: China And The Environment: The Green Revolution

China And The Environment: The Green Revolution

Evan Hamman

china-and-the-environment150Sam Geall (Ed); Zed Books, 2013; 256 pages; $135.95 (hardback)

The Green Revolution is a collection of five essays on how law, media and civil society can influence environmental outcomes in China. Despite the grassroots success stories described in the book, it is hard to believe there has been a green ‘revolution’ in China, let alone the ‘green shoots’ of one. Dominant power still resides very much with the State and its relentless pursuit of economic growth, often at the expense of the natural environment. If there was one overriding criticism of Geall’s book then, it would be that it lacks a convincing argument tying the separate essays together. Without this, the title might better be served by posing a question rather than a conclusion: China and the Environment: A Green Revolution? But semantics aside, there are several fascinating and highly topical issues that Geall invites us to consider and he should be commended for that.

Chapter one of the book charts China’s environmental ‘awakening’. Geall pens this first chapter himself, skillfully showing how investigative journalism and the internet (micro-blogging) have been the main drivers of transparency in China’s environmental decision-making.

The second chapter by Olivia Boyd will appeal more to the activists among us. She looks at the campaigns of Chinese NGOs on air pollution, threatened species, and China’s controversial hydro-electric dams. She also examines (rather gory) examples of animal rights violations concerning domestic animals like cats and dogs, as well as the plight of wild animals like bears, sharks and tigers — all of which are abused for ‘medicinal benefits.’

Legal scholars will get the most out of chapter three, written by US environmental lawyer Adam Moser. Moser does an excellent job at persuading us that the struggle for environmental justice in China is closely linked to an underlying neglect of the fundamental principles of the rule of law.

In chapter four, Jonathon Ansfield reflects on civil disobedience and the protest movement in China. There is a hint of ‘not-in-my backyard’ attitude about the Xiamen petrochemical plant example in this chapter. Ansfield raises an interesting point that environmental protests in China might be part of a wider ‘backlash against the abuse of power and lack of public accountability…’.

In the final chapter, investigative journalist Liu Jianqing gives a personal account of the campaign to stop the damming of Tiger Leaping Gorge in China’s Yunnan province. Since 1949, over 22 million people have been relocated to make way for China’s hydroelectric dams. At Tiger Leaping Gorge it was proposed to relocate over 100 000. Jianqing’s stirring account is a fitting conclusion to Geall’s book. Perhaps nothing better illustrates the strain between human rights, the environment and economic progress than China’s colossal hydroelectric projects.

Overall, The Green Revolution does suffer from some repetition as chapters are arranged around themes (media, law, activism etc) rather than distinct time periods or events. The reader finds themselves jumping from the 2000s back to the 1990s and then ‘pinball-style’ across China’s provinces to ascertain where the most pivotal environmental challenges and opportunities lie. Further, the five authors have distinct styles of writing and varying degrees of emphasis which works both for and against the book. All this ultimately makes The Green Revolution the type of book one might buy at an airport and devour on a fourteen hour flight to Beijing. That’s not a criticism; it’s just there’s a particular readership in mind. In the end, Geall’s collection is recommended reading for anyone seeking a good introduction to China’s environmental issues or for those tracing the more general rise (or, as Isabel Hilton puts it, the ‘return’) of civil society in China.

EVAN HAMMAN is a former lawyer at the Environmental Defenders Office (Qld). He is currently a PhD candidate researching access to environmental justice at Queensland University of Technology. 

(2014) 39(2) AltLJ 144
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