Sunday 11 December 2016

Review: When A Billion Chinese Jump by Jonathan Watts

(Faber & Faber, £14.99)

Published 14/08/2010 | 05:00

Here are two facts. During the first quarter of this century, half of all the world's new buildings will be erected in China, and 50,000 of them will be skyscrapers, equivalent to 10 New Yorks. And while this is happening, China will be producing 60 billion pairs of wooden chopsticks every year.

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Your head swims. You need to read the figures again. But there they are in black and white, impeccably sourced, on pages 151 and 453 of Jonathan Watts's gripping new book. It makes no difference if it's the grandiose or the trivial, the People's Republic is now producing more of it than anyone else, in the most mind-boggling explosion of economic growth the world has ever witnessed.

And a terrible reckoning is coming, Watts predicts, for China and its people, indeed for all the people of the world, for the simple reason that somewhere along the line, there has to be a limit, and the Chinese don't recognise limits. In the past, limits were a long way off. But the size of the assault China is now making on the environment to fuel its industrial growth is unprecedented in the history of the planet. The country is already running up against limits within its own borders, and is starting to approach limits in the rest of the world.

Consider a few more examples from the facts Watts provides. China has now built 87,000 dams (many have caused terrible problems). Since capitalism was unleashed in 1978, 176,000 Chinese miners have died in accidents in coal mines. By 2020, the volume of urban rubbish in China is expected to be equivalent to that of the entire world in 1997. In 2006, the heavily-industrialised provinces of Guangdong and Fujian discharged nearly 8.3 billion tonnes of sewage into the ocean, without treatment, a 60pc increase from 2001. By one reckoning, China is now the source of half of all the airborne dust in the world.

As Asia environment correspondent of The Guardian, Watts is perfectly qualified to build a riveting picture of one of human history's most astonishing episodes. But the great virtue of When A Billion Chinese Jump is that voices are as prominent as facts. The book is structured as an environmental travelogue through the darkest industrial hell-holes, most polluted rivers and ruined forests. Along the way Watts talks to the Chinese people, from destitute peasants to the new rich of Shanghai, about what the growth explosion means to them.

There is minimal respect for the environment, since the bedrock cultural attitude of the Han Chinese, the core ethnic group, is that the world is there for our use, merely a resource without intrinsic value of its own.

Over everything hangs the spectre of China's carbon emissions, the largest in the world, whose continuing growth will swamp any cuts the rich nations will be able to make, and may usher in uncontrollable climate change that will do for us all.

Michael McCarthy is environment editor of The Independent

Irish Independent

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