Book Review: The Devouring Dragon – How China’s rise threatens the natural world, by Craig Simons

I’ve never read a book about zombies, and now I don’t need to. cv_the_devouring_dragonThis book is frightening enough.

Craig Simons is a reporter on the environment, principally from Asia. In this brief account, he describes the effect that China’s phenomenal economic development over the last few decades has had on the environment of the whole planet. He bases this book on reporting trips over the period 2009-2012, and has conversations with many interesting people in some unexpected places. He blends personal stories, reportage, theory, and scientific and historical background, in a lively, often gripping way which carries the reader along a bleak road.

The environment is a broad topic, but there are two main themes: carbon emissions, which of course accelerate the rate of climate change world-wide, and the destruction of the natural world to satisfy China’s ever-growing need for resources.

As far as emissions are concerned, China is, per capita, the largest user of coal in the world. The author details the extent of this use, and discusses rather mournfully the lack of tangible results from the Kyoto and Copenhagen agreements. He puts the blame for this failure not only to China, but the developed world as well, describing the agreements as poorly implemented.

In terms of the natural world, China looks like a giant vacuum cleaner. It is the largest market for threatened species of wild-life, principally for use in traditional medicine. It has changed from being self-sufficient in forestry to stripping huge areas of tropical forests. Soy-beans are needed – so farmers in Brazil clear vast swathes of the Amazonian rain-forests. And there are many more examples, covering a wide geographic range. The author starts in Colorado, visits New Guinea, Brazil, India and many other places. New Zealand gets two mentions: for what is described as the alarming rate in which land is being converted to dairying, and for mining coal. You may disagree with one or both of these and that stimulation of discussion is one of the book’s strengths.factories_china

The issues are described partly by observation – the book becomes a travelogue in places – and partly using a huge number of figures, which are carefully interwoven into the narrative so not to appear as reference material. He covers a vast amount of ground, and while I knew that China’s growth had costs, the full impact and the wide geographical sweep of the depredation astonished me. Many of his figures will be obsolete very quickly of course, but that does not matter: they give a scale which it is sometimes difficult to appreciate: one fifth of humanity, one quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, one half of all coal burnt in the world.

But there’s a loaded word in that paragraph. Depredation – really? Why should the Chinese not aspire to the same standard of living as other economies who started their exploitation of the environment earlier? Simons does not shy away from this, and makes it clear that China alone cannot solve the problems. Cooperation on an unheard-of scale between the large economies is the only hope for any solution. This cooperation founders of course on self-interest; NZ is unlikely to want to stop selling dairy products.

Simons is sympathetic towards China, and makes it clear that there is nothing to be gained by being anti-China. He takes a number of historical detours, showing that at least some of the blame lies with the West.tiger_boner

What about solutions? The author describes some attempts that have been made to resolve some of the issues. For example, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a major factor in the dreadful loss of Rhino, Tigers and other animals. Yet many doctors in China realise that TCM is worthless, and are trying to teach the population that this is so. Without much success so far – and it is here that we see the vast range of China, geographically, ethnically and socially. It would be fair to say that while Simons describes solutions in many areas, he is pessimistic about the likelihood of success any time soon.

As always with books on complex topics, I want to be assured that the author is worth trusting. And he is a journalist after all! He is an American, was a Peace Corps volunteer in China, studied widely and now lives in Beijing. He has reported on the environment from “a dozen” Asian nations, for newspapers and magazines. He has taken information from a lot of sources, and talked to a lot of smart people. Often the source material is not allowed to disrupt the flow of the book but is relegated to forty pages of notes, which are reassuringly complete. The writing is excellent – it is well paced, mixes direct observation of situations world-wide with reflection, and he has a great knack for highlighting one small detail which epitomises the big picture. It would have been easy just to write a lament but he hasn’t.

So, no zombies but the book frightened me anyway, and left me both better informed and more concerned. Well worth reading.

The Devouring Dragon: How China’s Rise Threatens the Natural World
by Craig Simmons
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781877551888