China’s Nascent Environmentalism

For the Atlantic blog, Christina Larson writes about the history and current status of China’s environmental movement:

A few things distinguish China’s recent environmentalism history: the speed and scale of the problems, and the preference of the government to operate in top-down fashion.

Consider that the impetus for America’s environmental protection system often came from the ground up — independent journalists like Rachel Carson and George Bird Grinnell identifying failures in government policy, and powerful outside organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council suing the EPA when regulations weren’t upheld. There’s much less space for journalists and activists in China, although more than you might guess. (Hence my interest in writing for The Atlantic about Chinese reporters and grassroots leaders.)

China may clean up its environmental mess eventually, as the United States and Western Europe have done (once Londoners couldn’t see the sun at noon, so thick was “London smog”), but it almost certainly won’t do so in the same fashion as the West. In the meantime, China’s mess is everyone’s business; mercury pollution from Chinese coal plants drifts across the Pacific to plague the U.S. west coast, while its carbon emissions threaten the planet.

The story isn’t all black, though, as necessity is the mother of invention. Today, China is a vast laboratory for green experimentation, from carbon-exchange markets to eco-cities designs — some of which will turn out to be merely hype, and some of which may yield new insights that planners in America and the West can learn from.