The Devouring Dragon: How China's Rise Threatens Our Natural Worldby Craig Simons
China's rise is assaulting the natural world at an alarming rate. In a few short years, China has become the planet's largest market for endangered wildlife, its top importer of tropical trees, and its biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. Its rapid economic growth has driven up the world's very metabolism: in Brazil, farmers clear large swaths of the Amazon to
China's rise is assaulting the natural world at an alarming rate. In a few short years, China has become the planet's largest market for endangered wildlife, its top importer of tropical trees, and its biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. Its rapid economic growth has driven up the world's very metabolism: in Brazil, farmers clear large swaths of the Amazon to plant soybeans; Indian poachers hunt tigers and elephants to feed Chinese demand; in the United States, clouds of mercury and ozone drift earthward after trans-Pacific jet-stream journeys. Craig Simons' The Devouring Dragon looks at how an ascending China has rapidly surpassed the U.S. and Europe as the planet's worst-polluting superpower. It argues that China's most important 21st-century legacy will be determined not by jobs, corporate profits, or political alliances, but by how quickly its growth degrades the global environment and whether it can stem the damage. Combining in-depth reporting with wide-ranging interviews and scientific research, The Devouring Dragon shines a spotlight on how China has put our planet's forests, wildlife, oceans, and climate in jeopardy, multiplying the risks for everyone in our burgeoning, increasingly busy world.
“As lively and colorful as it is depressing and enraging.” Publishers Weekly
“A frank, depressing wake-up call of impending environmental disaster. A step-by-step grasping of the enormity of an impending biodiversity crisis.” Kirkus
“From the coal mines of Colorado to the forests of Papua New Guinea, and all over China in between, Craig Simons illustrates from the ground up how the Middle Kingdom's economic takeoff is upending the planet at the very moment it is reaching an environmental tipping point. The book is both a gripping grassroots narrative of economic development as well as a heartfelt plea for the future.” Richard McGregor, author of The Party and Washington Bureau chief for the Financial Times
“China's insatiable appetite for resources has raised the world's metabolism in ways that you could never imagine. Craig Simons' Devouring Dragon takes you clear across the globe--from the ghost town of Trinidad, Colo., to a jungle in Papua New Guinea to the world's largest dam on the Yangtze River -- as he tells the fascinating story of the world's interconnectedness. This is the most important book about the environment in years, scary, riveting and packed with insight into how the world's resources are exploited for economic growth.” Barbara Demick, author of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea and Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood
“In The Devouring Dragon, Craig Simons gives a lucid portrayal of the ways in which the world is being changed by China's rise. The science and the statistics are sobering, but so are the human faces behind the numbers as Simons writes with deep sympathy for people struggling to overcome poverty and isolation: the New Guinean who longs to travel, the Chinese farm family who, despite being careful consumers, are part of a massive transformation that threatens to throw the world out of balance.” Peter Hessler, author of River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip and Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China
“Simons paints a devastating picture of the global consequences of China's relentless and rapacious growth, from the clear-cutting of the earth's last stands of exotic hardwoods to the extinction of major animal species, from coal dust that reaches Oregon to the crippling pollution that swaddles China's cities. China's rise, as Simons shows, has raised hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty; the cost, environmentally and ecologically, has been calamitous for the planet.” Edward A. Gargan, author of The River's Tale: A Year on the Mekong
“The Devouring Dragon offers a wide-ranging, carefully researched, and ultimately chilling account of China's impact on global biodiversity and climate change. Craig Simons journeys around the world to speak to illegal loggers, biologists tracking species extinction, and a panoply of Chinese -- whose appetite for resources and a higher standard of living is catalyzing a planetary environmental crisis. By turns diverting and personal, informative and thoughtful, this book serves as an urgent call for all of us to change our patterns of consumption before it is too late.” Judith Shapiro, author of China's Environmental Challenges and Mao's War against Nature
“A compelling and superbly written account of China's massive environmental impact around the globe. A must read for any thoughtful citizen, The Devouring Dragon portrays the choice before humanity: a headlong rush to a highly degraded planet OR a truly sustainable path that respects the wondrous living planet and its promise for all.” Thomas E. Lovejoy, University Professor of Environmental Science and Policy George Mason University Biodiversity Chair The Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment
“From Papua New Guinea to Trinidad, USA, Simons goes further than anyone before him in tracing the impact of China's rise on the global environment. Adroitly blending science and theory with personal stories and on-the-road reportage, this book vividly describes the risks posed by climate change and biodiversity loss as Chinese consumers follow the unsustainable path set by their counterparts in the West. The author does not flinch from grim stories, but neither is he overwhelmed by them. This book ends with an optimistic message of empowerment and change.” Jonathan Watts, author of When a Billion Chinese Jump
From the coal mines of Colorado to the forests of Papua New Guinea, and all over China in between, Craig Simons illustrates from the ground up how the Middle Kingdom's economic takeoff is upending the planet at the very moment it is reaching an environmental tipping point. The book is both a gripping grassroots narrative of economic development as well as a heartfelt plea for the future.
China's insatiable appetite for resources has raised the world's metabolism in ways that you could never imagine. Craig Simons' Devouring Dragon takes you clear across the globe--from the ghost town of Trinidad, Colo., to a jungle in Papua New Guinea to the world's largest dam on the Yangtze River -- as he tells the fascinating story of the world's interconnectedness. This is the most important book about the environment in years, scary, riveting and packed with insight into how the world's resources are exploited for economic growth.
Simons paints a devastating picture of the global consequences of China's relentless and rapacious growth, from the clear-cutting of the earth's last stands of exotic hardwoods to the extinction of major animal species, from coal dust that reaches Oregon to the crippling pollution that swaddles China's cities. China's rise, as Simons shows, has raised hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty; the cost, environmentally and ecologically, has been calamitous for the planet.
The Devouring Dragon offers a wide-ranging, carefully researched, and ultimately chilling account of China's impact on global biodiversity and climate change. Craig Simons journeys around the world to speak to illegal loggers, biologists tracking species extinction, and a panoply of Chinese -- whose appetite for resources and a higher standard of living is catalyzing a planetary environmental crisis. By turns diverting and personal, informative and thoughtful, this book serves as an urgent call for all of us to change our patterns of consumption before it is too late.
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The Devouring Dragon
How China's Rise Threatens Our Natural World
By Craig Simons
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Craig Simons
All rights reserved.
On a warm, gray afternoon I found myself standing on a cracked mud bank of the world's third-longest river thinking about what it is and was and could become. The scene looked nothing like the Yangtze popularized in scroll paintings and travel guidebook photographs. There were no mist-shrouded mountains or wooden fishing boats, no swooping sparrows or spindle-legged herons, no blue-water waves or Buddhist pagodas.
Instead, I looked across a quarter mile of turbid, rust-colored water flecked with trash. A dirty rubber ball, a few soda bottles, and a crumpled potato chip bag floated next to a hunk of Styrofoam. Two medicine vials and a rotting cabbage had washed ashore near the disintegrating hull of an abandoned ferry. A half-dozen barges carrying small mountains of goods — coal, steel, motorcycles, giant metal containers — pushed upstream against foot-high waves, each pouring a chimney of smoke into the smoggy sky.
The Yangtze cuts a line through the heart of China, traveling thirty-nine hundred miles from a glacier high on the Tibetan plateau to where it empties into the East China Sea just north of Shanghai, and I was standing roughly at its midpoint, in the center of Chongqing, a city most famous to Westerners as the launching point for trips through the Three Gorges, the narrow, steep canyons through which the Yangtze funnels on its journey east. Until 2006, when the Chinese Communist Party celebrated the completion of the Three Gorges Dam, tens of thousands of foreigners traveled to Chongqing each year to board cruise ships that took them through the gorges, and the river became as well known outside of China as the Great Wall or Beijing's Forbidden City. Early visitors included people like Archibald Little, a merchant who boated through the gorges in 1887 and was careful to write down each day's date because, as he put it, the "river varies so wonderfully at different seasons that any description must be carefully understood only to apply to the day upon which it is written."
But the dam had changed everything. Standing by the river, watching the barges grind their way past a landscape of construction cranes and half-finished apartment buildings, listening to the din of traffic, I couldn't imagine any seasonal variation. Soon, the only way the river would mark the movement from summer to fall and fall to winter was by where its waters fell against black and white numbers painted on concrete banks. On the day I stood on its shore, the Yangtze had reached 163. Translated, that meant the top of the Three Gorges Dam reservoir was 163 meters — 534 feet — above the base of the dam, still too low to reach Chongqing but close.
* * *
For China, the Yangtze River and its Three Gorges hold an almost mythical prominence. The Chinese call the Yangtze the Chang Jiang — the Long River — and it has played a central role in history as far back as one cares to look. Many of China's earliest-known Neolithic societies lived along its banks: two and a half millennia ago, the people of a kingdom known as the Ba buried their dead in caves high in the cliffs of the gorges, a practice that showed an early sophistication of both communities and technology. More recently, the river became the locus of revolutionary history: the Heavenly Kingdom of the Taiping, a band of rebels that almost toppled the Qing dynasty in 1860, built their capital in Nanjing, the first major city upstream from Shanghai; the Republican Revolution of 1911, which finally ended two millennia of imperial rule, began in Wuhan, a sprawling city on the Yangtze's middle stretches; during World War II, Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Nationalist government, the Kuomintang, retreated up the river with a flotilla of junks carrying everything from dismantled power plants to the nation's treasury.
After the Three Gorges Dam split the Yangtze in half in 2003, it had taken on grander meanings, becoming a symbol of both China's ambitious rise and how that growth has damaged the natural world. When the dam was completed, Beijing released a list of world records set by the project, among them that the dam and power plant were the world's biggest, eventually capable of supplying 85 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity — enough to run a city of 17 million people; required the largest-ever forced-resettlement for a single structure — necessitating the movement of some 1.4 million people; and used more dirt, stone, concrete, and steel than any other project ever built anywhere. It also created the world's longest man-made lake, a reservoir stretching 360 miles — nearly half the length of California — that has turned what was once a beautiful and challenging river journey into a pancake-flat lake with a dirty bathtub ring. Today, fewer foreigners make the trip. But just as Americans flocked to the Hoover Dam in the 1950s, Chinese tourists have made up the difference as they rush to gaze proudly on a cradle of their nation's early history and, sometimes more ardently, on their own wonder of the modern world.
I, on the other hand, had flown to Chongqing in search of a fish. A few months earlier I had come across a brief article about Chinese sturgeon, a fish I knew little about, and clicked open the link to find a photograph of a scientist holding a man-size animal with giant, armor-like scales. The story explained that the species had lived in the Yangtze for 130 million years but now teetered on the brink of extinction. Its size was also impressive: Chinese sturgeon, Acipenser sinensis, can live for forty years and grow to sixteen feet, making it one of the world's largest freshwater fish. (I would later learn that the Chinese paddlefish, another Yangtze species, can reach twenty- three feet, giving it the title, but none had been seen in the wild since 2003 and it is probably extinct.)
The approaching extinction of a species that had seen the arrival and disappearance of the dinosaur age seemed more important than the daily drumbeat of Chinese economic and political news, and over the next months I became obsessed with the fish. I read books and journal articles and learned that, like salmon, Chinese sturgeon spend much of their lives in the Pacific Ocean, sometimes traveling as far as Japan before finding their way home. Before the Three Gorges Dam and an earlier, smaller dam, they swam more than a thousand miles upriver to spawn in what must have been one of nature's most spectacular wildlife moments: thousands of minivan-sized animals flopping around in shallow streams and marshes.
I visited a hatchery where a Chinese scientist explained that sturgeon are among the oldest surviving members of Actinopterygii, the class of fish that dominate today's rivers, lakes, and oceans — accounting for 96 percent of all fish species — and represent a delicate thread to the biological history of mammals, including humans. The earliest sturgeon fossils so far found are 300 million years old, squarely in the Paleozoic Era, and some scientists believe they evolved 100 million years before that. If they're right, sturgeon would have been alive when the first fish crawled out of a river, establishing the long tradition of land animals. (The first vertebrate to leave water — Tiktaalik roseae — is believed to have emerged from an equatorial river roughly 375 million years ago.) One source put their seniority into perspective by collapsing the last 600 million years into a single year: January 1 represented the day the first multicellular animals appeared; the first vertebrates arrived on the morning of February 27; assuming that sturgeon evolved 400 million years ago, they punched in on May 2; the first primate emerged on November 9; modern humans — Homo sapiens — evolved at three hours before midnight on December 31.
I was also struck by how badly sturgeon fared over the twentieth century and, in the bigger picture, what their plight says about the future of the world's rivers. One book noted that "as recently as 1890 the biomass of Atlantic and short-nosed sturgeons in Delaware Bay was in the neighborhood of 48 million pounds." Native American tribes built weirs from tree branches and trapped Atlantic sturgeon as they migrated to breed. In Europe, members of the Viennese royal court amused themselves along the Danube River by firing cannons at "fleet-sized squadrons of migrating beluga sturgeons."
Today, there are no sturgeon in the Delaware Bay or anywhere between there and North Carolina's Cape Fear River, and a person would be extremely unlikely to kill a beluga in the Danube with a cannon or any other weapon, since they're almost all gone. In 2009, all twenty-seven of the world's sturgeon species were listed on the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the most important tally of endangered species. A recent notice by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated that "the Caspian Sea population is believed to be so depleted that natural reproduction in the wild may be insufficient to sustain the species." In Russia's Volga River, "the number of female sturgeons ... was considered insufficient to even support artificial propagation efforts."
I decided to learn about sturgeon — and particularly Chinese sturgeon, perhaps the most endangered of the group — while a few still survived, and, a few phone calls later, was talking with Wei Qiwei, a professor at the Yangtze River Fisheries Research Institute and one of China's top sturgeon experts. Wei was happy to help. In fact, a student named Wang Chengyou was planning to spend a few weeks looking at sturgeon just west of the Three Gorges Dam. Would I like to tag along?
* * *
Wang Chengyou was tall and whip thin, like a tree that has spent all its energy growing upward and had nothing left to add heft. At twenty-five, he had the distracted look typical of graduate students — disheveled, with his hair unkempt and his glasses smudged. When I met him, he was wearing blue jeans, battered knockoff Nike sneakers, and a white and yellow T-shirt that he had put on, intentionally or not, inside out. His enthusiasm was even more striking: he had the energy of someone who needed to collect thousands of data points to make more than the 700 yuan — just over $100 — monthly salary his position offered. He was on the river, where he could collect copious amounts of information, and so he was hopeful.
When I'd called Wang a few weeks earlier, he had sketched out our plan. The Chinese Academy of Fisheries Sciences, a national agency tasked with managing China's fish populations, had learned to raise sturgeon in captivity and each year dumped several thousand fish into the river just east of the Three Gorges Dam. Then its scientists crossed their fingers and hoped some would make it to Shanghai without getting hit by boats or caught in fishing nets or killed by passing pipefuls of industrial pollution. If they swam that gauntlet, the sturgeon would eventually reach the Pacific, and from there they might return years later to spawn.
But the Yangtze River Fisheries Research Institute had started releasing fish more than a decade earlier and the program had been a failure: in 2008, only six sturgeon had made their way up the Yangtze to spawn in their last remaining breeding ground and most of their eggs were defective, possibly because water flowing from the dam comes from the bottom of a five-hundred-foot-deep lake and is colder than what sturgeons have been used to for millions of years.
The institute was desperate to find another way to keep wild sturgeon alive and had tasked Wang with releasing five adult fish upstream from the dam to see if they survived. Since sturgeon have evolved to spend much of their lives at sea — sometimes traveling for ten years — it seemed unlikely that they would adapt to a giant, dirty reservoir, but Wang looked at the problem scientifically: until he had enough data to say that it couldn't be done, hopefully in the form of a doctoral dissertation, anything was possible.
And so we stood together on a bank of the Yangtze River in the middle of Chongqing waiting for a truck carrying five Acipenser sinensis. As we kicked at bits of trash that had washed ashore, I asked Wang how he had ended up studying the fish.
Western scientists generally have stories about how they fell in love with their subjects, but Chinese are almost always more practical: for Wang, the journey to the Yangtze had started in a poor farming village where his parents had invested their savings to help him escape. He had studied hard and tested into a teachers training college, and when he was about to graduate, a professor had asked if he wanted to study sturgeon.
Wang knew nothing about the fish, but the job sounded better than teaching at a rural high school and, without thinking much, he accepted. When he arrived at the research institute he walked to a tank holding Chinese sturgeon and looked at the animal he would spend years of his life trying to understand. He found them beautiful.
"I remember thinking they were very large and had a good color," Wang said. He was even more impressed by their pedigree: "When I learned that Chinese sturgeon are one of the world's oldest-living species, I realized it would be a shame if they went extinct."
As I got to know Wang, I learned that he was also concerned because the Chinese sturgeon is akin to a canary in a coal mine. That night we met for dinner at a restaurant where diners cooked a wide variety of vegetables and indistinguishable animal parts in huge vats of boiling oil and water. As we picked through the meal, Wang explained the plight of sturgeon as one of greater ecological collapse.
To get a sense of how badly the Yangtze has been misused, one needs to imagine it thousands of years ago, before people began to dominate its ecology. From its headwaters in China's northwestern Qinghai Province, it flowed through one of the world's most diverse landscapes. In China's far west, it wound through accordion-like valleys on the Tibetan plateau that even today protect dwindling populations of snow leopards, cranes, wild goats, and takin — a relative of the ox that looks like a cross between a moose, a cow, and a bear. From the thin, clear air of Tibet the river rushed down remote canyons to the Sichuan basin, where it widened and slowed through forests teeming with wildlife. Historical and archaeological records show that the wilderness along the Yangtze's eastern half sheltered rhinoceros, tigers, deer, several species of monkeys, pandas, and a forest-dwelling cousin of the African elephant. Few people have studied the river's ichthyological history, but because Yangtze exploitation became severe only in the 1970s, it preserves a remnant of that earlier diversity. More than 350 species of fish have been recorded in its basin, one-third of them found nowhere else. Among the unique endemic species are, or in some cases were, the Chinese sturgeon, a rare finless porpoise, a dolphin, giant soft-shelled turtles, and the only alligators found outside of North America.
Chinese have lived along the Yangtze for millennia, but the beginning of the river's rapid deterioration can be traced to a push for industrialization in the beginning of the late 1970s. Today the Yangtze River basin accounts for 40 percent of China's economic output and almost one-third of its people. It supplies more than 70 percent of China's rice and fish — most raised in ponds laced with antibiotics — and absorbs more than 40 percent of its sewage, four-fifths of it untreated.
Because the river annually carries 900 billion tons of water, enough to fill Lake Erie twice, experts once assumed that it would flush out any toxins people threw into it. But the combination of slow-moving reservoirs and factory-dumped chemicals has led to serious health problems. A 1998 study of irrigation water used in the Yangtze basin found cadmium levels 160 times above the allowable standard. Tests found that people living in the area had consumed levels of the heavy metal nearly high enough to cause itai-itai, a disease that weakens bones and causes kidney failure. In 2008, a group of Chinese and Swiss scientists measured pollution in the river and found cadmium, mercury, and chromium, a sometimes carcinogenic heavy metal, exceeding European safety standards by as much as 500 percent. "The enormous loads ... may assume a disastrous effect in the Yangtze estuary where it flows into the East China Sea," the scientists wrote.
Wang also knew that the Three Gorges Dam is making the situation worse. The reservoir has submerged more than one hundred cities and towns and tens of thousands of acres of farmland, most of which had not been cleaned before they were flooded. A 2006 report by Chinese hydrologists called the Yangtze "cancerous" and warned that more than two-thirds of its length could be effectively dead — unable to support most of the plants at the bottom of the food chain — within five years. Landslides also became a problem as the reservoir rose, and scientists warned that its weight might hasten or intensify earthquakes.
Excerpted from The Devouring Dragon by Craig Simons. Copyright © 2013 Craig Simons. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Meet the Author
Craig Simons has reported on the environment from a dozen Asian nations for Newsweek and Cox Newspapers. He has also written for Outside, Backpacker, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He studied at Harvard University, The University of Pennsylvania, and—as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow—MIT.
CRAIG SIMONS has reported on the environment from twelve Asian nations for Newsweek and Cox Newspapers. He has also written for Outside, Backpacker, The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. Last year he was one of twelve journalists to win a prestigious Knight Fellowship from MIT. He lives in China.
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Excellent and upsetting book addressing the damage waged on the natural world by the industrial expansion and demands of new money in China. Well written, fast paced, with excellent citations/references at end. Includes: pollution, deforestation of rainforests, endangered precious woods and animal habitat; pressure to kill endangered elephants, tigers, rhinos for ornamentation and medicine-probably driving to extinction. Addresses climate change and the huge amounts of CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere from coal fired industries. All current headline material. Indicates that China may be the tipping point regarding the earth's rich environment. A frightening look into the possible future of our planet.