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Mao’s War Against Nature

March 24, 2010

Judith Shapiro. Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Miriam Gross (2006)

In this beautifully written study about the Maoist era, Shapiro forces all those who blame China’s current environmental woes on post-Mao modernization and development to reconsider. She makes a strong case for her hypothesis that “abuse of people and abuse of nature are often interrelated” (xiv). Shapiro believes that China presents an extreme example of what is likely to be a common phenomenon. The connection between conquering and abusing humanity and nature was particularly potent in China due to four factors. These factors are each explored in greater detail in four chapter-long case studies.

The first theme, political repression, is examined in the context of the 1957 Anti-rightist movement. Here Shapiro recounts the life of two intellectuals, Ma Yinchu who warned against unhindered population growth and Huang Wanli who foresaw the terrible impact of the Soviet-inspired damming of the main stream of the Yellow River. She points out the devastating impact on sane environmental policy when voices of dissent are quelled. She particularly laments the silencing of the objective scientific voice of intellectuals.

In a second chapter, Shapiro explores how utopian urgency intermingled with the need to “catch up” with developed countries to create major deforestation and famine during the 1958-1960 Great Leap Forward’s back yard furnace campaign. Shapiro is particularly attuned to how overheated rhetoric fueled activity that was beyond the bounds of economic reason, human endurance, and environmental sustainability.

Next Shapiro analyzes the problem of dogmatic uniformity during the early Cultural Revolution where all of China was supposed to “learn from Dazhai,” applying its techniques to become self-sufficient in grain production irrespective of geography or climate. This problem was made worse by the belief that if the people embodied strong will and correct political beliefs, then they could conquer any natural phenomenon that stood in their way.

In a final chapter Shapiro explores the most destructive factor, state-ordered relocations. She chiefly examines the late 1960s and early 1970s in which educated youth were sent to places like the Great Northern Wilderness in Heilongjiang to do military drill and create farmland out of wetlands and to the rainforest in Xishuangbanna to plant rubber plantations. Through multiple personal reminiscences Shapiro tracks the impact of propagandistic blasts building-up the war effort on the youths’ unbridled environmental annihilation and subsequent horror and loss of idealism as they realized the futile havoc they had wrought.

Shapiro ends by briefly looking at the post-Mao years. There is no doubt that the heedless abuse of nature due to ideological fervor has been replaced by the precipitous rush towards expedient material gain. However, Shapiro is still cautiously hopeful due to increasing grassroots environmental awareness and governmental willingness to both sponsor and execute protective environmental policy.

Reviewers of the book (Katherine Morton, The China Journal, 47, 2002; and Rudi Volti, Technology and Culture, 44.2, 2003) were highly favorable, particularly appreciating the convincing linkages between ideology, policy, and personal experience, the excellent writing, and the treasure trove of pictures. This reviewer wishes Shapiro would not have placed such trust in the ability the scientific method, of scientists, and of intellectuals in general to always be objective and to inevitably determine the path best suited for environmental sustainability. This small critique aside, Shapiro has written an excellent, well-research story that is a pleasure to read.

© Copyright 2006. All rights reserved.

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