Wilderness in the Balance as China Climbs

A friend wrote today in an email and said “Save the Earth” at the end of her note. I’ll admit I’ve thought about the problems of “saving the earth” a great deal since we touched down in Shanghai. The pressures on the planet here are seriously extreme already, and it’s obvious they will mount in the next few decades. The scholars who have lectured us have said that the Chinese know they will not be able to establish a middle class like the West because there will simply not be enough resources.

Western levels or not, the rise of the Chinese people out of poverty will have terrible consequences for what’s left of wildness in this part of the world-wild animals, habitats, ecosystems, clean rivers, functioning lakes, clean air itself.

I don’t think there’s a Chinese equivalent of the U.S. “Wilderness Act” or “Wild and Scenic Rivers Act” or “Endangered Species Act.” We established these acts long after our “economic take-off.” Ours came in the 1960s and 1970s, driven by the middle-class values that are only now developing widely in China, so I guess there is every possibility that such values and regulations will develop here as well over time, and they may develop before most of the wild species are hunted/trapped/poisoned/pushed out of existence.

As a friend of mine says, “The bad news for the planet is that the Chinese will have their 19th Century. The good news is that it will only last 30 or 40 years in China.”

There may be plenty of space for wild land here in the future. China’s urbanizing at a dizzying rate. There are estimates we’ve heard from several Chinese scholars that China will hit a billion urban residents around 2015, and it may already be there if you count “migrants” who spend most of the year working in the city, but still officially live in rural areas.
Cities like Shanghai will grow even larger, with some projecting 15 “super cities” in China in the near future, each with at least 25 million people. These will combine with other nearby large cities to produce “super cluster” cities of 60 million or more residents. Amazing. Staggering. Stunning.

Of course, many here are quick to point out that these are millions of PEOPLE we’re talking about, many of them who have endured poverty we cannot imagine, and they deserve the same chance at prosperity we in the West have enjoyed for centuries, even if it’s at the expense of the rivers and ecosystems for a few decades. As Deng Xiaoping said in 1992 at the beginning of China’s amazing economic rise– “Development is the hard truth.”

But what’s the on-the-ground truth I’m experiencing on this trip?

This isn’t simply an economic Disney World. The LONELY PLANET guide says Shanghai dumps 5 million tons of industrial waste and raw sewage into the Yangtze delta every day, and they throw away 670 million polystyrene boxes every year. No one in the city feels safe drinking the tap water. The air quality is so bad driving back from Suzhou that Shanghai disappeared behind us into a gray blanket of particulates and fumes.

They’ve made progress on environmental issues, but it’s just the problems are so huge.

Through it all it’s been the wild animals I’ve been thinking about. In all the local middle-class markets (wonderful places with great fresh food that feel like farmers markets on steroids) there are many wild-caught species for sale. Most are fish and shellfish, but there are also large bags full of live bullfrogs, and in one market yesterday we counted over 30 live soft shell turtles for sale.

Chuck Smith, the biologist on the trip, says that in Asia wild turtles are under terrible pressure, and much of it is coming from this taste for turtle stew.

Last night I was in the hotel bar talking with several colleagues, and I brought up the story of Pale Male, the famous red-tail hawk that has nested on a 5th Avenue apartment building and hunted Central Park for well over a decade. He has successfully injected wildness back into the center of another of the largest cities on earth.

“If a Chinese equivalent of Pale Male set up house on a skyscraper in Shanghai,” I asked, “would his parts end up on a Chinese medicine counter, or would someone wonder what he tastes like and trap him?”

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