The Guardian’s Jonathan Watts on staving off China’s environmental apocalypse

Posted: March 8th, 2011 | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Courtesy of Bert van Dijk from Flickr
Late on in The Matrix film, there is a scene when Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith theorises to the captured Morpheus that humans are a disease, a “cancer of this planet”. This is a tad much for Jonathan Watts, Asia environmental correspondent for the Guardian newspaper. He downgrades us to locusts instead.

Watts spoke at the Shanghai International Literary Festival on Sunday about his environmental travelogue When a Billion Chinese Jump. Watts spent almost seven months traveling for the book, which chronicles his journey through China’s ecological disasters. Its title stems from a childhood superstition that if everybody in China jumped, the Earth would be knocked off-axis. He has since grown up but remains a “professional worrier”.

Jonathan Watts answering a question at the Shanghai International Literary Festival 2011
China’s environmental impact is already seismic and When a Billion Chinese Jump has helped bring it to wider attention. Watts began yesterday’s talk with the 12th Five-Year Plan, a blueprint that will guide China’s economic development until 2015. The plan, he said, sounds boring but “is a programme that will affect the colour of the sky” in its importance.

Watts was tentatively optimistic that the Plan will place pollution higher up China’s agenda. One of the headlines of Premier Wen Jiabao’s opening speech on Saturday was a lower GDP growth target of seven percent, down from 7.5 percent. The new figure will allow local governments to grow slower, in more sustainable and responsible ways. Things will not change overnight, Watts said, but he believes we “are seeing the first hints that the Chinese think there are limits for growth”.

“I think we might be seeing the peak of Chinese growth. We could be seeing another kind of peak and that is a peak of how much we can consume. Humankind has been here for millions of years but we have never consumed more.
“The last Five-Year Plan was the greenest China has ever had. You had a target for the first time for sulphur dioxide. They are keeping those targets and they are adding new chemicals. There are big conditions in terms of saying they are trying to do the right thing but they are making efforts… they are doing it because they are having to do it, and they are doing it because they have the money to do it.”

Sheer scope and complexity means environmental reporting is tough at the best of times. Covering it in China is akin to “watching 200 years of development happen in fast-forward”, according to Watts. But he pointed to his book as an example of how to make the topic accessible. His first act was to write it a travelogue, which led to Amazon categorising the book initially under Holidays and Travel. The narrative of journeying through China’s environmental nightmares has struck a chord though; an Indian journalist told Watts that some Indian readers were setting out to recreate his path. In the end, Watts believe “the environment is not a subject. It is a way of looking at things.”

Watts’s second method was to highlight how China’s modernisation has affected wildlife. He pointed out the country’s immense ecological wealth; Yunnan Province alone has more species than the North American continent. But he also reminisced about a top-level international expedition four years ago in search of the Baiji, a Chinese dolphin that lives only in the Yangtze River. After six weeks, the expedition came away empty-handed and the 20 million-year-old Baiji is now widely presumed to be extinct.

“I thought it’s just another story, a shame but something will work out. What the Baiji made me realise is that sometimes it just too late. [The expedition] told me the Baiji had been on Earth for 20 million years. That was a shock for me. There is just as much at stake, maybe more. With the environment, you are covering life and death issues for species, for the environment.”

Snowfall and rains ended a desperate four-month drought in northern China last week but water scarcity remains a massive headache for authorities. Watts described prior attempts at covering past droughts. On an overnight train to Shandong Province, he drew back his cabin’s curtains to see blanket snow, and it rained on his way to Yunnan Province last year. Unlucky but perhaps a career change to weather shaman beckons.

Watts was careful not to cast China as the world’s environmental villain. Instead, he blamed excessive consumption, a problem magnified in China by its enormous size and rapid industrialisation. “Of all the places in China that I think have an impact, this is the worst”, he said as a picture of Shanghai’s Pudong skyline flickered onto the projector screen. “I pick Shanghai why? Because it is most like London or most like Tokyo.” Shanghai takes human consumption to extremes and as evidence, Watts reeled off statistics for a world where every Chinese lived like in Shanghai: an extra 260 million air conditioners, 170 million cars, 166 million microwaves and 159 million refrigerators.

“After all this time, this was the conclusion that surprised me the most. The thing with pollution is that we know it’s a problem and we know we can fix it. If you have money and you have political will, you can fix it. Most countries have been through this and have fixed this.”

Jonathan Watts speaking at the Shanghai International Literary Festival 2011
China’s consumption will only grow as its hinterland catches up with the richer east coast. But its hunger feeds into a global pattern, a competitive compulsion to devour. “On one side, we need more international cooperation to conserve but what’s stronger at the moment is nationalist competition to consume”, Watts said.

In response to a question about clean technology transfer, Watts acknowledged that commentators like the New York Times’s Tom Friedman were warning of “Green China”, a world-leading clean energy powerhouse. China is already stealing such a march: Watts said that China invested $34 billion in green technology last year, and the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos told Stephen Colbert recently that while the U.S. pioneered solar cell technology, China was now the biggest manufacturer of such components. Whether or not you think that is a bad thing depends on which side of the Pacific you live.

Ultimately, the environment’s number one enemy is human complacency. We plundered when times were good and did not stop when they turned sour. Watts acknowledged the contradictions that people face daily when trying to live sustainably: “A lot of people say ‘What’s the point? China is building a coal fuel plant every week.”

Overall, it’s going to be extraordinarily difficult but… the problems are more easily recognisable. I remember jotting down in my notebook that in the 19th century, Britain taught the world how to produce. In the 20th century, Americans taught the world how to consume. And in the 21st century, somebody needs to teach us how to sustain.”

Follow Jonathan Watts on Twitter and read his work at The Guardian.

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