When I was young, I discovered pictures from China, where the streets were filled with people riding bicycles. I was overwhelmed by this display of human intelligence. Had they learned from our mistakes and taken a higher path, or had their culture taught them to respect life? I was living in Kalamazoo, where the streets were a nightmare, jammed with impatient nutjobs in speeding wheelchairs. The air was thick with methylene chloride, and the river was a PCB cesspool. If only our leaders were Chinese… sigh! Like I said, I was young.
In 1949, Mao Zedong led a revolution that overthrew the Chinese government. The victors created the People’s Republic of China, a communist state. China had suffered from a long era of exploitation by foreign powers. Mao was eager to create a prosperous industrial utopia as rapidly as possible, by any means necessary.
In 1972, Richard Nixon visited Mao and reestablished relations between the U.S. and China. Judith Shapiro was among the first Americans allowed to work there. She taught English. The outside world knew little about Red China, but Shapiro soon learned that the Maoist era had been a turbulent freak show. She described this period in her book, Mao’s War Against Nature.
Every environmental history book is a horror story, describing how clever humans survived by using technology and aggression to devour nonrenewable resources, deplete renewable resources, ravage ecosystems, and leave the bills for their children. Shapiro’s book stands out, because it examines an era of unbelievable ecocide. Maoist China repeated the classic mistakes of other civilizations, but in fast forward mode.
Mao’s high-speed modernization project was called the Great Leap Forward (1958-60). He wanted to produce more steel than Great Britain within 15 years. Peasants rapidly constructed several million primitive backyard furnaces. A hundred million people worked day and night melting tools, pots, and scrap into blobs of useless metal. Most of the furnaces were wood-fired, and deforestation was widespread. In those days, the peasants still believed the dream — that their heroic efforts would bring a new era with powerful tractors and railroads. They worked enthusiastically.
At the same time, there was a huge drive to increase grain production via bone-headed strategies. They were told that if they planted ten times as many seeds in a field, the yield would be ten times higher. Sadly, the densely grown plants rotted. But local leaders were deeply engaged in a competition to report astonishing gains in grain production, and their claims were far in excess of reality.
Because it would have been impossible to store all the grain reported, folks were ordered to make steel. The 1958 crop largely rotted in the fields, while the steel-making peasants consumed their grain reserves. In 1959, drought arrived, and the Great Famine began. Between 35 and 50 million died by 1961 — the biggest manmade famine in history.
The war on nature had another front, the Four Pests — rats, sparrows, flies, and mosquitoes. Sparrows were an enemy of the people because they ate too much grain. Schoolchildren ran around the countryside, destroying their nests and smashing their eggs. They banged pots whenever a sparrow landed. Before long, there were far fewer sparrows, and far more of the insects they used to eat. Farmers soon realized that sparrows were great allies. The birds were removed from the pest list, and replaced by bedbugs.
A core component of the Mao era was disregard for expertise. Mao hated intellectuals, scientists, and anyone else who questioned his fantasies. “Mao and his followers all too often fell into the trap of believing that because they declared something possible or true, it would be so.” Time-proven ideas were annoying superstitions that obstructed the fast lane to utopia. Knowledgeable people who voiced doubts about stupid ideas were promoted to exciting new careers in breaking rocks, exterminating forests, or worse.
When the president of Beijing University warned about the danger of rapid population growth, he was denounced and relieved of his responsibilities. Overpopulation could only be a problem in evil capitalist societies — never in a socialist paradise. China was already overpopulated in 1949, and it grew with spooky speed. Mao refused to believe the census numbers. In 1958, family planning programs were ended, and not resumed until 1971. Mao died in 1976, and in 1979, the one-child policy was implemented.
When a respected engineering professor at Qinghua University warned that the planned Sanmenxia dam on the Yellow River was stupid, and would promptly fill with silt, he was denounced and relieved of his responsibilities. The dam was built, and the reservoir filled with silt two years later, flooding a nearby town. Mao rushed to build thousands of dams, of which 2,976 had collapsed by 1980. Many were built with soil alone, by untrained peasants. Floods caused by two dam failures in 1975 killed an estimated 230,000 people.
Rubber was a strategic resource, and Mao did not want to rely on imports from capitalists. During the Cultural Revolution, hundreds of thousands of educated urban youths from bad families (i.e., intellectuals, rightists, capitalists) were shipped to the virgin rainforests north of Laos. This region was too far north for rubber, but the experts understood it was dangerous to protest. So, ancient forest was cleared, and planted with rubber. Much of it died during the winter of 1974-75. They replanted, and the trees died again. They replanted a third time, with the same result.
Looking at this era from the outside, it’s easy to see the foolishness. The only news the peasants got came from government sources — propaganda. The culture had a long tradition of obedience to superiors. Free speech and dissent were not cool. “Political campaigns so distorted human relationships that family members were driven to denounce and beat each other, neighbors spied on neighbors, schoolchildren drove teachers to suicide, and the world was turned upside down for countless millions.”
As I read, I couldn’t help but contemplate how foolish our own culture would appear to intelligent outsiders. How much of our news stream is truthful? What stories are missing? Why do we disregard the warnings of climate scientists? How can a “well-educated” population remain so ecologically illiterate? It’s 2015, the polar bears are dying, and the streets of Kalamazoo are still jammed with speeding wheelchairs. Why?
The Chinese were manipulated to pursue an ideology, and the program resulted in enormous environmental harm. It seems like consumer societies are manipulated via advertising and peer pressure to cause enormous harm via lifelong competition for status. We must continually acquire more impressive homes, cars, televisions, and on and on. A couple years ago, it was awesomely trendy to wear clothing printed with skull motifs. The following year, the skulls vanished, and the trend robots rushed to fill their wardrobes with the latest new fashions.
Anyway, Shapiro’s book is stunning. Mao is dead, and so is his ideology. The new game is the high speed pursuit of personal wealth. She mentions a few signs of hope, but it seems clear that the post-Mao era is causing far more environmental harm. The population is still growing. The pollution is horrendous. In every nation, the war on nature is winning. What would intelligent people do?
Shapiro, Judith, Mao’s War Against Nature, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2001.