Craig Simons’ book The Devouring Dragon: How China’s Rise Threatens the Natural World investigates the impacts of China’s growth on the global environment. The author deals with this sizeable and important topic by dividing the material into four components, which could broadly be classified: baselines with a focus on water, ecology, forests and the atmosphere. The book tells the personal story of the author who has spent considerable time in the region, and is in part journalistic endeavour, part travel memoir. The book has been compiled using the journalistic method of collecting stories from individuals which are then woven together to address the larger theme of the book. The scope of this book is very ambitious and it would seem that the intention of the author was to provide a broad overview of a range of unanticipated impacts of China’s growth on the global environment. This broad scope and the individual interview methodology adopted do not naturally align and parts of the book do not really fit neatly within the wider theme under examination. The book might have benefited from a narrower focus on the illegal trade of resources taking place to fuel China’s growth (a reoccurring theme within the book backed up by personal encounters by the author with this practice).
Part one, ‘China’s Baseline’, contains three chapters which each touch on the issue of water. The author spends time in the Yangtze River/ Three Georges Dam region and reports on his interactions with locals including fisheries scientists studying the declining wild fish yields. While on board a two-week tourist cruise, he encounters an engineer who grew up next to the river and had worked on the Three Gorges project. These encounters are loosely drawn together by the baseline theme, though more targeted interviews and research was needed to draw together a clearer discussion of China’s baselines.
Part two, ‘Life on the Brink’, draws together three chapters examining the impacts of Chinese traditional medicine and the growing demand for resources growth, and the ramifications for ecology. One chapter explores how demand for tiger bone in China is creating a tiger-poaching problem in India, followed by another chapter in which the author recounts his experience of negotiating to buy tiger bone in Sichuan Province in 2004. While hospitals and doctors no longer prescribe rhino horn or tiger bone, the book suggests that there is an increasing demand for these resources from older wealthy Chinese who grew up with traditional medicine and who are willing to try anything that they think might help them. The material presented in these chapters is bought together to make a convincing argument in favour of increased education within China about both the impacts of sourcing these resources and the lack of medical benefits associated with these practices.
Part three, ‘Our Shrinking Forests’, examines the growth of China on the forests of New Guinea. While in New Guinea, Simons meets with a merchant who can arrange access to Kwila timber (a rare and protected species). Anecdotally this merchant suggests that Kwila timber on display is mainly headed in the direction of China, though no other data is provided to verify this account. The book finds that between 1998 and 2010 China’s total consumption of wood, and its timber imports, roughly tripled. The growth was at first fuelled by Western demand (Chinese manufacturing wood products for export) but by 2005 it was estimated that 92 per cent of wood products made in China were sold in China. Legitimate concern is expressed over the lack of effective forest regulation in New Guinea and India and the lack of transparency within the international trade of timber.
The final component of the book, ‘Our Warming Skies’, addresses the issue of climate change. It notes the rise of influence of China within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations and discusses the inherent tensions within BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) between economic growth and emission reduction. This chapter also highlights that, while China is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases globally, per capita emissions (per person of the population) are modest. The final chapters use personal stories effectively to highlight the difference between the lives of Chinese people with higher emission intensity lifestyle (mainly those in cities) and those with low emission intensity lifestyles (mainly the poor and those in rural areas).
The themes explored by the book are of significant contemporary interest and Simons’ work provides an introduction to the unintended global environmental consequences of China’s growth.
ROWENA MAGUIRE teaches law at the Queensland University of Technology.