What is an Englishman to Do?

Environment Review

BEIJING - “Do you think this book should be thought of like Super Girls or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon ?” A language partner and I were discussing the new release by Jonathan Watts titled When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind – Or Destroy It (Faber & Faber, 2010). I continued, "are readers of Watts' book supposed to then take action, like viewers of China's version of American Idol, or are they just supposed to read this book and then go on with their lives like watching a movie?" My language partner said that it’s probably fairer to think of this book like a documentary where you learn something and then actually make changes in your own life.

In sixteen chapters Watts traverses seemingly every corner of China, highlighting the incredible tensions that China now faces between livelihood and environmental sustainability. In remarks given about this book, Watts chaffed somewhat at Amazon’s classification of this book as a travelogue, the word travelogue perhaps masking the incredibly serious nature of this book. In the afterward, where authors perhaps tell you what they hope you got out of their book Watts states the following: “China is a 3,000-year-old civilization in the body of an industrial teenager; a mega-rich, dirt-poor, overpopulated, under-resourced, ethnically diverse mass of humanity that is going through several stages of development simultaneously; a coal-addicted powerhouse attempting to pioneer new energy technologies, and a communist-led, capitalist-funded economic giant traveling at unprecedented speed.” As illustrated in the title, Watts is not sure what direction China is going, or what it means for the rest of the world. Watts' ambivalence puts the reader in somewhat of a quandary.

My language partner and I discussed Watts' book while waiting for a lecture of the Beijing Energy and Environment Roundtable (BEER) to begin. Two months earlier Watts had spoken at this same bi-monthly forum in Beijing where those from the World Bank, United Nations, private sector, NGOs and students get together to listen to lectures and network in the ex-pat district of Chaoyang.

Many of the professionals who frequent BEER and other forums like it produce policy briefs and other collateral that outline the contours of energy and environmental debates. Quite often these briefs are primarily intended for the elites of the World Bank, the UN, and government officials. In contrast Watts’ incredibly in depth account is for the general public. Unless censorship standards change on the mainland, When a Billion Chinese Jump will be limited to those members of the Anglophone world including folks on the mainland who communicate in English like those at BEER sessions.

Significantly Watts’ book goes beyond the finger-pointing that occupied media after the UN Copenhagen negotiations in December of 2009, blaming China for the failure to draft a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. For many, the media coverage after Copenhagen may be the only insights into the current state of China, and a limited one at that with much of the attention being on China's climate change negotiating position. Copenhagen represented a paradigm shift as developing countries were now expected to commit or at least move in the direction of CO2 reductions, a change from Kyoto when responsibility was essentially just on the most developed countries. Yet, a certain frustration emerged because while China moved towards commitments, there was an expectation for more. Similarly reading Watts book, while there are highlights of civic activity to find more sustainable practices, as Jonathan Mirsky states in a review of this book, "this is a revealing and depressing book."


The depression sets on while Watts quite often tries to make this book about climate change, but is compelled to reveal that China faces arguable much worse environmental challenges than just climate change.

The editor of a weekly newspaper in Beijing asked me this summer what I thought about historical responsibility regarding climate change. I said, mostly joking that Europe should be held responsible for all of the historical CO2. First through the industrial revolution, second when they made the US the factory of the world and bought its goods, and third when Europe has made China the factory of the world and buys its goods. Interestingly within England, there is debate and some acceptance among Watts fellow English that English should shoulder responsibility for CO2 emissions in China related to goods and services bound for England.

Reading this book it seems that the British, the first to read this book, face two challenges or takeaways. The first is that China is quite consumed with environmental challenges, often times with an unclear path to a solution. Second, is that the environmental challenges China faces are intricately linked to processes of globalization, of which England is also linked, and that raises questions of responsibility. Thinking about Climate Change, England is roughly five times the benchmark of two tons of CO2 per person that is seen as responsible. But do you also have to factor in the share of China's emissions associated goods bound for England? Then the task for the English, not to mention Americans becomes significantly more daunting. I think there is incredible value in the work of Watts and his research team. I'm afraid though that the English reader, not to mention the American reader, might be overwhelmed and prefer to see this as just a movie they watched once and not a reality show soliciting participation.

China, Climate Change