Environmentalism and Authoritarianism in China’s Cities

British Firm Designs Chinese Manhattan,” by Dominic O’Connell, The Sunday Times, 28 August 2005 http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2095-1753339_1,00.html.

Dongtan and Greening China,” by Alex Steffen, WorldChanging, 1 My 2006, http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/004378.html.

A lifetime and a half ago (not quite, but far too long definitely) commentator J.R. emailed me some articles and asked my thoughts.

China has accomplished a miracle of economic development, raising hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and forging itself into an industrial powerhouse in just a few decades. But that development has extracted a terrible environmental cost, with China rapidly becoming the most polluted nation on the planet. Indeed, pollution, environmental degradation and resource depletion are so severe in China that a leading government official there warned that unless China can find a more sustainable path, “the miracle will end soon.”

This is true. The need for environmentalism in China is not the sort of pseudo-deep-ecology that is fashionable in schools. The need is not for an aesthetic environmentalism — we want it because it is beautiful — that is behind conversation land and nearly all American environmental pushes. Environmentalism is needed because China is a hellish nightmare of smog and poison.

Are planned cities the solution?

Shanghai, the powerhouse hub of China’s economic miracle, is planning a big expansion with the construction of a new city the size of Manhattan on its doorstep — and it has chosen a British firm to mastermind the design.

Shanghai also claims Dongtan will be the world’s first genuinely eco-friendly city, powered by renewable energy sources and as close to carbon-neutral as possible.

Probably not. If you want to see a planned city in action, check out Brasilia. Or don’t. The capital of Brazil and other Authoritarian High Modernist cites are based on the assumption that one can short circuit the complex adaptive system of human culture. Market-based reforms, such as pollution taxes and evolutionary change, are a surer fix.

2 thoughts on “Environmentalism and Authoritarianism in China’s Cities”

  1. There is an excellent discussion of Brazilia and why it does not work in James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State : How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Scott discusses the authoritarian nature of “high modernism” and Brazilia as one example of that mindset. The top-down approach won't work in China any better than it has anywhere else.

  2. Interesting you mentioned Brasilia. Another one I discussed this with (and an Eye member) also referenced Brasilia (referenced as well as a Brunner novel “Squares of the City” [Which I've yet to read, so don't know anything about that]).

    This Chinese eco-thing appears to be reaching some sort of “critical mass” (so to speak) in the mediasphere/memesphere; there's been discussion of this Chinese eco-city thing in the 6/17/06 issue of New Scientist–in fact, it was *part* of their cover story.

    Eco-cities special: Ecopolis now

    Eco-cities special: A Shanghai surprise

    The 6/12/06 issue of BusinessWeek featured a piece on architect William McDonough, one of the minds behind these projects:

    William McDonough: Design For Living
    The visionary eco-architect and designer wants a renewable world

    McDonough was also interviewed by Tom Friedman 2 saturdays ago on a Discovery Channel special concerning oil dependency; Friedman seemed at least somewhat infatuated with his ideas and with his China project.

    A bit earlier, there was also a piece in the 2/06 issue of Harper's, “Green Dawn” by Mara Hvistendahl (no link available, but it is available on online library databases like EBSCO) while the 3/06 issue of Fast Company considered Arup's project to be #22 of their “Fast 50”:

    22. Clean City

    Here's a “dark”[?] take on the Hvistendahl piece from Harper's:


    China is far ahead of the West in developing 21st century ecocities. If a democratic ecocity model is not triumphant, then the Chinese authoritarian model will certainly defeat the dinosaur cities of the worn down and polluted American landscape. Whether Americans are aware of it or not, the race to build ecocities is on!

    Me, personally, I don't know what to think about it; I think there's some good in them to be accomplished, but it's clear that these schemes may hold at least some attraction to folks of a–shall we say– less-free bent.

  3. Lexington,

    I agree completely on the failure of Authoritarian High Modernism. China would be wiser to adopt market mechanisms to increase the living standards of her “world cities” if she wishes to create a Western-style business atmosphere.


    Good catch on other references to this in the media. Besides a quick fashion, it's possible that this mediais aimed at decision makers. Maybe some of the corporations involve think that it is more likely to succeed if Western governments get on the bandwagon?

    Any description that compares Chinese cities to “the dinosaur cities of the worn down and polluted American landscape” is hillarious. It'd be interesting to know if any American city is more polluted than, say, the “cleanest” Chinese city of a million plus. I doubht it.

    You are right on the less-free nature of this. The only benefit is that if the PLA is involved, the need to turn a profit for their crooked firms further pacifies the once-Maoist state.

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