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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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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.

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