Travels on a Dirty Planet

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


| September-October 1999



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."