not been kind; urban and industrial areas have expanded while vegetation, waterways and shallows have disappeared. Any statistics I could list would be outweighed by the sheer visual impact of these pictures.

Picture: NASA

This is nothing new; the same process can be seen in industrialised nations. This mode of growth, driven by the pursuit of capital, may yet use up all of China's available resources. And this is particularly true in an area like the Pearl River delta, where growth comes from foreign investment. But why?

• Firstly, our economic framework sees the environment as a free resource to be used at will. Our air, soil or greenery is rarely calculated into the costs of growth. If any single business were to do so — by installing wastewater treatment, for instance — its costs would be higher than its competitors, favouring the polluters. When protecting the environment leads to bankruptcy, nobody wants to be green.

• Secondly, economic growth means more products and greater consumption, and this leads to individuals creating pollution and waste. The more a country develops, the bigger this problem becomes. The world's sewage, trash and industrial waste is growing to be a global headache, which is why developed countries have tried to shift the problem overseas. The controversy early this year over Britain's waste exports to China is one example, but there are many more foreign companies involved in this trade.

• Finally, when growth is driven by foreign capital to seek quick returns, exploitation of the environment is inevitable. However, when the resources are spent and the environment’s capacity is saturated, the capitalists will move on and take their factories elsewhere; just as they are by relocating from the Pearl River delta to the Yangtze River delta. The end result can only be a complete system collapse.

Slogans and development

This all points to a terrifying future. The single-minded pursuit of growth is unsustainable, and we have no way to solve these problems. A simple examination of the measures we already have in place shows they are unfit for purpose.

Sustainable development is currently approached from three main angles: technological advances, raising environmental awareness and cleaning up the impacts of growth. But seeking alternative sources of power and advanced technologies is not enough; such measures will simply boost production, leaving us with the same set of problems. And no-one is anyone willing to sacrifice their quality of life to protect the environment, a point made abundantly clear in August by a CCTV survey. As for the idea that economic growth will promote environmental protection, all the evidence seems to point the other way: economic growth and environmental damage go hand in hand.

Green slogans, activism and promises continue, but the environment continues to deteriorate. In the west, the Kyoto Protocol exists in name only: the US and Japan have increased carbon dioxide emissions while the EU has reluctantly kept emissions at the same levels as during the 1990s. Green GDP in China has been set aside indefinitely. The Pearl River delta — accounting for 0.4% of China’s land, yet contributing 10% of its GDP — pays the price of growth in air pollution, discoloured waterways, loss of land, urban expansion and acid rain over 70% of its area.

From activism to reform

The environment is under threat, and there is no value in pointing the finger at the irresponsibility of capitalism or the selfishness of certain groups. These are questions of economic principles or human nature. More importantly, our state of affairs is the product of a particular combination of economic, political and social structures. The biggest issue we face is not ongoing environmental degradation, but that our current system cannot handle the problem.

Our current system of economic growth cannot deal with ecological degradation. The claim that it will result in the best outcome for the majority of people is a mere excuse; economic growth is controlled by a minority who also benefit from it. In many countries growth has failed to eradicate poverty; globalisation and international competition has meant many countries sacrificing their environment.

Current political systems are also unable to solve the problem. This is partly thanks to the inherent weakness of democratic politics, but also because the globalisation of capital has made ecological destruction a cross-border problem that democratic politics cannot take account of. Even the world’s most powerful market economy, the US, ignores the reality of the situation– as shown by President Bush’s repeated defences of big polluters.

The lack of global governance, the dominance of capital, the strength of market economics and the protection offered by powerful countries mean the problem is becoming ever more serious while national efforts become ever more disappointing. Only global public participation can provide the power we need. After all, it is the people who suffer most.

The goal must be a permanent, concrete change, involving the establishment of strong rules and a fundamental system. It will take place over several stages, with countries and peoples first deciding to cease excessive development and waste, then carrying out reforms based on public participation and unity, and finally establishing domestic and international systems. It is incredible that there is still no global organisation coordinating environmental policy.

The environmental movement must shift its focus to reforming the system. It must fix its eye on our rules and our penalties, or it has no hope. The public – those most affected by environmental change – must have more political input.

However, solving environmental problems by expanding democracy would face its own challenges. Are democratic processes really suitable for the environmental issues ahead of us? Can participants understand the complex scientific issues under discussion? Very few will choose to sacrifice economic growth for the sake of the environment. If we could only have one, which would we choose?

The globalisation of capital is breaking all boundaries, and we must meet it with a matching unity among the people of the world. Only then will we be able to call a halt to those interests despoiling our homelands — before all our lands turn to desert.


Tang Hao, born in 1974, is a newspaper columnist, deputy editor of Shimin (Citizen) magazine, and assistant professor of politics at Huanan Normal University. His essays and opinion pieces have appeared in Contemporary International Relations, International Studies, Nanfang Daily, Yangcheng Evening News, Southern Window and many other publications.