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.
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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.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. 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.1 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.2 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.”3 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.”4
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 nothin...
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