Arquivo da tag: Apocalipse

A Giant Bumptious Litter: Donna Haraway on Truth, Technology, and Resisting Extinction (Logic)

Issue 9 / Nature December 07, 2019

Donna Haraway at her desk, smiling.
Donna Haraway in her home in Santa Cruz. A still from Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival, a film by Fabrizio Terranova.

The history of philosophy is also a story about real estate.

Driving into Santa Cruz to visit Donna Haraway, we can’t help feeling that we were born too late. The metal sculpture of a donkey standing on Haraway’s front porch, the dogs that scramble to her front door barking when we ring the bell, and the big black rooster strutting in the coop out back — the entire setting evokes an era of freedom and creativity that postwar wealth made possible in Northern California.

Here was a counterculture whose language and sensibility the tech industry sometimes adopts, but whose practitioners it has mostly priced out. Haraway, who came to the University of Santa Cruz in 1980 to take up the first tenured professorship in feminist theory in the US, still conveys the sense of a wide‑open world.

Haraway was part of an influential cohort of feminist scholars who trained as scientists before turning to the philosophy of science in order to investigate how beliefs about gender shaped the production of knowledge about nature. Her most famous text remains “A Cyborg Manifesto,” published in 1985. It began with an assignment on feminist strategy for the Socialist Review after the election of Ronald Reagan and grew into an oracular meditation on how cybernetics and digitization had changed what it meant to be male or female — or, really, any kind of person. It gained such a cult following that Hari Kunzru, profiling her for Wired years later, wrote: “To boho twentysomethings, her name has the kind of cachet usually reserved for techno acts or new phenethylamines.”

The cyborg vision of gender as changing and changeable was radically new. Her map of how information technology linked people around the world into new chains of affiliation, exploitation, and solidarity feels prescient at a time when an Instagram influencer in Berlin can line the pockets of Silicon Valley executives by using a phone assembled in China that contains cobalt mined in Congo to access a platform moderated by Filipinas.

Haraway’s other most influential text may be an essay that appeared a few years later, on what she called “situated knowledges.” The idea, developed in conversation with feminist philosophers and activists such as Nancy Hartsock, concerns how truth is made. Concrete practices of particular people make truth, Haraway argued. The scientists in a laboratory don’t simply observe or conduct experiments on a cell, for instance, but co-create what a cell is by seeing, measuring, naming, and manipulating it. Ideas like these have a long history in American pragmatism. But they became politically explosive during the so-called Science Wars of the 1990s — a series of public debates among “scientific realists” and “postmodernists” with echoes in controversies about bias and objectivity in academia today.

Haraway’s more recent work has turned to human-animal relations and the climate crisis. She is a capacious yes, and thinker, the kind of leftist feminist who believes that the best thinking is done collectively. She is constantly citing other people, including graduate students, and giving credit to them. A recent documentary about her life and work by the Italian filmmaker Fabrizio Terranova, Story Telling for Earthly Survival, captures this sense of commitment, as well as her extraordinary intellectual agility and inventiveness.

At her home in Santa Cruz, we talked about her memories of the Science Wars and how they speak to our current “post-truth” moment, her views on contemporary climate activism and the Green New Deal, and why play is essential for politics.

Let’s begin at the beginning. Can you tell us a little bit about your childhood? 

I grew up in Denver, in the kind of white, middle-class neighborhood where people had gotten mortgages to build housing after the war. My father was a sportswriter. When I was eleven or twelve years old, I probably saw seventy baseball games a year. I learned to score as I learned to read.

My father never really wanted to do the editorials or the critical pieces exposing the industry’s financial corruption or what have you. He wanted to write game stories and he had a wonderful way with language. He was in no way a scholar — in fact he was in no way an intellectual — but he loved to tell stories and write them. I think I was interested in that as well — in words and the sensuality of words.

The other giant area of childhood storytelling was Catholicism. I was way too pious a little girl, completely inside of the colors and the rituals and the stories of saints and the rest of it. I ate and drank a sensual Catholicism that I think was rare in my generation. Very not Protestant. It was quirky then; it’s quirky now. And it shaped me. 

How so? 

One of the ways that it shaped me was through my love of biology as a materialist, sensual, fleshly being in the world as well as a knowledge-seeking apparatus. It shaped me in my sense that I saw biology simultaneously as a discourse and profoundly of the world. The Word and the flesh. 

Many of my colleagues in the History of Consciousness department, which comes much later in the story, were deeply engaged with Roland Barthes and with that kind of semiotics. I was very unconvinced and alienated from those thinkers because they were so profoundly Protestant in their secularized versions. They were so profoundly committed to the disjunction between the signifier and signified — so committed to a doctrine of the sign that is anti-Catholic, not just non-Catholic. The secularized sacramentalism that just drips from my work is against the doctrine of the sign that I felt was the orthodoxy in History of Consciousness. So Catholicism offered an alternative structure of affect. It was both profoundly theoretical and really intimate.

Did you start studying biology as an undergraduate? 

I got a scholarship that allowed me to go to Colorado College. It was a really good liberal arts school. I was there from 1962 to 1966 and I triple majored in philosophy and literature and zoology, which I regarded as branches of the same subject. They never cleanly separated. Then I got a Fulbright to go to Paris. Then I went to Yale to study cell, molecular, and developmental biology.

Did you get into politics at Yale? Or were you already political when you arrived? 

The politics came before that — probably from my Colorado College days, which were influenced by the civil rights movement. But it was at Yale that several things converged. I arrived in the fall of 1967, and a lot was happening.

New Haven in those years was full of very active politics. There was the antiwar movement. There was anti-chemical and anti-biological warfare activism among both the faculty and the graduate students in the science departments. There was Science for the People [a left-wing science organization] and the arrival of that wave of the women’s movement. My lover, Jaye Miller, who became my first husband, was gay, and gay liberation was just then emerging. There were ongoing anti-racist struggles: the Black Panther Party was very active in New Haven. 

Jaye and I were part of a commune where one of the members and her lover were Black Panthers. Gayle was a welfare rights activist and the mother of a young child, and her lover was named Sylvester. We had gotten the house for the commune from the university at a very low rent because we were officially an “experiment in Christian living.” It was a very interesting group of people! There was a five-year-old kid who lived in the commune, and he idolized Sylvester. He would clomp up the back stairs wearing these little combat boots yelling, “Power to the people! Power! Power!” It made our white downstairs neighbors nervous. They didn’t much like us anyway. It was very funny. 

Did this political climate influence your doctoral research at Yale?

I ended up writing on the ways that metaphors shape experimental practice in the laboratory. I was writing about the experience of the coming-into-being of organisms in the situated interactions of the laboratory. In a profound sense, such organisms are made but not made up. It’s not a relativist position at all; it’s a materialist position. It’s about what I later learned to call “situated knowledges.” It was in the doing of biology that this became more and more evident. 

How did these ideas go over with your labmates and colleagues?

It was never a friendly way of talking for my biology colleagues, who always felt that this verged way too far in the direction of relativism. 

It’s not that the words I was using were hard. It’s that the ideas were received with great suspicion. And I think that goes back to our discussion a few minutes ago about semiotics: I was trying to insist that the gapping of the signifier and the signified does not really determine what’s going on. 

But let’s face it: I was never very good in the lab! My lab work was appalling. Everything I ever touched died or got infected. I did not have good hands, and I didn’t have good passion. I was always more interested in the discourse, if you will. 

But you found a supervisor who was open to that? 

Yes, Evelyn Hutchinson. He was an ecologist and a man of letters and a man who had had a long history of making space for heterodox women. And I was only a tiny bit heterodox. Other women he had given space to were way more out there than me. Evelyn was also the one who got us our house for our “experiment in Christian living.” 

God bless. What happened after Yale?

Jaye got a job at the University of Hawaii teaching world history and I went as this funny thing called a “faculty wife.” I had an odd ontological status. I got a job there in the general science department. Jaye and I were also faculty advisers for something called New College, which was an experimental liberal-arts part of the university that lasted for several years. 

It was a good experience. Jaye and I got a divorce in that period but never really quite separated because we couldn’t figure out who got the camera and who got the sewing machine. That was the full extent of our property in those days. We were both part of a commune in Honolulu. 

Then one night, Jaye’s boss in the history department insisted that we go out drinking with him, at which point he attacked us both sexually and personally in a drunken, homophobic, and misogynist rant. And very shortly after that, Jaye was denied tenure. Both of us felt stunned and hurt. So I applied for a job in the History of Science department at Johns Hopkins, and Jaye applied for a job at the University of Texas in Houston. 

Baltimore and the Thickness of Worlding

How was Hopkins? 

History of Science was not a field I knew anything about, and the people who hired me knew that perfectly well. Therefore they assigned me to teach the incoming graduate seminar: Introduction to the History of Science. It was a good way to learn it! 

Hopkins was also where I met my current partner, Rusten. He was a graduate student in the History of Science department, where I was a baby assistant professor. (Today I would be fired and sued for sexual harassment — but that’s a whole other conversation.) 

Who were some of the other people who became important to you at Hopkins?

[The feminist philosopher] Nancy Hartsock and I shaped each other quite a bit in those years. We were part of the Marxist feminist scene in Baltimore. We played squash a lot — squash was a really intense part of our friendship. Her lover was a Marxist lover of Lenin; he gave lectures in town. 

In the mid-to-late 1970s, Nancy and I started the women’s studies program at Hopkins together. At the time, she was doing her article that became her book on feminist materialism, [Money, Sex, and Power: Toward a Feminist Historical Materialism]. It was very formative for me.

Those were also the years that Nancy and Sandra Harding and Patricia Hill Collins and Dorothy Smith were inventing feminist standpoint theory. I think all of us were already reaching toward those ideas, which we then consolidated as theoretical proposals to a larger community. The process was both individual and collective. We were putting these ideas together out of our struggles with our own work. You write in a closed room while tearing your hair out of your head — it was individual in that sense. But then it clicks, and the words come, and you consolidate theoretical proposals that you bring to your community. In that sense, it was a profoundly collective way of thinking with each other, and within the intensities of the social movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

The ideas that you and other feminist philosophers were developing challenged many dominant assumptions about what truth is, where it comes from, and how it functions. More recently, in the era of Trump, we are often told we are living in a time of “post-truth” — and some critics have blamed philosophers like yourselves for creating the environment of “relativism” in which “post-truth” flourishes. How do you respond to that?

Our view was never that truth is just a question of which perspective you see it from. “Truth is perspectival” was never our position. We were against that. Feminist standpoint theory was always anti-perspectival. So was the Cyborg Manifesto, situated knowledges, [the philosopher] Bruno Latour’s notions of actor-network theory, and so on.

“Post-truth” gives up on materialism. It gives up on what I’ve called semiotic materialism: the idea that materialism is always situated meaning-making and never simply representation. These are not questions of perspective. They are questions of worlding and all of the thickness of that. Discourse is not just ideas and language. Discourse is bodily. It’s not embodied, as if it were stuck in a body. It’s bodily and it’s bodying, it’s worlding. This is the opposite of post-truth. This is about getting a grip on how strong knowledge claims are not just possible but necessary — worth living and dying for. 

When you, Latour, and others were criticized for “relativism,” particularly during the so-called Science Wars of the 1990s, was that how you responded? And could your critics understand your response?

Bruno and I were at a conference together in Brazil once. Which reminds me: If people want to criticize us, it ought to be for the amount of jet fuel involved in making and spreading these ideas! Not for leading the way to post-truth. We’re guilty on the carbon footprint issue, and Skyping doesn’t help, because I know what the carbon footprint of the cloud is. 

Anyhow. We were at this conference in Brazil. It was a bunch of primate field biologists, plus me and Bruno. And Stephen Glickman, a really cool biologist, a man we both love, who taught at UC Berkeley for years and studied hyenas, took us aside privately. He said, “Now, I don’t want to embarrass you. But do you believe in reality?” 

We were both kind of shocked by the question. First, we were shocked that it was a question of belief, which is a Protestant question. A confessional question. The idea that reality is a question of belief is a barely secularized legacy of the religious wars. In fact, reality is a matter of worlding and inhabiting. It is a matter of testing the holding-ness of things. Do things hold or not? 

Take evolution. The notion that you would or would not “believe” in evolution already gives away the game. If you say, “Of course I believe in evolution,” you have lost, because you have entered the semiotics of representationalism — and post-truth, frankly. You have entered an arena where these are all just matters of internal conviction and have nothing to do with the world. You have left the domain of worlding. 

The Science Warriors who attacked us during the Science Wars were determined to paint us as social constructionists — that all truth is purely socially constructed. And I think we walked into that. We invited those misreadings in a range of ways. We could have been more careful about listening and engaging more slowly. It was all too easy to read us in the way the Science Warriors did. Then the right wing took the Science Wars and ran with it, which eventually helped nourish the whole fake-news discourse.

Your opponents in the Science Wars championed “objectivity” over what they considered your “relativism.” Were you trying to stake out a position between those two terms? Or did you reject the idea that either of those terms even had a stable meaning?

Both terms inhabit the same ontological and epistemological frame — a frame that my colleagues and I have tried to make hard to inhabit. Sandra Harding insisted on “strong objectivity,” and my idiom was “situated knowledges.” We have tried to deauthorize the kind of possessive individualism that sees the world as units plus relations. You take the units, you mix them up with relations, you come up with results. Units plus relations equal the world. 

People like me say, “No thank you: it’s relationality all the way down.” You don’t have units plus relations. You just have relations. You have worlding. The whole story is about gerunds — worlding, bodying, everything-ing. The layers are inherited from other layers, temporalities, scales of time and space, which don’t nest neatly but have oddly configured geometries. Nothing starts from scratch. But the play — I think the concept of play is incredibly important in all of this — proposes something new, whether it’s the play of a couple of dogs or the play of scientists in the field. 

This is not about the opposition between objectivity and relativism. It’s about the thickness of worlding. It’s also about being of and for some worlds and not others; it’s about materialist commitment in many senses.

To this day I know only one or two scientists who like talking this way. And there are good reasons why scientists remain very wary of this kind of language. I belong to the Defend Science movement and in most public circumstances I will speak softly about my own ontological and epistemological commitments. I will use representational language. I will defend less-than-strong objectivity because I think we have to, situationally. 

Is that bad faith? Not exactly. It’s related to [what the postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has called] “strategic essentialism.” There is a strategic use to speaking the same idiom as the people that you are sharing the room with. You craft a good-enough idiom so you can work on something together. I won’t always insist on what I think might be a stronger apparatus. I go with what we can make happen in the room together. And then we go further tomorrow.

In the struggles around climate change, for example, you have to join with your allies to block the cynical, well-funded, exterminationist machine that is rampant on the earth. I think my colleagues and I are doing that. We have not shut up, or given up on the apparatus that we developed. But one can foreground and background what is most salient depending on the historical conjuncture.

Santa Cruz and Cyborgs

To return to your own biography, tell us a bit about how and why you left Hopkins for Santa Cruz. 

Nancy Hartsock and I applied for a feminist theory job in the History of Consciousness department at UC Santa Cruz together. We wanted to share it. Everybody assumed we were lovers, which we weren’t, ever. We were told by the search committee that they couldn’t consider a joint application because they had just gotten this job okayed and it was the first tenured position in feminist theory in the country. They didn’t want to do anything further to jeopardize it. Nancy ended up deciding that she wanted to stay in Baltimore anyway, so I applied solo and got the job. And I was fired from Hopkins and hired by Santa Cruz in the same week — and for exactly the same papers.

What were the papers?

The long one was called “Signs of Dominance.” It was from a Marxist feminist perspective, and it was regarded as too political. Even though it appeared in a major journal, the person in charge of my personnel case at Hopkins told me to white it out from my CV. 

The other one was a short piece on [the poet and novelist] Marge Piercy and [feminist theorist] Shulamith Firestone in Women: a Journal of Liberation. And I was told to white that out, too. Those two papers embarrassed my colleagues and they were quite explicit about it, which was kind of amazing. Fortunately, the people at History of Consciousness loved those same papers, and the set of commitments that went with them. 

You arrived in Santa Cruz in 1980, and it was there that you wrote the Cyborg Manifesto. Tell us a bit about its origins.

It had a very particular birth. There was a journal called the Socialist Review, which had formerly been called Socialist Revolution. Jeff Escoffier, one of the editors, asked five of us to write no more than five pages each on Marxist feminism, and what future we anticipated for it. 

This was just after the election of Ronald Reagan. The future we anticipated was a hard right turn. It was the definitive end of the 1960s. Around the same time, Jeff asked me if I would represent Socialist Review at a conference of New and Old Lefts in Cavtat in Yugoslavia [now Croatia]. I said yes, and I wrote a little paper on reproductive biotechnology. A bunch of us descended on Cavtat, and there were relatively few women. So we rather quickly found one another and formed alliances with the women staff who were doing all of the reproductive labor, taking care of us. We ended up setting aside our papers and pronouncing on various feminist topics. It was really fun and quite exciting. 

Out of that experience, I came back to Santa Cruz and wrote the Cyborg Manifesto. It turned out not to be five pages, but a whole coming to terms with what had happened to me in those years from 1980 to the time it came out in 1985.

The manifesto ended up focusing a lot on cybernetics and networking technologies. Did this reflect the influence of nearby Silicon Valley? Were you close with people working in those fields?

It’s part of the air you breathe here. But the real tech alliances in my life come from my partner Rusten and his friends and colleagues, because he worked as a freelance software designer. He did contract work for Hewlett Packard for years. He had a long history in that world: when he was only fourteen, he got a job programming on punch cards for companies in Seattle. 

The Cyborg Manifesto was the first paper I ever wrote on a computer screen. We had an old HP-86. And I printed it on one of those daisy-wheel printers. One I could never get rid of, and nobody ever wanted. It ended up in some dump, God help us all.

The Cyborg Manifesto had such a tremendous impact, and continues to. What did you make of its reception?

People read it as they do. Sometimes I find it interesting. But sometimes I just want to jump into a foxhole and pull the cover over me. 

In the manifesto, you distinguish yourself from two other socialist feminist positions. The first is the techno-optimist position that embraces aggressive technological interventions in order to modify human biology. This is often associated with Shulamith Firestone’s book The Dialectic of Sex (1970), and in particular her proposal for “artificial wombs” that could reproduce humans outside of a woman’s body.

Yes, although Firestone gets slotted into a quite narrow, blissed-out techno-bunny role, as if all her work was about reproduction without wombs. She is remembered for one technological proposal, but her critique of the historical materialist conditions of mothering and reproduction was very deep and broad.

You also make some criticisms of the ideas associated with Italian autonomist feminists and the Wages for Housework campaign. You suggest that they overextend the category of “labor.”

Wages for Housework was very important. And I’m always in favor of working by addition not subtraction. I’m always in favor of enlarging the litter. Let’s watch the attachments and detachments, the compositions and decompositions, as the litter proliferates. Labor is an important category with a strong history, and Wages for Housework enlarged it.

But in thinkers with Marxist roots, there’s also a tendency to make the category of labor do too much work. A great deal of what goes on needs to be thickly described with categories other than labor — or in interesting kinds of entanglement with labor. 

What other categories would you want to add?

Play is one. Labor is so tied to functionality, whereas play is a category of non-functionality. 

Play captures a lot of what goes on in the world. There is a kind of raw opportunism in biology and chemistry, where things work stochastically to form emergent systematicities. It’s not a matter of direct functionality. We need to develop practices for thinking about those forms of activity that are not caught by functionality, those which propose the possible-but-not-yet, or that which is not-yet but still open. 

It seems to me that our politics these days require us to give each other the heart to do just that. To figure out how, with each other, we can open up possibilities for what can still be. And we can’t do that in in a negative mood. We can’t do that if we do nothing but critique. We need critique; we absolutely need it. But it’s not going to open up the sense of what might yet be. It’s not going to open up the sense of that which is not yet possible but profoundly needed.

The established disorder of our present era is not necessary. It exists. But it’s not necessary. 

Playing Against Double Death

What might some of those practices for opening up new possibilities look like?

Through playful engagement with each other, we get a hint about what can still be and learn how to make it stronger. We see that in all occupations. Historically, the Greenham Common women were fabulous at this. [Eds.: The Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp was a series of protests against nuclear weapons at a Royal Air Force base in England, beginning in 1981.] More recently, you saw it with the Dakota Access Pipeline occupation. 

The degree to which people in these occupations play is a crucial part of how they generate a new political imagination, which in turn points to the kind of work that needs to be done. They open up the imagination of something that is not what [the ethnographer] Deborah Bird Rose calls “double death” — extermination, extraction, genocide. 

Now, we are facing a world with all three of those things. We are facing the production of systemic homelessness. The way that flowers aren’t blooming at the right time, and so insects can’t feed their babies and can’t travel because the timing is all screwed up, is a kind of forced homelessness. It’s a kind of forced migration, in time and space. 

This is also happening in the human world in spades. In regions like the Middle East and Central America, we are seeing forced displacement, some of which is climate migration. The drought in the Northern Triangle countries of Central America — Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador — is driving people off their land. 

So it’s not a humanist question. It’s a multi-kind and multi-species question.

In the Cyborg Manifesto, you use the ideas of “the homework economy” and the “integrated circuit” to explore the various ways that information technology was restructuring labor in the early 1980s to be more precarious, more global, and more feminized. Do climate change and the ecological catastrophes you’re describing change how you think about those forces? 

Yes and no. The theories that I developed in that period emerged from a particular historical conjuncture. If I were mapping the integrated circuit today, it would have different parameters than the map that I made in the early 1980s. And surely the questions of immigration, exterminism, and extractivism would have to be deeply engaged. The problem of rebuilding place-based lives would have to get more attention.

The Cyborg Manifesto was written within the context of the hard-right turn of the 1980s. But the hard-right turn was one thing; the hard-fascist turn of the late 2010s is another. It’s not the same as Reagan. The presidents of Colombia, Hungary, Brazil, Egypt, India, the United States — we are looking at a new fascist capitalism, which requires reworking the ideas of the early 1980s for them to make sense.

So there are continuities between now and the map I made then, a lot of continuities. But there are also some pretty serious inflection points, particularly when it comes to developments in digital technologies that are playing into the new fascism.

Could you say more about those developments?

If the public-private dichotomy was old-fashioned in 1980, by 2019 I don’t even know what to call it. We have to try to rebuild some sense of a public. But how can you rebuild a public in the face of nearly total surveillance? And this surveillance doesn’t even have a single center. There is no eye in the sky.

Then we have the ongoing enclosure of the commons. Capitalism produces new forms of value and then encloses those forms of value — the digital is an especially good example of that. This involves the monetization of practically everything we do. And it’s not like we are ignorant of this dynamic. We know what’s going on. We just don’t have a clue how to get a grip on it. 

One attempt to update the ideas of the Cyborg Manifesto has come from the “xenofeminists” of the international collective Laboria Cuboniks. I believe some of them have described themselves as your “disobedient daughters.”

Overstating things, that’s not my feminism.

Why not?

I’m not very interested in those discussions, frankly. It’s not what I’m doing. It’s not what makes me vital now. In a moment of ecological urgency, I’m more engaged in questions of multispecies environmental and reproductive justice. Those questions certainly involve issues of digital and robotic and machine cultures, but they aren’t at the center of my attention.

What is at the center of my attention are land and water sovereignty struggles, such as those over the Dakota Access Pipeline, over coal mining on the Black Mesa plateau, over extractionism everywhere. My attention is centered on the extermination and extinction crises happening at a worldwide level, on human and nonhuman displacement and homelessness. That’s where my energies are. My feminism is in these other places and corridors.

Do you still think the cyborg is still a useful figure?

I think so. The cyborg has turned out to be rather deathless. Cyborgs keep reappearing in my life as well as other people’s lives. 

The cyborg remains a wily trickster figure. And, you know, they’re also kind of old-fashioned. They’re hardly up-to-the‑minute. They’re rather klutzy, a bit like R2-D2 or a pacemaker. Maybe the embodied digitality of us now is not especially well captured by the cyborg. So I’m not sure. But, yeah, I think cyborgs are still in the litter. I just think we need a giant bumptious litter whelped by a whole lot of really badass bitches — some of whom are men!

Mourning Without Despair

You mentioned that your current work is more focused on environmental issues. How are you thinking about the role of technology in mitigating or adapting to climate change — or fighting extractivism and extermination?

There is no homogeneous socialist position on this question. I’m very pro-technology, but I belong to a crowd that is quite skeptical of the projects of what we might call the “techno-fix,” in part because of their profound immersion in technocapitalism and their disengagement from communities of practice. 

Those communities may need other kinds of technologies than those promised by the techno-fix: different kinds of mortgage instruments, say, or re-engineered water systems. I’m against the kind of techno-fixes that are abstracted from place and tied up with huge amounts of technocapital. This seems to include most geoengineering projects and imaginations. 

So when I see massive solar fields and wind farms I feel conflicted, because on the one hand they may be better than fracking in Monterey County — but only maybe. Because I also know where the rare earth minerals required for renewable energy technologies come from and under what conditions. We still aren’t doing the whole supply-chain analysis of our technologies. So I think we have a long way to go in socialist understanding of these matters. 

One tendency within socialist thought believes that socialists can simply seize capitalist technology and put it to different purposes — that you take the forces of production, build new relations around them, and you’re done. This approach is also associated with a Promethean, even utopian approach to technology. Socialist techno-utopianism has been around forever, but it has its own adherents today, such as those who advocate for “Fully Automated Luxury Communism.” I wonder how you see that particular lineage of socialist thinking about technology.

I think very few people are that simplistic, actually. In various moments we might make proclamations that come down that way. But for most people, our socialisms, and the approaches with which socialists can ally, are richer and more varied. 

When you talk to the Indigenous activists of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, for example, they have a complex sense around solar arrays and coal plants and water engineering and art practices and community movements. They have very rich articulated alliances and separations around all of this. 

Socialists aren’t the only ones who have been techno-utopian, of course. A far more prominent and more influential strand of techno-utopianism has come from the figures around the Bay Area counterculture associated with the Whole Earth Catalog, in particular Stewart Brand, who went on to play important intellectual and cultural roles in Silicon Valley.

They are not friends. They are not allies. I’m avoiding calling them enemies because I’m leaving open the possibility of their being able to learn or change, though I’m not optimistic. I think they occupy the position of the “god trick.” [Eds.: The “god trick” is an idea introduced by Haraway that refers to the traditional view of objectivity as a transcendent “gaze from nowhere.”] I think they are blissed out by their own privileged positions and have no idea what their own positionality in the world really is. And I think they cause a lot of harm, both ideologically and technically. 

How so?

They get a lot of publicity. They take up a lot of the air in the room. 

It’s not that I think they’re horrible people. There should be space for people pushing new technologies. But I don’t see nearly enough attention given to what kinds of technological innovation are really needed to produce viable local and regional energy systems that don’t depend on species-destroying solar farms and wind farms that require giant land grabs in the desert.

The kinds of conversations around technology that I think we need are those among folks who know how to write law and policy, folks who know how to do material science, folks who are interested in architecture and park design, and folks who are involved in land struggles and solidarity movements. I want to see us do much savvier scientific, technological, and political thinking with each other, and I want to see it get press. The Stewart Brand types are never going there. 

Do you see clear limitations in their worldviews and their politics?

They remain remarkably humanist in their orientation, in their cognitive apparatus, and in their vision of the world. They also have an almost Peter Pan quality. They never quite grew up. They say, “If it’s broken, fix it.” 

This comes from an incapacity to mourn and an incapacity to be finite. I mean that psychoanalytically: an incapacity to understand that there is no status quo ante, to understand that death and loss are real. Only within that understanding is it possible to open up to a kind of vitality that isn’t double death, that isn’t extermination, and which doesn’t yearn for transcendence, yearn for the fix.

There’s not much mourning with the Stewart Brand types. There’s not much felt loss of the already disappeared, the already dead — the disappeared of Argentina, the disappeared of the caravans, the disappeared of the species that will not come back. You can try to do as much resurrection biology as you want to. But any of the biologists who are actually involved in the work are very clear that there is no resurrection. 

You have also been critical of the Anthropocene, as a proposed new geological epoch defined by human influence on the earth. Do you see the idea of the Anthropocene as having similar limitations?

I think the Anthropocene framework has been a fertile container for quite a lot, actually. The Anthropocene has turned out to be a rather capacious territory for incorporating people in struggle. There are a lot of interesting collaborations with artists and scientists and activists going on.

The main thing that’s too bad about the term is that it perpetuates the misunderstanding that what has happened is a human species act, as if human beings as a species necessarily exterminate every planet we dare to live on. As if we can’t stop our productive and reproductive excesses. 

Extractivism and exterminationism are not human species acts. They come from a situated historical conjuncture of about five hundred years in duration that begins with the invention of the plantation and the subsequent modeling of industrial capitalism. It is a situated historical conjuncture that has had devastating effects even while it has created astonishing wealth. 

To define this as a human species act affects the way a lot of scientists think about the Anthropocene. My scientist colleagues and friends really do continue to think of it as something human beings can’t stop doing, even while they understand my historical critique and agree with a lot of it. 

It’s a little bit like the relativism versus objectivity problem. The old languages have a deep grip. The situated historical way of thinking is not instinctual for Western science, whose offspring are numerous. 

Are there alternatives that you think could work better than the Anthropocene?

There are plenty of other ways of thinking. Take climate change. Now, climate change is a necessary and essential category. But if you go to the circumpolar North as a Southern scientist wanting to collaborate with Indigenous people on climate change — on questions of changes in the sea ice, for example, or changes in the hunting and subsistence base — the limitations of that category will be profound. That’s because it fails to engage with the Indigenous categories that are actually active on the ground. 

There is an Inuktitut word, “sila.” In an Anglophone lexicon, “sila” will be translated as “weather.” But in fact, it’s much more complicated. In the circumpolar North, climate change is a concept that collects a lot of stuff that the Southern scientist won’t understand. So the Southern scientist who wants to collaborate on climate change finds it almost impossible to build a contact zone. 

Anyway, there are plenty of other ways of thinking about shared contemporary problems. But they require building contact zones between cognitive apparatuses, out of which neither will leave the same as they were before. These are the kinds of encounters that need to be happening more.

A final question. Have you been following the revival of socialism, and socialist feminism, over the past few years? 


What do you make of it? I mean, socialist feminism is becoming so mainstream that even Harper’s Bazaar is running essays on “emotional labor.”

I’m really pleased! The old lady is happy. I like the resurgence of socialism. For all the horror of Trump, it has released us. A whole lot of things are now being seriously considered, including mass nonviolent social resistance. So I am not in a state of cynicism or despair.

An excerpted version of this interview originally appeared in The Guardian.

China’s Communist-Capitalist Ecological Apocalypse (Truthout)

Sunday, 21 June 2015 00:00 By Richard Smith, Truthout | News Analysis 

A pedestrian wearing a protective mask in Beijing, Jan. 17, 2012. Decades of coal-powered industrialization combined with the government-promoted car craze have brought China the worst air pollution in the world. (Photo: Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times)

A pedestrian wearing a protective mask in Beijing, January 17, 2012. Decades of coal-powered industrialization combined with the government-promoted car craze have brought China the worst air pollution in the world. (Photo: Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times)

This article seeks to explain why China’s environmental crisis is so horrific, so much worse than “normal” capitalism most everywhere else, and why the government is incapable of suppressing pollution even from its own industries. I begin with an overview of the current state of China’s environment: its polluted air, waters, farmland and the proximate causes, including overproduction, overdevelopment, profligate resource consumption, uncontrolled dumping and venting of pollutants. I then discuss the political-economic drivers and enablers of this destruction, the dynamics and contradictions of China’s hybrid economy, noting how market reforms have compounded the irrationalities of the old bureaucratic collectivist system with the irrationalities of capitalism resulting in a diabolically ruinous “miracle” economy. I conclude with a précis of the emergency steps the country will have to take to take to brake the drive to socio-ecological collapse, with dire implications for us all.

The first time Li Gengxuan saw the dump trucks from the nearby factory pull into his village, he could not believe his eyes. Stopping between the cornfields and the primary school playground, the workers dumped buckets of bubbling white liquid onto the ground. Then they turned around and drove right back through the gates of their factory compound without a word.

In March 2008, Li and other farmers in Gaolong, a village in the central plains of Henan Province near the Yellow River, told a Washington Post reporter that workers from the nearby Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Company had been dumping this industrial waste in fields around their village every day for nine months. The liquid, silicon tetrachloride, was the byproduct of polysilicon production and it is a highly toxic substance. When exposed to humid air, silicon tetrachloride turns into acids and poisonous hydrogen chloride gas, which can make people dizzy and cause breathing difficulties.

Ren Bingyan, a professor of material sciences at Hebei Industrial University, contacted by the Post, told the paper that “the land where you dump or bury it will be infertile. No grass or trees will grow in its place … It is … poisonous, it is polluting. Human beings can never touch it.”

When the dumping began, crops wilted from the white dust, which sometimes rose in clouds several feet off the ground and spread over the fields as the liquid dried. Village farmers began to faint and became ill. And at night, villagers said “the factory’s chimneys released a loud whoosh of acrid air that stung their eyes and made it hard to breath.”

“It’s poison air. Sometimes it gets so bad you can’t sit outside. You have to close all the doors and windows,” said Qiao Shi Peng, 28, a truck driver who worried about the health of his 1-year-old.

China’s rise has come at a horrific social and environmental cost.

Reckless dumping of industrial waste is everywhere in China. But what caught the attention of The Washington Post was that the Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Company was a “green energy” company producing polysilicon destined for solar energy panels sold around the world. Indeed, it was a major supplier to Suntech Power Holdings, then the world’s leading producer of solar panels, and Suntech’s founder, Shi Zhengrong, topped the Hunrun list of the richest people in China in 2008. (1)

Silicon tetrachloride is an unavoidable byproduct of polysilicon production. But reckless pollution of farm villages is not unavoidable. Today, China is the only country in the world where such criminal behavior and cynical disregard for the health and lives of farmers and workers has become standard practice on a national scale by governments at every level, even as the government’s own environmental agencies decry such behavior and struggle, mostly in vain, to stop it. As one Chinese researcher told the Post, “If this happened in the United States, you’d be arrested.” But in China environmental regulations are regularly flouted by state-owned and private industries with the connivance of government officials at all levels while protesting farmers, workers and environmental activists are arrested, jailed, beaten or worse, and their lawyers with them.

Polysilicon production produces about four tons of silicon tetrachloride liquid waste for every ton of polysilicon produced. In Germany, where Siemens produces solar panels, pollution recovery technology is installed to process the silicon tetrachloride waste and render it harmless. But such environmental protection technology is expensive. In 2008, the cost to produce polysilicon safely was about $84,500 a ton in Germany and would not have cost much less in China. Chinese companies have been producing it for $21,000 to $56,000 a ton, saving millions of dollars a month, by just dumping the toxic waste in rural areas on helpless village communities.

Gaolong village is a mirror to China. It illustrates how the marriage of capitalism and Stalinist bureaucratic collectivism has created a diabolically destructive hybrid economic system, a rogue economy that is ravaging China’s environment, ruining the health of Chinese people, rendering more and more of the country unlivable, driving the country to ecological collapse and threatening to bring the whole planet down with it. (2)

I. China Self-Destructs

For more than three decades, China’s “miracle” economy has been the envy of the world or at least the envy of capitalist economists for whom wealth creation is the highest purpose of human life. Since 1979, China’s GDP has grown by an average of just under 10 percent per year. Never, the World Bank tells us, has a nation industrialized and modernized so quickly or lifted so many millions out of poverty in such a short time. From a backward, stagnant, largely agrarian socialism-in-poverty, Deng Xiaoping brought in foreign investors, introduced market incentives, set up export bases, turned China into the light-industrial workshop of the world and renovated China’s huge state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

“Fast fashion” is speeding the disposal of the planet.

Three and a half decades of surging economic growth lifted China from the world’s 10th largest economy in 1979 to No. 1 by 2014. What’s more, after decades of export-based growth, China’s 12th Five-Year Plan 2011-2015 sought to refocus the economy on internal market demand to realize Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” of national rejuvenation and turning China into a mass consumer society on the model of the United States. As China sailed right through the global near-collapse of 2008 to 2009, hardly missing a beat, while Western capitalist economies have struggled to keep from falling back into recession, even the Thatcherite Economist magazine had to concede that China’s state capitalism may be in certain respects superior to capitalist democracies and is perhaps even the wave of the future.

But China’s rise has come at a horrific social and environmental cost. It’s difficult to grasp the demonic violence and wanton recklessness of China’s profit-driven assault on nature and on the Chinese themselves. Ten years ago, in an interview with Der Spiegel magazine in March 2005, Pan Yue, China’s eloquent, young vice-minister of China’s State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) told the magazine, “the Chinese miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace.” Pan Yue added:

We are using too many raw materials to sustain [our] growth … Our raw materials are scarce, we don’t have enough land, and our population is constantly growing. Currently there [are] 1.3 billion people living in China, that’s twice as many as 50 years ago. In 2020 there will be 1.5 billion … but desert areas are expanding at the same time; habitable and usable land has been halved over the past 50 years … Acid rain is falling on one third of Chinese territory, half of the water in our seven largest rivers is completely useless, while one fourth of our citizens do not have access to clean drinking water. One third of the urban population is breathing polluted air, and less than 20 percent of the trash in cities is treated and processed in an environmentally sustainable manner … Because air and water are polluted, we are losing between 8 and 15 percent of our gross domestic product. And that doesn’t include the costs for health … In Beijing alone, 70 to 80 percent of all deadly cancer cases are related to the environment.

And criticizing Western economists who reassure us that more growth is the key to repairing the environmental damage done from growth, Pan said:

And there is yet another mistake … It’s the assumption that economic growth will give us the financial resources to cope with the crises surrounding the environment, raw materials, and population growth. [But] there won’t be enough money, and we are simply running out of time. Developed countries with a per capita gross national product of $8,000 to $10,000 can afford that, but we cannot. Before we reach $4,000 per person, different crises in all shapes and forms will hit us. Economically we won’t be strong enough to overcome them. (3)

Pan Yue’s searing honesty got him sidelined but if anything, he understated the speed, ferocity and scale of China’s ecological destruction, a destruction that extends far beyond China itself.

A. Consuming the Planet to Support Unsustainable Growth

As China’s growth took off in the 1980s and 1990s, the industrial boom rapidly depleted the country’s resources, especially lumber, oil and minerals, forcing Beijing to turn outward to feed its voracious engines of growth. The manic and thirsty industrialization boom in China’s northern industrial cities drained China’s northern fresh aquifers leaving some 600 cities, including Beijing, facing dire water shortages while severely polluting most remaining reserves. Profit-hungry loggers cut down most of what was left of China’s forests, recklessly denuding mountains and precipitating such extensive flooding and loss of life in 2009 that the government banned domestic logging. Chinese loggers then turned to plundering Siberia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and even New Guinea and parts of Africa. China had little oil to begin with so industrialization and automobilization quickly turned China from a modest oil exporter into a net importer in 1993 and the world’s leading oil importer by 2013. China’s iron ore, copper and other critical industrial mineral reserves have also been rapidly drawn down, forcing the country to import growing quantities of minerals.

The government has squandered astounding quantities of resources building entire industries China does not need.

In result, today, with 20 percent of the world’s population, China is now by far the world’s largest consumer of marketed primary industrial raw materials (cement, metal ores, industrial minerals, fossil fuels and biomass). China consumes more than 32 percent of the world’s total of these resources, nearly four times as much as the United States, the second largest consumer. China consumes just over half the world’s coal and a third of the world’s oil. China is the leading producer and consumer of steel with 46 percent of world output and now relies on imports for 77 percent of its iron ore. (4) China has become the world’s largest consumer of lumber and forest products, leveling forests from Siberia to Southeast Asia, New Guinea, Congo and Madagascar. Greenpeace concluded that on current trends “future generations will be living on a planet without ancient forests.” (5)

Of course, China has the world’s largest population and is industrializing from a comparatively low level just three decades ago so it’s hardly surprising that it would consume lots of resources to build infrastructure and modernize. But the fact is, most of these resources have been squandered on a stupendous scale, and for all the waste and pollution, most Chinese have gotten surprisingly little out of it all.

The Disposables Revolution and “The Great Acceleration” of Global Consumption

For a start, look at the export bases that have powered China’s rise. When China launched its “reform and opening” (gaige kaifang) in the early 1980s and invited foreign investors to set up joint-ventures and special economic zones, China’s combination of ultra cheap labor plus few-to-no environmental restrictions attracted many of the world’s dirtiest and least sustainable industries. Steel, coke, aluminum, cement, chemicals and petrochemicals, metal plating, leather tanning, plastics, paints and finishes, synthetic fibers and textile production, fabric dyeing, paper production, along with auto battery and electronics recycling – most of the toxic and smokestack industries facing increasingly tough environmental restrictions at home in the United States and Europe, relocated to China after 1980. (6) Seventy percent of the world’s e-waste is dumped in China.

On top of this, China’s masses of low-paid migrant workers were a magnet for the world’s most labor-intensive manufacturing and assembly industries. By the 1990s, China had more than 104 million manufacturing workers, about twice as many as the United States, Canada, Japan, Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom, combined. And they worked eight- to 16-hour days, often seven days a week, for an average of $0.57 per hour in 2002, by one estimate, less than the handloom operators earned in the early Industrial Revolution in England. This “China Price” set the global floor for high-volume, light-industrial manufacturing from the 1980s. (7)

The price collapse spurred the biggest boom in global consumption in history and this in turn accelerated global resource plunder on an unprecedented scale. The sudden availability of such a huge pool of ultra-cheap workers also spurred a minor industrial revolution enabling producers to annihilate most of the remaining categories of durable goods and replace them with cheaper, disposable substitutes. With the disposables revolution, local tailors and alteration shops, shoe repair shops, appliance repair shops, TV repairmen and the like all but vanished in the West as it became cheaper to toss these items and replace them than repair them.

The Chinese Communist Party promoted the car craze to bolster status-seeking middle-class political support.

Take clothes: “Fast fashion,” (also known as “trashion fashion”) from H&M, Target, Zara and others, now rules the women’s apparel market with clothes so cheap it’s often not worth the cost of dry cleaning them. As Elizabeth Kline relates in her recent book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, “seasonal shopping patterns have given way to continuous consumption.” Zara delivers new lines twice a week to its stores. H&M and Forever 21 stock new styles every day. In Kline’s words: “Buying so much clothing and treating it as if it is disposable, is putting a huge added weight on the environment and is simply unsustainable.” To say the least.

The US cotton crop requires the application of 22 billion pounds of toxic pesticides every year. Most fiber is dyed or bleached, and treated in toxic chemical baths to make it brighter, softer, more fade resistant, waterproof or less prone to wrinkles. Upholstery fabrics and children’s pajamas are treated with ghastly chemicals to make them stain resistant or fireproof. These toxic baths consume immense quantities of chemicals and water, and it goes without saying that in China, the chemicals are routinely just dumped in rivers and lakes, untreated, just like that silicon tetrachloride poured out on Li Gengxuan’s cornfield. Then after all the chemical treatments, the fabrics have to be dried under heat lamps. These processes consume enormous quantities of energy.

The textile industry is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, and it’s growing exponentially. In 1950, when there were about 2.5 billion people on earth, they consumed around 10 million tons of fabric for all uses. Today, we are 7 billion, but we consume more than 70 million tons of fabric annually, nearly three times as much per person as we consumed in the 1950s. Producing 70 million tons of fabric consumes astounding quantities of resources including more than 145 million tons of coal and between 1.5 and 2 trillion gallons of fresh water, every year. Synthetic fibers like polyester and such (now 60 percent of the market) are the worst: They consume between 10 and 25 times as much energy to produce as natural fibers. In short, “fast fashion” is speeding the disposal of the planet. (8)

And what’s true for China’s garment industry is true for most of the rest of China’s export industries. From cheap, disposable shoes and clothes, toys, tools, housewares, Christmas junk and flimsy plastic appliances to meticulously made and expensive but nevertheless designed-to-be-obsolesced iPhones and 60-inch flat-screen TVs, most of the world’s light-industrial goods are made in China and they are, for the most part, deliberately designed to be unrepairable and mostly unrecyclable. After their short life, they all end up piled on the world’s ever-growing garbage mountains, sent back to China in containers filled with e-trash to be “recycled” by children melting the plastic off motherboards over open fires, or left floating around the world’s oceans in giant plastic gyres over vast stretches of oceans, hundreds of feet deep. (9)

Scenes of Planetary Destruction From the 12th Five-Year Plan

When we turn to China’s domestic economy, the waste is breathtaking. As China’s economy opened to the West and China’s exports began returning billions of dollars in foreign exchange, Beijing launched wave after wave of gargantuan development projects: dams, airports, rail systems, roads, subways, sewerage systems, new industries, new housing, new cities, new ports and more. China’s supercharged government planners have been showcasing China’s engineering prowess and economic might by building the world’s biggest dams, the tallest skyscrapers, biggest airports, longest and highest bridges, longest rail and road networks and longest tunnels.

Since the 1980s, China has built enough new housing to re-house the entire population.

Since Deng Xiaoping launched his “Four Modernizations of agriculture, defense, science and technology” and reform and opening up, the country has been in perpetual Great Leap Forward mode: Five-Year plans have set annual industrial growth rates of 8 percent and promoted successive sets of “pillar” industries – autos, electronics, petrochemicals, clean energy and so on. In the current 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015), the State Council calls for development of “seven strategic emerging industries” including 1) energy efficient and environmental technologies like “clean coal,” 2) next generation IT and cloud computing and the “Internet of Things,” 3) biotechnology, 4) high-tech manufacturing of vehicles and aircraft, expanding high-speed rail service to 45,000 kilometers, expanding motor expressways to 83,000 kilometers, 5) new-generation nuclear power, more solar and wind energy systems, 6) new materials including development of rare earths, special glass and ceramics, high-performance fiber and composite materials, 7) new-energy vehicles: motor batteries, drive motors, electronic controls, plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles, low-emissions vehicles. (10)

No doubt, the Chinese have benefited from new housing, infrastructure, schools, hospitals and so on. But the government has also squandered astounding quantities of resources building entire industries China does not need, building useless vanity projects, superfluous housing, redundant infrastructure and more. From the start this investment boom has been characterized by uncontrolled overproduction and out-of-control pollution.

Scene 1: The “Car Craze” China and Planet Earth Did Not Need

The 12th Five-Year Plan calls for “enhancing China’s independent capacity to manufacture automobiles, domesticating production of all key parts,” for “large-scale commercialization” of energy efficient and hybrid vehicles, for “building … world-famous brands and core competencies” and so on. Hybrid or not, this is an industry the Chinese do not need. Up to 1979, China produced around 160,000 motor vehicles per year with trucks and buses accounting for 90 percent of the output. People got around on bicycles, buses and trains. In 1990, China had just 5.5 million cars, trucks and buses on the road. By 2013, China became the world’s largest auto assembler cranking out 18.7 million cars and light vehicles, more than twice the number produced in the United States in that year. By 2013, China had 240 million cars on its roads, almost as many as in the United States, and China could have an estimated 390-532 million cars on the road by 2050. The question is, why does China need anything like such a huge auto industry? The lead headline of Bloomberg News for April 9, 2014, citing the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, was “Cars become the biggest driver of greenhouse-gas increases.” What’s wrong with this picture?

China surpassed the US in 2007 to become the world’s leading carbon dioxide emitter.

The automobilization of China has brought three profound changes. First, it has dramatically lengthened the time it takes to get anywhere in China’s gridlocked cities (average speed on Beijing’s ring roads is 9 miles per hour) and created epic, world-historic traffic jams on highways feeding into Beijing and other cities. One jam-up near Beijing in 2010 stretched over 100 kilometers and lasted for two weeks. Secondly, it has added a dense new layer of smog on top of the already thick layers of smog from coal combustion smothering China’s cities. And thirdly, it has paved over much-needed farmland and wetlands and wasted enormous resources China, and the world, does not have to waste. This did not have to happen.

The Communist Party promoted joint-venture auto production as a “pillar” industry in the 1990s for two reasons: First, once the government embarked on its market-reform strategy, abandoning lifetime employment, it needed to push growth to generate private- and state-sector jobs, like capitalist governments everywhere. Speaking in November 2013, Prime Minister Li Keqiang stressed that:

Employment is the biggest thing for well-being. The government must not slacken on this for one moment … For us, stable growth is mainly for the sake of maintaining employment.

Auto manufacture and related industries now account for one out of every eight urban jobs in China excluding road building, another big employer.

Secondly, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) promoted the car craze to bolster status-seeking middle-class political support. In the 1980s, the CCP supported a modest consumerism. But after the Tiananmen uprising in the spring of 1989, the government opted for expansive consumerism to placate the middle classes. Hence the car craze, followed by the airline craze, the shopping mall craze, the high-speed train craze, the foreign tourism craze, and so on. It is no small irony that just as the CCP was ramping up auto production and banning bicycles from public roads in the 1990s, European countries were moving in the opposite direction – barring cars from many central city streets, promoting bicycles and car sharing, and expanding public transit. China didn’t begin expanding its urban subways in earnest until the late 2000s, after two decades of automobilization had gridlocked its cities and dramatically increased air pollution.

Scene 2: The Roads Not Taken

As China was racing to surpass the US as the world’s largest car market, the Communist Party decided that China should also “catch up and overtake” the US interstate highway system as well. So by 2010 China built 53,000 miles of intercity expressways, exceeding the US interstate highway system’s 47,000 miles. But this program, built at huge cost and by tearing through cities and paving over thousands of square miles of valuable farms, wetlands and so on, is yet another ill-conceived boondoggle because except for a few highways near major cities like Beijing or Shenzhen, China’s expressways are often little used. In places, farmers dry their crops on empty super highways. McClatchy’s Beijing bureau chief Tom Lasseter writes under this picture:

Do you see any cars along this road? One often hears about the traffic jams in the big cities of China. But here’s the flip side of the coin: In rural towns and cities in China, local officials like to build big showcase projects, displaying grandiosity but little utility. I was in the city of Fengzhen in Inner Mongolia yesterday. By Chinese standards, it is a small place, maybe 200,000 people. So imagine my surprise as we leave the downtown to come across this eight-lane highway going past a mammoth new City Hall. Nary a car on it. A passerby could keel over with a stroke on that highway and not risk getting run over for many hours. The city is already in hot water for building a power plant that Beijing says is unneeded. Across China, there are plenty of largely empty hotels, brand new empty highways, modern airports that lose money for lack of traffic, etc. What happens is that unelected local officials, not particularly responsive to local needs, find that pharaonic projects give their municipalities a luster that can attract investment, which is their path to promotion within the one-party system. So for every eight-lane road you see like this, there is a happy bureaucrat pondering a bright career ahead. (11)

How much cement has been poured, how much iron rebar has been forged, and how much coal has been burned to produce the energy to pave over so much of China – for no useful purpose whatsoever?

Scene 3: Half-Empty Trains and Subways

And how much steel, aluminum, copper, cement and electricity have been consumed to build China’s huge national network of high-speed trains? The 12th Five-Year Plan budgeted hundreds of billions of dollars to build more than 16,000 miles of high-speed rails by 2020. By 2013, China had already built more high-speed trains than the rest of the world combined. But this too is more make-work and prestige project than modernizing necessity. High-speed trains are hugely expensive to build and operate and consume more than twice as much electricity to run as regular trains, so tickets can cost 10 times the price of regular train tickets in China. Since few Chinese people can afford such prices, the trains often run at half capacity or less. Chinese transportation experts say the government is throwing money away on bullet trains, money that could be better spent on regular railroads, especially cargo lines, and developing mass transit in and around cities. (12) New York University economist Nouriel Roubini told Reuters in 2011:

“I was recently in Shanghai and I took their high-speed train to Hangzhou,” he said, referring to the new Maglev line that has cut traveling time between the two cities to less than an hour from four hours previously.

“The brand new high-speed train is half-empty and the brand new station is three-quarters empty. Parallel to that train line, there is also a new highway that looked three-quarters empty. Next to the train station is also the new local airport of Shanghai and you can fly to Hangzhou,” he said.

“There is no rationale for a country at that level of economic development to have not just duplication but triplication of those infrastructure projects.” (13)

Duplication, triplication, overconstruction and waste is everywhere in China, even with subways. Twenty-two cities already have subway systems and money was budgeted in 2012 to build subways in another 16 by the end of 2018. Wang Mengshu, a subway engineer from the Chinese Academy of Engineering who helped design China’s first subway in Beijing in 1965, says these are completely unnecessary, too expensive, again more prestige projects than public service: “Second-, third-, fourth-tier cities … those cities don’t need to build subways. Even if they can afford to build them, they can’t afford to run them. But a lot of places think that if they have a subway, then they are a big city.” (14)

Scene 4: China as “Major Aerospace and Air-Travel Power”

The 12th Five-Year Plan grandiosely calls for a push to make China a “major aerospace and air-travel power.” Plans call for nearly a hundred new airports, thousands of new airliners, thousands of helicopters, business jets and small aircraft of all varieties. Boeing estimates Chinese carriers will need more than 5,260 new airliners – worth $670 billion – by 2031. (15) Great for Boeing. But not only did China not “need” this industry, it’s just suicidal for developing countries like China to repeat the same environmental mistakes as the West did.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calculates that aviation is currently responsible for about 3.5 percent of anthropogenic climate change and says that if present trends continue this share will grow to between 5 percent and 15 percent by 2050 while the absolute contribution of aviation generated emissions will soar. Aviation is already the fastest growing source of global carbon dioxide emissions and if it continues to grow at its current rate it will overwhelm all the cuts engineers have managed to make elsewhere. (16) There are not currently nor are there on the horizon any practical alternatives to kerosene-based fuels for commercial jet aircraft. This is why after surveying the literature on potentials for greenhouse gas mitigation in other forms of transportation, environmental journalist George Monbiot concludes that while some forms of transport can be rendered a bit greener, there’s virtually nothing we can do with aviation with present or foreseeable technologies:

There is, in other words, no technofix. The growth in aviation and the need to address climate change cannot be reconciled. Given that [efficiency gains tend to be canceled out by growth] a 90 percent cut in emissions requires not only that growth stops, but that most of the planes which are flying today are grounded. I recognize that this will not be a popular message. But it is hard to see how a different conclusion could be extracted from the available evidence. (17)

In a world where climate scientists tell us we need to cut global carbon dioxide emissions by 90 percent by 2050, global aviation emissions are on course to double by 2030. It will be suicidal to let this happen. Absent some technical miracle, the only way to suppress aviation emissions is to suppress the numbers of people jetting around the planet, not add hundreds of millions of Chinese to this jet set. Coming to grips with this reality may not be popular in China or the United States, but the alternative is not going to be popular either.

Scene 5: Construction Frenzies, Ghost Cities and the Mother of All Real Estate Bubbles

Yet none of the above compares with the resources squandered on the construction boom of recent decades. China’s construction juggernaut has been gobbling up China’s best peri-urban farmland, expelling tens of millions of farmers and urban residents and consuming staggering quantities of resources to build unneeded housing, shopping malls, industrial parks, office buildings, power plants and infrastructure in a country already bursting with overpopulated, polluted megacities. (18) Millions of urban residents were cleared out of Beijing and Shanghai, which were completely rebuilt with thousands of skyscrapers, apartment blocks, highways and shopping malls. (19) Cities and provinces compete to build cloud-piercing skyscrapers even if they have no prospective tenants for them.

In one village, 80 percent of the population is said to have died from pollution-induced cancers since 1991.

By 2020, 12 of the planet’s 20 tallest towers are expected to be in provincial cities like Shenyang, Wuhan and Suzhou. The office vacancy rate in Shenyang is nearly 30 percent, yet three more towers, all bigger than the Chrysler Building in New York City, are under construction, and another 12 are on the drawing boards. Beijing’s premier architectural atrocity, the Rem Koolhaas-designed CCTV tower – dubbed “Big Underpants” by the locals – sits nearly empty since it was built in 2008. Cities compete to build ersatz Wall Street “financial centers” as in Beijing (abandoned) and Tianjin (abandoned and unfinished). Stunningly lavish offices for cadres are built everywhere. China’s coast has multiple redundant ports, some nearly empty, but more are planned.

Since the 1980s, China has built enough new housing to re-house the entire population but the construction boom has become a self-sustaining, perpetual engine of construction for the sake of construction – supply with no demand. And there are not just miles of empty apartment blocks but entire “ghost cities” complete with office towers, hospitals, schools, futuristic airports, museums, universities, libraries, theaters, sports fields, and miles and miles of apartment towers and subdivisions of McMansions – but almost no people. (20) Twenty-one percent of China’s urban residents, the wealthy and middle classes, own two urban apartments, some own three or four – all bought for speculation, not to live in, not vacation homes. More than 22.4 percent of urban apartments and houses remained vacant in 2014.  (21) By one estimate, more than 64 million surplus apartments had been built in China, enough to house almost half the population of the United States, yet millions more are under construction. (22) Economists have warned that what China is really building is the biggest real estate bubble in history. CBS interviewed Wang Shi, CEO of China Vanke, China’s biggest homebuilder (which makes him the world’s biggest homebuilder), who told CBS’s Lesley Stahl that this can’t last, “this is a bubble, for sure.” When it bursts, “it will be a disaster, a disaster.” (23)

Scene 6: Tofu Construction

Construction is breathtakingly fast in China but it can also be breathtakingly sloppy, dangerous and destined to a short life span. That’s because China’s local building department regulators, like food safety and environment regulators, are subordinate to local officials who partner with and profit off the very construction companies the regulators are nominally supposed to regulate. In result, safety is often subordinated to speed and cost, with predictable results. The Chinese call it doufazha, “tofu” construction. Bridges collapse regularly. Between July 2011 and August 2012, eight major bridges collapsed. An Australian reporter counted four collapsed bridges in just nine days in July 2012. (24) High-speed railway bridges collapse. Buildings collapse. Some just topple over. Millions of peasants have been cleared off the land and dumped into “new towns” around cities where the shoddy new housing is already crumbing as the displaced farmers move in. In 2010, China’s Ministry of Housing admitted the low quality of construction and warned that “China’s newly-built houses can only last for 20 or 30 years.” (25) Have the Chinese invented disposable housing?

Officials call for tougher regulations but most Chinese blame corruption. Zhu Lijia, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance in Beijing, says bid rigging is the norm and there are no checks or balances on the procurement process. “We do have relevant laws regarding the bidding process, but there is a lack of enforcement. The bidding process is only a show.” A college student, Zeo Niu, interviewed by National Public Radio after a major bridge collapse in 2012, knew the system well. Her uncle runs a construction company in central China. She said using substandard material while charging for high-quality goods is routine. What really upsets her, she said, “is that so many projects collapse, people just become overwhelmed. ‘I will never remember those victims’ names in this accident, and people won’t remember it,’ Niu said. ‘It will all be buried by another accident.'” (26)

“Twenty More Years of Roaring Growth”?

In The Wall Street Journal of August 20, 2014, Justin Yifu Lin, an economist and close adviser to senior leaders in Beijing, stated that he’s confident China can sustain its recent 8 percent per year growth rate for the foreseeable future. He predicts “20 years of roaring growth” for China. Really? Where does Yifu think the resources are going to come from for this scale of consumption? As it happens, in 2011, the Earth Policy Institute at Columbia University calculated that if China keeps growing by around 8 percent per year, Chinese average per capita consumption will reach the current US level by around 2035. But to provide the natural resources for China’s 1.3 billion to consume on a per capita basis like the United States’ 330 million consume today, the Chinese – roughly 20 percent of the world’s population – will consume as much oil as the entire world consumes today. It would also consume more than 60 percent of other critical resources.

Production Consumption* Commodity Unit Consumption Latest Year Projected Consumption 2035
U.S. China China World
Grain Million Tons 338 424 1,505 2,191
Meat Million Tons 37 73 166 270
Oil Million Barrels per Day 19 9 85 86
Coal Million Tons of Oil Equivalent 525 1,714 2,335 3,731
Steel Million Tons 102 453 456 1,329
Fertilizer Million Tons 20 49 91 214
Paper Million Tons 74 97 331 394

*Projected Chinese consumption in 2035 is calculated assuming per-capita consumption will be equal to the current US level, based on projected GDP growth of 8 percent annually. Latest year figures for grain, oil, coal, fertilizer and paper are from 2008. Latest year figures for meat and steel are from 2010. Source: Earth Policy Institute, 2011

How can this happen? What would the rest of the world live on? Already, as resource analyst Michael Klare reviews in his latest book, The Race for What’s Left (2012), around the world existing reserves of oil, minerals and other resources “are being depleted at a terrifying pace and will be largely exhausted in the not-too-distant future.”

B. Airpocalypse Now

Decades of coal-powered industrialization combined with the government-promoted car craze since the 1990s have brought China the worst air pollution in the world. Scientists have compared north China’s toxic smog to a “nuclear winter” and the smog is also sharply reducing crop yields. Lung cancer is now the leading cause of death in Beijing and nationally pollution-induced lung disease is taking the lives of more than 1.2 million people a year. With 20 percent of the world’s population, China now burns as much coal as the rest of the world put together. Twenty of the world’s 30 smoggiest cities are in China.

As domestic food grows increasingly unsafe, alarmed middle-class Chinese strip supermarkets of imported food.

Ironically, China is also a “green technology” leader, the world’s largest producer of both windmills and solar panels. Yet in China these account for barely 1 percent of electricity generation. Coal presently supplies 69 percent of China’s total energy consumption; oil accounts for 18 percent; hydroelectric, 6 percent; natural gas, 4 percent; nuclear, less than 1 percent; and other renewables including solar and wind, 1 percent. (27)China currently burns 4 billion tons of coal a year; the US burns less than 1 billion; the European Union, about 0.6 billion. China has marginally reduced the carbon intensity of production in recent years by installing newer, more efficient power plants but these gains have been outstripped by relentless building of more power plants. To make matters worse, even when power plants are fitted with scrubbers to reduce pollution, operators often don’t turn on the scrubbers because these cut into their profits.

While government plans call for reducing coal’s share of the energy mix from 69 percent to 55 percent by 2040, it projects that China’s absolute coal consumption will still rise by more than 50 percent in the same period in line with China’s projected economic growth of around 7.7 percent per year. The World Health Organization considers air pollution above 25 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter (PM2.5) to be unsafe. China’s current national average is 75 micrograms but particulate levels in many cities average in the hundreds.

In the winter of 2013, China suffered from the worst air pollution in its history as half of the country, nearly the whole of northern and eastern China, was smothered in dense smog for weeks at a time. Smog alerts were called in 104 cities in 20 of China’s 30 provinces as schools and airports closed in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities. In January, PM2.5 levels in Beijing reached 900 micrograms per cubic meter. As Beijing was choking in smog in the winter of 2013, Deutsche Bank analysts gloomily concluded that even if China’s economy slowed to 5 percent growth per year from it’s current 7.6 percent rate, coal consumption would still nearly double and China’s smog could increase by as much as 70 percent by 2030. (28)

China’s leaders thus face an intractable dilemma. They can’t keep growing the economy without consuming ever more coal, oil and gas. Yet the more fossil fuels they burn, the more uninhabitable China’s cities become, the more Chinese people flee the country, and the faster China’s emissions are driving global warming.

Cooking the Planet to Produce Junk No One Needs

China surpassed the United States in 2007 to become the world’s leading carbon dioxide emitter. By 2013, China’s emissions were already nearly double those of the US. The US Energy Information Administration calculates that even if China grows at only 5.7 percent per year, 2 percent less than its current rate and about half the average rate it grew over the past decade, its carbon dioxide emissions would still soar to almost 15 billion tons by 2040, almost triple that of the US. (29) By 2013, China’s per capita emissions surpassed those of Europe. With just 20 percent of the world’s population, China already accounts for almost 30 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Coal-to-Gas Bases Will Doom the Climate

Under pressure to reduce smog and greenhouse gas emissions but still maintain economic growth, the government has begun talking about putting a cap on coal emissions. But this cap would be pegged to expected growth and demand, so coal use is likely to continue rising for years. (30) Yet the most worrisome threat to reducing emissions comes from the government’s newest plan to “clean up its cities” by building dozens of huge “coal-gasification bases” in Shanxi, the Ordos Basin, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and other remote areas. These plants will burn coal directly to generate electricity in situ and convert coal to liquid fuels like “syngas” (like natural gas but from coal), which will then be transported to the cities to be burned in power plants, factories and cars.

These huge bases, some encompassing areas larger than the states of Delaware and Connecticut, will be the largest fossil fuel development projects in the world. And far from reducing coal use, scientists say, these complexes consume so much coal-fired energy to produce the syngas and other chemicals that they generate almost twice as much carbon dioxide emissions as if the coal were just directly burned in power plants. (31) Furthermore, water-intensive coal extraction in the new coal bases in northern and western provinces threatens to seriously aggravate China’s already severe water crisis in these regions. (32) And as if all this weren’t enough, the government has also declared its intention to develop “fracking” wherever possible in China. (33)

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calculates that if we’re to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, humanity cannot add more than 880 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere before 2050. Collectively, we’ve already used up more than half of that “carbon budget” leaving us a remaining budget of just 349 billion gigatons. If China produces just 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, its current rate, with no growth whatsoever, it will still consume the entire carbon budget for the whole of humanity by itself by 2050.

C. Undrinkable Water, Poisoned Soils, Toxic Food

If the air is bad, the water is far worse. In a few decades of breakneck industrialization, the Chinese have managed to severely and irreversibly pollute most of the nation’s fresh water supplies with dire implications for public health. China’s fresh water sources are contaminated by pesticides, industrial chemicals, heavy metals and myriad other toxics. China’s largest rivers resemble vast open cesspools and for much of their length the banks are strewn with every imaginable kind of trash, and numberless outlet pipes spewing multiple toxics, dead fish, dead pigs and pigswill. Gushing pollutants turn long stretches of rivers bright red or purple or milky white or inky black. Sewage is routinely dumped mostly untreated in the nation’s rivers, the same rivers many cities take their drinking water from, imperiling the health of hundreds of millions. The government has built wastewater treatment facilities all over the country but most remain unused. (34)

These days China’s state sector has all the superficial trappings of a market economy.

China’s rivers suffer huge spills of all kinds of toxic chemicals – benzene, xanthogenate, analine – every year. In north China, the Yellow River “is a catastrophe” and the 300-odd rivers that drain the North China Plain “are open sewers if they are not completely dry” in the words of Ma Jun, China’s leading authority on the country’s water crisis. (35) According to a government report, the Yangtze River, the world’s third longest, is seriously and irreversibly polluted. Long stretches are said to be in “critical condition,” in places, too dangerous even to touch. Aquatic life has all but collapsed. Pollution and shipping wiped out China’s legendary Yangtze Baiji dolphin while even common carp “are gasping for survival.” (36) The 500-mile-long reservoir filling up behind the huge Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze qualifies as the world’s biggest cesspool. In some areas groundwater is being irreversibly polluted as textile dyeing mills and other factories, looking to avoid fines for dumping their effluents into rivers, instead drill and pump them into the earth. Some “use high-pressure pumps to discharge huge volumes of their wastewater directly underground.” According to one scientist, “deliberate, malicious waste discharge by factories has already become endemic.” (37)

The China Geological Survey reported in 2013 that 90 percent of the country’s groundwater is polluted, and 60 percent of it is “severely” polluted. A survey of 11 cities across China in 2012 indicated that 64 percent of water sources were severely polluted and 33 percent moderately polluted. Only 3 percent of sources could be graded as clean. (38) It’s difficult to overstate the dire implications of these practices: In China, groundwater is not only tapped for drinking water throughout rural China as well as in many cities, but over much of the country, especially the parched northern plains, this is the main source of water for farming.

Mass Production of “Cancer Villages”

China’s rivers have received many major toxic industrial chemical spills over the years. In September 2004, Jim Yardley of The New York Times reported on the situation in the Huai River basin, upstream from Shanghai, after a huge chemical spill created an 82-mile-long band of water that killed nearly every living thing and was too polluted even to touch. And the Huai, Yardley pointed out, was supposed to have been a government “success story.” (39) In April 2014, a major leak of benzene poisoned the drinking water for millions in Gansu Province.

Beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, the government promoted the development of market-oriented “township and village industries” to promote growth and employment. These industries, the darlings of the World Bank and Western market-enthusiast academics, became notorious polluters. Foreign-invested special economic zone industries are also major polluters. (40) In the 1990s and 2000s, in response to growing anti-pollution protests in the cities, the government pushed dirty industries out of the cities and into the countryside and rural towns. This brilliant move resulted in horrific contamination of whole rural regions and the mass production of “cancer villages” where extraordinary numbers of inhabitants are dying from intestinal, liver and other cancers caused by ingesting toxic water and food.

Nongovernmental organizations count at least 459 villages spread across every province except far-western Qinghai and Tibet. In one village, 80 percent of the population is said to have died from pollution-induced cancers since 1991. (41) There are villages where almost every child is lead-poisoned. (42) Dumping of toxic chemicals and heavy metals extends even to remote corners of China. In neo-tropical Yunnan Province, investigators have found “rampant chromium dumping” polluting rice paddies and drinking water.

The Damage Done

The problem with water pollution, unlike air pollution, is that it doesn’t disappear once the dumping stops. Heavy metals and other contaminants don’t easily break down or wash away. They can be very long-lived and can’t really be “cleaned up.” (43) Once groundwater is polluted, there’s just no possible remediation. This means that extensive areas of China’s farmland, especially in the north, are effectively doomed. (44) This is taking a huge toll on the health of Chinese people as well as non-human life forms and poses a mortal threat to the entire society. Elizabeth Economy, author of The Rivers Run Black (2007), writes that “Less well documented [than air pollution] but potentially even more devastating is the health impact of China’s polluted water. Today, fully 190 million Chinese are sick from drinking contaminated water. All along China’s major rivers, villages report skyrocketing rates of diarrheal diseases, cancer, tumors, leukemia, and stunted growth.” (45)

The Bad Earth and Toxic Foods

China’s farmlands are extensively polluted with synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, heavy metals, sewage sludge and innumerable industrial toxics. Much of this comes from polluted irrigation water. In places, even industrial wastewater has been used to irrigate farms when local wells have dried up or are themselves too polluted to use. In December 2013, the Ministry of Land and Resources reported that 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres – roughly the area of Belgium) of China’s farmland is too polluted to grow crops on and researchers said that “as much as 70 percent” of China’s farmland could be contaminated to some degree. (46) In April 2014, the government reported that almost 20 percent of the country’s arable land, 10 percent of its woodlands and 10 percent of its grassland soils were seriously polluted with heavy metals, such as cadmium, mercury, arsenic, lead, chromium, zinc and nickel plus inorganic compounds including DDT. The survey, carried out between 2006 and 2010, but suppressed for four years as a state secret out of fear of public outrage, summed up the nation’s farmland situation as “grim”(yanjun). (47)

Shocking as this is for a nation that must try to feed 20 percent of the world’s population on 7 percent of the world’s arable land, environmentalists suspect the published figures understate the true extent of soil contamination. (48) In November 2014, the government conceded that 40 percent of the nation’s farmland is degraded from acidification, pollution and erosion, and the government “is growing increasingly concerned about its food supply after years of rapid industrialization resulted in widespread pollution of waterways and farmland.” (49)

Life in the Communist Party is not so different from life in the mafia.

In May 2013, the Food and Drug Administration of Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province, reported that 40 percent of the rice tested at restaurants that spring was contaminated with cadmium, a highly toxic heavy metal than can cause bone disease, cancer and other illnesses. Since extensive national testing has not yet been done for this or other contaminants, there is concern that such pollution is widespread. Fish (and fishermen) have also been found to have high levels of cadmium, mercury and lead. (50)

To add further insult to consumers, deliberate food adulteration, contamination and fakery is rife in China. In 2008, public anger erupted after the government reported that tens of thousands of children were at risk of kidney stones and other organ damage from milk powder mixed with melamine, a chemical used to deceive protein tests. At least six infants died from illnesses linked to the tainted powder, which sickened more than 300,000 children.

Despite repeated government crackdowns, food contamination is severe and growing in China. As domestic food grows increasingly unsafe, alarmed middle-class Chinese strip supermarkets of imported food and Chinese tourists clear out the shelves of baby formula from New Zealand to Holland to pack and take home in their suitcases. Public alarm is also driving up food imports, which in turn is driving up world food prices. (51) For the first time in its history, China now imports more grain than it produces. This is bad news not only for China’s basic food security but also for natural resources around the world as China’s demand for soybeans, corn, wheat and other grains is leveling forests from Africa to the Amazon.

What’s Going on Here?

Why is it that the same government that has lifted the living standards of more people – millions – faster than any other nation in history, that has built the world’s largest high-speed rail network, the largest airports, longest bridges, skyscrapers by the hundreds and whole cities practically overnight, can’t guarantee safe drinking water or food or medicines or breathable air to its citizens? Why can’t it enforce its own environmental regulations, or its own building codes? Why can’t it stop its own local governments from squandering money building unneeded housing, airports and rail lines? Why is it that the same ruthless police state that so proficiently crushes dissent and censors the internet can’t stop producers, even state-owned companies, from making lead-paint-coated toys, poisoned milk and baby formula, and toxic meat and dumplings, and can’t suppress corruption in its own officials? The answer to all these questions is to be found in the nature, contradictions and tendencies of China’s hybrid bureaucratic collectivist-capitalist economic system.

II. A Political Economy

China’s rulers preside over the largest and most dynamic economy in the world, a powerhouse of international trade whose state-owned conglomerates count among the largest companies in the world. They profit immensely from their state-owned enterprises’ (SOEs) market returns. But they’re not capitalists, at least not with respect to the state-owned economy. Communist Party members don’t own individual SOEs or shares in state companies like private investors. They collectively own the state, which owns most of the economy. They’re bureaucratic collectivists who run a largely state-planned economy that also produces extensively for the market. But producing for the market is not the same thing as capitalism. (52)

Three of the top 10 2014 Fortune Global 500 corporations are Chinese. But they’re not owned by Chinese capitalists. They’re owned by the Chinese government. James McGregor notes, “Of the sixty-nine companies from mainland China in the Fortune Global 500 in 2012, only seven were not SOEs … [and all of these seven] companies have received significant government assistance and most count government entities among their shareholders.” Thirty-five years after the introduction of market reforms, China’s government still owns and controls the commanding heights of the economy: banking, large-scale mining and manufacturing, heavy industry, metallurgy, shipping, energy generation, petroleum and petrochemicals, heavy construction and equipment, atomic energy, aerospace, telecommunications, vehicles (often in partnership with Western companies), aircraft manufacture, airlines, railways, biotechnology, military production and more. Plus all the land and natural resources: There is no private property in China.

“Families benefited from their control of state companies, amassing private wealth as they embraced the market economy.”

In key industries SOEs own and control between 75 and 100 percent of assets including 96.2 percent of telecom, 91.6 percent of power generation, 76.6 percent of petroleum and petrochemicals, 76.2 percent of airlines, 74 percent of autos, and so on. China’s banks are 100 percent state-owned (though there are some private equity firms). (53) In the words of James McGregor, “SOEs monopolize or dominate all significant sectors of the economy and control the entire financial system. Party leaders deploy the SOEs to build and bolster the economy – and undergird the Party’s monopoly political control. The private sector provides a lubricant for growth and the opportunity for people to become rich as long as they support the Party.” (54) SOEs together with local government-owned urban collective and township and village industries currently account for 50 percent of China’s current non-farm GDP. Foreign-invested joint ventures account for about 30 percent of non-farm GDP (though Chinese partners of larger joint ventures, like auto assembly, are mostly SOEs). China’s indigenous private sector accounts for about 20 percent of non-farm GDP. (55)

SOEs resemble capitalist corporations but they’re not driven by the same motor of market competition; they don’t face the same incentives and penalties as capitalist firms, at least not to the same extent, and they’re not run like capitalist companies. (56) These days China’s state sector has all the superficial trappings of a market economy: corporations, CEOs, IPOs, stock markets and so on. The Ministry of Petroleum is now called China National Petroleum Corporation. Baoshan Iron and Steel now calls itself Baosteel Group Corp. and so on. But SOEs aren’t “corporations.”

Dozens of Chinese SOEs have held IPO listings on the New York Stock Exchange and China’s own toy stock markets in Shenzhen and Shanghai. But the government won’t allow its companies to be bought and sold. It will only permit a minority of shares, not more than 25 percent, and only non-voting shares at that, to be traded on the market. As one expert put it “the Chinese government is the only shareholder that counts.” (57) Lots of SOEs produce some or most of their output for the market. State Grid produces power for, besides China (where it has a monopoly), Singapore and Australia, and is developing facilities in the Philippines and Portugal. But State Grid does not answer to shareholders or boards. China’s SOEs are not run by boards of directors and elected CEOs. They don’t have boards of directors. And their CEOs and senior management are all appointed by the Communist Party. All Chinese state “corporations” have Communist Party secretaries who without exception outrank the enterprise CEOs. (58)

To be sure, China has a vast capitalist market economy side-by-side with the state sector. Thousands of real, foreign corporations operate in China today: Apple, Toyota, Audi, GM, Samsung, Procter & Gamble, Walmart, even the Avon lady. And China has plenty of homegrown entrepreneurs and privately owned businesses. China is said to have more than a million US-dollar millionaires and at least 89 billionaires. The private sector includes sizeable companies like Baidu (the internet search giant that dominates the China market since Google left), Tencent (instant messaging), Jack Ma’s Alibaba, real estate developers like Dalian Wanda Group and China Vanka, food processors like Wahaha Corp., insurance companies, and others. But these are not the core of the economy. China’s biggest private company by valuation, Alibaba, doesn’t produce anything at all; like eBay it just connects sellers with buyers. Most of China’s private businesses are small, on average less than half the size of SOEs, and the vast majority are even smaller. They include thousands of small coal mines, thousands of local construction companies, some small steel mills, textile and garment industries, shoemakers, retail shops and supermarkets, restaurants, self-employed truckers, family businesses and the like.

“Get Rich and You’ll Get Audited”

The Communist Party keeps its domestic capitalists on a short leash. Successful entrepreneurs soon find they need a state “partner,” or the government sets up its own competitors to suppress them, or they suffer forced buyouts. Those who cross the Party disappear and their property is seized, and worse. (59) Those whose names appear on Forbes’ list of the world’s wealthiest citizens or the Hong Kong Hunrun Rich List sometimes vanish without a trace. Chinese people call these the “pig-killing lists.” Middle-class Chinese speculate on apartments and suburban villas but the land they sit on is state-owned. Indeed, even title to the apartments and villas they’ve bought is never really secure because these can easily be seized by the state on a whim, with no recourse.

It’s been estimated that in the last three decades more than 60 million Chinese farmers and urban residents have been summarily evicted from their homes and farms to make way for government development projects of all sorts across the country. More than a million and a half farmers and townsfolk were evicted to make way for the Three Gorges Dam. Several million residents of Beijing were evicted to shabby satellite towns while their ancient Beijing homes, some dating back to the Ming dynasty, were leveled to make way for shopping malls, apartment towers and Olympic sports stadiums. (60) In such a system, arbitrary political power and generalized insecurity condition every aspect of life, even within the ruling Party itself – especially within the ruling Party.

A. Beijing’s Game of Thrones

China’s ruling class is the nomenklatura, the upper ranks of the 86-million-member Chinese Communist Party. Since the victory of the revolution in 1949, China has been run by the party-army-bureaucratic aristocracy, the leaders of which reside behind the walls of the Zhongnanhai complex adjacent to the Forbidden City. (61) In the 1950s, they nationalized the economy, divided up government administrative and economic management posts among themselves and centralized all surplus extraction. Today, this state-owned economy is run by their children and will soon be run by their grandchildren.

Since Mao’s death in 1976, the inner circle of the ruling “red families” have been headed up by the so-called “Eight Immortals”: Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun (the CCP’s leading economic planner), Wang Zhen, Li Xiannian (PRC president), Peng Zhen (NPC Congress chair), Song Renqiong (party personnel chief), Yang Shangkun (PRC president), and Bo Yibo (vice premier and last of the eight to die at 98 in 2007). (62)As the elders retired and died off they entrusted the reins of power to their children, the “princeling” (taizi dang) sons and daughters of the first generation of communist rulers. Since the bad old days when Mao and his Gang of Four dispatched their rivals to rot in dungeons, or shot Lin Biao’s plane out of the sky to prevent his escape to Moscow, the Communist Party has made every effort to present a public façade of leadership unity and discipline and portray its internal workings as “regularized” with “collective leadership,” “10-year rotations” of “presidents” and “prime ministers,” “mandatory retirement of senior officials at 65” and so on. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A study released in February 2015 declared that living in China’s cities is “as deadly as smoking.”

Today, as in Mao’s day, CCP internal political machinations resemble nothing so much as The Godfather or “Game of Thrones.” And how could it be otherwise? In the absence of the rule of law, without elections to choose government representatives, without inner-party democracy, without constitutional procedures to regularize succession to office, without an independent judiciary, justice department, attorney generals and police to systematically prosecute and punish corrupt politicians, in such a system, no one owns their office, position or job on the basis of merit, professional qualification, fixed-year terms or enforceable contracts. Every cadre’s personal and political security depends, above all, on the strength of his/her guanxi: his connections and relationships with networks of allies, their patrons above, their supporters below and especially to families, clans and factions.

From the days of Mao’s purges of “capitalist roaders” Lin Biao, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, to Deng Xiaoping’s own purge of the Maoist Gang of Four, to Jiang Zemin’s purge of “counterrevolutionaries” Zhao Ziyang, Bao Tong et al. in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen uprising, to current President Xi Jinping’s show trials of  “corrupt” rival Bo Xilai (son of Bo Yibo) and his persecution of powerful opponents in the oil faction and secret police led by Zhou Yongkang, the Chinese Communist Party’s internal political dramas differ little from the treacherous, fratricidal power struggles of the Corleones, Barzinis and Straccis of The Godfather or the bloody feudal wars of the Starks, Tullys and Boltons for supremacy in Westeros. As in “Game of Thrones,” China’s communists are embroiled in nonstop faction building, never-ending intrigue and infighting, and treacherous factional struggles while the paramount leader du jour‘s claim to the red throne in Zhongnanhai is never completely secure. (63)

President Xi Jinping came into office in 2012 on a campaign vowing to “swat tigers and flies alike.” Xi had been brought in to replace the disgraced Shanghai Mayor Chen Liangyu on the strength of his anticorruption campaigns in Zhejian Province where he once told an anti-graft conference: “Rein in your spouses, children, relatives and friends and staff, and vow not to use power for personal gain.” (64) But Xi is just as corrupt as all the rest, and just as thuggish.

Xi once remarked that as a young man he liked to watch The Godfather. Yu Jie, an exiled author of numerous critical books on China, titled his latest book, Godfather of China Xi Jinping (still awaiting publication as of March 2015). Yu told The New York Times that the film was Xi’s political study guide: “The Communist Party is China’s biggest mafia, and the party boss Xi Jinping is the godfather of China.” As if to confirm Yu’s thesis, when he tried to publish the book in Hong Kong, one publisher was arrested in Shenzhen and disappeared. A second prospective publisher received a threatening phone call from Beijing telling him that the book “absolutely cannot be published” and if he publishes it, “your personal safety and the safety of your family cannot be guaranteed” so he immediately dropped the project.

Life in the Communist Party is not so different from life in the mafia: It’s a constant, treacherous and highly dangerous nonstop factional struggle between crime family-based groupings in struggle with one another over top offices and treasure. The key to safety is building unshakable vertical and horizontal networks of support and protection – of guanxi. And the key to solidifying those networks is sharing the loot from corruption. As political scientist Minxin Pei put it: “If your patrons do not protect you, you’re toast … Corruption is the glue that keeps the party stuck together.” (65)

B. Grabbing the Brass Ring: Gangster Capitalism and the Necessity of Corruption

China’s economy mirrors its politics. China’s communist party-state has grown immensely wealthy over the past three decades from rivers of income flowing in from huge state monopolies like Sinopec (China Petroleum), State Grid, Bank of China, China Telecom, from taxing export foreign exchange earnings, and more. But the question is, how is this loot shared out among the ruling class of China, the “gang” of 86 million Communist Party members? In capitalist economies, this is entirely formalized and regularized. One’s wealth is based on property, cash in the bank, stock ownership and such – all secured by the rule of law, enforceable contracts, an impersonal state, independent judiciary and the police. But China has none of this. Cadres don’t privately own SOEs; they don’t own shares in SOEs.

Yet we know from multiple sources including trials of corrupt officials, revelations about secret offshore bank accounts, records of foreign property purchases, and especially from recent headline exposés in The New York Times and Bloomberg News on the wealth of China’s leading “princelings” including former and current heads of state, that China’s Communist Party cadres have gotten gloriously rich by way of market reforms. (66) The New York Times calculated that former Premier Wen Jiabao was worth at least $2.7 billion when he retired in 2012, all secreted under the names of close relatives. (67) As Xi Jinping climbed the party ranks, his extended family got rich in minerals, real estate and mobile-phone equipment. Today, his family is worth at least $376 million, again, with virtually all of it listed in the names of his close relatives rather than his own.

Markets and the Mother of All Moral Hazards

When Deng Xiaoping rejected Maoism and told the Chinese that now it was OK, even  “glorious to get rich,” he faced an immediate problem: To get marketization rolling, he urged the cadres to promote private businesses and joint-ventures with foreign investors, to “jump into the sea of commerce” as he said in his famous “southern tour” of Shenzhen in 1992. Deng’s market reforms thus presented the personally penniless but functionally all-powerful CCP cadres with the mother of all moral hazards. China’s reintroduction of capitalism presented the cadres with a once-in-an-epoch opportunity to grab the brass ring, to get rich, really rich, and fast. The party-state owned all land, resources and industries, and controlled the banks and pension funds, foreign trade and currency exchange, courts, police and everything else. The problem was that the only ways to profit from this were all illegal: bribery, smuggling, influence peddling, embezzling money from state industries, profiting from guandao (reselling state-owned raw materials and commodities on the free market at huge markups), asset stripping, currency manipulation, money laundering and so on.

Risky, but how could they resist? Far from resisting, they led the way in what exiled economist He Qinglian called “the marketization of power.” (68) Besides, since there was no independent judicial system, it was left to the party officials to police themselves. The very people who stood to gain the most from the coming market boom were supposed to refrain from self-dealing. Even so, the breadth and brazenness of corruption grew slowly at first. Looking back to the 1980s, Bao Tong, a senior party official arrested and imprisoned as a “counterrevolutionary” during the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown told Bloomberg News in December 2013: “A bottle of Moutai, two cartons of Chunghwa cigarettes – corruption was no more than that at the beginning…. Now an enterprise worth 10 billion yuan can be purchased with 1 billion. This would have been appalling to people back then.” (69)

“It Doesn’t Matter Who Owns the Money; It Only Matters Who Gets to Use It”

Today, the buffet of benefits available to the upper ranks includes extravagant state-provided housing, posh offices, fleets of limousines, access to state-owned vacation villas, travel and plenty of pocket change to spend on fine French wines, Rolexes, Louis Vuitton handbags and the rest. At the top, princelings are often heads of giant conglomerates, which themselves own dozens or even hundreds of individual SOEs. Presumably this gives them access to multiple income streams and ample opportunities to plunder the government’s ever-growing treasure. Princeling Bo Xilai didn’t send his son Guagua to Harrow, Oxford and Harvard, and buy him Porsches, Ferraris and fancy apartments in Oxford and Cambridge, Massachusetts, on his official salary.

Even China’s leaders complain that China’s “governments at all levels” had turned the state’s banks into “ATMs for officials and official businessmen.” (70) As one SOE boss put it: “It doesn’t matter who owns the money; it only matters who gets to use it.” (71) As individuals, they loot according to their rank, positions and guanxi. And of course, who gets to use exactly what is shrouded in secrecy. Financial Times Beijing bureau chief Richard McGregor quotes a businessman jailed on corruption charges who said: “Every official has three lives. Their public life, their private life, and their secret life.” (72)

In the boom years of the 1990s and 2000s in China’s ruling class, taking their cue from New York banksters who were becoming their partners and backers, corruption flourished on a previously unimagined scale. They siphoned huge sums from state banks, SOEs and ministries. They looted pension funds and state charities. They’ve profited from illegal arms sales and smuggling. They made vast fortunes in real estate evicting millions of farmers and selling their land to developers. They made more fortunes taking cuts from listing Chinese companies on the New York Stock Exchange. In all this, the “princeling” children and grandchildren of the “Eight Immortals” have led the way.

“The anticorruption push is more of a Stalinist purge than a genuine attempt to clean up the government.”

In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun and the other aging revolutionary generation leaders entrusted their children to run the new market-oriented state conglomerates like CITIC, China Poly Group (arms, African oil, etc.). Deng’s daughter Deng Rong and her brother Deng Zhifang were among the first to go into real estate in the 1990s. As Bloomberg reported in its investigative report on the 103 children and grandchildren of the Eight Immortals, “Families benefited from their control of state companies, amassing private wealth as they embraced the market economy. Forty-three of the 103 ran their own business or became executives in private firms … The third generation – grandchildren of the Eight Immortals and their spouses, many of whom are in their 30s and 40s – have parlayed family connections and overseas education into jobs in the private sector.” Others took over state-sector conglomerates and SOEs.

Twenty-six of the heirs of just these eight revolutionary leaders ran or held top positions in big SOEs: “Three children alone – General Wang’s son, Wang Jun, Deng’s son-in-law, He Ping; and Chen Yuan, the son of Mao’s economic tsar – headed or still run state-owned companies with combined assets of about $1.6 trillion in 2011. (73) Deng’s son-in-law Wu Jianchang got himself appointed head of numerous metals companies and then became, conveniently, minister of metallurgy. Deng’s grandson Zhuo Su got himself appointed head of a company that bought into an Australian iron ore business. Wang Jun, the revolutionary general’s son, set up a huge conglomerate, Poly Group, with Deng Xiaoping’s son-in-law He Ping, another general. Chen Yun installed his son Chen Yuan as head of the giant state-owned China Development Bank with assets of more than $1 trillion. His sister, Chen Xiaodan, worked at Morgan Stanley in New York, set up her own private equity firm, and worked with her father’s China Development Bank to support Chinese firms investing abroad in Europe and elsewhere.

Wang Zhi, General Wang’s third son, “borrowed” 300,000 yuan from his employer, the Ministry of Electronics, to set up his own company building personal computers, eventually partnering with Bill Gates to develop a Chinese version of Windows software. As Yang Dali of the University of Chicago put it, “The entire country was in business – the Party, the military, the courts, the prosecutor’s office, the police…. Insiders could get rich very quickly.” And “[w]hen the top is corrupt, this is how it will be all the way down,” said Dai Qing, China’s leading environmental activist who herself grew up in the Zhongnanhai compound with the princelings after being adopted by a famous general. (74) Bloomberg reports that, when he was lying in a hospital bed in 1990, hardline Maoist Gen. Wang Zhen (1908-1993) told a visitor that he felt betrayed by his own children. Decades after he had risked his life fighting for an egalitarian utopia, his children were only interested in getting rich: “Turtle eggs,” he said to the visiting well-wisher, using a slang term for bastards. “I don’t recognize them as my sons.” (75)

Getting the Loot Out of China

International banking connections also have been key to the princelings’ strategy of getting their loot out of China. Over the years, it has been estimated that princelings and other high cadres, cronies and capitalists have funneled $1-4 trillion in unreported assets out of the country since 2000. Credit Suisse, PricewaterhouseCoopers and UBS – Western banks with notorious experience in sheltering US and other tax evaders – set up secret companies and accounts for at least 21,000 Chinese in Caribbean tax havens including for Wen Yunsong, Wen Jiabao’s son. High cadres, their relatives and other rich guys fly suitcases of money to North America, Australia, Caribbean havens and other friendly destinations. (76)

In February 2014, it was reported that more than 45,000 (!) Chinese millionaireshad queued up in Vancouver, British Columbia, to get investor residence visas in return for five-year, interest-free loans to the Canadian government. In the US, 80 percent of the government’s EB-5 investor program visas are going to wealthy ex-mainland Chinese; in Australia, it’s nine out of 10. At least 18 of the Eight Immortals’ descendants own or run entities registered in the British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Liberia and other secret offshore tax havens. (77) Bo Yibo’s wife Gu Kailai, convicted in 2012 of murdering her British business partner, controlled a web of businesses from Beijing to the Caribbean worth at least $126 million and stashed many of her assets with her sister in places like the British Virgin Islands, according to Bloomberg. (78) So it goes.

C. Implications, Tendencies, Consequences

This structural arrangement of bureaucratic/gangster capitalist power and property has given China’s economy a radically different pattern and trajectory of economic development from normal capitalism anywhere in the West. We can specify at least the following broad systemic tendencies in this hybrid economic system:

1. Priority to the state-owned economy: Shocked and riveted by the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and especially the communist debacle in the USSR, Deng Xiaoping and his successors have been determined to avoid such a fate by maintaining state control over the commanding heights of the economy, avoiding substantial privatization and limiting the internal market, as noted above. That’s why the maximand of China’s SOEs is not profit maximization. Their maximand is the security, wealth and power of the Chinese Communist Party and that’s not the same thing. The Bank of China, China Development Bank, the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China and other huge state banks sit at the apex of China’s economy and count among the Global Fortune 500 largest companies. But unlike Citibank or HSBC, their job isn’t to make money. Their job is to lose money – or more precisely, to disburse it.

It’s often said that in the transition to capitalism China’s market reformers “abandoned central planning.” That’s an exaggeration. They reduced the scope of indicative planning but they did not abandon planning the state sector; they monetized it. Instead of issuing physical output targets à la Stalin and Mao, they direct most of the state economy by writing checks: by ordering state banks to disburse funds to support the production goals of the state plans (though they still set physical targets for some items – kilometers of rails, kilometers of roads, tons of wheat and cotton etc., as noted above). In the 1990s, the government leased out, sold off or closed down thousands of small unprofitable SOEs producing consumer goods including wood and leather products, furniture, building materials, garments, food products and the like. Dispensing with these, the government concentrated on restructuring, modernizing, expanding and diversifying the state’s SOEs. (79)

The government also expanded the state sector by establishing entirely new industries: consumer appliances, solar and wind power, biotech, high-speed trains, passenger aircraft, IT and others. But instead of assigning production targets for quantities of Geely cars, Suntech solar panels or China National Railways (CNR) high-speed trains, they allocate funds via state banks to support state-owned industries like CNR and to establish and support state-private joint ventures like Suntech and Geely. Since the 1990s, China’s SOEs, and the entire state industrial sector, have grown enormously. Whereas in the 1970s, China’s SOEs counted for almost nothing in the world economy, today, China’s “national champions” Sinopec, China National Petroleum and State Grid Corporation rank among the 10 largest companies by revenue in the 2014 Fortune 500.

Prioritizing the state sector means that the government often finds it rational to subvert its own market reforms to protect state interests: So when the head of a major state-owned conglomerate was removed for embracing market economics too enthusiastically, a Beijing University expert on China’s state-enterprises commented: “There’s a system in place, not just one person. The party’s appointee draws his position from patronage … and the task is to engage with state leaders and safeguard government assets, not to maximize profits.” (80) This is why the government enforces SOE monopolies regardless of efficiency, why it limits Western investor ownership share in joint ventures, why it bars Western firms from investing in key industries, and why it directs its huge sovereign wealth fund mainly to invest in the resource extraction industries China needs to fuel its national economic development even though global resource prices and resource industry profits have both been falling since 2008. (81) This is all in the collective interest of China’s state-based ruling class.

Yet at the same time, individually, princelings and well-placed cadres are simultaneously conniving, like the gangsters they are, to privatize pieces of the state-owned economy and to sell them at huge discounts to themselves, their relatives and partners, usually via private investment banks that have their real owners concealed behind multiple layers of paper and shell companies. Cadres also funnel money out of SOE profits to buy businesses and properties in the West. SOE overseas companies open still other opportunities to privately pocket profits earned overseas before they’re sent back to China. It can’t be ruled out that such trends could eventually lead to a broad selloff of state assets à la Poland. But for the present, the party seems determined to protect the state-owned economy rather than let it collapse and be sold off and privatized.

2. Hypergrowth drivers: incentives without penalties: China’s SOEs, as we noted, don’t live or die on the basis of their performance in the market. Lots of SOEs are inefficient but because many are also monopolies, they can still be gold mines. (82) As one official observed, “the overall economy has been so good that even pretty stupid SOEs could do well without much effort.” (83) Broke, indebted, inefficient or not, so long as their SOEs are in-plan, and especially if they’ve been designated “key” or “strategic” or “pillar” industries like coal, oil, autos, aerospace, biotech, high-speed rail or some other priority, SOE managers could assume that they would never be forced out of business regardless of their economic performance and generally speaking they have not been.

In result, SOE managers have had the best of both worlds: They have every incentive to borrow and spend, especially on capital construction (including those palatial offices to run the operations), but they face little or no threat of discipline for excess or failure. Given the profit-sharing arrangement between the center and the SOEs, for SOE bosses, it’s capitalism when the SOE is making money but socialism when it needs a government bailout. This is the main driver of “blind growth” across the economy and this can be expected to continue.

3. Hypergrowth drivers: job creation: In capitalist economies, neither individual companies nor governments are obliged to create jobs, though in extreme circumstances like the Great Depression, governments have set up jobs programs to keep the peace. But in China, in the old Maoist bureaucratic collectivist system, the government was the only employer, so it had to employ everyone because there was nowhere else to find work. In Mao’s day, successive generations of workers were simply assigned to work units (danwei) with the result that China’s industries and government offices were often abundantly overstaffed. But with the turn to the market, the government abolished guaranteed employment in the mid-1990s and SOEs laid off some 50 million superfluous workers in the 1990s to make their industries more efficient.

By then however, many excessed workers could find jobs in the new parallel market economy while others were forced into retirement on subsistence pensions. The destruction of millions of state jobs with state benefits provoked widespread protests and unrest in the late 1990s and early 2000s. To contain this unrest, and also to keep up with China’s relentless population growth, the government has been forced to spend heavily on wave after wave of WPA-like, make-work capital construction projects across the country since the 1990s, even if much of what got built was unneeded, as noted above. Given the special threat that extensive unemployment poses to a nominally workers state, this pattern of make-work overproduction and overdevelopment can be expected to continue.

4. Collective property weakens efforts to reduce pollution: Collective ownership means that even with its police-state dictatorship, the center can’t always enforce its will against lower-level officials because those local, country, provincial, ministerial officials, SOE bosses and so on are more partners with Beijing in their joint ownership of the national economy than strictly subordinates. They all have their own guanxi networks to defend their turf and promote their own interests in contravention of central initiatives when it suits their purposes. This is why central efforts to restrain pollution tend to be subverted or defeated by local officials whose overriding concern is to keep the economic engines running regardless of the smog.

China has comprehensive environmental legislation on the books. It has its own Environmental Protection Agency equivalent, the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA). It has a State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) and other regulatory agencies. But the evidence everywhere is that regulation is largely a failure. (84) Here and there SEPA has managed to enforce some cleanups and shutdowns of some conspicuous polluters, usually smaller operations. But more often than not, SEPA regulators are powerless against polluters because environmental protection officers are subordinate to and even paid by local officials who profit from and generate jobs in the same polluting industries SEPA wants to suppress. (85)

In her documentary Under the Dome, Chai Jing asks Ding Yan, the director of the government’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) Vehicular Pollution Research Institute, about why his agency doesn’t force China’s vehicle manufacturers to stop selling trucks with fake National Standard 4 emission stickers certifying that the vehicles meet the highest emissions standards when in fact they only meet the lowest National Standard 1. “If you (the MEP) assert you have legal authority, no one can deny that, so why not just execute the law?” Ding told her that regardless of the law, his agency had no real power to enforce it: “Nowadays, I don’t dare open my mouth out of fear that [the polluters] will see that I have no teeth” (at 48:19).

Since the highly personalized and politicized state can’t rely on the rule of law, independent courts and police to enforce its environmental regulations, the government has to resort to “campaigns” to enforce environmental compliance. But this approach is hopelessly ineffectual. Beijing issues big directives, sends inspectors around and fines the polluting companies. But as often as not local government partners just pay the fines, or block regulators from shutting down the polluters, or let the regulators shut them down but then let the companies reopen under a new name. If all else fails, there’s always bribery. MEP officials are regularly bribed to let polluters continue operations. (86)

A year after Xi Jinping launched his “war on pollution,” the official press describes Beijing as “all but unlivable.” A study released in February 2015 declared that living in China’s cities is “as deadly as smoking.” (87) The government’s ambitious plans to improve water quality and safety have likewise failed. The 12th Five-Year Plan goal of “completely solving rural drinking water issues” by the end of 2015 “will not be met, and some villages are going backward because of scarcity and pollution.” Urban water safety has not improved and even bottled water is often contaminated. (88)

Moreover, the center itself is conflicted about enforcing its own pollution regulations because the central government, as much as local governments, needs to maximize growth to meet its plan targets and maintain employment to keep the peace. So while it talks about cracking down on pollution, more often than not Beijing also has to prioritize job creation over environmental protection. (89) Therefore, so long as there is no real separation of powers, these trends can be expected to continue and China’s pollution problems will remain essentially unsolvable.

5. Bureaucratic particularism and competition drive redundancy and overinvestment: SOE bosses, and local, provincial and ministerial officials may not face market competition in the same way and to the same extent as capitalist firms, but they face intense bureaucratic competition for access to resources and appropriations from the center. This particularistic intra-ruling class struggle over access to state funds also shapes the broad pattern of China’s economic development, powering tendencies to redundancy, duplication, irrational investment and waste throughout the economy. Thus, in his book on China’s growing airline industry, James Fallows writes:

Foreign reports often present these projects as carefully coordinated expressions of China’s larger ambitions for a modern transportation system and to an extent they are. But there is also bitter bureaucratic and commercial rivalries between the airline and railroad interests within China, each seizing on any opportunity to argue that it reflected the wiser and more farsighted use of the country’s resources. (90)

In China’s hybrid economic system, generally speaking, officials can only profit from their own units – their localities, ministries and SOEs. Cadres can’t buy shares in SOEs anywhere in the economy like in capitalism. No cadre in Sichuan can invest in and profit off of state-owned industries in Shanghai or Shenzhen. So if Sichuan officials wanted to profit from Premier Wen Jaibao’s call at the launching of the 12th Five-Year Plan, to “enhance China’s automobile manufacturing capability,” their only way to do was to build auto plants in their own province. And that’s what happens. That’s why China has more than 130 auto plants, thousands of power plants (one for every three square kilometers in Jiangsu province), roads and bridges to nowhere, more than 30 airlines, near-empty airports everywhere, more than 800 shipyards, redundant ports, redundant “world financial centers,” redundant shopping malls and ghost cites, with all the waste those entail. These tendencies are, again, built into the bureaucratic collectivist nature of this economic system and will continue as long as this system is in effect.

6. Rampant, ineradicable corruption: Anticorruption campaigns have been a feature of CCP inner-party struggles since long before the founding of the People’s Republic. They reached their apogee of hysteria in Mao Zedong’s terror campaign of the “cultural revolution” against “capitalist roaders” in his own party. These days the party brags that it disciplines tens of thousands of corrupt officials every year. Prominent party and state figures tried and punished in recent years include Beijing Mayor Liu Zhihua who received a suspended death sentence in 2009 for bribery. Shanghai party chief Chen Liangyu got 18 years in 2008 for corruption. Zheng Xiaoyu, head of China’s SFDA, was executed in 2007 for taking bribes to approve an antibiotic blamed for at least 10 deaths. Rixin Kang, former head of China’s nuclear power agency, was sent to prison for life in 2011; Cheng Tonghai, former head of Sinopec, got a suspended death sentence in 2009. Li Peiying, the head of Beijing’s Capital Airport, was executed in August 2009. Railway minister Liu Zhijun was given a suspended death sentence in 2013. Bo Xilai, the first member of the Party’s Politburo to be arrested since the end of the Mao era, was given a suspended death sentence in 2013. In January 2015, 70 SOE bosses were nabbed in one sweep, 16 generals in another.

Yet for all the campaigns, arrests and executions, corruption only grows worse every year. And why would it not? Opportunities for getting rich quick have grown as fast as the economy. And despite all the lurid press reports, the chances of getting caught are miniscule and for most corruption cases the consequences are not nearly as dire as the headlines imply, especially for the most elite, the biggest gangsters. (91)Geremie Barmé of the Australian National University says that in his research, for all the drama, most of the offspring of China’s revolutionary founders, the so-called “second red generation,” whose ranks include Xi Jinping and Bo Xilai, had largely escaped serious punishment: “In the murky corridors of Communist power, an impressive number of party gentry progeny, or the offspring of the Mao-era nomenklatura, have been implicated in corrupt practices … But word has it that, like the well-connected elites of other climes, they’ve enjoyed a ‘soft landing’: being discretely relocated, shunted into delicate retirement or quietly ‘redeployed.'” (92)Bo Xilai’s confinement is thought to be not too harsh, and not include orange suits.

Guanxi rules. Xi Jinping’s “war on corruption” is swatting competing tigers like Zhou Yangkang’s clique but has conspicuously failed to swat blatantly corrupt tigers right under his nose, starting with his own sister, brother-in-law, niece and their private sector partners, all of whom have made fortunes trading influence for lucrative state-private deals. Instead, Xi is just pushing them to cash out of their hundreds of millions of dollars in politically vulnerable investments. (93) Novelist Murong Xuecun writes in The New York Times that “the anticorruption push is more of a Stalinist purge than a genuine attempt to clean up the government.” Xi, he says, has mainly targeted specific party factions while those groups that support and pledge loyalty to Xi appear untouched. He notes that in Xi’s former fiefs in Fujian and Zhejian provinces, “as best I can tell not one official above the deputy provincial level has been arrested on suspicion of corruption. Recently the question was raised on the internet: Why have no ‘big tigers’ been found in Fujian and Zhejiang? The message was almost immediately deleted.” (94)

Without the rule of law, an independent judiciary, courts and police to prosecute and punish corrupt cadres, Xi Jinping’s only option is to try to terrorize the cadres by sending down “discipline inspection teams” to punish local transgressors and jail some blatant offenders. The Chinese call it “killing the chickens to scare the monkeys.” But after the terror passes and the teams return to Beijing, it’s back to business as usual. So after wrapping up the second round of two-month inspections in 10 provinces launched in July 2014, Wang Qishan, head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) warned officials, “Don’t go back on your old ways when our backs are turned … we will come back and catch you off guard.” (95)

But really, what can the poor CCDI do? The Chinese Communist Party is a cesspool of corruption from top to bottom. The CCDI can’t arrest the entire party. Xi needs these officials to run his economy and administration, but most are well enough connected to avoid his terrorists. Xi can’t trust the police to systematically enforce anticorruption measures because the police themselves are notoriously corrupt. Even his corruption investigators can’t be trusted (1,575 corruption investigators were themselves busted in 2014). By October, Wang was complaining that the cadres were not taking him seriously: “We have stepped up the anti-graft campaign but some party cadres are still undeterred. Some have become even more corrupt.” Wang “vowed to ramp up inspections of the lower tiers of government.” (96) Good luck on that, Mr. Wang.

Pursued with too much vigor, Xi’s anticorruption campaign against senior officials risks not only unsettling elite stability, but also destroying what’s left of the party’s credibility. As a retired princeling military officer said about the most recent campaign against graft and profiteering in the army: “You can’t do it too much, otherwise the party comes out too black, and the leaders won’t like it.” (97) Of course, self-limiting anticorruption campaigns only guarantee that corruption will continue to grow. Moreover, the anti-graft drive is also hurting economic growth as cadres sit on their hands, fearing to do any work that might bring complication, and companies pull back from spending on luxury goods, feasting, champagne and cars – the spending by the 1% that drives so much growth in China, as in the West.

What’s worse is that with the spectacle of China’s political leadership by “communist” princelings-turned-billionaires, corruption rots the whole society from the top down. Whereas in the 1980s, millions of China’s youth were idealistic passionate protesters for democracy, today many of China’s millennial generation have lost all hope for change, been seduced by capitalism and consumerism, become cynical and indifferent toward politics, human rights and the environment, and are insouciant toward CCP lies and repression. Others are just giving up and emigrating.

III. Braking the Drive to Collapse

It goes without saying that the Chinese have every right to modernize, industrialize and improve their material standard of living. But the problem is that capitalism can’t sustainably provide this for the Chinese, the Americans or anyone anymore. As many Chinese say today, “Who cares if we have the world’s highest GDP if we can’t live here?” The Chinese don’t need a higher standard of living based on endless consumerism. They need a better mode of life: clean, unpolluted air, water and soil; safe and nutritious food; comprehensive public health care; safe, quality housing; a public transportation system centered on urban bicycles and public transit instead of cars and ring roads; and more.

We all need to live better by consuming less and consuming rationally, fairly and sustainably. Given the planet’s desperate shape today, the only way humanity is going to survive this century is if developed countries and developing countries contract and converge their resource consumption and pollution around a sustainable global average that will permit the world’s peoples to live in tolerable conditions while reserving resources for future generations and other life forms. (98)

As China Goes, So Goes the World

Climate scientists tell us that, given all the failed promises to date, the backpedaling and soaring carbon dioxide emissions, we now face a “climate emergency.” On present trends we’re on course to a 4 to 6-degree Celsius warming before the end of this century: If we don’t radically suppress fossil fuel burning over the next few decades to keep the warming below the 2-degree Celsius threshold, planetary heating will accelerate beyond any human power to stop it and global ecological collapse will be unavoidable. To have a chance of staying below 2 degrees, the industrialized nations and China must cut carbon emissions by 40 to 70 percent globally by 2050 as compared to 2010, which would require cuts on the order of 6 to 10 percent per year. (99) China would have to cut its industrial emissions by 30 to 90 percent as compared to 2010, the variance depending upon expected growth rates and other assumptions. (100)

The only way China could suppress its greenhouse gas emissions by anything like that amount would be to impose a drastic across-the-board economic contraction, including radical retrenchments and shutdowns of most of the industries that have been built up in the last three decades of market mania. I’m sure this sounds extreme, if not completely crazy. But I don’t see what other conclusion we can draw from the science. On the positive side, as I surveyed above, since so much of China’s resource waste and pollution is just completely unnecessary and harmful, what sounds like extreme austerity could prove just the opposite: liberating, a move to that “better mode of life.” Such an emergency plan would have to include at least the following elements:

  • Shut down all but critically essential coal-fired power plants needed as a temporary measure to keep the lights and heat on and essential public services in operation until renewable replacements can be brought on line. Abandon the coal gasification projects and phase out oil- and gas-powered fuel plants as quickly as possible. Force a rapid transition of energy generation to renewable wind, water and solar energy sources but with the goal of producing much less electricity overall, closer to what China produced in the early 1980s before the market-driven industrialization boom. The US and other developed countries should be obliged to provide extensive technical and material assistance to facilitate this transition.
  • Shut down most of the auto industry. This industry is just a total waste of resources and is the second-biggest contributor to global warming. Most public transportation will have to shift back to bicycles, buses, trains and subways – basically a modernized and expanded version of what the Chinese had in the early 1980s before the auto craze. But the air will be cleaner, transportation will be faster, people will be healthier and immense resources will be conserved.
  • Shut down most of the coastal export industries. Most of China’s coastal export industries are geared to producing unsustainable, disposable products, as noted above. There is just no way to have a sustainable economy in China or anywhere if we don’t abolish the throwaway repetitive-consumption industries in China and around the world.
  • Retrench or close down aviation, shipping, and other redundant and unsustainable transportation industries. Abandon the “aviation superpower” boondoggle. Abandon further expansion of the high-speed train network. China has already built more planes, trains and subways than it needs by any rational accounting of needs. Same with the shipbuilding industry, most of which is geared to container and bulk carrier shipping. This industry needs to be drastically reduced as China’s imports and exports decline with industrial contraction.
  • Shut down most of the construction industry. Even with China’s huge population, the country is massively overbuilt and littered with useless, superfluous buildings, housing, highways, bridges, airports and so on. Some of this can be repurposed. Some should be demolished and the lands returned to farmlands, wetlands, parks or other beneficial use.
  • Abandon the urbanization drive and actively promote re-ruralization.Urban life has its advantages but urban residents consume several times the energy and natural resources and generate several times as much pollution as rural farm families. Besides, most of the tens of millions of Chinese who were relocated to the cities in the last three decades did not go voluntarily; they were forced off their farms by land-grabbing, profiteering local officials. Those ex-farmers who wish to return to the land should be permitted to do so. There is no law of nature that says farm families must be impoverished. In today’s world, family farmers with adequate land and decent technology, who can market their own produce so they don’t get ripped off by middlemen, and who are not under the thumb of banks, landlords or state-landlords, can do very well. (101) China’s farmers are poor because the state has been squeezing them to subsidize industrialization. The best way to raise rural living standards is to give them security in their farms and pay them fair prices for their produce.
  • Abandon the imperial plunder and Han colonization of the West.Xinjiang, Tibet and Mongolia are not ethnically Chinese. If the Chinese government abandons its market-based development strategy it would have no “need” to plunder the natural resources of the West; those peoples can be left in peace to develop at their own pace and in accordance with their ecological limits. And after wrecking so much of their environment, the Chinese owe them some help.
  • Launch an emergency national plan for environmental remediation and restoration of public health. Chinese environmental and health experts have called for a comprehensive integrated plan to address the nation’s environmental and public health issues. (102) Experts say it could take generations to restore China’s farmlands, rivers and lakes to tolerable biological health though, as noted above, in places this may be impossible. A significant share of the costs of this remediation should also be borne by the Western nations whose companies callously contributed to this pollution by offshoring their dirtiest industries to China.
  • Launch a national public works jobs program. If China is going to have to shut down so much of its industrial economy to brake the drive to ecological collapse, then it is going to have to find or create new jobs for all those displaced workers. In Guangdong Province alone, there are something like 40 million manufacturing workers, most of them dedicated to producing the sorts of needless products described above. Forty million unemployed workers would be a big problem. And that’s just Guangdong. But unbreathable air, undrinkable water, unsafe food, polluted farmland, epidemic cancer, rising temperatures and rising seas along coastal China are bigger problems. So there’s just no way around this very inconvenient truth. Making bad stuff has to stop; stopping it will unemploy vast numbers of workers, and other, non-destructive, low-carbon jobs have to be found or created for them. Fortunately, in China, there is no shortage of other socially and environmentally useful work to do: environmental remediation, reforestation, transitioning to organic farming, transitioning to renewable energy, rebuilding and expanding public social services, rebuilding the social safety net, especially for China’s aging population, and much else.

Pan Yue was certainly prescient: The Chinese miracle has come to an end because the environment can no longer keep pace. The question is, can the Chinese find a way to grab hold of the brakes and wrench this locomotive of destruction to a halt before it hurls the country off the cliff?

Revolution or Collapse?

One thing is certain: This locomotive is not going to be stopped so long as the Communist Party has its grip on the controls. The Chinese Communist Party is locked in a death spiral. It can’t rein in corruption because the party is built on corruption, thrives on corruption and can’t police itself. It can’t rein in ravenous resource consumption and suicidal pollution because, given its dependence on the market to generate new jobs, it has to prioritize growth over the environment like capitalist governments everywhere.

It can’t even discipline its own subordinate officials to enforce and obey the government’s environmental, food and drug safety, building codes and similar laws because in this system subordinate officials aren’t necessarily subordinate and can often mobilize their family and guanxi-based backers to defend their interests and thwart Beijing. So long as this basic structural class/property arrangement remains in effect, no top-down “war on pollution” or “war on corruption” is going to change this system or brake China’s trajectory to ecological collapse. Given the foregoing, I just don’t see how China’s spiral to collapse can be reversed short of social revolution.

China’s Communist Party seems all-powerful and unassailable. But it’s not. It’s frightened, desperate and disintegrating. It faces unprecedented threats: near daily industrial strikes; militant and often violent protests over land grabs, chemical plants, incinerators, power plants and the like; “terrorist” attacks from Xinjiang; and even worse, subversive thought that just can’t be stopped by the Great Firewall. Chai Jing’s Under the Dome had 300 million downloads before the government took it down off the web after a week and a half. Who knows what spark will light the next social explosion?

Resistance is growing as pollution and public health worsen, as it becomes harder to sustain that 8 percent growth rate to stave off unrest, as Xi Jinping’s war on corruption only serves to publicize the unregenerate character of the entire Communist Party and underscore its incapacity to solve any of China’s huge problems. Since Xi took over in 2012, he’s been determined to save China’s Communist Party from the fate of its Soviet cousin. Xi ridiculed Mikhail Gorbachev’s “weakness” and cast himself as the tough-guy Godfather, cracking down on the press, the internet and social media, religious groups, democrats, nongovernmental organizations, Western joint-venture partners and “Western ideas.” But this repression just reveals his weakness, not his strength.

The more he harasses, fines and drives Western joint-venture partners out of China, the less access he will have to their technology and the less competitive his SOEs will become. The more tightly he polices culture and censors the internet, the faster China’s intellectuals, scientists, professionals and college graduates will pack up and move to Australia. Nothing demonstrates this weakness and lack of self-confidence more than the Party’s very public disintegration: The government bitterly complains that large numbers of “ready-to-flee, naked officials” (so-called because they’ve sent their families and money to Los Angeles or Vancouver) are scheming to follow them. Surveys show that half of China’s rich (most of whom are Communist Party members) have either left the country or are planning to do so as soon as they can. (103)

China has to be the first nation in history in which significant numbers of its own triumphant ruling class are abandoning their own success story en masse. Today, Xi Jinping faces subversion and resistance everywhere he looks, yet he can’t even count on his comrades. To add to his headaches, Godfather Xi now faces an in-your-face democracy movement in Hong Kong that refuses to die. From workers’ strikes to environmental protests to Occupy Central for Love and Peace, these struggles and movements are fragmented, inchoate and unorganized, so far, but they all share a common demand: bottom-up democracy. Therein lies China’s best hope.


1. Ariana Enjung Cha, “Solar energy firms leave waste behind in China,” The Washington Post, 9 March 2008. All quotations are from this article.

2. There’s no better illustration of this government-industry collusion and pollution’s catastrophic impact on the health of China’s people than journalist Chai Jing’s sensational new documentary on China’s smog Under the Dome – Investigating China’s Smog (Wumai diaocha: qiongding zhixia) which went online in late February and is being rightly hailed as China’s Silent Spring

3. “The Chinese miracle will end soon,” Der Spiegel 7 March 2005:,1515,345694.html.

4. Elizabeth Economy and Michael Levi, By All Means Necessary, Oxford 2014, chapters 3 and 4.

5. Craig Simons, The Devouring Dragon, New York, 2013, p. 9 and chapters 7 and 8.

6. Joseph Kahn and Mark Landler, “China grabs west’s smoke-spewing factories,” The New York Times, 21 December 2007. William J. Kelly and Chip Jacobs, The People’s Republic of Chemicals (Los Angeles: Vireo 2014).

7. Alexandra Harney, The China Price, New York, 2008, pp. 8-9.

8.Overdressed, New York, 2013, pp. 3, 124-125. Energy consumption: FAO, cited in “Fabric and your carbon footprint, O Ecotextiles, 10 March 2013, at

9. Niu Yue, “China No 1 dumper of plastic into ocean,” China Daily, February 19, 2015.

10.State Council Decision on Accelerating the Development of Strategic Emerging Industries, October 2010 at
State Council 12th Five-Year Plan (FYP) on Development of Strategic Emerging Industries, July 2012 at
MOF and NDRC Interim Measures for the Administration of Special Funds for Strategic Emerging Industries, December 2012 at

11. Tom Lasseter, “Empty highways,” McClatchy News, August 24, 2006, 11:33PM at

12. Professor Zhao Jian of Beijing Jiaotong University says, “It is unwise to continue building high-speed rail lines while the current high-speed network has a hard time getting enough passengers and is operating at a loss … The country has built more than 10,000 kilometers of high-speed rail lines and most lines are losing money because of inadequate demand.” Some lines run at only 30 percent of capacity he said, and even the busiest, such as the train from Beijing to Shanghai, “will run a loss for a long time … The rush to build high-speed rail networks indicates that the old investment-driven growth model has hardly changed.” Sun Wenjing, “Government throwing money away on bullet trains, expert says,” Caixin, 10 July 2014 at

13. Kevin Lim, “‘Meaningful probability’ of a China hard landing: Roubini,” Reuters, 13 June 2011.

14. Wang is quoted in Tania Branigan, “Riding Beijing’s subway end to end: 88km of queues and crushes on 20p ticket,” The Guardian, 10 September, 2014 at

15. James Fallows, China Airborne, New York, 2012, pp. 28-29. David Barboza, “Airports in China hew to an unswerving flight path,” The New York Times, 3 April 2013. Bloomberg News, “China plan seeks to bolster airports, locally-produced airplanes,” 21 January 2013 at

16. IPCC, Aviation and the Global Atmosphere: A Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge UK 1999, at George Monbiot, Heat, Cambridge UK 2007, p. 174.

17. Monbiot, Heat, p. 182 and sources cited therein.

18. In the decade from 2000 China’s cities expanded by over 80 percent. A national land survey found that 130,000 square kilometers of farmland, equal to half the area of Germany, was paved over in the urbanization frenzy between 1996 and 2009 – and it hasn’t slowed since. Mandy Zuo, “Stop concreting over prime farmland, China’s big cities told,” South China Morning Post, 9 November, 2014. Cui Zheng, “Scientists issue warning over development of coastal wetlands,” Caixin, 25 November 2014.

19. See Jasper Becker, City of Heavenly Tranquility, Oxford 2008, chapters 17 and 18.

20. See Darmon Richter, “Welcome to Ordos: the world’s largest ‘ghost city’ [China],” The Bohemian Blog, 13 February 2014 at:

21. “Housing oversupply causing major crisis for Chinese economy, NTD.TV, 16 May 2014 at Eg. George Steinmetz, “Let a hundred McMansions bloom,” The New York Times Magazine, 21 September 2014. Neil Gough, “A muddy tract now, but by 2020, China’s answer to Wall Street,” The New York Times, 3 April, 2014.

22. Lillian Liu, “A question of time, FinanceAsia, 8 September 2010 at Vincent Fernando, CFA, “There are now enough vacant properties in China to house over half of America,” Business Insider, 8 September 2010 at Robin Banerji and Patrick Jackson, “China’s ghost towns and phantom malls,” BBC News Online, 13 August 2012 at Yifei Chen, “Chasing ghosts: where is China’s next wave of empty ‘new towns’?” South China Morning Post, February 13, 2015.

23. “China’s real estate bubble,” CBS 60 Minutes, 11 August 2013 at Gus Lubin, “Satellite pictures of the empty Chinese cities where home prices are crashing,” Business Insider, 10 December 2011, 1:48PM at David Barboza, “Chinese city has many buildings but few people,” The New York Times, 9 October 2010.

24. Zarathustra, “China’s crumbing infrastructure model,” Macrobusiness, 28 July 2012 at 9:49AM at Street Examiner reporter/blogger Russ Winter posted several photos of collapsed bridges in his “Yes, China is truly different” Winter Economic and Market Watch, 28 August 2012 at

25. Lu Chen, op. cit. After the collapse of an apartment in Fenhua, Zhejian Province in April 2014, officials warned of a “coming wave of such accidents as the ‘fast food’ buildings built in the 1980s and 1990s enter their 30s and 20s.” Building safety experts warned people not to purchase apartments in certain localities known to be particularly risky. Most “won’t last 50 years, or in some cases about 25 years,” and they present constant safety hazards. Zheng Fengtian, “Weak buildings threaten life,” China Daily, 11-14 April 2014.

26. Frank Langfitt, “Chinese blame failing bridges on corruption,” National Public Radio, 29 August 2012 at

27. US E.I.A., China, updated 4 February 2014 at

28. Lily Kuo, “China’s nightmare scenario: by 2025 air quality could be much much worse,” posted 12 March 2013 on Quartz at Wang Yue, “China unlikely to reduce coal use in the next decade,”, 10 February 2014 at US EIA, China, 4 February 2014, op cit.

29. Zeke Hausfather, “Global carbon dioxide emissions: increases dwarf US reductions,” Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, 2 July 2013 at

30. Chris Buckley, “China’s plan to limit coal use could spur consumption for years,” The New York Times, 25 July 2014. As Xi Jinping and Barack Obama concluded their “historic” accord in November 2014 to cut both country’s carbon dioxide emissions and Xi promised to reduce China’s reliance on coal for power generation and boost renewables, the news that China’s coal consumption actually fell by 2.5 percent in 2014, the first decline in a century, gave cause for optimism. Combined with the fact that China continues to lead the world in annual additions of wind and solar power, many hoped that China’s coal consumption was finally peaking. But as Andrew Revkin points out, while China’s coal production and imports declined in 2014, half of China’s coal is used outside the power sector, in heavy industry, which use has fallen as the overall economy has slowed in recent years. Coal consumption in the power sector continues its relentless climb: In 2014, China’s newly added coal power capacity exceeded new solar energy by 17 times, new wind energy by four times, even new hydro power by more than three times. In just this one year, China added more new coal-fired power plants than Britain’s entire fleet. These new plants will be pumping out greenhouse gases for many decades to come and in fact, most of China’s coal-fired power plants are less than 15 years old so could they could still be running half a century from now. In short, for all the promises, coal is still king in China. Moreover, the economic slowdown is also likely to be short-lived as the government is furiously pumping money into the economy to revive growth. Andrew Revkin, “A look behind the headlines on China’s coal trends,” Dot Earth, The New York Times, 18 February 2015: 6:00 PM at

31. William J. Kelly, “China’s plan to clean up air in cities will doom the climate, scientists say,” InsideClimate News, 13 February 2014 at

32.Reuters, “China’s coal expansion may spark water crisis, warns Greenpeace,” The Guardian, 15 August 2012. See also the accompanying documentary photos by Lu Guang: “China’s mega coal power bases exacerbate water crisis – in pictures,” The Guardian, August 21, 2012 at

33. See Sophie Beach, “China’s fracking boom and the fate of the planet” in China Digital Times 19 September 2014 at

34. Investigators have found that only a third of China’s wastewater treatment plants are operating. Cui Zheng, “Seas of sewage,” CaixinOnline, 12 October 2012 at

35. Ma Jun, China’s Water Crisis, Norwalk 2004, p. vii.

36. Sun Xiaohua, “Pollution takes heavy toll on Yangtze,” China Daily, 16 April 2007.  Shai, Oster, “It may be too late for China to save the Yangtze goddess,” The Wall Street Journal, 6 December 2006.

37. Xu Nan, “Poisoned groundwater sparks media storm in China,” China Dialogue, February 2, 2013 at

38. Cecilia Torajada and Asit K. Biswas, “The problem of water management,” China Daily, March 5, 2013. Gong Jing and Liu Hongqiao, “Half of China’s urban drinking water fails to meet standards,” China Dialogue, June 6, 2013 at

39. Ten years previously, a pollution tide had killed fish and sickened thousands of people. By 2001, the government claimed to have shut down polluters and declared the cleanup a success. But the Huai is now a symbol of the failure of environmental regulation in China. After spending more than $8 billion over a decade to clean up the Huai basin, the State Environmental Protection Administration concluded in 2004 that “some areas were more polluted than before.” Jim Yardley, “Rivers run black, and Chinese die of cancer,” The New York Times, 12 September 2004. An Baijie, “Polluted river flows with carcinogens,” China Daily, 8 August 2013 (on pollution of the Huaihe in Anhui Province by manganese, nitrates and other carcinogens from local factories).

40. Dr. Linda Greer (NRDC), “Top clothing brands linked to water pollution scandal in China,” China Dialogue, 9 October 2012 at (Armani, Calvin Klein, Marks and Spencer, Zara and others.)

41. Xue Haitao and Liku Hongqiao, “Sip of death plagues cancerous river villages,” CaixinOnline, 9 October 2013 at Yu Dawei et al., “The poisoning of the Nanpan river basin,” CaixinOnline, 1 September 2011 at  Sophie Beach “Shangba, China’s village of death,” posted 3 December 2007 on Mary Ann Toy, “Waiting for death in fetid cancer villages,” Sidney Morning Herald, 26 May 2007. Jim Yardley, “Rivers run black, and Chinese die of cancer,” The New York Times 12 September 2004. Staff, “South China river polluted by thallium, cadmium,” China Daily, 6 July 2013. Elizabeth Economy, The River Runs Black.

42. Michael Wines, “Smelter in China poisons more than 1,300 children” The New York Times, 21 August 2009. Staff, “Anhui battery factory poisons 200 children,” Caixin slide show, 6 January 2011 at

43. Luna Lin, “China’s water pollution will be more difficult to fix than its dirty air,” China Dialogue, 17 February 2014 at Zhang Chun, “China ‘lacks experience’ to clean up its polluted soil,” China Dialogue, 14 April 2014 at

44. Matt Currell, “Losing lifeblood in north China,” China Dialogue, September 17, 2010 at

45. Economy, “The great leap backwards,” Foreign Affairs, September-October 2007.

46.Reuters in Beijing, “China says more than 3m hectares of land too polluted to farm,” South China Morning Post, 30 December 2013.

47. Ministry of Environmental Protection, Huanjing baohu bu he guotu ziyuan bu fabu quanguo turang wuran zhuangkuang diaocha gongbao (Environmental Protection Ministry and Land and Natural Resources Ministry release countrywide soil contamination condition survey bulletin), 17 April 2014 at

48. See Sam Geal and Elizabeth Hilton, “Culture of secrecy behind China’s pollution crisis,” and Angel Hsu and Andrew Moffat, ” China’s soil pollution crisis still buried in mystery,” both in Pollution and Health in China: Confronting the Human Crisis, special issue of China Dialogue, 9 September 2014 at

49.Xinhua, “More than 40 percent of China’s arable land degraded,” China Daily, 5 November 2014.

50. Liu Hongqiao, “The polluted legacy of China’s largest rice-growing province,” China Dialogue, 30 May 2014 at Zheng Yesheng and Qian Yihong, Shendu Youhuan  –  Dangdai Zhongguo de Kechixu Fazahan Wenti (Grave Concerns: Problems of Sustainable Development for China) (Beijing: China Publishing House 1998), pp. 8-10.

51. John Dearing, “China’s polluted soil and water will drive up world food prices,” China Dialogue, 3 March 2015 at

52. For example, antebellum southern planters produced cotton, tobacco, sugar and indigo entirely for market, indeed for the world market. But they did so with slave labor. This hybrid capitalist-slave mode of production was obviously radically different than production for a market based on free labor in the North and it had broad implications for productivity, economic development, and more. It gave their economy an entirely different character, dynamic and trajectory, and it had profound economic, social, political and psychological consequences, many of which we still deal with today.

53. James McGregor, No Ancient Wisdom, No Followers: the Challenges of Chinese Authoritarian Capitalism (Westport: Prospecta Press: 2012), p. 4-5, 16-19 (quote from p. 57) and the sources cited therein, including the head of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC).

54.No Ancient Wisdom, p. 2

55. Andrew Szamosszegi and Cole Kyle, “An Analysis of State-owned Enterprises and State Capitalism in China,” October 26, 2011. US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), pp. 21-22 at state control of the banking sector, see Carl E. Walter and Fraser J.T. Howie, Red Capitalism: The Fragile Foundations of China’s Extraordinary Rise (Singapore: Wiley & Sons, 2012), pp. 31-33 and passim. Also: Henry Sanderson and Michael Forsythe, China’s Superbank (Singapore: Wiley & Sons, 2013). Barry Naughton, The Chinese Economy: Transitions and Growth (Cambridge: MIT 2007), pp. 190, 299-304, 325.

56. Thus with respect to the banking sector, Szamosszegi and Cole write that: “The state banking sector dominates the landscape in China and tends to favor SOEs at the expense of private sector firms. Second, SOEs are in general an important instrument of government policy. The government uses SOEs to facilitate structural change in the Chinese economy, to acquire technology from foreign firms, and to secure raw material sources from beyond China’s borders. For example, in 2009, the government turned to its SOEs and state‐owned banks to provide stimulus to the domestic economy. Third, the CCP and SASAC maintain important influence over the executives of SOEs. These executives face two sets of incentives. On the one hand, the entities they control are supposed to be profitable, and SOE executives are now rewarded based on financial performance. On the other hand, the appointments of top executives to SOE management and their future career paths upon leaving the SOE are determined by the Central Organization Department of the CCP. Thus, SOE executives have an incentive to follow the government’s policy guidance. Recent examples, as well as financial disclosure documents, indicate that if maximizing shareholder value conflicts with state goals, SOEs and their wholly owned subsidiaries are likely to pursue the goals of the state.” “An Analysis of State-owned Enterprises” op.cit. p. 3.

57. McGregor, No Ancient Wisdom, p. 59.

58. Walter and Howie, Red Capitalism, p. 24, 187.

59. Ben Blanchard, “Chinese billionaire mining tycoon Liu Han is executed over his links to a ‘mafia-style’ gang,” Sydney Morning Herald, 9 February 2015. Most accounts say that his real crime was his link to the Zhou Yongkang clique.

60. Becker, City of Heavenly Tranquility, pp. 287-289.

61. Sydney University’s Kerry Brown says the number of “high-level cadres” (gaoji ganbu) who run the ministries, the state conglomerates and the administration, all concentrated in Beijing, total no more than 2,562, which means, he says, that China is effectively “run by group of people that is smaller than most villages in Europe.” The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China, New York 2014, pp. 20-21.

62. Richard McGregor, The Party, New York 2010. Carl E. Walter and Fraser J.T. Howie, Red Capitalism, Singapore 2012, pp. 22-25 and passim.

63. Eg. Shi Jiangtao, “Struggle for supremacy by party factions now on display,” South China Morning Post, 13 October 2012. Matthew Robertson, “China’s ‘hatchet man’ set to be purged in party struggle,” Epoch Times, 30 May-3 June 2014 (reporting a rumored threat to Xi Jinping’s life by the Bo Xilai faction). Teddy Ng, “Rising star Li Yuanchao forges ties with all political factions in China, South China Morning Post,1 October 2012.

64. Quoted in Bloomberg News, “Xi Jinping millionaire relations reveal fortunes of elite,” 29 June 2012.

65. Quoted in David Barboza, “The Corruptibles,” The New York Times, 3 September 2009. See also again, Robertson, “China’s ‘Hatchet Man’ set to be purged … ” in op cit.

66. Outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao, incoming Premier Xi Jinping, and other wealthy princelings were profiled in Bloomberg News and The New York Times, in 2012 and 2013 – which got both papers shut down in China and their reporters denied visa renewals in 2013. See “Heirs of Mao’s comrades rise as new capitalist nobility” and links to related stories in Bloomberg News, 26 December 2012 at Also again Richard McGregor, The Party and Kerry Brown, The New Emperors.

67. David Barboza, “Billions in hidden riches for family of Chinese leader,” The New York Times, 25 October, 2012.

68.Zhongguode xianjing (China’s Pitfalls) (Hong Kong: Mingjing chubanshe, 1997)

69. “Heirs of Mao’s comrades rise as new capitalist nobility,” op cit. p. 11.

70. Ex-Premier Zhu Rongji, quoted in Richard McGregor, The Party, p. 45.

71. Quoted in Walter and Howie, Red Capitalism, p. 23. In October 2014, one high-level cadre in the energy ministry caught up in Xi Jinping’s anticorruption sweep, had stashed away 200 million yuan (HK$252 million) in banknotes in one of his apartments. The pile of banknotes weighed more than 2.3 tons.

72. Quoted in Richard McGregor, The Party, pp. 140-41.

73. “Heirs of Mao’s comrades rise as new capitalist nobility,” Bloomberg News, 26 December 2012 p. 3 at Further citations below are from articles in this collection.

74. Yang Dali and Dai Qing were quoted in Bloomberg News, “Heirs” op cit. pp. 5,6 and 10.

75.Bloomberg News, “Heirs,” pp. 1,5.

76. Chinese fly cash to North America, by the suitcase,” The Wall Street Journal, 2 January 2013. Shen Ming, “Chinese military officers secretly moving money offshore,” Epoch Times, 28 June 2012. Benjamin Robertson, “US1.25 trillion moved out of mainland China illegally in 10 years, says report,” South China Morning Press, 16 December 2014.

77. James Ball and Guardian US Interactive Team, “China’s princelings storing riches in Caribbean offshore haven,” The Guardian, 21 January 2014, reporting on the findings of a two-year reporting effort by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Bloomberg News, “Heirs” p. 6.

78. “China murder suspect’s sisters ran $126 million empire,” Bloomberg News, 13 April 2012.

79. On SOE restructuring and growth of the planned economy, see Peter Nolan, Transforming China: Globalization, Transition and Development, London 2004, chapter 5.

80. James T. Areddy and Laurie Burkitt, “Shake-up at China firm shows reach of graft crackdown,” The Wall Street Journal, 23 April 2014.

81. So for example, with respect to China’s investment in mines in Zambia, Professor Ching Kwan Lee quotes a Chinese mining executive who says “We don’t need to maximize profit, but we need to make some profit. The state won’t support us if we make losses year after year.” Lee adds, “between profit optimization and profit maximization lies the space for achieving other types of return – political influence and access to raw materials.”  “The spectre of global China,” New Left Review 2/89, September-October 2014, p. 36.

82. Thus James McGregor writes: “Despite their chronically imprudent lending habits, SOE banks are kept afloat – and reap huge profits to boot – through government-set interest rates. With a ceiling on the interest rates for deposits and a floor on lending rates, China’s banks have enjoyed a comfortable spread of about three percentage points, which guarantees profits.” No Ancient Wisdom, p. 65.

83. Long Youngtu, China’s chief negotiator at the WTO, quoted in James McGregor, No Ancient Wisdom, p. 5 (my italics).

84. Liu Jianqiang, “China’s environment ministry an “utter disappointment,” China Dialogue, March 7, 2013 at  Tang Hao, “China’s food scares show the system is bust,” China Dialogue, 31 August 2012, at

85. See Brian Tilt, The Struggle for Sustainability in Rural China, New York 2010, chapter 6. Han Wei, “Officials failing to stop textile factories dumping waste in Qiantang River,” China Dialogue, 1 August 2013 at

86. Liu Qin, “China’s environment ministry launches anti-graft reforms,” China Dialogue, 11 March, 2015.

87. John McGarrity, “One year on after “war” declared on pollution, Beijing air scarcely improves,” China Dialogue, 2 February 2015. Xu Nan, “China’s noxious air ‘as deadly as smoking: study,” China Dialogue, 4 February 2015 at

88. Lu Hongqiao, “China set to miss safe rural drinking water targets,” China Dialogue, March 5, 2015 at Huang Hao, “Village water supplies in China hit by scarcity and contamination,” China Dialogue, March 5, 2014 at Abigail Barnes, “China’s bottled water: the next health crisis? China Dialogue, July 22, 2014 at

89. Judith Shapiro writes that “There are competing and conflicting emphases on growth, government legitimacy, clean development, and stability, creating a confusing policy-making landscape in which actors sometimes work at cross purposes or with uncertain lines of responsibility … Economic realities and concerns about unemployment and social unrest often push the government away from environmentally friendly action. The Ministry of Environmental Protection is hardly in a position to close the enormous state-run iron and steel plants in the great north-eastern rust belt, where unemployment is exceedingly high and shutdowns would mean even more job losses.” Shapiro, China’s Environmental Challenges, Cambridge UK 2012, pp. 69-70.

90.China Airborne, p. 99.

91. China’s Communist Party currently counts around more than 85 million members. Last year, the government reported that more than 71,000 cadres were “investigated for violating Party regulations.” Of these only 23,000 “received Party or administrative penalities,” mostly censures, and comparatively few were actually sent to prison or are executed. Pretty good odds. “Disciplinary watchdogs seek to fight factionalism within the Party,” People’s Daily, 12 January 2015 at

92. Barmé is quoted in Andrew Jacobs, “In China’s antigraft campaign, small victories and bigger doubts,” The New York Times, 16 January 2015.

93. Michael Forsythe, “As China’s leader fights graft, his relatives shed assets,” The New York Times, 17 June 2014.

94. “China’s selective crackdown,” 17 January 2015.

95. Alice Yan, “Don’t go back on your old ways when our backs are turned, CCDI warns cadres,” South China Morning Post, 5 November 2014.

96. Andrea Chen, “Some cadres shrugging off anticorruption campaign, graft-buster warns,” South China Morning Post, 25 October 2014.

97. Jane Perlez, “Corruption in military poses a test for China,” The New York Times, 14 November 2012.

98. On this see my “Capitalism and the destruction of life on earth: six theses on saving the humans” Real-world Economics Review, July 2013 at and my “Climate crisis, the deindustrialization imperative, and the jobs vs. environment dilemma” in Truthout, 17 November, 2014 at

99. IPCC, Climate Change 2014: IPCC Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report (November 2014) at James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren, New York 2009.

100. Ecofys, WWF Report 2015, It’s Time to peak: why China’s corporate sector needs to set ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets,” (WWF, February 2015) p. 11 at

101. Eg. Chrystia Freeland, “The triumph of the family farm,” The Atlantic, 13 June 2012. Also: “Rebuilding America’s Economy with Family Farm-centered food systems,” n.a., Farm Aid, 2013 at Alan Bjerga, “Organic lets family farms prosper in industrial-agriculture era,” Bloomberg News, 28 June 2012 at

102. Eg. He Guangwei, “China faces long battle to clean up its polluted soil,” He Guangwei, “The victims of China’s soil pollution crisis, Chu Han, “The human cost of living in the ‘mercury capital’ of China [Guizhou province],” Angel Hu and Andrew Moffet, “China’s soil pollution crisis still buried in mystery,” all in Pollution and Health in China: Confronting the Human Crisis, special issue of China Dialogue, September 9, 2014 (in Chinese with some English summaries) at

103. “Almost half of wealthy Chinese want to leave, study shows,” The Wall Street Journal, 5 September 2014. Benjamin Carlson, “As war on corruption mounts, China’s rich flee to America, Global Post, 9 February 2014. John Kennedy, “China has at least 1.18 million ready-to-flee ‘naked officials,’ anticorruption rant reveals,” South China Morning Post, 27 February 27, 2013 at

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission

Media files on the Anthropocene

Confronting the ‘Anthropocene’ (Dot Earth, New York Times)

London from orbit

NASA Donald R. Pettit, an astronaut, took this photograph of London while living in the International Space Station.

LONDON — I’m participating in a one-day meeting at the Geological Society of London exploring the evidence for, and meaning of, the Anthropocene. This is the proposed epoch of Earth history that, proponents say, has begun with the rise of the human species as a globally potent biogeophysical force, capable of leaving a durable imprint in the geological record.

This recent TEDx video presentation by Will Steffen, the executive director of the Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute, lays out the basic idea:

There’s more on the basic concept in National Geographic and from the BBC. Paul Crutzen, the Nobel laureate in chemistry who, with others, proposed the term in 2000, and Christian Schwägerl, the author of “The Age of Man” (German), described the value of this new framing for current Earth history in January in Yale Environment 360:

Students in school are still taught that we are living in the Holocence, an era that began roughly 12,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. But teaching students that we are living in the Anthropocene, the Age of Men, could be of great help. Rather than representing yet another sign of human hubris, this name change would stress the enormity of humanity’s responsibility as stewards of the Earth. It would highlight the immense power of our intellect and our creativity, and the opportunities they offer for shaping the future. [Read the rest.]

I’m attending because of a quirky role I played almost 20 years ago in laying the groundwork for this concept of humans as a geological force. A new paper from Steffen and three coauthors reviewing the conceptual and historic basis for the Anthropocene includes an appropriately amusing description of my role:

Biologist Eugene F. Stoermer wrote: ‘I began using the term “anthropocene” in the 1980s, but never formalized it until Paul [Crutzen] contacted me’. About this time other authors were exploring the concept of the Anthropocene, although not using the term. More curiously, a popular book about Global Warming, published in 1992 by Andrew C. Revkin, contained the following prophetic words: ‘Perhaps earth scientists of the future will name this new post-Holocene period for its causative element—for us. We are entering an age that might someday be referred to as, say, the Anthrocene [sic]. After all, it is a geological age of our own making’. Perhaps many readers ignored the minor linguistic difference and have read the new term as Anthro(po)cene!

If you’ve been tracking my work for a while, you’re aware of my focus on the extraordinary nature of this moment in both Earth and human history. As far as science can tell, there’s never, until now, been a point when a species became a planetary powerhouse and also became aware of that situation.

As I first wrote in 1992, cyanobacteria are credited with oxygenating the atmosphere some 2 billion years ago. That was clearly a more profound influence on a central component of the planetary system than humans raising the concentration of carbon dioxide 40 percent since the start of the industrial revolution. But, as far as we know, cyanobacteria (let alone any other life form from that period) were neither bemoaning nor celebrating that achievement.

It was easier to be in a teen-style resource binge before science began to delineate an edge to our petri dish.

We no longer have the luxury of ignorance.

We’re essentially in a race between our potency, our awareness of the expressed and potential ramifications of our actions and our growing awareness of the deeply embedded perceptual and behavioral traits that shape how we do, or don’t, address certain kinds of risks. (Explore “Boombustology” and “Disasters by Design” to be reminded how this habit is not restricted to environmental risks.)

This meeting in London is two-pronged. It is in part focused on deepening basic inquiry into stratigraphy and other branches of earth science and clarifying how this human era could qualify as a formal chapter in Earth’s physical biography. As Erle C. Ellis, an ecologist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, put it in his talk, it’s unclear for the moment whether humanity’s impact will be long enough to represent an epoch, or will more resemble “an event.” Ellis’s presentation was a mesmerizing tour of the planet’s profoundly humanized ecosystems, which he said would be better described as “anthromes” than “biomes.”

Ellis said it was important to approach this reality not as a woeful situation, but an opportunity to foster a new appreciation of the lack of separation of people and their planet and a bright prospect for enriching that relationship. In this his views resonate powerfully with those of Rene Dubos, someone I’ll be writing about here again soon.

Through the talks by Ellis and others, it was clear that the scientific effort to define a new geological epoch, while important, paled beside the broader significance of this juncture in human history.

In my opening comments at the meeting, I stressed the need to expand the discussion from the physical and environmental sciences into disciplines ranging from sociology to history, philosophy to the arts.

I noted that while the “great acceleration” described by Steffen and others is already well under way, it’s entirely possible for humans to design their future, at least in a soft way, boosting odds that the geological record will have two phases — perhaps a “lesser” and “greater” Anthropocene, as someone in the audience for my recent talk with Brad Allenby at Arizona State University put it.

I also noted that the term “Anthropocene,” like phrases such as “global warming,” is sufficiently vague to guarantee it will be interpreted in profoundly different ways by people with different world views. (As I explained, this is as true for Nobel laureates in physics as it is for the rest of us.)

Some will see this period as a “shame on us” moment. Others will deride this effort as a hubristic overstatement of human powers. Some will argue for the importance of living smaller and leaving no scars. Others will revel in human dominion as a normal and natural part of our journey as a species.

A useful trait will be to get comfortable with that diversity.

Before the day is done I also plan on pushing Randy Olson’s notion of moving beyond the “nerd loop” and making sure this conversation spills across all disciplinary and cultural boundaries from the get-go.

There’s much more to explore of course, and I’ll post updates as time allows. You might track the meeting hash tag, #anthrop11, on Twitter.

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8/16/2014 @ 1:05PM – James Conca

The Anthropocene Part 1: Tracking Human-Induced Catastrophe On A Planetary Scale (Forbes)

For almost 30 years, we geologists have been having a debate about what Geologic Epoch we find ourselves in right now. It is presently called the Holocene, but some want to add another epoch and call it the Anthropocene.

Anthropocene combines the Greek words for humanand recent time period, to denote the period of time since human activity went global and we became an important geologic process in our own right (In These Times; see also UN video

In other words, what should we call this period of time when we started trashing the planet? And when did it begin?

You might know some of the big Geologic Ages, Epochs, Periods, Eras and Eons. The dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago in the Maastrichtian Age in the Late Epoch of the Cretaceous Period in the Mesozoic Era of the Phanerozoic Eon.

The sum of Earth’s history, divided up into these different sections, is called the Geologic Time Scale and geologists have been defining and refining it for about 150 years (Geologic Society of America). The latest deliberation concerns the epoch from the present stretching back to about 12,000 years.  The term Anthropocene was popularized fourteen years ago by atmospheric scientists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer, to more decisively focus discussion on human global effects to the whole planet.

The Geologic Time Scale - the sectioning up of 4.6 billion years of Earth’s history into manageable time periods bounded by significant geological events. The present debate is - do we want to call the present epoch we are in the Anthropocene to reflect humanity’s global effect on the planet? Click on the link in the text for the full image. Source: The Geological Society of America

To Judith Wright, a chemostratigrapher, this is not just an academic exercise for the Ivory Tower (Ocean Redox Variations Through Time). There are obvious political and social implications, not the least being the role of human activities in climate change, wholesale extinctions of species unlike anytime in history, and the accelerating environmental destruction on a planetary scale that could spell our own doom.

What we call something matters. It sets the scale of importance and pushes the discussion in the direction that we need these debates to go.

The scientific decision on whether to incorporate the term Anthropocene into the geologic lexicon falls to a carefully deliberative group called the International Commission on Stratigraphy, particularly its Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy which has formed an Anthropocene Working Group. There is a rumor they may arrive at a decision after only several years of debate, making this deliberation downright hasty.

This discussion concerns not just what to name it, but when it started. There is always some defining characteristic to one of these epochs or periods. Often a huge extinction event marks the end of an epoch, like the end of the Triassic Period 200 million years ago when half of all life perished. Or the appearance of something new in evolution, like the beginning of the Cambrian Period when organisms learned how to grow shells, bones, teeth and other hard parts from the increased dissolved minerals in seawater, providing huge survival advantages.

Sometimes there is a chemical marker, or layer, that is unique to that time or process, like the iridium layer that is one of the singular markers of the huge meteorite impact that finally stressed the dinosaurs’ environment to the point of extinction.

But why do stratigraphers get to decide this question? In the geologic sciences, stratigraphy is the study of rock layers on the Earth – how they relate to each other and to relative and absolute time, how they got there, and what they tell us about Earth history. Stratigraphy can be traced to the beginnings of modern geology in the 17th century with Nicholas Steno and his three stratigraphic rules:

–   the law of superposition (younger rocks lay on top of older ones)

–   the principle of original horizontality (all sedimentary and volcanic layers are originally laid down horizontally, or normal to the Earth’s gravitational field)

–   the principle of lateral continuity (sedimentary layers generally continue for a long distance as most were laid down in the ocean, and an abrupt edge indicates that something happened to break it off, like a fault or surface erosion).

These were profound observations and fundamentally changed how we understood time and geologic processes like flooding and earthquakes. In fact, the unique perspective that geology brings to humans is the understanding of time at all levels.

According to Patricia Corcoran and co-workers (GSA), material being laid down across the Earth in our present time is the most bizarre mix of chemicals and materials the Earth has ever seen, some compounds of which have never occurred in nature. Maybe compounds that could not have been produced naturally would make a good marker for the Anthropocene.

But defining a geologic time period requires a sufficiently large, clear and distinctive set of geologic characteristics to be useful as a global geologic boundary and that will also survive throughout geologic time.

We presently find ourselves in the Holocene Epoch of the Quaternary Period in the Cenozoic Era of the Phanerozoic Eon, defined as starting from the end of the last glacial retreat, an obvious event that led to our present global range in climate and other characteristics we define as the Earth today. The problem is, humans have dominated this entire epoch in many ways, from the dawn of agriculture, to smelting of iron and lead, burning of forests and finally the effects of the industrial revolution.

As in all environmental issues, it’s the number of people on Earth that’s the problem. For over 100,000 years, the global human population was steady at about 10 million. Then civilization appeared, fueled by the many significant developments that humans had begun to apply en masse including agriculture, domesticated animals, tools, serious engineering, and various uses of fire, fibers and the wheel.

Our population began to increase about 2000 years ago, at the beginning of the Common Era, rising to 300 million during the Middle Ages and to a billion at the beginning of the Industrial Age. Then 2 billion in 1927, 3 billion in 1960, 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in 1987, 6 billion in 1999 and 7 billion in 2011. This exponential rise is textbook for a bacterial colony in a petri dish, right before it dies from outpacing its food sources and generating too much waste. It’s also eerily analogous for people on the petri dish of Earth.

Humans now comprise the largest mass of vertebrate matter on land on the entire Earth. The rest is almost all our food and friends, mainly the animals we domesticated over the last 50,000 years, plus a bunch of xenobiotics we’ve transported far from their habitats (Cornell University). Only a small percentage of all vertebrate mass on land is wild or natural (In These Times).

Let that sink in for a minute. Most of what people see in National Geographic or on the Discovery Channel or in movies about animals, IS ALMOST ALL GONE. Humans have dammed a third of the world’s rivers, have covered, destroyed or altered almost half of the world’s land surface. We use up most of the fresh water faster than it can be replenished. And we extinct about 30,000 species every year.

Whether from deforestation, agriculture, urbanization, roads, mining activities, aquatic farming, moving xenobiotic species around the world that destroy native species, dumping huge amounts of waste on land, in the ocean and in the atmosphere, and all other human activities, we have decimated the natural environment without thinking about what effect it has on global ecosystems and what it takes for our own species to survive.

There is a point where humans, our pets, our food animals and our food crops cannot survive without some aspects of a wild nature. Much of our crops need pollinators. The oxygen on this planet comes mainly from organisms in the top 300 feet of the ocean. Biodiversity is not just an environmental catch-phrase, it’s a necessity for survival.

So when did the Anthropocene begin?

Was it when agriculture began, when we started burning forests to clear land? Was it during the Iron Age when we clear-cut the northern forests to smelt iron ore?

Was it the advent of civilization, particularly the rise in agriculture and mining activities around the Mediterranean by the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, signified by a rise in environmental Pb levels (Shotyk et al, 1998) that continued until just recently?

Was it the 19th century when our population passed a billion and we began burning fossil fuels that has made carbon itself a global marker? Was it the 20thcentury when humans passed plate tectonics as the primary mechanism for moving rock and dirt on this planet?

Access to huge amounts of chemical energy trapped in fossil fuels allowed human populations to explode and allowed human effects to really go global. This is why most researchers point to the mid-19th century as the obvious time to start the Anthropocene.

One popular idea for the start of the Anthropocene is the beginning of the atomic age. Above-ground nuclear tests spread unique radionuclides like Pu around the world, elements that have not been seen in our solar nebula for six billion years, but now show up in surface sediments and ice cores, albeit in minute concentrations.

Crutzen recently gave his support for this point in time. However, the atomic age is just another aspect of the modern age of humans not associated with a particular change in a global characteristic. It cannot be seen in the field and marks no special geologic event, and would be more of a political or sociological marker than a geological one.

Perhaps we should wait until the end of this century when the worst effects will be upon us and the world will barely be recognizable to anyone living today. We might be able to just point to the time “when there used to be forests.”

In the end, this debate might be shear hubris since when we are gone, future geologists, of whatever species, will decide for themselves where they want to place the beginning of this particular catastrophe.

So…what’s your vote for when we start the Anthropocene?

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2/29/2012 @ 11:55PM 487 views – Jayne Jung

On The Anthropocene Age (Forbes)

Original caption from NASA: "S103-E-5037 ...

Image via Wikipedia

The term, the Anthropocene Age, is now common. It represents the time since the early 1800s when man began to have an impact on the Earth’s climate. There is still some debate about its use though. Scientists have traditionally called the current period the Holocene Age, meaning entirely new. The Holocene Age started around 10,000 BC, after the last glacial period when there was significant glacier movement.

From the German newspaper Spiegel Online, interview with British geologist Jan Zalasiewicz:

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The idea of mankind as the owner of Earth — is that not disconcerting?

Zalasiewicz: While we now may be said to “own” the planet, that is not the same as controlling it. Our global experiment with CO2 is something that virtually every government would like to see brought under control, and yet collectively we are, at present, unable to do so. That seems to call for feelings of something other than hubris.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you see more to Anthropocene than just a geological term? Is it a new way of thinking about mankind’s role on Earth?

Zalasiewicz: That is almost certainly part of the attraction of the term for the wider public. The term does encapsulate and integrate a wide range of phenomena that are often considered separately. It also provides a sense of the scale and significance of anthropogenic global change. It emphasizes the importance of the Earth’s long geological history as a context within which to better understand what is happening today.

Interview conducted by Christian Schwägerl

From the New York Times‘ editorial “The Anthropocene”:

Other species are embedded in the fossil record of the epochs they belong to. Some species, like ammonites and brachiopods, even serve as guides — or index fossils — to the age of the rocks they’re embedded in. But we are the only species to have defined a geological period by our activity — something usually performed by major glaciations, mass extinction and the colossal impact of objects from outer space, like the one that defines the upper boundary of the Cretaceous.

Humans were inevitably going to be part of the fossil record. But the true meaning of the Anthropocene is that we have affected nearly every aspect of our environment — from a warming atmosphere to the bottom of an acidifying ocean.

From Yale’s website “The Anthropocene Debate: Marking Humanity’s Impact” by Elizabeth Kobert:

One argument against the idea that a new human-dominated epoch has recently begun is that humans have been changing the planet for a long time already, indeed practically since the start of the Holocene. People have been farming for 8,000 or 9,000 years, and some scientists — most notably William Ruddiman, of the University of Virginia — have proposed that this development already represents an impact on a geological scale. Alternatively, it could be argued that the Anthropocene has not yet arrived because human impacts on the planet are destined to be even greater 50 or a hundred years from now.

“We’re still now debating whether we’ve actually got to the event horizon, because potentially what’s going to happen in the 21st century could be even more significant,” observed Mark Williams, a member of the Anthropocene Working Group who is also a geologist at the University of Leicester.

I personally do not want to know what that “event horizon” is.

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The Dawning of the Age of Anthropocene (In These Times)

By altering the earth, have humans ushered in a new epoch?


By inviting awe rather than—or along with—terror, the Anthropocene may offer a way to grapple with climate change rather than deny it.

Scientists have been clanging the alarm about human-caused climate change, trying to bring around the 33 percent of Americans who don’t believe the earth is warming and the 18 percent of believers in global warming who think the process is “natural.” But as climate scientists race against time to convince the resisters, another branch of science, geology, is taking the tortoise approach. For more than a decade, geologists have been debating whether to officially declare the existence of a new epoch, the “Anthropocene,”to acknowledge that humans are radically reshaping the earth’s surface. Some geologists see the Anthropocene model as a way to widen the lens on human impact on the earth and cut through both the alarmism and the resistance to spur concrete policy solutions.

Geologists divide the earth’s 4.5 billion-year history into eons, which are subdivided into eras, periods and epochs. Each division is marked by a discernable change in the earth’s strata, such as a new type of fossil representing a major evolutionary shift. On this global scale, humans are relative infants, just 200,000 years old. Civilization has sprung up only during the most recent epoch, the relatively warm interglacial Holocene, spanning the past 11,700 years.

But the Holocene’s days may be numbered. In 2000, the late biologist Eugene F. Stoermer and Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen made a radical proposal in the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme newsletter: that the Industrial Revolution’s explosion of carbon emissions had ushered in a new epoch, the Anthropocene, marked by human impact. In 2009, the International Commission on Stratigraphy’s Subcommission of Quaternary Stratigraphy assembled an Anthropocene Working Group, which in 2016 will issue a recommendation on whether to formally adopt the term.

For stratigraphers, this is “breakneck speed,” says University of Leicester paleobiologist Jan Zalasiewicz, the head of the working group. The geological time scale is as fundamental to the discipline as the periodic table is to chemistry. The last official change, when the Ediacaran Period supplanted the Vendian in 2004, came after 20 years of debate and shook up a scale that had been static for 120 years.

Whether or not the term is formalized, Zalasiewicz believes in the Anthropocene’s potential to alter perception, for geologists and non-geologists alike. “ ‘Anthropocene’ places our environmental situation in a different perspective,” he says. “You look at it sideways, as it were.”

Certainly, you look at it from a broader perspective. Zooming out to an aeonic scale is a sober way to assess the significance of climate change. Overall, human emissions have driven up global temperatures about 0.85 degrees Celsius since the 19th century, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Deniers are fond of noting that Earth’s current temperatures are not the highest they’ve been, and that the earth cyclically warms and cools. That’s true. There have been several “hyperthermal” events when carbon dioxide has been released by the ton from the ground or the ocean, and the earth’s temperature has spiked. However, as Zalasiewicz and colleague Mark Williams note in a recent paper in the Italian journal Rendiconti Lincei, carbon is being released today more than 10 times faster than during any of these events. And when the other hyperthermal events began, the earth was already relatively warm, without today’s ice-capped poles that threaten to melt and pump up sea levels. Already, warming has eroded Arctic sea ice and altered the territory of climate-sensitive species—effects potentially stark enough by themselves to declare an Anthropocene.

But even if we set aside climate change, there are still plenty of arguments for an Anthropocene, says Zalasiewicz. Take mineral traces: He calculates that humans have purified a half-billion tons of aluminum, enough to cover the United States in tinfoil. We’ve also made never-before-seen alloys, like the boron carbide used in bullet-proof vests and the tungsten carbide that forms the balls in ballpoint pens. And then there are plastics—more than 250 million tons are now produced annually. Zalasiewicz and his colleagues term these various human-made objects “technofossils.”

Technofossils aren’t the only things that humans scatter; we’ve also spread germs, seaweed, strawberries, sparrows, rats, jicama, cholera … the list goes on. You might see us as bees pollinating the earth or, less flatteringly, dung beetles scuttling our shit around. Today, according to a 1999 Cornell study, 98 percent of U.S. food—both animal-and plant-derived—is non-native.

Then there’s the population explosion. Humans now make up nearly one-fourth of total land vertebrate biomass, and most of the rest is our food animals, with wild animals—the lions, tigers and bears—making up a mere 3 percent. Those proliferating people suck up resources: According to calculations by Stanford geology PhD student Miles Traer, humans use the equivalent of 13 barrels of oil per person every year, and the United States consumes 345 billion gallons of fresh water a day, enough to drain all of Lake Michigan every 10 years.

In the face of all this, few geologists deny that stratigraphers a billion years from now (either human or alien, depending on your level of optimism) will see our current period as a major shift in the geological record. So the main question facing the Anthropocene Working Group is when the Anthropocene began, or in geological parlance, where to plant “the golden spike.” Four possibilities are under consideration.

One camp favors the 1800s, when megacities began to emerge and form unique strata of compressed rubble and trash heaps. London was the first, with a population of 3 million in 1850. With megacities came industrialization and a sudden escalation in CO2 emissions that began to push up global temperatures.

A second group, including many archeologists, argues for an earlier date. University of Virginia paleoclimatology professor William F. Ruddiman calculates that the first Agricultural Revolution, which began some 12,000 years ago, caused greater climate effects than have yet to be seen from the Industrial Revolution. Due to the widespread preindustrial use of fire to clear forests, Ruddiman believes that emissions of greenhouse gases, coupled with the loss of forests’ cooling effect, caused the earth’s temperature to be 1.3 to 1.4 degrees Celsius higher than if humans had never existed, warding off an overdue Ice Age.

However, where to plant the golden spike in this model isn’t entirely clear, since the changes happened over thousands of years. One option would be the mass extinction of large animals in the Americas some 12,500 years ago, believed to be caused by humans. In that case, the Anthropocene would supplant the Holocene.

A third school believes the Anthropocene should be dated to the mid-20th century, when the “Great Acceleration” began and population, urbanization, globalization and CO2 emissions took off. The past 60-odd years have seen a doubling of the human population and the release of three-quarters of all human-caused CO2 emissions. Zalasiewicz favors this hypothesis because of the sharpness of the acceleration and the synchronicity of the changes. The automobile, for instance, proliferated worldwide in less than a century, the blink of a geologic eye. This time period contains a dramatic option for the “golden spike”: the first A-bomb tests of the 1940s, which left radionuclidic traces across the earth that are readily detectable in ice core samples pulled from the poles. Astrobiologist David Grinspoon, a proponent of the nuclear-testing golden spike, writes, “The symbolism is so potent—the moment we grasped that terrible Promethean fire that, uncontrolled, could consume the world.”

The fourth and final camp is made up of the “not yets,” who point out that everything is still accelerating—population, technofossil production, CO2 emissions—with no reason to believe things will stabilize and some reason to expect dramatic upheavals. Many geologists predict that the next two centuries will bring a mass extinction event of a magnitude seen only five times before (e.g., the dinosaur die-off ). A number of drastic changes triggered by climate change may lie in store, according to an IPCC report released March 31—not only extinctions, but also food and water shortages, irreversible loss of coral reefs and Arctic ice, and “abrupt or drastic changes” like Greenland melting or the Amazon rainforest drying.

It’s here that the conversation veers from the scientific into the panicked, which does not sit well with Mike Osborne, a Stanford Ph.D student in earth sciences and the creator of the “Generation Anthropocene” podcast. More comfortable with data and description than prediction, Osborne eschews apocalyptic thinking, and he doesn’t like the vitriol and politicization of the climate-change debate.

But of course, the issue is political, because it’s inseparable from human choices. A forthcoming peer-reviewed study funded by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center warns of the potential for “irreversible” collapse of civilization in the next few decades and stresses that the key factors are both environmental and social. The study says that the enormous consumption of resources is dangerous specifically because it is paired with “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or “Commoners”) [poor]”—noting that these two features were common to the toppling of numerous empires, from Han to Roman, over the last 5,000 years.

The issue is also emotional. One side calls the other “alarmist” and “hysterical,” which may be code for “I can’t handle hearing this.” Even for believers, there seems to be a gap between apprehending the problem and believing in a solution. Pew found that 62 percent of Americans understand that climate change is happening and 44 percent believe it’s human-caused, but when Pew asked Americans in another survey what our government’s top priority should be, climate change ranked 19th of 20 issues, just above global trade.

Osborne says he “hesitate[s] to be overly optimistic or pessimistic,” even though, with his first child just born, the earth’s future weighs on his mind. “The Anthropocene’s great utility for me in terms of imagination,” he says, “is that at its best, it comes with a sense of awe: Holy cow, the world is freaking huge and amazing and beautiful and scary.”

By inviting awe rather than—or along with—terror, the Anthropocene may offer a way to grapple with climate change rather than deny it.“The pace of change seems to be ever accelerating, but so does the response. I am loathe to underestimate human ingenuity,” says Osborne. Zalasiewicz and Osborne both think that certain effects of the Anthropocene, like warming and biodiversity loss, warrant environmentalist solutions, such as measures to curb CO2 emissions, and wildlife preserves on both land and sea.

Whatever the working group proposes in 2016—which must then be affirmed by three higher bodies—Zalasiewicz believes the concept of the Anthropocene is here to stay. “If it wasn’t useful, if it was a catchphrase, it would have quite quickly fallen by the wayside,” he says. “It packages up a whole range of different isolated phenomena—ocean acidification, landscape change, biodiversity loss—and integrates them into a common signal or trend or pattern.”

Perhaps the data-driven, methodical approach of geology is what this debate needs. To Osborne, the Anthropocene is exciting because it forces us to look closely at what’s really happening and challenges our tendency to think in a nature/human divide. In the Anthropocene model, the earth’s workings and fate are intertwined with our own. Indeed, science theorist Bruno Latour goes so far as to say that the Anthropocene could mark “the final rejection of the separation between Nature and Human that has paralyzed science and politics since the dawn of modernism.”

*   *   *

Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’? (The Guardian)

Natural and social scientists develop new model of how ‘perfect storm’ of crises could unravel global system

This NASA Earth Observatory released on

This Nasa Earth Observatory image shows a storm system circling around an area of extreme low pressure in 2010, which many scientists attribute to climate change. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

A new study partly-sponsored by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.

Noting that warnings of ‘collapse’ are often seen to be fringe or controversial, the study attempts to make sense of compelling historical data showing that “the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history.” Cases of severe civilisational disruption due to “precipitous collapse – often lasting centuries – have been quite common.”

The independent research project is based on a new cross-disciplinary ‘Human And Nature DYnamical’ (HANDY) model, led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei of the US National Science Foundation-supported National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, in association with a team of natural and social scientists. The HANDY model was created using a minor Nasa grant, but the study based on it was conducted independently. The study based on the HANDY model has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Elsevier journal, Ecological Economics.

It finds that according to the historical record even advanced, complex civilisations are susceptible to collapse, raising questions about the sustainability of modern civilisation:

“The fall of the Roman Empire, and the equally (if not more) advanced Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, as well as so many advanced Mesopotamian Empires, are all testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex, and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent.”

By investigating the human-nature dynamics of these past cases of collapse, the project identifies the most salient interrelated factors which explain civilisational decline, and which may help determine the risk of collapse today: namely, Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.

These factors can lead to collapse when they converge to generate two crucial social features: “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity”; and “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or “Commoners”) [poor]” These social phenomena have played “a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse,” in all such cases over “the last five thousand years.”

Currently, high levels of economic stratification are linked directly to overconsumption of resources, with “Elites” based largely in industrialised countries responsible for both:

“… accumulated surplus is not evenly distributed throughout society, but rather has been controlled by an elite. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels.”

The study challenges those who argue that technology will resolve these challenges by increasing efficiency:

“Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use.”

Productivity increases in agriculture and industry over the last two centuries has come from “increased (rather than decreased) resource throughput,” despite dramatic efficiency gains over the same period.

Modelling a range of different scenarios, Motesharrei and his colleagues conclude that under conditions “closely reflecting the reality of the world today… we find that collapse is difficult to avoid.” In the first of these scenarios, civilisation:

“…. appears to be on a sustainable path for quite a long time, but even using an optimal depletion rate and starting with a very small number of Elites, the Elites eventually consume too much, resulting in a famine among Commoners that eventually causes the collapse of society. It is important to note that this Type-L collapse is due to an inequality-induced famine that causes a loss of workers, rather than a collapse of Nature.”

Another scenario focuses on the role of continued resource exploitation, finding that “with a larger depletion rate, the decline of the Commoners occurs faster, while the Elites are still thriving, but eventually the Commoners collapse completely, followed by the Elites.”

In both scenarios, Elite wealth monopolies mean that they are buffered from the most “detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners”, allowing them to “continue ‘business as usual’ despite the impending catastrophe.” The same mechanism, they argue, could explain how “historical collapses were allowed to occur by elites who appear to be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory (most clearly apparent in the Roman and Mayan cases).”

Applying this lesson to our contemporary predicament, the study warns that:

“While some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving towards an impending collapse and therefore advocate structural changes to society in order to avoid it, Elites and their supporters, who opposed making these changes, could point to the long sustainable trajectory ‘so far’ in support of doing nothing.”

However, the scientists point out that the worst-case scenarios are by no means inevitable, and suggest that appropriate policy and structural changes could avoid collapse, if not pave the way toward a more stable civilisation.

The two key solutions are to reduce economic inequality so as to ensure fairer distribution of resources, and to dramatically reduce resource consumption by relying on less intensive renewable resources and reducing population growth:

“Collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.”

The NASA-funded HANDY model offers a highly credible wake-up call to governments, corporations and business – and consumers – to recognise that ‘business as usual’ cannot be sustained, and that policy and structural changes are required immediately.

Although the study based on HANDY is largely theoretical – a ‘thought-experiment’ – a number of other more empirically-focused studies – by KPMG and the UK Government Office of Science for instance – have warned that the convergence of food, water and energy crises could create a ‘perfect storm’ within about fifteen years. But these ‘business as usual’ forecasts could be very conservative.

Dr Nafeez Ahmed is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development and author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation: And How to Save It among other books. Follow him on Twitter @nafeezahmed

  • This article was amended on 26 March 2014 to reflect the nature of the study and Nasa’s relationship to it more clearly.