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Date Posted: 10:34 14/10/2003

Nature is sometimes man-made

It may well be the Hand of God, but Chairman Mao was probably holding a gun to His Head

THERE HAS been an obvious rhetorical U-turn on the part of the Chinese government in recent years, particularly since the calamitous floods of 1998, when 4,000 people were drowned and many more left homeless. Instead of talking about how they could harness, control, tame, conquer, or generally beat the shit out of nature until it gives up whatever cash it has, they are now taking about sustainable development, striking ecological balances, and imposing the sort of bourgeois revisionist environmental regulations that would have had Chairman Mao boiling with rage.
Curiously, in 1976, the year that Mao died, there was also a spate of violent natural disasters, including the devastating earthquake at Tangshan that killed almost a quarter of a million people. Traditionally, such acts of God are supposed to represent the dissatisfaction of Heaven with the Kingdom on Earth, signalling the breaking of the Heavenly Mandate and the beginning of a new regime. Mao's death shortly afterwards did nothing for the fight against superstition in China. In any case, some have suggested that the idea that nature must be controlled is deeply engrained in Chinese history, and remains one of the defining aspects of government legitimacy. If the Emperor, in whatever guise, cannot harness the elements, he is not fit to rule.

Recently, the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs announced gravely that the number of people killed in 'natural disasters' so far this year had passed 1,900, with 50 million hectares of farmland also damaged. 6.3 million people have been evacuated this year from disaster-hit areas, while direct economic losses have reached 150 million RMB.

The minister in charge noted that this was a particularly bad year. There had been 29 earthquakes measuring 5 or above on the Richter Scale. The south was burning up with freak hot weather, and the north had even been hit by a plague of insects. The River Huai suffered its worst floods since 1954, and the typhoons along the coast had been awesome.

Every year in the last 10 years, said the Ministry, natural disasters had caused more than 100 million RMB in damage. 200 million people had been affected. China had become, they said, one of the countries most severely and frequently afflicted by the earth's inherent violence.

'Despite constant economic development, and an increase in the scale of production and social wealth, losses caused by disasters have got bigger and bigger,' said the head of the China International Disaster Reduction Commission. You had the massive floods in the Yangtze, the Songhua, and the Nenjiang rivers in 1998, the Tai Lake bursting its banks in 1999, the serious and persistent droughts from 1999 to 2001, the typhoons and earthquakes and sundry other problems, all adding to the various man-made difficulties caused by sustained economic and social transformation.

The Chinese government is keen to stress that there is nothing they can do about it, and there probably isn't, not now, but how natural are these disasters?

As Jasper Becker noted in his series of articles in Asia Times, the most unsettling aspect of the devastating 1998 floods was not the uncommonly high level of rainfall, but the lack of topsoil and forest capable of preventing the waters from lashing down into the Yangtze basin. The disaster, which drowned 4,000 people and left many more homeless, apparently prompted the authorities in Beijing to reconsider their economic strategy. A nationwide reforestation program was launched, and it still goes on now. Peasants pushed out by the rising Yangtze tide are, in many cases, being asked to lay down their tools and plant trees further upstream in return for a monthly stipend of grain.

The problem is that the various solutions proposed by the Chinese government have tended to be one-off 'campaigns' that do not address the underlying problem of environmental degradation. The masses are mobilized to blindly plant trees wherever there are none. They are enjoined to help out whenever the Yangtze bursts its banks. Teams are sent out on nationwide 'strike hard' missions, during which they close thousands of paper plants or iron smelters, which promptly reopen as soon as the inspectors have disappeared back to Beijing.

The philosopher, Martin Heidegger, used to say that the whole problem arose from the current human attitude towards nature (or, as he put it, the 'technological mode of Being'). Technology, he wrote, was a 'manner of unprotecting' nature rather than 'letting it emerge'. Everything around us is adjudged to be a tool of 'man as the centre of reference'.

It was technology, rather than capitalism or communism - which were 'the same dreary technological frenzy, the same unrestricted organisation of the average man' - that defined the age, he thought.

To illustrate his point about the two different approaches to nature, Heidegger compared a bridge with a power plant. The bridge respects the river, curves over it without interfering with its flow. The hydropower plant uses the river for its own purposes. While a bridge is built over a river, he said, 'a river is built into a power plant'. Thus the fierce Yangtze has been 'harnessed'.

The unparalled audacity of the Three Gorges Hydropower Project has forced the government to consider a wide range of secondary plans and projects in order to avoid failure. To prevent the build-up of silt in the reservoir area, it is planning two more large dams on the upper reaches of the Yangtze, and a host of smaller dams on some of the Yangtze's tributaries are also being considered. Several emergency monitoring systems are also in place to test the levels of colon bacilli, chemical fertilizer, seismic activity, and subsidence. Thousands of experts and officials have been deployed to control every possible aspect of the project, to suppress nature's every rebellion.

Perhaps even more than most nations, China has been destroying the environment for thousands of years, going back to the first Emperor, Qin Shihuang and even further. During Qin's vicious reign, masses were mobilized to tear down forests and build the monuments and mausoleums that are still visible, more or less, today. His legacy might also be seen in the state of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers.

Nature, traditionally, and apparently in accordance with the Confucian world system, has always been seen as something to be overcome. Land must be reclaimed, forests must be levelled, and rivers must be tamed.

Despite Mao's attempts to create the blank slate, to break free from all historical frames of reference, he really intensified many of the things that had been going on for centuries, particularly in terms of the environment.

Maoism was, in many ways, an insane Promethean struggle against nature and its equilibria, whether in the case of the cultivation of arable land or the education of the masses. The Great Leap Forward was a massive violation of nature if there ever was one, and quite apart from the 50 million people estimated to have perished in the famine that followed, great palls of smoke from the useless backyard iron and steel furnaces caused a number of serious pollution problems, while the relentless efforts to improve grain yields led to the destruction of forest, wetlands, lakes and rivers. When the peasants were told to bang drums in order to scare away the crows, even the natural food chain was broken. With no crows to take them out, the insects had a feast.

Again, a case could be made for the belief that it was a 'natural' disaster that caused all the trouble. After all, China suffered some of the worst weather conditions at the height of the campaign in the early 1960s, ruining what crops they had left after millions of farmers were forced off the land in an effort to meet the steel production quotas.

CONFUCIANISM has frequently been blamed. Its emphasis on social order and control was usually seen as an alternative to Daoism, which preaches the harmony and integrity of nature, as well as the futility of trying to tame it. The more you do, said Lao Tzu, wearily, the more you have to do. The more laws you have, the more laws you need in order to prop up or clarify the first lot. Build a wall and you'll spend the rest of your life trying to make sure it doesn't fall down. Build a dam on the Yangtze and centuries will be consumed thereafter, trying to restore the fragile balance of the region, trying to shore up the collapsing banks, trying to block out the silt.. Once the see-saw starts swinging, it gets harder and harder to stop it.

The Yellow River, so named because of the layers of sedimentation caused by deforestation, is almost dried out. The people in the north of China, where underground water streams have also been ruined by excessive mining, are now resting their hopes on another massive scheme to divert water from the south into the Yellow River via two canals. It is a larger version of what has been going on for decades. Dried up lakes and rivers in one area are filled by diverting other more plentiful waterways, which are then compensated by still more.. The more you violate nature, you can hear the old Daoist master say, the more you need to continue the violation.

And then, rapid economic development is creating unsustainable demands for fuel. China tried to meet such demand by burning some of its copious reserves of coal, and in the process became the second biggest CO2 polluter in the world (behind the United States). The UN Environment Programme Director, Klaus Topfer, has stated publicly that using current methods, it would be economically and environmentally unviable for China to fulfil its stated economic aims, let alone meet its ultimate target of 'catching up with the West', the reason why Chairman Mao launched the Great Leap Forward in the first place.

Such is the price we pay for blind materialism and the 'instrumentalization' of nature, if we are to believe Heidegger. Even if new technologies are employed, say, to remove pollutants from the process of burning hydrocarbons, or if the ozone layer is repaired by what Douglas Adams called 'planetary toupes', or if state-of-the-art engineering is brought to bear on China's water crisis, the disaster - said Heidegger - would be merely forestalled, and made all the worse. The root of the problem would not be addressed.

Echoing Daoism, Heidegger noted that technology calls for more technology, and that 'industrial society exists on the basis of its occlusion in its own concoction'.

The pattern is clear in China. The government, in a fit of activism and concern, says that enough is enough, and decides to try to atone for centuries of environmental abuse with an insanely ambitious plan to fill the nation with trees, urbanize 500 million struggling peasants, divert billions of cubic meters of water from the fertile south to the arid north, or construct the world's tallest dam. A combination of industry and mass mobilization is used to solve the problems caused by a combination of industry and mass mobilization.

Some are suggesting, apocalyptically, that northern China is being eaten away by relentless desertification and that the capital will have to be relocated south within 50 years. Even the government is admitting that as many as 110 cities are facing severe water crises (including the third largest, Tianjin). One suspects that a breaking of the Heavenly Mandate, or at least a serious change of heart, is required, and not just in China either.

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