“North China is Dying”

Imagine life in the United States if our population suddenly quintupled.   California’s population alone would be near that of the real-life United States.  The average Los Angelean would spend 4 hours a day commuting; Interstate 5 would be bumper-to-bumper all day and night, from San Diego to Santa Barbara.  Smog so thick you could spoon it into your lungs would choke the San Fernando Valley.  Sacramento would no longer be a sleepy capital–it would be the size of New York City.

The situation would be even more extreme in nearby, water-starved states like New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada.  There, boomtown megacities– 12 million people in Denver, 22 million in Las Vegas–would quickly drain underground aquifers that took millennia to fill.  Desertification would cause the Mojave Desert to inch towards Salt Lake City and Phoenix.  The Colorado River would be stressed to the point of breaking, and hundreds of millions of people would be in fear of losing their source of water.

Now imagine that in response, the Obama administration announces a plan to divert 6 trillion gallons of water each year from the Mississippi river to the ravaged west.  The U.S. will spend 900 billion dollars building giant aqueducts from the Midwest to the Pacific Ocean.

An impossible scenario to imagine?

This is life in China.

The statistics and phrasing of the paragraphs above mimic a largely overlooked New York Times article from early in the summer that began with the blunt sentence, “North China is dying.”  The article summarized the dire conditions in the drought stricken region and went on to explore the Communist Party’s desperate plans to divert the Yangtze River towards Beijing and other population centers.  Meanwhile, the Chinese government itself admits it is wildly failing to live up to its green promises.

How are average Chinese reacting to their government’s bold (and perhaps absurd) attempt to respond to the country’s pending ecological death?  I would characterize their reaction as disorganized and muted.  On the one hand, China’s Public Security Bureau records tens of thousands of “public order disturbances” each year (a good analysis of what this means found here), many of which are focused on environmental concerns.  On the other hand, As Elizabeth Economy—author of one of the seminal books on the Chinese environment, The River Runs Black—has said, “nothing short of a complete political overhaul can get China where it needs to be,” on environmental issues.

But of course, this overhaul is nowhere in sight.  China barrels ahead without any signs of democratic temptation.  Cities are knocked down, rebuilt, and knocked down again on the whims of a few local leaders.  Tens of thousands of Gingko trees are uprooted, transported to new locations, and replanted because one powerful Communist official likes the smell (and as Confucius said, “when a ruler loves anything, those below him are sure to love it even more”).  The ecosystem continues its death spiral.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is that while many in the Chinese government are rearranging deck chairs, Chinese scientists are trying to sound the alarm.  In a depressing parallel to American politics, the scientists are struggling to inject reality into national policy discussions.

Let’s hope they succeed.  It’s not hyperbole to say that if a small handful of policy makers in China get things wrong, the headlines wont merely read “North China is Dying”; they will read “The Northern Hemisphere is Dying.”

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