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Mao's War against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China (Studies in Environment and History) Paperback – March 5, 2001

11 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0521786805 ISBN-10: 0521786800

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Editorial Reviews Review

Historians have well chronicled Mao Zedong's crimes against the people of China over his four decades of rule, but his crimes against the Chinese land have been less studied. Judith Shapiro, a historian at American University, tells that dark story with admirable thoroughness.

A central tenet of Maoist ideology was the rejection of both ancient Chinese tradition and modern Western science, both of which offered an ample store of evidence to suggest that rivers flow best when unimpeded, that biological diversity is a good and necessary thing. Instead, Mao Zedong insisted, the laws of historical materialism mandated that everything in creation be put into the service of the revolution: Forests had to be felled to make steel for China's industrial development, mountains had to be leveled to make room for agricultural fields, rivers had to be reversed in their courses to provide power and irrigation. Marshaling the people of China in campaigns to clear land and destroy grain-hungry birds, among other things, Mao remade the landscape in just a few years, ordering imperial-scale projects such as the Three Gorges Dam. His policies led to disaster, to deforestation, air and water pollution, and ultimately famine--but some of those policies are still in force.

Shapiro observes that Mao Zedong cannot be held entirely accountable for the destruction of China's land, water, and air; he had, after all, many willing deputies. Still, the political repression he put in place made resistance almost impossible--and even today, Shapiro writes in her impressive study of Mao's war on the environment, his actions have proved difficult to undo. "Until China confronts its uneasy Maoist legacy," the author concludes, "it may struggle fruitlessly to achieve a sustainable relationship with the natural world." --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

Much has been written on the human suffering in China under Mao Zedong, and a growing literature has examined the environmental degradation of this period. In this unique and important study American University environmentalist Shapiro, co-author with Liang Heng of three previous books on China, combines the two themes. Her thesis is "that the abuse of people and nature are often interrelated," and that Mao's China is an extreme case of this connection. Under Mao, China was a place of fierce repression and constant mobilization of the "masses." Through the power of their will and obeisance to Mao, it was believed the masses would develop China. Nature, then, was the enemy to be conquered, but it was not the only one; anyone who disagreed with Mao was an enemy as well, and could be banished, imprisoned or killed. Thus, as Shapiro shows in finely crafted case studies, Mao launched a series of utopian mass development schemes tempered neither by scientific caution nor by democratic political opposition. As Mao ignored warnings on China's explosive population growth, deforestation projects and overuse and misuse of the land led to massive famine in the 1960s. Local practices were disregarded as Mao demanded the uniform application across China of questionable policies such as the forced growing of grain no matter what the local conditions. Through these and other similar schemes, by Mao's death in 1976 both nature and the masses were exhausted and ruined. Mao's most lasting legacy, Shapiro observes, may be a cynicism and disillusionment among the Chinese people that makes them suspicious of any public goals, including the environmental reclamation of China. (Apr.) Forecast: The author will promote this in Washington, D.C., New York and San Francisco, and with advertising in the Economist, Natural History, Atlantic Monthly and the New York Review of Books, this book should reach a hard-core audience interested in China, human rights and environmentalism.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Series: Studies in Environment and History
  • Paperback: 332 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (March 5, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521786800
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521786805
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #517,484 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful By TEK on May 1, 2007
Format: Paperback
In terms of the historiography of China's environmental policies during the Mao era this book is certainly an important work. Shapiro does a great job of laying out the general trends of the policies concerning the environment during the Mao years, and this general framework is nicely complemented by anecdotal evidence. The thesis of this work is that governments and policies that victimize people also tend to victimize the environment. That thesis is convincingly supported by Shapiro as the book documents how environmental destruction was particularly pronounced during the political reform movements that have become so notorious (the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, etc.).

Unfortunately, this otherwise superb book has a major flaw for which I feel compelled to dock one star in my rating. Shapiro's final analysis concerning the changes needed in the future is simply weak. Throughout the book Shapiro criticized ideologies/philosophies that considered nature as something to be conquered. She also touches on how those ideologies/philosophies are often related to the modern world view of progress and materialism. I think she is absolutely correct in this part of her diagnosis.

Oddly, when it comes to her prescription Shapiro suggests what is essentially more of the same. She, of course, wouldn't see it that way, but she fails to refute the modern world view of progress and materialism. The answer, according to Shapiro, isn't a break from the ideology of progress but rather a progress that is tempered by the implementation of new technology and a sense of "humility".
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Alice Friedemann on November 19, 2010
Format: Paperback
The main thesis of this book is that when free speech is squelched, the consequences can be dire for the environment.

Mao was a military leader. He saw that he could defeat the technologically superior Japanese by sheer force of numbers. In the fifties, demographers and other scientists became alarmed at the quickly expanding population and started speaking and writing about the need to practice birth control. Mao stopped them. He didn't think you could have enough people.

Mao saw people as being extremely expendable. He shocked Nikita Khruschev in 1957 while visiting him in Moscow when he said: "We shouldn't be afraid of atomic missiles. No matter what kind of war breaks out - conventional or thermonuclear - we'll win. As for China, if the imperialists unleash war on us, we may lose more than three hundred million people. So what? War is war. The years will pass and we'll get to work producing more babies than ever before."

Mao's "Great Leap Forward" led to the greatest loss of life in history - it resulted in 35-50 million deaths from starvation. This came about because of various campaigns. One of them was to make China a steel-producing nation within five years. The implementation was a surreal nightmare: people had their cooking pots, the nails from their homes, and other metal that held the infrastructure together melted into steel bars at the village square to meet the production quotas. The "steel" that resulted was useless. The metal was such a motley mix, and wasn't forged at high enough temperatures.

Firewood was used to melt the gathered metal. This resulted in the devastation of forests across China as millions of trees were cut to fuel the forges.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 11, 2003
Format: Paperback
As a foreigner living in China, I found Shapiro's book extremely helpful in understanding the culture of one-fifth of the world's population. Shapiro did an excellent job of choosing several major examples of Mao's destructive impact on the country of China and her people.
One is unable to help but to be enthralled in her book. She is thorough in her treatment of the examples she chose and is able to record the information in an easy-to-read manner.
I recommend this book to anyone who is at all interested in history, even if one is just a beginner. Your eyes will be opened to realize how destructive an individual can be when their one major concern is their own pride.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Ashtar Command on August 15, 2010
Format: Paperback
"Mao's war against nature" is a book about environmental destruction and other man-made disasters in China during the rule of Mao Zedong. The book deals with four specific events during the Maoist period: the Anti-Rightist campaign, the Great Leap Forward, the Third Front and the campaign to learn from Dazhai.

The Anti-Rightist campaign silenced scientists and intellectuals who tried to warn the Communist authorities about the impending population explosion and the dangers of the Sanmenxia Dam. During the Great Leap Forward, Mao's artificial attempt to catch up with Britain and the United States in terms of steel production, led to large-scale deforestation and a famine killing about 30 million people. The campaign to learn from Dazhai was an attempt to increase grain production by terracing mountains and turn wetlands into farmlands. It, too, was a spectacular failure. The military preparations during the Third Front did lead to some successes in industrializing previously barren areas, but they also displaced millions of "educated youth" and caused the usual large scale deforestation, destruction of lakes, etc.

Sometimes, the expectations were almost comically silly, as when the Maoists claimed that more seeds on the same field would lead to an increased harvest, when in reality the seeds simply competed against each other, leading (at best) to the same harvest. Or when party commissars instructed the peasants to dug deeper into the fields, hoping that this would enable the extra seeds to sprout. Actually, it just destroyed the soil. During the campaign to learn from Dazhai, insane attempts to make grain grow on almost barren hills seem to have been the rule rather than the exception.

The propaganda was equally silly.
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