China’s Ecological Outlook in 1983

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

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.

Even today, though, because the Yellow River watershed has been largely deforested and thus the services of trees in absorbing and gradually releasing water have been lost–some threat of floods persists. In fact, the bed of the Yellow River is now well above the level of the northern China land through which it flows.

To protect the land around the Yellow River and the nation’s many other flood plains against the vagaries of the Chinese weather, the P.R.C. has launched massive dam projects and reforestation programs to contain its water supply. Such efforts, along with what is now the world’s largest irrigation system, probably will help prevent disastrous flooding in the future.

Agriculture: Innovations and Perils

While expanding its ancient irrigation systems, Chinese agricultural research has in many ways been innovative as well. Much work has been done on inter-cropping–growing two or more crops together in ways that give higher yields and fewer pest problems than do monoculture plantings. Biological pest control methods have been extensively employed, and the use of natural organic fertilizers has been developed to a fine art. In addition, agricultural production has been centrally planned to meet local needs, as opposed to growing cash crops for export. And the peasants have been involved in these processes.

There has, however, been a dark side to Communist China’s agricultural development. As in the United States, urban expansion has been destroying cropland, a loss that, while clearly serious in America, could be catastrophic in China. Between 1957 and 1977, the total number of cultivated acres dropped from 265 million to 245 million. This reduction occurred in spite of the fact that considerable portions of wilderness were turned into farmland during that period; the actual amount of cropland urbanized in those 20 years is estimated to be about 70 million acres. And farmland continues to be destroyed faster than new land can be made arable. The P.R.C. urgently needs to build up and not out, as is now the case with its sprawling, land-wasting, traditional “courtyard and compound” architecture.

Then, too, central planning has not always yielded sound decisions. Mao created an Inner Mongolian dust bowl by decreeing that the area’s arid grassland be planted in grain. The attempt was an immense agricultural failure, one that caused 10 million acres to become “desertified.” Repair of the land, if it’s possible, may take a century.

Likewise, in Yunnan (in southwest China along the Burmese border), a million acres of rare tropical forest were burned, all to make poor cropland. Across the nation in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, 5 million acres of marshes were drained to create a new granary. But that draining has already altered the local climate so dramatically that much of the area is drying up.

In short, the race between food and population in China is still being run. The P.R.C. now has a mere quarter of an acre of arable land per person. Confronted by an array of both favorable and inauspicious signs, scientists cannot yet conclude with any confidence whether the problems of feeding the Chinese masses have been solved.

China’s Natural Resources

In nonfood resources, China is relatively rich. It has a good supply of offshore oil and large coal deposits. The latter, unfortunately, are still used quite inefficiently. It takes, for instance, roughly three times as much coal to make a ton of steel in China as it does in Japan.

Coal is also the primary source of one of China’s most obvious environmental problems, air pollution. Besides its use in industry, coal is the main fuel employed for cooking, home heating, and boiling China’s almost universally polluted water. In fact, even though cigarette smoking among Chinese men is epidemic, rural women have more lung cancer than their male counterparts, presumably because of the women’s higher exposure to coal smoke in the home.

Acid rain is another result of China’s wide use of coal. Its full extent is not known, but what is known is pretty grim. In 1981, in one city in the western province of Qinghai, Dr. John Harte of the University of California measured precipitation that had a pH of 2.24, which is roughly the acidity of lemon juice.

What’s more, nothing has yet been done about surface-level water pollution. Some 90% of industrial liquid waste goes directly into rivers and streams. (While consuming drinking water on our recent trip to China, we wondered how much of it might contain heavy metals and other pollutants that were not removed by the ubiquitous boiling.)

Historically, of course, the origins of China’s main eco-catastrophe far outdate the current regime. As George Borgstrom wrote in 1969, “Already in the famous era of the bronze vases, when the water buffalo was domesticated, China in effect committed its great ecological blunder of cutting down the forest to gain agricultural land.”

A massive attempt is being made to correct this mistake. China plans to reforest over a million square miles, an area four-fifths the size of India. The Chinese now talk of a greenbelt 4,350 miles long running parallel to the Great Wall. This “Green Wall” would be a barrier against desertification. In 1980, it was reported that 3,500 square miles of the Green Wall had already been planted.

Still, China has made just a bare start in implementing such grandiose plans. In our 1982 travels, we were both impressed and depressed in this regard. First, every one of the numerous wooded areas we saw in the eastern part of the country consisted of even aged stands of trees, clearly the result of a tremendous effort at reforestation. But second, we were struck by the tiny proportion of the vast, denuded areas that has been replanted. The mountains around the Great Wall north of Beijing, for example, display only scattered patches of replanted trees.

Much can still go wrong in areas that are reforested. Transplanted seedlings do not necessarily survive, and the exotic tree species (such as eucalyptus) that are sometimes used may be difficult to maintain on a long-term basis.

Deforestation is just one symptom of China’s biotic impoverishment. In the far west around the Amne Machin mountains, an area once rich in wild mammals has been so ravaged by overgrazing that soon it won’t even support domestic animals. There also remains a rich bounty on the heads of the few remaining snow leopards, and the local tribesmen don’t have to share such bounty with their communes (as they must, say, any fees earned from guiding services).

On the other hand, the Chinese do display a growing ecological consciousness–concern over the preservation of the giant panda is one example of this–and, of course, a widespread and deeply rooted traditional love of birds, flowers, and natural beauty.

Political Factors

Any overall evaluation of the environmental future of the P.R.C. must include consideration of the political problems that plague China’s ancient society. Large portions of the population are said to have been permanently alienated from the Communist Party by the brutal excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Too many of these people were transported from the cities to virtual slavery in rural areas. Too many had their careers ruined. Too many saw their loved ones tortured and killed, and their books and other property burned.

As a result of this–and of continual revision of “correct” policies and positions by the Party–discontent is widespread. Indeed, the level of criticism the ruling elite has suffered has forced it to back away from its recent attempts at democratization.

No one thinks that another revolution is in the cards, but it’s not at all clear whether the government will receive the wholehearted support of the population in its future endeavors that it had in the first decade of its reign. Yet sound, and fully supported, environmental policy may prove crucial to the nation’s future. In many ways, then, the People’s Republic of China remains a society poised on the brink of eco-catastrophe. It seems likely that only the full cooperation of its billion-plus citizens can keep it from going over the edge.

The information on acid rains and Amne Machin is from John Harte. Some of China’s other environmental problems are discussed in C. Joyce’s “Industrial China’s Expensive Dirt,” New Scientist, September 11, 1980. A fine source for socio-political problems of the P.R.C. is Fox Butterfield’s China: Alive in a Bitter Sea (Times Books).

The Ehrlichs’ work is supported in part by a grant from the Koret Foundation of San Francisco.