China's Ecological Outlook in 1983

In this installment of their regular "Ecoscience" column, Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich examine the ecological factors affecting the People's Republic of China in 1983.

| July/August 1983

  • 082-146-01
    Paul and Anne Ehrlich, well known to environmentalists, are deeply involved in ecological research, and write a regular ecology column for MOTHER EARTH NEWS.

  • 082-146-01

Paul Ehrlich (Bing Professor of Population Studies and Professor of Biological Sciences, Stanford University) and Anne Ehrlich (Senior Research Associate, Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford) are familiar names to ecologists and environmentalists everywhere. But while most folks are aware of the Ehrlichs' popular writing in the areas of ecology and overpopulation (most of us, for instance, have read Paul's book The Population Bomb), few people have any idea of how deeply the Ehrlichs are involved in ecological research (the type that tends to be published only in technical journals and college texts). That's why we're pleased to present "Ecoscience," a regular semi-technical column by these well-known authors/ecologists/educators. 

In spite of its population problems, the People's Republic of China (P.R.C.) has proved to be a "super-achiever" in terms of improving the health of its people. The average life expectancy of a Chinese person at birth is now between 60 and 70 years, a decade or more longer than that of people in other large, poor countries such as India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Bangladesh. 

One reason for this improvement is that the Chinese population is no longer subject to massive famines (although millions—especially in times of drought—may still be malnourished). And though the average diet barely meets the minimum nutritional requirements, the distribution of food has been enormously improved, so local crop failures no longer mean starvation. 

Water Control in China

In fact, despite a near doubling of the population during the Communists' rule, the Chinese have increased grain production to keep pace. This is a considerable achievement in view of the far-from-ideal agricultural conditions that prevail in a country which has long suffered from an alternation of floods and droughts. (The 2,117 years leading up to 1911 saw 1,621 floods and 1,392 droughts recorded—about a disaster-and-a-half per year!) 

The Yellow River, for example, has created constant problems. It runs through deep beds of loess, sandy formations left by the wind. From these, it picks up the heavy silt deposits that give the river its name. (Indeed, at times the river is almost half silt!) As this detritus accumulates on the bottom of the river, the bed gradually rises, which—in the past—often caused the water to overflow the banks and brought suffering and death to those who lived on its flood plain. 

In order to contain the river, the Chinese—centuries ago—enclosed it in a system of dikes. Maintenance of this system required organization that transcended feudal domains and led to centralized bureaucracies that go back more than 2,500 years. 

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