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Report from the front line

When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind - Or Destroy It. - Jonathan Watts

Watts' evocative title is taken from his childhood prayer begging god to prevent the Earth being shaken from its axis by the force of the world's largest population landing in concert. His book offers no prospect of avoiding an equivalent catastrophe for the biosphere; 'China has jumped' he states, and we must all rebalance our lives. Region by region, he examines the activities pushing China's ecosystems beyond their limits.

The global consequences are stark. The rich, minority world has exported dirty industries and actual waste to China, where an ever bigger mess has to be swept under an ever shrinking rug. Western governments have claimed carbon savings without counting the exported emissions. Watts' interviews with Chinese people in all sorts of social positions reveal a prevailing preoccupation with economic growth and increasing affluence. Often despite serious impacts on their lifestyles, environmental concern is worryingly far from most interviewees' minds.

Mao's Great Leap Forward, which instituted reckless hydro-engineering and foolhardy agricultural experiments, and caused a population explosion, is blamed for much of the 'develop now, clean up later' attitude, but Watts is quick to point out that Euro-American economies industrialised with as little thought for wider impacts, if not less.

Filthy coal power emissions and desertification are major problems, which impact strongly on what I find the most disturbing problem; increasing pressure on water resources. China's waterways are under stress and in many cases too polluted to use. Himalayan glaciers, which provide a steady supply for the lands below, are being steadily depleted. Talk of redirecting waterways from India to irrigate Northern China hint at major conflicts in the future. Both countries have areas of severe shortage. Watts points out that China is buying land in Africa to feed its citizens. Dark shadows of carbon wars hang in the future...

Watts searches hard for the seeds of hope, investigating China's much-vaunted green investments and conservation programs, finding many serious flaws. Throughout the book, he contrasts Confucianism, which focuses on human society, with Daoism, which focuses on harmony with nature. His conclusion draws on these roots: science must help, but it cannot be the solution. In China the limits to growth are being hit now. The global economy will have to restructure. In order for this to happen, Watts claims, there must be a shift from humanist Confucian to holistic Daoist values: a lesson from ancient and modern Chinese culture for people everywhere.