It is often assumed that we in the ‘West’ are the arbiters of environmental policy, that we simply ‘care more’ than the rest of the world. ‘China’, for many, evokes images of flat-pack cities and rapid industrialisation synonymous with the stain left by humanity on the natural world. It is lazily viewed as an outlying hindrance to the global goal of sustainable development, whilst we remain wilfully ignorant of our own shortcomings, both past and present. Instead of viewing Chinese environmental negligence as unique, I argue, within the lingering paradigm of the ‘capitalist good/communist bad’ dichotomy, that a more bipartisan assessment of the root cause of environmental degradation may be in order. Our planet, after all, cares little for politics.
Many of China’s environmental failures have historically been attributed to the communist policies of the ruling party, particularly under Mao, whose ‘ren ding shen jian’, or ‘man must conquer nature’ slogan has been presented by the historian Judith Shapiro as evidence of the Communist Party’s desire to dominate the natural world, even at the expense of its own people and environment. Of course, there is merit to this argument – the collectivisation of land and the Great Leap Forward’s unattainable targets wreaked havoc on the land and contributed in no small part to what Frank Dikötter has termed ‘Mao’s Great Famine’, which is estimated to have killed up to 45 million people between 1958 and 1962. It can be easy, therefore, for us to assume that this environmental exploitation is one peculiar to China’s communist system of government.
Without excusing the undoubtedly detrimental and inhumane policies of Mao’s government, we should view the environmental impact of the Chinese state’s rapid development in a more contextual manner. After all, did not the rampant capitalism of the Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom lead to the explosion of soot-filled cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham? All of which were centres of heightened industrial activity that harmed both their human population and the surrounding environment. London’s death rate rose 40% during a period of smog in December 1873, and similarly, we can look to the Great Smog of 1952, which the Met Office claims killed at least 4000 people, possibly many more.
Geographically closer to China, the Japanese state has also shown in recent years that pointing to ideology might be mistaken. The post-war Japanese growth-first and laissez-faire mentality left the likes of Chisso Corporation in Minamata to their own devices, and the results were devastating. From 1956 through to the 1970s, first cats, then human residents of Minamata began coming down with a mysterious illness, one that caused ataxia and paralysis in its victims. It would transpire that what came to be known as ‘Minamata disease’ was the result of Chisso’s chemical plant releasing methylmercury into the town’s bay. This was absorbed by algae and passed up the food chain through the fish that local residents (both human and feline) were regularly consuming. Government inaction was deafening, despite the cause being known since 1959, and change only came after it was forced by non-capitalist union pressure in the 1970s. If this seems like a problem confined to the past, one need only cast their mind back to the Fukushima disaster in 2011, ultimately the result of the irresponsible decision to pursue a nuclear energy policy on the disaster-prone Pacific Ring of Fire.
This article does not wish to make the case for either the capitalist or communist system’s superiority in environmental affairs. Rather, it should be clear that the common thread running through all of these disasters – from the Great Smog to the Great Famine and Fukushima – is a policy emphasising economic growth as the paramount standard of success is a dangerous one that will inevitably lead to environmental destruction. The style and severity of that destruction may be influenced by ideology, but if we are to live in harmony with our environment, we must be willing to abandon the ideals of gain (collective or individual) and competition, that have placed us in our current quandary, whatever the tint of our political stripes.
Samuel Lake, History in Politics Writer