Since the beginning of Chinese civilization, emperors have sought the elixir for immortality throughout the dynasties. Right up to the 1950s, Mao maintained that humans can control nature. From the extensive terracing in ancient times, to today’s growth accelerant-laced vegetables, the Chinese are not content to let nature take its course. This quest to control nature arguably made ancient China a great civilization, and at the same time, has allowed China to develop at breakneck speed today. But the effects of interfering with the natural order are becoming harder and harder to ignore. The latest “official” revelation in the form of PM2.5 air pollution data is yet another roadblock in China’s road to development. Can nature hold up if China’s development continues unchecked along the path of Mao’s dictum?
water pollution in China. todayonline.com
Cleaning up the Air
The unprecedented release of air quality data late last year gave a sobering identity to the nameless fog that shrouds much of China. Smog is being addressed at high levels as China seeks to defend her development model, but exactly what is on the cards is anyone’s guess. Car usage is widely seen by the public as the main culprit. Currently, only Beijing restricts vehicle ownership, so it seems probable that China is looking for less invasive measures to clean up vehicle emissions in a land newly overrun by car culture. So far, natural gas vehicles seems like the way to go. Already, compressed natural gas (CNG) taxi and bus fleets exist in cities like Chongqing. Ironically, passengers coming from the train station or airport must hail an additional taxi for their luggage, as CNG cylinders take up more than half the carboot, no doubt diminishing (or canceling out) the positive effects. Coal-burning is the main contributor to PM2.5 levels, so a large-scale adoption of alternative energy sources also seems likely in the near future. The Three Gorges may be China’s most well-known (or notorious) hydro-energy source, but work is underway to construct 13 dams along the course of the Salween River in Tibet. As no silver bullet exists for China’s air pollution problem, in the interim, expect a lot more rain over the middle kingdom should silver nitrate rockets be fired as a stopgap.
Greening up the land – reforestation
Creating more greenspace is another way of creating fresher air while prettifying the concrete jungle. Well, kind of a reverse nature control—helping her to do what she originally intended to do. To move things along, China spends billions each year on reversing desertification, which takes the rap for sandstorms in Beijing. Through large-scale reforestation, China is able to restore land tracts larger than Switzerland each year, according to a 2012 Aljazeera report. With the help of the Asian Development Bank, provincial governments in areas like Gansu are also receiving assistance in controlling and preventing further desertification. While reversing desertification is no doubt a good thing for China, many of the actual methods being employed to “green” the land have garnered their fair share controversy in recent years, with experts critical of the potential long term effects of enclosing large areas of reforested land to keep herbivores out, exploding sand dunes and raining down seeds from the air.
Feeding the millions – increasing crop yields
The Incas may have invented terracing, but the Asians have taken it to new heights. Rice is a land-intensive and water-consuming crop. To feed the growing appetite for rice, mountains in China have had their slopes intricately terraced since the Yuan dynasty. More recently, to meet the increasing demands of the rapidly expanding population for consumption, more high-tech farming methods have been employed, such as growth accelerants in vegetables (as in the exploding watermelon scandal) and clenbuterol in pork (to enhance its low-fat appearance). Unsurprisingly, genetically modified (GM) tomatoes, soyabeans and corn, which are already present in the Chinese food chain (like in many other parts of the world), have become the subject of public backlash, most notably in the recent scandal where schoolchildren were fed GM rice without their parents’ consent. And now that China’s astro-might is confirmed, following the successful launch of the Tiangong-1 Spacelab, the Chinese are letting their seeds take a spin in space, as they believe that high levels of cosmic radiation in a gravity-free environment may spark benificial genetic mutations. More than 400 seed varieties have already been to space in recoverable satellites and aboard spaceships. Although this process is time-consuming, as achieving the desired genetic mutation is not guaranteed, the aim is to reduce reliance on seed imports, which accounts for about half the seeds grown in China.
Lap it up – dealing with water shortages
Now that we’ve (hopefully) settled the problem of what to eat, next up is having enough water to drink. Development unfortunately consumes a lot of water and industrial waste pumped into China’s water bodies renders about 70% of the current supply undrinkable, according to a 2008 report by economist and health policy researcher Avraham Y. Ebenstein. To avoid further development being constrained by water supply, China is pumping up the water supply the high-tech way. Economics 101 may dictate raising unsustainably low water prices to regulate demand but the Chinese prefer to do it in style by turning to large-scale seawater desalination. However, this billion-dollar solution has yet to catch on, as higher-priced desalinated water turns buyers off while environmentalists deride the coal-burning which powers desalination plants and the effect on marine ecosystems. Perhaps it is time to look to the next desperate measure: the South-to-North Water Diversion Scheme, an ambitious plan of piping water from the Tibetan highlands to the thirsty north. Coincidentally, the inspiration for this plan came from none other than Mao himself who once said, "Southern water is plentiful, northern water scarce. If at all possible, borrowing some water would be good.”
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Keywords: China’s development quest to control nature
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