mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author


Guangzhou offers glimpse of our polluted future

GUANGZHOU, CHINA — Sometime this year or next,
humanity will cross an historic threshold. For the first time since
homo sapiens emerged as a species approximately 170,000 years
ago, more humans will be living in cities than in the countryside.


This transition to a predominantly urban civilization carries enormous
implications for many aspects of human society, but none more basic
than our relationship to the environment.
We humans are becoming urban animals, and the consequences will be
profound indeed for the natural systems that make life possible on
this planet.
Throughout the Third World, streams of peasants migrate to cities in
search of better lives, unwittingly turning many of these cities into
squalid, ungovernable monstrosities.

City dwellers impose a much greater burden on underlying ecosystems
than do country folk, partly because city people tend to be richer,
and partly because the density of urban populations results in
pollution streams so highly concentrated that they overwhelm the
earth’s absorptive capacity.
When cities grow too fast, it is difficult to provide the health and
sanitation systems needed to avoid contamination of the water supply
and epidemics of disease.

Straddling the Pearl River 90 miles north of Hong Kong, the city of
Guangzhou stands at the epicenter of the boom that has made China one
of the world’s fastest growing economies.
Rural migrants have swelled Guangzhou’s official population of 6.8
million people by at least 1.5 million in recent years, however, and
the environmental consequences have been horrific.

Kangle is a neighborhood of migrants in southern Guangzhou whose name
means a healthy and comfortable place. In 1997, I was taken there by
He Bochuan, a professor at Sun Yat-sen University and the author of
China on the Edge, the first book written by a Chinese native about
the Chinese environmental crisis.

On borrowed bicycles, the professor and I crossed a traffic-packed
avenue on the edge of campus, then bounced down a winding dirt track
past street vendors selling fruit and household items. Soon the path
narrowed and foot traffic increased, obliging us to dismount as we
snaked past newly constructed two- and three-story concrete buildings
with apartments above and shops below.

When the path widened, we could see peasants in conical hats working
in a field far in the distance, the sun glinting off their swinging
hoes. Professor He explained that all of Kangle had been farmland a
mere six months before. Suburban sprawl and erosion gobbled up 8.6
billion acres of China’s farmland between 1950 and 1990, as much as
all the farmland in Germany, France and the United Kingdom.

In the 1990s, farmland losses have increased, raising questions about
China’s ability to feed itself in years to come, especially as rising
incomes lead to more meat-intensive diets.
Professor He and I turned the corner, where a footbridge stretched
across a long canal that connected to the Pearl River. The canal was
perhaps 100 feet wide and black with effluent, garbage and feces – the
waste stream emanating from the new houses migrants had built along
the canal.

An older woman with tangled hair and a firm stroke was paddling a
small boat through the muck. Like 80 percent of China’s rivers, this
waterway was so polluted it no longer supported fish.
These peasants became wealthy after selling their farmland, He said.
That farmland is now gone forever, and the peasants are living in
these filthy surroundings and causing environmental problems for the
entire society. So is this progress? Or is it something else?

Of course, city life has much to recommend it: cinemas, social
ferment, convenience. But humanity’s transition to an urban species
has taken place at lightning speed, and we are unprepared for all it
Humans spent hundreds of thousands of years living as hunter-gatherers
before the advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago. And cities as we
know them today did not appear until the Industrial Revolution drew
peasants from the countryside to take factory jobs.

As recently as 1900, only 14 percent of the world’s people lived in
It is the 20th century, with its vast exodus from rural areas in the
Third World, that has made us a predominantly urban species.

Alas, warns a report by the Council on Foreign Relations, no one has
the faintest idea of how to provide adequate food, housing, health
care, education and gainful employment to such exploding numbers of
people . . . as they crowd into megacities like Mexico City, Cairo and
Calcutta. Yet when it comes to our species’ environmental prospects,
many humans share the insistent optimism expressed by a student on
He’s campus. Standing tall beneath a flowering tree, the student was
earnestly practicing her English pronunciation by reading aloud from a
lesson book.

The future of China is bright, she intoned. Very bright indeed.



One Response to “Guangzhou offers glimpse of our polluted future”

  • YJ Draiman says:

    A polluted society

    The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings, but shorter tempers; wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints.

    We spend more, but have less; we buy more, but enjoy it less.

    We have bigger houses and smaller families; more conveniences, but less time;

    We have more degrees, but less sense; more knowledge, but less judgment; more experts, but more problems; more medicine, but less wellness.

    We drink too much, smoke too much, spend too recklessly, laugh too little, drive too fast, get too angry too quickly, stay up too late, get up too tired, read too seldom, watch TV too much, and pray too seldom.

    We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values.

    We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often.

    We’ve learned how to make a living, but not a life; we’ve added years to life, not life to years.

    We’ve been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbor.

    We’ve conquered outer space, but not inner space.

    We’ve done larger things, but not better things.

    We’ve cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul.

    We’ve split the atom, but not our prejudice.

    We write more, but learn less.

    We plan more, but accomplish less.

    We’ve learned to rush, but not to wait.

    We build more computers to hold more information to produce more copies than ever, but have less communication.

    These are the times of fast foods and slow digestion; tall men, and short character; steep profits, and shallow relationships.

    These are the times of world peace, but domestic warfare; more leisure, but less fun; more kinds of food, but less nutrition.

    These are days of two incomes, but more divorce; of fancier houses, but broken homes.

    These are days of quick trips, disposable diapers, throw-away morality, one-night stands, overweight bodies, and pills that do everything from cheer to quiet, to kill.

    It is a time when there is much in the show window and nothing in the stockroom; a time when technology can bring this letter to you, and a time when you can choose either to share this insight, or to just ignore it.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.