Books: China’s environmental crisis

Sam Geall finds Judith Shapiro's new book on China's environmental challenges to be a work of exceptional clarity and depth.

China‘s Environmental Challenges
by Judith Shapiro
, 2012

Judith Shapiro’s China’s Environmental Challenges is the ideal course-book or introductory reader on the environment in China – for students of environmental politics or Chinese studies, or perhaps for first-time visitors to the country with a green leaning. By introducing a range of concepts from social and political theory – including civil society, governance and environmental justice, as well as a range of academic perspectives on globalisation – Shapiro uses the study of China and the environment not only as a window on Chinese society, but also as a means to explore a range of social scientific frameworks. At the same time, Shapiro encourages the reader to delve deeper: to draw on a number of diverse analytic frames to consider, and reconsider, China’s environmental challenges from a range of contrasting angles. The book is peppered with challenging questions for research and discussion, and useful resources for further reading.

However, the real strength of China’s Environmental Challenges is that it manages to accomplish this with almost effortless clarity, and with the colour and emotional depth of Shapiro’s personal experience. Shapiro came to know China – and found her writer’s voice – teaching English in Hunan province in the late 1970s. With her then husband Liang Heng, she wrote a memoir of the trauma of the Cultural Revolution, Son of the Revolution. In 2001, Shapiro authored Mao’s War Against Nature, a must-read account of how political repression in the Maoist era was reflected in environmentally destructive and unsustainable policies. And in this volume, we are brought up to the present day: Shapiro – now a professor of global environmental politics at American University in Washington, DC – notes that for China in the reform era, “globalised free-market capitalism” has become “an equal if not greater driver of environmental degradation than the Stalinist-style state”.

The trends outlined that drive environmental change in China today – rising affluence, globalisation of manufacturing, urbanisation and climate change, to name only four – will come as no surprise to regular readers of chinadialogue. Similarly, the key responses to these challenges and their impacts – both top-down (environmental laws and regulations), and bottom-up (grassroots environmental advocates) – are likely familiar. But they are laid out systematically and are well illustrated with accurate information. Occasional generalisations caused this reviewer to raise his eyebrows. (The cliché that the “Western media… so often demonise China” is unhelpful, since the media in western countries are no more monolithic than China’s society and government). But overall, this is an exemplary introduction not only to China’s ecological crisis, but also to the analytic tools that might help us to understand and approach it constructively.

Sam Geall is deputy editor of chinadialogue.