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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.

Editor's note: This piece first appeared in the July/August 2005 issue of Books & Culture. Since then, its subject has become even more pressing.

On the morning of March 20, 2002, I left my windowless office in the Tsinghua University Law School for a short break. Then I saw it: a bright orange sky, which soon turned brown and finally a dusky gray before eleven o'clock in the morning. What I was seeing was dust. Lots and lots of dust. So much dust, in fact, that two days later the United States Environmental Protection Agency reported that the particulate levels established by the Clean Air Act had been exceeded in Aspen, Colorado, because of the millions of dust particles that had been blown all the way from China. I soon learned that it was Mao's fault. The grasslands several hundred miles west of Beijing had remained stable for countless generations as local herders grazed livestock on the rich grasses. Then, in the 1950s, Mao Zedong moved thousands of native Chinese to the area to increase agricultural production and to repopulate the region with people more loyal to his regime than the traditionally Mongolian local culture. The orange sky that I saw in Beijing that morning was the predictable result of overgrazing and its resulting desertification.

My experience with the unintended consequences of human manipulation of the Chinese environment is just one of countless such anecdotes that could be drawn from the long history of China. Mark Elvin's The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China tells many more. Elvin is a professor of Chinese history at the Australian National University's Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies in Canberra. His book recounts how generations of Chinese have labored to modify the natural environment to better achieve their own ends. Three thousand years ago, China was a land where forests filled much of the landscape, elephants and other wild animals roamed, and rivers and lakes provided abundant freshwater. Today most of the forests and wild animals have long since disappeared, China suffers from some of the worst air and water pollution in the world, and the government is struggling to create the legal and social mechanisms necessary to halt and reverse its deteriorating environmental conditions. Elvin tells the story through the end of the 19th century, leaving the events of the 20th century for another time. But the thousands of years of Chinese history that Elvin does describe tell us a lot about China, and about the human relationship to the environment more generally.

The animals were the first to disappear. The book's title refers to the forced migration of elephants from their historic habitats throughout China. Four thousand years ago, elephants were common in the area now occupied by the city of Beijing; my experience at the dawn of the 21st century was that it was rare to see any kind of wildlife in that city. Tigers once lived throughout China as well, and their presence was even seen as beneficial because they kept deer populations down. Few tigers remain in the wild in China. Indeed, the best opportunity to see a tiger outside of a zoo's cage is in the northeastern city of Harbin, where the local tiger reserve drives busloads of tourists to watch live cows be fed to hungry tigers. Rhinoceroses used to be common, too, until habitat destruction and climate change—cooling, not warmingâ€"caused the animals to move south out of China. Lowly sparrows, celebrated in Gospel stories, were one of the four pests targeted by Mao during the 1950s. Chipmunks offer perhaps the most mundane example: the little creatures abound in my suburban yard (and even took up residence inside my home last summer), but the only chipmunks that I have seen in China were featured in a cage in the Beijing Zoo. Elvin records how China succeeded in its relentless efforts to exterminate nearly every wild animal. Now, reversing course, China spends millions of dollarsâ€"and foreign ecotourists and foundations contribute millions moreâ€"to preserve the few remaining pandas, cranes, river dolphins, and other rare species that represent China's remaining biological diversity.

The forests fell next. Elvin describes "[t]he destruction of the old-growth forests that once covered the greater part of China" as "the oldest story in China's environmental history." The story unfolded because "the original core of classical Chinese culture was hostile to forests, and saw their removal as the precondition for the creation of a civilized world." Trees were cut for fuel, to provide building materials, and as obstacles to farms and other human projects. But the disappearance of the forests caused other, albeit predictable, problems. Deforestation increased erosion, which resulted in huge amounts of sediment collecting along the coasts and the sides of lakes and rivers. Wood became scarce as early as 600 bc in some parts of the country. By the 19th century, a writer lamented that "[t]hese days, people have used their axes to deforest the mountains." Today China's timber reserves are just one-eighth the world's average in relation to its land mass.

The Chinese were even busier moving water. Water was redirected to facilitate irrigated rice production, and watercourses were channeled so that goods and people could be transported to where they were needed. Such human manipulation of hydrology yielded a landscape that was quite different from the naturally occurring environment, but the force of nature was always fighting back against human constraints. During the 16th century, for example, China restructured the lower Yellow River at enormous cost, and with only temporary success. As Elvin writes:

The same skill in water control that had contributed so greatly to the development of the Chinese economy in ancient, medieval, and even in the early part of the late-imperial times, slowly fashioned a straightjacket that in the end hindered any easy reinvention of the economic structure. Neither water nor suitable terrain was available for further profitable hydraulic expansion. … Deadliest of all, hydrological systems kept twisting free from the grip of human would-be mastery, drying out, silting up, flooding over, or changing their channels. … No other society reshaped its hydraulic landscape with such sustained energy as did the Chinese, nor on such a scale, but the dialectic of long-term interaction with the environment transformed what had been a one-time strength into a source of weakness.

China continues to struggle with its water, building the massive and controversial Three Gorges Dam to control flooding on the Yangtze River, and making equally questionable plans to divert the abundant freshwater from its southeastern provinces nearly one thousand miles north to the parched capital city of Beijing.

China's environmental history teaches that seemingly new efforts to address environmental challenges are not so new after all. Consider ecosystem management, the catchword for many current environmental protection efforts. Any suggestion that ecosystem management is a 21st-century innovation is belied by Elvin's account of the previous three millennia of Chinese history. The millions of people who died after the failure of human efforts to control rivers show that "a mismanaged ecosystem can kill on a colossal scale." In Jiaxing, an area of shallow lakes that lies south of the lower Yangzi River delta, "it was human activities that had converted a regularly fluctuating environment into one of artificial equilibrium that needed an attentive government and continual maintenance to keep it under control." In rural Ghuzhou province, a 19th century gazetteer proclaimed that "[w]e have driven away the wolves and foxes, and opened up the rocky mountains and the weedy wastes for farming." That the objects of our efforts to manage natural ecosystems are different now, including preservation of the animals that live there, does not negate the historical evidence that the Chinese have been aggressively managing their ecosystems for thousands of years.

The rule of law as a tool for addressing environmental concerns is also viewed as a new development in China. Again, Elvin shows otherwise. An edict issued in AD 336 stated that "[t]o take possession of the mountains, or to put the marshes under one's personal protection is tantamount to robbery with violence." In 1802, a writer extolling the pine forests in western China insisted that "[i]t goes without saying that they should be protected in perpetuity." The Respectfully Determined Laws and Precedents of the Great Qing prescribed that anyone who "thievishly cuts down the trunks of trees, removes soil or stones, opens kilns for charcoal … or starts fires to burn the mountains for short-term farming, he shall be beheaded as if he had stolen imperial vessels used for sacrifices to the gods." Environmental criminals no longer risk beheading, but they can face other forms of capital punishment. During the 1990's, China imposed the death penalty on several men who were convicted of killing pandas. But just as the precepts quoted by Elvin were widely ignored, the enforcement of China's growing body of environmental laws remains the greatest challenge to the achievement of the rule of lawâ€"in this instance, the rule of environmental law.

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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