- 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: 11 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #375,743 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Mao's War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China (Studies in Environment and History)
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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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**I am an undergraduate student in Economics and History, and found this to be an excellent read pertaining to both of my academic fields.
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. During the Great Leap Forward, claims reached the fantastic. The genetic manipulation of ordinary peasants, sometimes children, were said to have made roosters bear chicks. Pear trees yielded apples, pigs were bred with cows, and crossing cotton and tomato plants were said to have created red cotton! Unsurprisingly, the propaganda was later exposed. Thus, the "self sufficient" village of Dazhai, which supposedly managed to raise its agricultural output without outside support, was actually heavily assisted by funds and manpower from the People's Liberation Army.
What caused this insane orgy in environmental destruction? Mao's "socialist utopianism", to use the author's expression, was the prime culprit. Maoism was characterized by a strong voluntarism. Mao believed that one could transform both human nature and material conditions by unleashing mass mobilizations. He seems to have interpreted this quite literally, as if the laws of nature could somehow be nullified by sheer will power and force. Mao wanted to modernize and industrialize China, somehow assuming that this could be done in a relatively short time by sheer exertion. The relatively swift industrialization of the Soviet Union may have loomed large in Mao's mind. When China became internationally isolated, Mao feared an attack from both the United States and the USSR, which (to his mind) made a speedy creation of a military-industrial complex necessary. Another factor is the usual Marxist emphasis on the need for socialism to expand the productive forces even beyond those of capitalism.
Despite everything, Mao eventually did accomplish some kind of economic growth, but the real spurt didn't began until the post-Mao era, which the author (who seems to be ultra-Green) opposes as well. But that's another show!
In 1949, Mao Zedong led a revolution that overthrew the Chinese government. The victors created the People’s Republic of China, a communist state. China had suffered from a long era of exploitation by foreign powers. Mao was eager to create a prosperous industrial utopia as rapidly as possible, by any means necessary.
In 1972, Richard Nixon visited Mao and reestablished relations between the U.S. and China. Judith Shapiro was among the first Americans allowed to work there. She taught English. The outside world knew little about Red China, but Shapiro soon learned that the Maoist era had been a turbulent freak show. She described this period in her book, Mao’s War Against Nature.
Every environmental history book is a horror story, describing how clever humans survived by using technology and aggression to devour nonrenewable resources, deplete renewable resources, ravage ecosystems, and leave the bills for their children. Shapiro’s book stands out, because it examines an era of unbelievable ecocide. Maoist China repeated the classic mistakes of other civilizations, but in fast forward mode.
Mao’s high-speed modernization project was called the Great Leap Forward (1958-60). He wanted to produce more steel than Great Britain within 15 years. Peasants rapidly constructed several million primitive backyard furnaces. A hundred million people worked day and night melting tools, pots, and scrap into blobs of useless metal. Most of the furnaces were wood-fired, and deforestation was widespread. In those days, the peasants still believed the dream — that their heroic efforts would bring a new era with powerful tractors and railroads. They worked enthusiastically.
At the same time, there was a huge drive to increase grain production via bone-headed strategies. They were told that if they planted ten times as many seeds in a field, the yield would be ten times higher. Sadly, the densely grown plants rotted. But local leaders were deeply engaged in a competition to report astonishing gains in grain production, and their claims were far in excess of reality.
Because it would have been impossible to store all the grain reported, folks were ordered to make steel. The 1958 crop largely rotted in the fields, while the steel-making peasants consumed their grain reserves. In 1959, drought arrived, and the Great Famine began. Between 35 and 50 million died by 1961 — the biggest manmade famine in history.
The war on nature had another front, the Four Pests — rats, sparrows, flies, and mosquitoes. Sparrows were an enemy of the people because they ate too much grain. Schoolchildren ran around the countryside, destroying their nests and smashing their eggs. They banged pots whenever a sparrow landed. Before long, there were far fewer sparrows, and far more of the insects they used to eat. Farmers soon realized that sparrows were great allies. The birds were removed from the pest list, and replaced by bedbugs.
A core component of the Mao era was disregard for expertise. Mao hated intellectuals, scientists, and anyone else who questioned his fantasies. “Mao and his followers all too often fell into the trap of believing that because they declared something possible or true, it would be so.” Time-proven ideas were annoying superstitions that obstructed the fast lane to utopia. Knowledgeable people who voiced doubts about stupid ideas were promoted to exciting new careers in breaking rocks, exterminating forests, or worse.
When the president of Beijing University warned about the danger of rapid population growth, he was denounced and relieved of his responsibilities. Overpopulation could only be a problem in evil capitalist societies — never in a socialist paradise. China was already overpopulated in 1949, and it grew with spooky speed. Mao refused to believe the census numbers. In 1958, family planning programs were ended, and not resumed until 1971. Mao died in 1976, and in 1979, the one-child policy was implemented.
When a respected engineering professor at Qinghua University warned that the planned Sanmenxia dam on the Yellow River was stupid, and would promptly fill with silt, he was denounced and relieved of his responsibilities. The dam was built, and the reservoir filled with silt two years later, flooding a nearby town. Mao rushed to build thousands of dams, of which 2,976 had collapsed by 1980. Many were built with soil alone, by untrained peasants. Floods caused by two dam failures in 1975 killed an estimated 230,000 people.
Rubber was a strategic resource, and Mao did not want to rely on imports from capitalists. During the Cultural Revolution, hundreds of thousands of educated urban youths from bad families (i.e., intellectuals, rightists, capitalists) were shipped to the virgin rainforests north of Laos. This region was too far north for rubber, but the experts understood it was dangerous to protest. So, ancient forest was cleared, and planted with rubber. Much of it died during the winter of 1974-75. They replanted, and the trees died again. They replanted a third time, with the same result.
Looking at this era from the outside, it’s easy to see the foolishness. The only news the peasants got came from government sources — propaganda. The culture had a long tradition of obedience to superiors. Free speech and dissent were not cool. “Political campaigns so distorted human relationships that family members were driven to denounce and beat each other, neighbors spied on neighbors, schoolchildren drove teachers to suicide, and the world was turned upside down for countless millions.”
As I read, I couldn’t help but contemplate how foolish our own culture would appear to intelligent outsiders. How much of our news stream is truthful? What stories are missing? Why do we disregard the warnings of climate scientists? How can a “well-educated” population remain so ecologically illiterate? It’s 2015, the polar bears are dying, and the streets of Kalamazoo are still jammed with speeding wheelchairs. Why?
The Chinese were manipulated to pursue an ideology, and the program resulted in enormous environmental harm. It seems like consumer societies are manipulated via advertising and peer pressure to cause enormous harm via lifelong competition for status. We must continually acquire more impressive homes, cars, televisions, and on and on. A couple years ago, it was awesomely trendy to wear clothing printed with skull motifs. The following year, the skulls vanished, and the trend robots rushed to fill their wardrobes with the latest new fashions.
Anyway, Shapiro’s book is stunning. Mao is dead, and so is his ideology. The new game is the high speed pursuit of personal wealth. She mentions a few signs of hope, but it seems clear that the post-Mao era is causing far more environmental harm. The population is still growing. The pollution is horrendous. In every nation, the war on nature is winning. What would intelligent people do?
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Mao was a military leader.Read more