Travels on a Dirty Planet

A wandering writer discovers why poverty is central to the global environmental crisis

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The light is mute in Chongqing nearly all the time in winter. The city sits at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers, ringed by mountains that block any cleansing winds, so it is a naturally foggy place. As the industrial center of southwestern China, Chongqing also suffers some of the worst air pollution in the country, making it a strong candidate for the most polluted city in the world.

Perched high above the Jialing River one morning in December 1996, I could dimly see a tugboat hugging the far shore and, beyond that, the outlines of what looked like office buildings. This was the view from the back of the Chongqing Paper Factory, a massive state-owned facility that local environmental officials had singled out as evidence of how well they were cleaning up Chongqing. Built in the 1940s, the factory had long been a terrible polluter, discharging enough chlorine and other toxic chemicals "to cover the entire river with white foam," or so an official had told me in an interview the day before. He also bragged that the factory had been "basically shut down" and tried to persuade me not to visit.

At the factory itself, though, it didn't appear that way. Entering the open front gate, my interpreter, Zhenbing, and I tried to look like just another Western investor and his trusty interpreter checking out business opportunities in modern China. A five-minute walk brought us to the back of the factory, where a young worker feeding the coal furnaces cheerfully informed me that the factory was indeed still running, though only about one-quarter of its 8,000 employees were still on the job. He wasn't sure what had caused the layoffs—maybe the market economy?

Concrete steps led down to the river some 80 yards below. Halfway down, we cut across the bank and quickly came upon a broad stream that cascaded down the hill, spreading a frothy plume on the Jialing's slow current. The astringent odor of chlorine stung our nostrils. We walked on and soon reached a second stream, this one a mere foot wide but clogged with bizarre clusters of dried orange foam the size of pineapples. The stench of a third creek identified it as household sewage (workers in China's state-owned factories generally live on-site or nearby), but its most extraordinary feature was its color—as black as used motor oil. A few yards away, a grizzled peasant in a dark-blue Mao jacket and trousers (an outfit still worn by China's poor) was picking greens from a tiny vegetable patch for his midday meal.

All this was dwarfed by what lay ahead. We saw the white vapor first, hanging low in the air like tear gas, then heard the sound of gushing water. A roaring white torrent was splashing down from the factory like a waterfall of boiling milk. Again the chlorine smell was unmistakable. Decades of unhindered discharge had coated the rocks with a creamlike residue, creating a perversely beautiful white-on-white effect. All this, and the factory was operating at only 25 percent capacity.

Zhenbing and I were on a six-week trip through China, investigating his homeland's environmental crisis, and it was not a cheering task. Everywhere, it seemed, the land had been scalped, the water poisoned, the air made toxic and dark. Despite having lived with China's pollution for decades, Zhenbing was not exactly a militant environmentalist. Born into a very poor rural family 30 years before, he, like most Chinese I met, was quite willing to put up with dirty air and water if it meant better pay, more jobs, a chance to get ahead. But our visit to the paper factory had shaken him. As we waited for the bus back downtown, I heard him murmuring, as if in a dream, "My poor country. My poor country."

China's environmental crisis demands the world's attention. China's population in late 1996 was officially 1.22 billion people, but the real number is almost surely higher; in any case, nearly a quarter of the world's people live there. The Chinese economy was the seventh largest in the world in 1996, and could be number one by 2010. Incomes have doubled since Deng Xiaoping initiated marketplace reforms in 1979, and the environmental effects have been devastating.

Nine of the world's ten most air-polluted cities are in China. According to the World Bank, water and air pollution kill more than 2 million people a year. Suburban sprawl and erosion gobbled up more than 86 million acres of farmland—as much as all the farmlands in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom—between 1950 and 1990. Farmland losses have increased in the 1990s, along with water shortages, raising questions about China's ability to feed itself in the future, especially as rising incomes lead to more meat-intensive diets.

And yet China's newfound wealth has only whetted people's appetites for more. The Chinese want to join the global middle class, with all that entails—cars, air conditioners, closets full of clothes, jet travel. China thus brings together two of the most disturbing trends in global environmental affairs: the large, growing population typical of poverty and the high-impact consumption patterns promoted by Western capitalism.

China is, in short, an evironmental superpower. Like the United States, the other environmental superpower, China can by itself all but guarantee that climate change, ozone depletion, acid rain, and other hazards will affect the entire world. What happens in China is therefore central to one of the great questions of our time: Will the human species survive the many environmental pressures crowding in on it at the end of the 20th century?

By the time I left China in 1997, I had spent most of six years trying to answer that question. My quest had taken me on a trip around the world that included stops in 19 countries and interviews with everyone from heads of state like Václav Havel in Prague to starving peasants in war-torn Sudan. I left San Francisco in May 1991, 18 months after the Berlin Wall fell and three months after a U.S.-led army drove Iraqi invaders from Kuwait to maintain the flow of oil that modern economies crave.

Traveling east, I began my global tour in Europe. After two months in Holland, France, Italy, Germany, and Sweden, I went to what was still the Soviet Union. I continued on to Czechoslovakia, Greece, Turkey, Kenya, Sudan, Uganda, Thailand, and Brazil, where I visited the Amazon and attended the U.N. Earth Summit in June 1992. I returned to Europe and the United States before concluding my travels in China. I financed my wanderings by traveling light, living low on the food chain, and writing occasional magazine articles from the road.

Scientists have long studied whether various animals are heading for extinction. I wanted to shift the gaze onto my fellow humans and investigate whether we too might be an endangered species.

"The main piece of bad news at the end of the 20th century is that we humans can now destroy ourselves, in either of two ways," Hubert Reeves told me in Paris near the start of my global journey. "We can destroy ourselves quickly, through nuclear weapons, or slowly, through environmental degradation." Reeves is a cosmologist and best-selling author—a sort of French Carl Sagan—as well as the director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, the French government's main science institute. With the Cold War over, Reeves told me he was optimistic that humanity can avoid nuclear self-destruction. He was less sure, however, about the threat posed by global warming, excessive population growth, and other more gradual forms of environmental overload. "This problem will be much more difficult to solve," Reeves said, "because it is so much more complex. You can't just have two men sit down at a table and agree to stop being stupid."

Indeed, many modern environmental hazards are rooted in activities and choices that bring pleasure, profits, paychecks, or simple survival to millions: the production and use of automobiles, the felling of rainforests by landless people, the relentless advertising and consumerism that boost sales figures the world over. Human activity has always taxed the earth's ecosystem. But the scale and technological power of 20th-century civilization are many times greater than those of earlier times, and so are the environmental side effects.

I had spent the hours before my talk with Reeves strolling across Paris, visiting favorite spots. By the time I reached his apartment, the setting sun was casting the city's pale stone facades and black window grilles into late afternoon shadow, and the light had attained that sparkling depth and clarity filmmakers revere as the "magic hour." Amid such testimony to the complementary beauties of the natural and human worlds, Reeves' comments about the two types of self-destruction humanity was courting seemed almost blasphemous to me. But not at all, he replied. For there was a third possibility as well: that humans will learn to live in balance with the natural systems that make our existence possible. Which path we take is an open question, he added, which makes the late 20th century an exciting time to be alive. "The fact that the summit of complexity in the known universe is now threatening itself with extinction is a cosmic drama of enormous proportion!" he exclaimed.

It was that drama I hoped to observe during my travels. I wanted to see for myself the tropical rainforests that were said to be disappearing at such an alarming rate. I wanted to talk with the people whose farmland was supposedly turning to desert or highways before their very eyes. I wanted to walk through cities whose pollutants were threatening atmospheric disaster. I wanted to interview the scientists, activists, businesspeople, and government officials who were researching these issues and fighting out their policy implications.

I especially wondered what average people around the world think about environmental problems. How much, for example, did residents of Prague, the capital of the most polluted country in Europe, know about ecological threats? In a world overflowing with ethnic conflict and war, not to mention everyday issues like taxes, jobs, and crime, how much urgency do people anywhere feel for ecological damage that might not affect them for decades, if ever? And are things really as bad as environmentalists claim? Is the environmental story a litany of gloom and doom, or is there good news as well?

Of course, none of the ecological hazards in question threatens to end all earthly life—just human life. Modern humans have inhabited the planet for only 200,000 of its estimated 5 billion years; the earth could exist perfectly well without us. The real question is whether we will act quickly enough to save ourselves.

On my way to Brazil from Asia, I stopped off in San Francisco for a few days to visit friends and recover my health (I had been hospitalized for a week in Bangkok after most of my white blood cells abruptly vanished, the victims of contaminated water). After a year of travel, mainly in poor countries, seeing my hometown again was disorienting; I felt like a stranger in a familiar land. The sheer wealth of the place was staggering. With their leather jackets, designer eyeglasses, and stylish haircuts, many San Franciscans were wearing more money than African and Chinese peasants would earn in a lifetime. "Oh, look, peach shoes!" one prosperous shopper cooed to her companion outside a store window on Union Square. "Do you need peach shoes?"

Compare that to life among the Dinka in southern Sudan, where war had propelled the underlying causes of the region's chronic poverty into full-scale famine, and more than once I watched skeletal young children breathe their last. I had left on my journey wondering whether the human species would survive the next hundred years, but in Africa I encountered huge numbers of people for whom surviving the next hundred days was no sure thing. The Dinka were, in fact, a living reminder of the enormous environmental challenges that most humans have faced for untold thousands of years. At the end of the 20th century, the Dinka still live the way that virtually all of us used to live—as hunter-gatherers and small-scale agriculturalists on the edge of survival, with little access to the technologies that have given modern humans the comfortable lives we blithely take for granted.

Some of the most illuminating conversations I had during my travels were with people on the lower economic rungs of the human family: not just the Dinka, but working men and women in Istanbul and London; peasants scratching out a living on Brazil's central highlands and Russia's vast steppes; young students in Prague, Beijing, and Thessaloníki yearning for a better future. Even in remote areas, people have a clear sense of environmental threats and how crucial it is to counter them. But in every case they added a caveat: First, bread must be put on the table; one cannot starve today to preserve the environment for tomorrow.

Poverty is central to the global environmental crisis, and poverty raises the question of fairness. For example, if the planet's atmosphere can withstand only a certain level of greenhouse gases, then humans must work out a way to share that capacity. The same point applies to most environmental threats; experts refer to it as the problem of sharing "environmental space." Right now, the bulk of the earth's environmental space is claimed by the United States and other wealthy nations of the North. But this cannot last. As the nations of the South develop economically, they will require more space for the pollution they will surely generate.

Our dilemma is that, on one hand, more and more scientific evidence suggests that the consumption levels now prevailing in wealthy nations are ecologically unsustainable; extending this standard of living to all 6 billion humans on the planet would doom the species. On the other hand, who doesn't deserve electricity, telephones, and running water? Once people experience these things, they want them, no matter the ecological cost. As well they might. It is easy for outsiders to warn against the long-term costs of damming Africa's rivers or destroying its woodlands, but it is akin to a glutton admonishing a beggar on the evils of carbohydrates—the glutton lacks a certain moral authority.

This point was brought home to me after I left the Dinka and traveled through eastern Africa, retracing a trip that Winston Churchill had made in 1907. At age 33, the future British prime minister had just begun his first significant government job, as parliamentary undersecretary of state for the colonies. Churchill's expedition took him by ship through the Suez Canal to the port of Mombasa, on the Indian Ocean coast of what is now Kenya. The newly constructed Ugandan railway then carried him west to Nairobi and on to Lake Victoria, the presumed source of the Nile, which he followed north through Uganda, Sudan, and Egypt.

Churchill paid for the expedition in part with sales from a book he wrote about it, My African Journey . Part travelogue, part policy paper, this short, impassioned work now has a significance beyond its keen observation and dazzling prose. For in it, Churchill articulated virtually all facets of the ideology that would shape the 20th century industrial impact on Africa—the values, fears, goals, and rationales that drove European efforts to recast both the land and the people of this most foreboding and seductive of continents.

It was Churchill's unqualified enthusiasm for technology that led me to retrace his African journey, for technology lies at the heart of humanity's relationship with the environment. But, oh, how views have changed since Churchill's day! To many modern environmentalists, technology is almost a dirty word. In their view, the 20th century has revealed technology to be a mixed blessing at best. With prosperity and convenience have come life-threatening pollution and a disorienting acceleration of daily life, not to mention the threat of nuclear war. The root of the problem is the arrogant belief that modern humans can, with technology, live separate from, and be superior to, nature—"to tame the jungle," as Churchill put it.

I sympathized with this critique; of course we have to respect the laws and limits of nature. But visiting the Dinka made me realize that a certain separation from nature's whims—in the form of adequate clothing and shelter, for example—is a good and necessary thing. The Dinka seemed to need more technology, not less.

Churchill made the same argument in My African Journey , and not just because he coveted the rubber and other raw materials that technology would allow Europeans to extract from Africa. People of Churchill's era had good reason to regard technology as a liberating force, for the evidence of how technology had improved human health, productivity, and comfort was all around them. But in retracing Churchill's journey, I found that the forces of progress that Churchill championed seemed to have changed everything and nothing about eastern Africa. The physical environment had certainly been altered, but most Africans have tasted barely a bite of the feast of materialism Churchill had prophesied.

Leaving Mombasa on a train to Nairobi, I passed many signs of a functioning industrial society: smokestacks, power lines, petroleum refinery tanks, and row after row of concrete warehouses near the half a dozen container ships moored in Kilindini harbor. Next to a chemical processing plant, silver pipes thrust skyward like industrial dandelions, while overhead a jetliner descended toward the international airport. But the lives of the people were another matter. As the jet disappeared, the train chugged past a squalid shantytown whose tin-roofed shacks housed the shops and hovels of the urban masses. Beyond the city limits, children scampered from their mud and grass huts to wave and cheer and plead with outstretched palms, "Give me pen! Give me sweet!" or, merely, "Something!"

As we humans seek to create an environmentally sound future, no challenge will be more crucial, or more difficult, than bridging the ancient gap between rich and poor. Can we learn to share? The hardest sharing will not be of money—the rich have plenty of that—but of environmental space, because that will require Americans and other well-off folk to cut back their own consumption to make way for that of the ascendent poor.

These issues again revealed themselves on my visit to Jinja, a town in Uganda on Lake Victoria that in Churchill's time was thought to be the Nile's source. Churchill wanted to rename the town Ripon Falls, "after the beautiful cascades which lie beneath it, and from whose force its future prosperity will be derived." What was needed, he added, was to build a dam and "let the Nile begin its long and beneficent journey to the sea by leaping through a turbine."

The dam that Churchill foresaw in 1907 was finally built in 1954. On the ride into Jinja, I passed the electric power station that now hums beside it. But the material blessings forecast by Churchill—"the gorge of the Nile crowded with factories and warehouses" and "crowned with long rows of comfortable tropical villas and imposing offices"—have yet to happen.

The place where Africa's longest river emerges from its largest lake should be one of the great scenic spots on earth. But the site is actually a bit disappointing; there seems to be no there there. Because of the dam two miles downriver, Ripon Falls has disappeared beneath the water line, so no one spot stands out as the river's beginning. Gazing down from the tidy park that overlooks the Nile, I watched a flock of long-necked, brilliantly white birds wheel lazily across the river before settling on the branches of a half-submerged tree. On the far bank, swaying in the breeze, were row upon row of rubbery-leafed matoke trees, the banana-like staple of the local diet. Off to my left, Victoria Bay opened into the great lake. Without question, this was a place of uncommon beauty. Yet a feeling of loss was inescapable; what the spot looked like before the coming of industrialization could now only be imagined.

Leaving the park, I stopped to chat with the young man who had sold me my entrance ticket. Neatly dressed, wearing flimsy glasses with black plastic frames, he lounged beneath a tree with a friend, taking refuge from the midday sun. Yes, he nodded, this was a very beautiful place to work, but it sometimes got boring. Spying his newspaper on the ground, I asked why he did not bring a book to read. It was a foolish question, but his answer was polite.

"It is very difficult to obtain books in Uganda," he explained. "Our shops are usually empty. And any book for sale costs a great deal of money."

When I marveled at how lovely this place must have been in its original state, he was again a step ahead of me.

"Yes," he smiled, with a gentleness common among eastern Africans. "But the dam has done much good for us, giving us electricity."

"You trade one for the other," I said.

He beamed with the pleasure of having communicated perfectly across our cultural divide. "Yes! You trade one for the other."

Compressed in that brief exchange, it seems to me, is the essential dilemma facing the human species as we approach the 21st century. Can the material strivings of the entire human family be reconciled with the carrying capacity of the planet's ecosystems? Does my young Ugandan friend deserve the occasional book, and electric light to read it by? Will business as usual suffice to provide them? If not, will technical fixes be found in time? And what if technical fixes are not enough? What happens then?

Mark Hertsgaard is the author of On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He teaches nonfiction writing at Johns Hopkins University and lives near Washington, D.C. Adapted from Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future (Broadway Books, 1999).