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The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China
The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China
Mark Elvin
Yale University Press, 2004
592 pp., $48.00

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From the Archives: John Copeland Nagle


When the Sky Was Orange

An environmental history of China.

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The science of ecosystem management and the law offer hope for China's environment, but more is needed. An environmental ethic, to be precise. Elvin concludes his book with the following reflection:

The religious, philosophical, literary, and historical texts surveyed and translated in the foregoing pages have been rich sources of description, insight, and even, perhaps, inspiration. But the dominant ideas and ideologies, which were often to some degree in contradiction with each other, appear to have little explanatory power in determining why what seems actually to have happened to the Chinese environment happened the way it did. Occasionally, yes. Buddhism helped to safeguard trees around the monasteries. The law-enforced mystique shrouding Qing imperial tombs kept their surroundings untouched by more than minimal economic exploitation. But in general, no. There seems no case for thinking that, some details apart, the Chinese anthropogenic environment was developed and maintained in the way it was over the long run of more than three millennia because of particularly Chinese beliefs or perceptions. Or, at least, not in comparison with the massive effects of the pursuit of power and profit in the arena provided by the possibilities and limitations of the Chinese natural world, and the technologies that grew from interactions with them.

Elvin's conclusion is especially poignant now that China is experiencing one of the largest numbers of Christian conversions in human history. What can Christian teaching offer China today as it struggles to address the effects of centuries of environmental modification and destruction? If nothing else, the history that Elvin describes rebuts any suggestionâ€"most famously articulated by Lynn White nearly forty years agoâ€"that Christianity is uniquely responsible for contemporary environmental problems. But would a Christian ethic help China's natural environment? The last several decades have produced an extensive literature that explores the extensive biblical teaching concerning creation, stewardship, and our duty to care for the natural world in which we live. The practical implications of that teaching have been contested in the United States, but the challenge is far greater in a country where the practice of religion is strictly regulated, and where the first hints of political activity inspired by religious beliefs are just emerging. The long story of China's environmental history is not finished, and Elvin will not be alone in writing the next chapters.

John Copeland Nagle is associate dean for Faculty Research and professor at the Notre Dame Law School. He received a Distinguished Lectureship award from the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board to teach environmental law and property law at the Tsinghua University Law School in Beijing during the spring of 2002.

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