Wednesday, 27 June 2012


Twenty years after the famous 'Earth Summit', delegates from across the world travelled to Rio de Janeiro recently for the 'Rio+20' follow-up conference. Much of it seems to have been spent trying to explain the inadequate implementation of earlier commitments on global warming and environnmental protection in the intervening period. It was larger but also less ambitious than previous summits, establishing a process to agree on the definition of contested terms.

I am not going to discuss the details of the summit in this post. Instead I want to explore the history of China's participation in international environmental summits. It is often heard that China's involvement in these negotiations promotes democracy within China because it makes the central government dependent on (relatively) independent environmental NGOs and civil society groups exposing local officials who violate China's robust body of environmental protection laws.

That is true. However, the Communist Party has also used certain discourses of environmental summitry to expand the reach of the state into the lives of its people. In particular, these summits have often strengthened the technocrats in the CPC vis-a-vis the liberals, by creating the impression that national governments have less agency than they had in the past and thus making the ability to choose between governments seem less relevant to the problems society faces.

But before that, we need to go back to a time before climate change became a permanent item on the international agenda.


In the 1950s, the slogan Ren Ding Sheng Tian was proclaimed throughout China - it means "man must conquer nature" and it embodied Mao's confrontational stance towards the natural world.

Nature, argued Mao, was there to be tamed and harnessed for human purposes. Traditional Chinese ideas about living in harmony with nature, such as in Daoism, were outdated relics. Marxism-Leninism-Mao-Zedong-Thought revealed that the obstacles to man's mastery of his environment were not inherent in nature but were political; once the control of technology was placed in the hands of the people (via the Party), they would be free to use it to liberate themselves and achieve their fullest human potential.

One can see this as an expression of the ideas Marx espoused in his Grundrisse:

"Nature does not construct machines, locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules, etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will to dominate nature or to realise itself therein. They are organs of the human brain, created by human hands; the power of knowledge made into an object."

It has become fashionable to denigrate not only the often brutal means the CPC used to achieve these ends, but the ends themselves, and the way they conceived of the basic relationship between man and his environment as reflected in their great optimism about technological solutions. A well-respected recent examples of this is Judith Shapiro's book, Mao's War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China.

Her central argument is that the violent, repressive tactics the CPC used to try to tame nature are inseparable from the end goal itself:

"Few cases of environmental degradation so clearly reveal the human and environmental costs incurred when human beings, particularly those who determine policy, view themselves as living in an oppositional relationship to nature - as well as to each other - and behave accordingly. The relationship between humans and nature under Mao is so transparent and extreme that it clearly indicates a link between abuse of people and abuse of the natural environment."

Shapiro sees this connection as essential because she sees the efforts of man to achieve rational control over nature as doomed from the start and thus a contributing factor in man's exploitation of his fellow man - and she sees it is a doomed mission because she believes that biology explains all (or almost all) human behaviour, so that man has no vantage point "outside" of nature from which he can bend it to his will.

The Mao era certainly seems like a perfect case-study for her thesis, with its legacy of land degradation, air and water pollution and ecological destruction. But the connections between Mao's ambitions, his policies, and the environmental damage is not so simple. Shapiro is right to link the exploitation of nature to the exploitation of human beings, but I think the case of Mao's rule shows that she has the direction of causation the wrong way round.

A basic idea about man's relationship to nature does not automatically entail particular policies (unless, perhaps, you are a Behaviourist); rather, there are a range of different social, economic and cultural systems that can be theoretically derived from the basic Maoist concept. The factor that determined Mao's choice of policies was not so much anthropocentric ideology as it was a fear of imminent war, and his perceived need to dramatically accelerate China's industrialisation. It was this imperative, processed through a highly authoritarian state machine, that drove the worst environmental excesses of the Mao era: not an excess of rationality, but rational calculation "bound" by the irrational pressures of the Cold War.

Seeing the unsustainable policies adopted in pursuit of crash-course industrialisation as "irrational" misses the point that key decision-makers in the CPC could not foresee a future for China without it - if China could defend itself until the threat had passed, then it would have the space it needed to develop rationally. In the meantime, the threat of war could be used to mobilise efforts for industrialisation on an epic scale.

The perceived need for speed is crucial to understanding the PRC's unique - and uniquely disastrous - strategy for catching-up to the West. Instead of first developing light industry and modernising antiquated Chinese agricultural practices, the government aimed to get as much food as possible out of the land as quickly as they could by labour-intensive methods, and to use this to feed an enlarged urban workforce, who would then supply the countryside with the fruits of heavy industry. The 'Great Leap Forward' was supposed to be a big kick to get a virtuous circle in motion, but - to put it mildly - it failed to generate the required abundance of food.

Below is a CIA documentary about the start of the Great Leap. It features an exhibition of impressive-sounding farming machinery but the Great Leap was meant to be the progenitor, not the child, of modern technology: "This was the only steam shovel I saw in China. But this was only the beginning they said. The Leap Forward was only the first step."

Alongside the Great Leap were other harmful schemes born from similar motives: factories relocated from coastal areas to inland provinces where they polluted downstream rivers; mountains blasted ("turning caverns into thoroughfares") and hillsides terraced causing floods; rivers dammed, raising the water table and turning nearby crops into swamps; Lysenkoist schemes for planting grain in deserts ("squeezing land from rocks").
Another prominent slogan of the period was Ren Duo, Lilang Da ("with many people, strength is great"), which reflected Mao's view that a large and growing population was a net benefit for the PRC. But many academics in China who feared the environmental consquences of promoting large families. Chief among them was an economist named Ma Yinchu.

In 1957 Ma went public with his 'New Population Theory', which argued that the government should adopt policies to control fertility and reduce the high rates of population growth. Politically, his timing could not have been worse, coming as it did at the start of the Great Leap. Over the next three years he was attacked as a "Malthusian" undermining socialism, before being purged from his post as President of Peking University.

It would be another twenty years until Ma's - and Malthus' - arguments were accepted by the Party.


In 1972 the UN Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm. It was the first major meeting of governments from around the world to discuss the environmental damage caused by modern economic growth and the need for international solutions.

China participated even though it was in the late stages of the Cultural Revolution, issuing notably modest statements that acknowledged its own environmental problems. Directly and indirectly, the conference had a major impact on China's future development.

In the same year, a seminal book was published by a group known as the Club of Rome that received a great deal of attention and publicity because it seemed to capture the spirit of the conference. It was called The Limits to Growth, and it captured headlines by claiming that, on present trends, the world was headed for general and catastrophic environmental collapse. It did this by running twelve different statistical models of industrial society on computers.

The graph below shows the "standard" projection:

As the video below illustrates, the urgency this vision of pending collapse gave to the environmental movement chimed with the themes of the conference, with its emphasis on the need to go beyond national sovereignty and adopt a global system-level perspective.

A year later, in pursuit of better international relations, Premier Zhou oversaw the first National Conference on the Environment in Beijing. As in the international arena, the Beijing conference was followed by a flurry of small leadership groups, follow-up meetings and policy frameworks over the next few years. In his article on the environmental legacies of Mao and Deng, Richard Sanders writes that at this time:

"There was a noticeable change of attitude towards the environment. Perhaps influenced by the 'Limits to Growth' debate in the West, ecology became a political topic and the concept of 'environmental hygiene' was replaced with that of 'environmental protection.'"

'Peking Man'
According to Susan Greenhalgh, the key to understanding policymaking in the PRC in the late 1970s is that "hard" science had come to be valued above all other disciplines as a criterion for decisionmaking and, because of the damage the Cultural Revolution had inflicted on the Universities, this was only to be found in the military and aeronautic research establishments. Non-military branches of science had been heavily politicised under Mao - for instance, archeologists were required to affirm that the remains of 'Peking Man' confirmed Engels' theories of primitive communism.

One of the luminaries of aeronautical research who had benefited from state protection and largesse was a scientist named Song Jian. Song was an expert in 'control theory' - controlling the behaviour of dynamic systems, which in his case meant controlling how missiles moved in the sky.

Song Jian
 In the early 1970s China steered its population policy towards 'family planning' measures, increased availability of contraception, and so on - "later, longer, fewer." Song was one of the scientists the government drafted to advise on further measures necessary to reduce population growth. Searching for a framework, he read Limits to Growth, and was won over by its message that governments had to act urgently to counteract man's "natural" tendency to destroy the planet.

The book had been co-written by engineers and adopted a systems-analysis approach to the problems of sustainability and demography, which saw the world as an interconnected system in need of management and control. It is full of block diagrams of "vital" social variables, like this:

To Song, this was exactly what China needed to solve its socioeconomic problems: more plain, hard scientific facts and less sociology and economics, which always led to arguments and political instability. He had studied cybernetics in the Soviet Union, which was closely related to system dynamics; the great Russian cybernetician A. N. Kolmogorov defined his field as "the study of systems which are capable of receiving, storing and processing information so as to use it for control." Here he is at work:

Song told his colleagues that he was astonished when he first began studying graphs of demographic trends, because they reminded him of the trajectory of a missile. And this was the insight that guided him in designing China's population policy - it was essentially the same as guiding a missile smoothly to its target.

He did this in spite of the many criticisms levelled at Limits to Growth in the West. In a scathing review of World Dynamics, a forerunner to the model elaborated in Limits, the economist William D. Nordhaus described its treatment of empirical relations as "measurement without data." He went on to summarise the book's static and simplified view that human beings are incapable of recognising problems and finding solutions without the state controlling their behaviour:

"Human society is a population of insentient beings, unwilling and unable to check reproductive urges; unable to invent computers or birth control devices or synthetic materials; without a price system to help ration scarce goods or to motivate the discovery of new ones."

In 1975 Song travelled with a delegation of scientists and mathematicians to Twente University. On arrival there was an administrative error and he was left with a young mathematics professor called Geert Jan Olsder to keep him company. They went to a bar and chatted over beers, and at last Olsder revealed that he had published a paper earlier in the year entitled 'Population Planning: A Distributed Time-Optimal Control Problem.' To Song's delight, the paper tried to mathematically derive a solution to the same problem he had been studying, even using the same metaphor: "Given a certain initial age profile the population must be "steered" as quickly as possible to another, prescribed, final age profile by means of a suitable chosen birth rate."

As Susan Greenhalgh has documented in a fascinating narrative, Song was able to persuade the Party leadership that drastic action had to be taken immediately in the form of state-imposed one-child policy because he was able to ride the tide of "scientism" prevalent in the PRC at that time and he used his credentials to outmanouevre strong opposition from the "humanistic" disciplines:

"Song and his colleagues laid out their ideal vision of a birth-planning technocracy in which state technicians were in charge of designing and running a multi-level system of social engineering aimed at managing the growth of the entire population from the top, with little input from the objects of control at the bottom."

 In early 1980 he reframed it as not just an environmental issue, but an "extremely urgent strategic duty":

"By arresting the fierce growth of human numbers, China could accelerate its own modernisation and help alleviate a global crisis. Through population control, China would join the world's powers as an economic powerhouse and a socially responsible member of the community of nations."

The irony is unmistakeable: a coercive and intrusive policy for which the PRC has been much criticised was adopted in order to win plaudits from abroad.

As with Mao's Cold War-fuelled dash for modernity, China adopted the one-child policy out of a belief that it confronted an imminent threat to its security - this time emanating from environmental degradation and greenhouse gas emissions. But whilst the CPC in the '50s and '60s had seen the temporal constraints of the Cold War as amenable to change through politics - as it had tried to do by "exporting revolution" - by endorsing all of the Malthusian assumptions in Limits to Growth in the '70s and '80s the Party effected a subtle but hugely significant shift in its ideological position.


In 1992 the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) - the largest environmental conference of world leaders since Stockholm - met in Rio de Janeiro. Since 1972 there had been many follow-up conventions, agreements and working groups, such as the 1985 Helsinki Agreement on limiting sulphur dioxide and the 1988 Montreal Protocol on restoring the ozone layer.

A feeling of underachievement still hung over the 'Earth Summit', which led the delegates to try to achieve something bolder. Among the outcomes were the creation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (which is still the forum for GHG reductions negotiations today), a landmark convention on biodiversity, the 'Rio Declaration' of 27 shared principles and priorities and Agenda 21, a non-binding action plan for implementing "sustainable development." But it lacked quantitative targets and timetables.
PRC representative,
2002 Johannesburg Summit

China's government attended Rio, led by the Premier Li Peng, although at the time there were still no indigenous environmental groups inside China to participate. The negotiations in Rio proved somewhat fraught. Coming after a coalition of developing countries had failed to create a 'New International Economic Order', a big sticking-point at the summit was the precise meaning of the "common but differentiated responsibilities" nations of the 'North' and the 'South' supposedly had for paying to protect the environment (for the same reason, the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol).

And in each of the follow-up meetings over the last two decades the failure to agree on a division of the costs, and to implement the sharing of "clean" technologies amongst developing and developed countries, has obstructed progress on other fronts. The failure of national governments to implement serious sustainable development initiatives - let alone finding a detailed balance between development, equity and environmental protection they could all agree on - has made negotiations over binding targets for GHG emissions reductions into a proxy war. In 1997 - year of the 'World Summit II' - the General Assembly of the UN declared that: "Much remains to be done to active the means of particular in the areas of finance and technology transfer."

These tensions reached a dramatic high point in the closing session of the 2007 Bali Climate Change Conference, where the organisers were blasted by the Chinese delegation and the U.S. representative appeared to make an astonishing u-turn after criticism from developing countries:

Against this backdrop, China's recent environmental record presents us with some stark contrasts. On the one hand, it is a world leader in producing renewable power sources and low-carbon technologies; on the other hand, it is the world's largest aggregate (but not yet per capita) emitter of greenhouse gases with extreme hotspots of air and water pollution and degraded land.

Here is a video of an informative talk on China's environmental strengths and weaknesses by Jonathan Watts, who was until recently the Guardian's environmental correspondent in China and is the author of When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind - or Destroy It. (There are also interesting talks on this subject by Elizabeth Economy and Orville Schell.)

China has set itself ambitious targets to get 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 and prior to the 2009 Copenhagen Summit it committed to reduce the carbon intensity of its economy by 40 to 45% from its 2005 level by 2020. In a recent article, Watts summarised the Chinese government's main environmental achievements:

"There have been several ambitious steps forward in terms of environmental policy: anti-desertification campaigns; tree planting; an environmental transparency law; adoption of carbon targets; eco-services compensation; eco accounting; caps on water; lower economic growth targets; the 12th Five-Year Plan; debate and increased monitoring of PM2.5 and huge investments in eco-cities, "clean car" manufacturing, public transport, energy-saving devices and renewable technology. The far western deserts of China have been filled with wind farms and solar panels."

Below is a graph showing the downwards trend in China's energy intensity or, seen another way, the increase in its energy efficiency:

This would still mean that China's overall GHG emissions will continue rising: they aren't predicted to peak until 2030, by which time they may have doubled - the rate of economic growth is projected to outstrip the rate at which carbon intensity falls. When the U.S. called on China to make a binding commitment to reduce the rate of growth of its emissions, the PRC responds by pointing to its relatively low per capita emissions and the failure of the industrialised nations to come good on existing commitments to fund and share green technology. Many of the voluntary programmes to reduce GHG emissions are due to expire in 2020.

Isn't the fundamental reality here that progress towards solving a serious problem is grindingly slow because governments have reached a stalemate, but are managing to create just enough of an impression through summit diplomacy that they are still moving forwards?

For those of us who believe in anthropogenic climate change, there seems to be one unarguable proposition: China cannot take the same path to prosperity that the West did. In the first Industrial Revolution per capita energy use increased proportionally with the population, but because China is industrialising later, with a larger population, taking the same path would likely cause catastrophic climate change. Similarly, China can't clean up its environment in the same way that Western countries did, by outsourcing its dirty industries, because the world is running out of buck-passing destinations (or, at least, viable and affordable ones).

Indeed, the trend is towards "insourcing" polluting industries to far inland provinces, as illustrated by the map below (carbon monoxide concentrations indicating hotspots of GHG emissions):

But just because China can't follow the Western route to "clean" prosperity does not mean there may not be alternative routes, and some of these alternatives may in fact have been available to the developed countries, albeit perhaps at too great a cost, whether financial or sociopolitical.

Because the other fundamental reality is that China does need to develop. Most of the symptoms of its environmental malaise can be traced back to its dirty "halfway" model, and the Party's attempts to keep the society segmented and divided to avoid the tensions caused by massive inequality from spilling over.

For instance, with water being diverted it would make sense for farmers to be relocated to urban areas rather than staying put and depleting the non-replensishable water table on which everyone depends, but the government is worried that this would lead to ethnic riots and other violence breaking out in its cities. And it would be more environmentally sound to clean and convert coal at its source before piping it to where it is needed, but because of lopsided price liberalisation in China's energy sector, this is resisted as it would effectively mean piping any profits out of the poorer regions where coal mining predominates. China's dispersed rural Township and Village Enterprises (TVEs) contribute a disproportionate share of both its GHG emissions and its pollution.

New clean-coal technologies are costlier than conventional equipment but because of their relative stages of development and associated opportunity costs, China can still operate them more cheaply than the U.S. But the industrialised world is unwilling to collaborate with industrialising countries to develop green technology on the scale required.

China either needs to retreat, or to move forwards in an entirely new way. But I would argue that, in political terms, a sustainable future has to mean one that is secured by people themselves, through political movements that are rooted in people's shared aspirations, and not handed down to them by international bureaucrats. The real problem is that climate change negotiations are being framed in terms of a conflict between the developed and developing world, rather than as a conflict between people around the world and their national governments, which are too alienated from eachother to share technology or to allow their own people the freedom required for indigenous innovation on the necessary scale.

So those who see a link between the alienation of man from his environment, and from his fellows, are correct in a sense. I just think it is wrong to see that alienation as a feature of nature rather than as an aspect of a contingent political arrangement. Malthusianism and technocracy will not solve our problems - we ought not to abandon our confidence in technology and innovation just because those principles have been abused in the past.

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