The Devouring Dragon: How China’s Rise Threatens Our Natural World [book review]

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This was an interesting book by Author, Craig Simons, who is a former peace corps volunteer that lives in Beijing in the midst of this devouring dragon he calls China. He documents their incredible breakneck progress since the 1990’s and their almost insatiable need for coal, raw materials, land and mineral wealth.

It caught my attention as China is playing a bigger role today in the use of resources and impact on our global environment.

The default position for most environmentalists is that the West – and the United States in particular – is to blame for the ever-increasing rate of species extinction, pollution, consumption of raw materials and, of course, climate change. It takes a great deal of intellectual bravery to even whisper the possibility that some of the other countries, once called Third World but now referred to as “developing,” might also bear some responsibility. The fingers quickly point to the West’s demand for cheap consumer goods as the driving force behind environmental degradation in those countries, but the last time anyone checked, colonialism is as dead as the truly wild population of pandas and “neo-colonialism” is simply a construct in the fever-swamps of academia. Those countries determine for themselves how they use their resources, even in pursuit of the almighty yuan.

Why does all this progress upset Simons? Rivers are destroyed by massive pollution and damming, the air of cities are so thick with particulates that they kill or incapacitate tens of thousands of people, forests disappear, farmland is either poisoned with heavy metals or eroded away and species of animals disappear like political dissidents. This destruction is not limited to China, either: The all-devouring dragon of Simons’ sub-title is laying waste to rain forest in Southeast Asia, gobbling up endangered species in Asia, South America and Africa and strip-mining coal wherever it can be found (including formerly marginal areas in the western United States). Not only consumer goods for export are to be blamed; Chinese traditional medicine demands tiger bones, rhinoceros horn, turtle meat and other products from endangered species. China is also the greatest importer of ivory in the world, driving the destruction of wild elephant herds by poachers in Africa. Meanwhile, the Chinese government blandly ignores protests, signs and then breaks treaties and tries to use Western guilt over previous imperialism to obtain exemptions from any control over its wasteful use of resources. Speaking of wasted resources, China is also known for their development of ghost cities and malls. For example, it is estimated that there are now 64 million vacant apartments. All in the name of economic gain. Let that sink in for a minute.

Simons describes how the Chinese economy, industry and, perhaps most of all, Chinese society is geared towards growth and consumption with clear disregard for the ecological consequences. Unlike the 16th century, when European exploration and great population shifts caused unintended consequences in the world’s ecosystems, or in the 19th century when industrialization and the rise of Western consumerism caused sweeping disruption and damage, the consequences of the Chinese actions are well-understood, completely predictable and still stubbornly ignored by the Chinese themselves.

It isn’t as if any of this is a surprise. Even in recent years, some of these issues have been addressed in such books as Tiger Bone and Rhino Horn: The Destruction of Wildlife for Traditional Chinese Medicine by Richard Ellis, Mao’s War Against Nature by Judith Shapiro and Meltdown in Tibet by Michael Buckley. In his book, Simons takes a more encompassing view, but even here his book has some flaws. For one, he has a tendency to approach an example of Chinese destructive actions and then veer away from pinning down the source of the cause. He does not mention that the single largest economic force in China is the People’s Liberation Army, which has established a vast network of mines and factories (most of which use the forced labor of prisoners, many of them political dissidents). Although China is still nominally communist, it is run by a small group of families that operate as a de facto junta; the author does not mention this. Maoism may be dead, but his political descendants rule in his legacy.

Although the book is critical of the actions of the Chinese government, industrial powers and people, it does not resort to anything so crude or stupid. It is, in fact, a carefully reasoned and well-documented account of how China is devouring the planet. The only criticism that should be made is that it does not take the next step and advocate the obvious solution.

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