Tag Archives: China

The long history of human-environment interactions in China

In a recent paper, JA Dearing and colleagues (J. Paleolimnology 40: 3-31) use paleolimnological techniques to explore the long-term history of the region around Erhai Lake in Yunnan Province. Lake sediment cores (which can explain catchment vegetation, flooding, soil erosion, sediment sources and metal workings) are complemented by independent regional climate time-series from speleothems, archaeological records of human habitation, and a detailed documented environmental history. The authors integrate these data to “provide a Holocene scale record of environmental change and human–environment interactions.”

They use these data to ask:

  • “How sensitive are the studied environmental system processes to climate and human drivers of change?”
  • “Can we observe long-term trajectories of socio-environmental interactions, or periods of social collapse and recovery?”

The authors identify a number of points at which there were major changes in the human interaction with the landscape, including ~9000 cal year BP, when sediment records show a ‘human-affected environment’, ~4800 cal year BP, when major deforestation for grazing led to the extirpation of forest species and some functional units, and ~2000 cal year BP at the introduction of paddy field irrigated farming, and ~1600 cal year BP at which point surface erosion and gullying were caused by increased exploitation of mountain slopes. They go on to suggest that these records indicate several major ‘periods’ in human-environment interactions in this area:

The earliest of these cases probably represents the dispersion of the population away from the established sedentary agricultural units on alluvial fans to the more inhospitable margins of the lake and the valleys. This perhaps signifies the end of the ‘nature dominated’ phase (Messerli et al.) where society could cause significant modification of the landscape but was still vulnerable to the main risks of drought and flood (though the evidence for climate determinism is weak). In contrast, the introduction of irrigation is associated with a trend of weakening monsoon intensity, increasing numbers of centennial scale dry phases, and population growth. It represents an agrarian society in transition, using technological innovation to raise carrying capacities without increasing greatly the vulnerability to drought or flood. The third period is linked to natural population growth, inward migration and metal extraction brought about by the rise of Nanzhao/Dali as a major center”

The authors then ask at what stage of the adaptive cycle the modern Erhai socio-ecological system exists:

At Erhai, the slow processes of weathering and soil accumulation, in association with vegetation cover held fairly constant by a benign early-mid Holocene climate, were interrupted by fast processes of anthropogenic modification of vegetation. For many centuries, this concatenation of ‘slow–long’ and ‘fast–short’ processes led to a resilient land use-soil system (cf. Gunderson and Holling). But increasing perturbations led to system failure, and we can observe that the late Ming environmental crisis represents the end of the last release phase. Thus, the modern landscape may be approaching a conservation phase (K) characterised by minimum resilience.

Dearing and colleagues explore the meanings of this research for current sustainability and conclude that the main threat to the region is high magnitude-low frequency flooding of the agricultural plain and low terraces, which is exacerbated by:

  1. continued use of high altitude and steep slopes for grazing and cultivation that generate high runoff from unprotected slopes and maintain active gully systems, particularly in the northern basins;
  2. reduction or poor maintenance of paddy field systems, engineered flood defences, river channels and terraces; [and]
  3. increased intensities of the summer monsoon.

This fascinating paper is an excellent example of how historical data sources can be integrated to provide a new perspective on social and ecological change over long periods of time.

Short links: Greening China, Fish Pirates, Resilient Communities

From ES&T news Will the Dragon Stay Green? China After the Beijing Olympics

China is managing to succeed—by putting in place its tremendous industrial renovation programs, starting up monitoring for emissions, and encouraging green building and sustainable resource use, all while protecting its culture and its people. … Even if all of China’s people are not wealthy themselves, they know their country is, she says. “A fundamental change that’s happened in the last 10 years [is that they have become] wealthy enough as a society to say, ‘We are going to be among the first rank.’ Development is more than just industry; modernity means quality health care, education, clean water—[and] environmental as well as other social services.”  “It’s not going to be perfect,” Seligsohn says, “but I am quite convinced that 5 years from now, you’ll look at the sky [in Beijing], and it’s going to be substantially better.”

BBC NEWS Arms embargo hurts Ivorian fishing

Ivory Coast is calling on the United Nations to lift an arms embargo that it says has prevented the defence of its waters from illegal fishing boats. The falling catches are not only a result of over-fishing, but also of illegal fishing techniques. “These pirates don’t follow the international rules for fishing because they’re thieves,” says Mr Djobo. “This all means we’ve seen a drastic decline in the catches of fishermen in our waters.”

Alex Steffen of WorldChanging writes about John Robb’s security focused idea of Resilient Community:

John’s posts themselves tend to focus on work-arounds for brittle infrastructure, things like smart local networks (sort of the information equivalent of energy smart grids), community scrip and local fabrication …But I worry as well about the role these sorts of ideas seem to often end up playing in the public debate. … Because, it bears repeating again and again and again, responses based purely on localism and scaling-back can’t save us now. We need to remake our material civilization.

Also, the Stockholm Resilience Centre has launched a new monthly electronic newsletter. The first issue presents recent news from the centre.  To subscribe, go to www.stockholmresilience.su.se and enter your email address under ‘Subscribe to newsletter’ in the right column.

Absolute poverty in China: Higher, but going down faster than previously estimated

From the Economist:

In December 2007 the World Bank unveiled the results of the biggest exercise in window shopping in history. Scouts in 146 countries scoured stalls, supermarkets and mail-order catalogues, recording the price of more than 1,000 items, from 500-gram packets of durum spaghetti to low-heeled ladies’ shoes.

This vast enterprise enabled the bank to compare the purchasing power of many countries in 2005. It uncovered some statistical surprises. Prices in China, for example, were much higher than earlier estimates had indicated, which meant the Chinese income in 2005 of 18.4 trillion yuan ($2.2 trillion at then-market exchange rates) could buy less than previously thought. At a stroke, the Chinese economy shrank, in real terms, by 40%.

Since then, many scholars have wondered what this economic demotion means for the bank’s global poverty counts. It famously draws the poverty line at “a dollar a day”, or more precisely $1.08 at 1993 purchasing-power parity (PPP). In other words, a person is poor if they consume less than an American spending $1.08 per day in 1993. By this yardstick 969m people suffered from absolute poverty in 2004, a drop of over 270m since 1990. The world owed this progress largely to China, where poverty fell by almost 250m from 1990 to 2004.

…[using a new poverty line of $1.25/day (2005 US$) Shaohua Chen and Martin Ravallion ] find that 204m Chinese people were poor in 2005, about 130m more than previously thought.

That is the bad news. The brighter news is that China’s progress against poverty is no less impressive than previously advertised. By Mr Ravallion’s and Ms Chen’s new standard, the number of poor in China fell by almost 407m from 1990 to 2004, compared with the previous estimate of almost 250m.

Peter Hessler’s Sichuan Postcard: After the Earthquake


Yang Weihua/ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

Peter Hessler, author of the excellent book Oracle Bones and a former English teacher in Sichuan province in China, writes in the New Yorker about the response to the recent Chinese Earthquake Sichuan Postcard: After the Earthquake:

This week, it’s unlikely that there will be much good news coming from China. But the rescue crews will, one hopes, make progress, and there may be reason for some Sichuan-style optimism. First, it seems that the Chinese government has been relatively open about news coverage, and it doesn’t seem to be restricting e-mails and phone calls. Second, the scale of destruction could easily have been worse. The epicenter was near the city of Dujiangyan, which in May of 2001 started construction on a massive hydroelectric dam on the Min River. Big dams are common in China, and Dujiangyan was one of the nation’s “Ten Key Projects” aimed at producing electricity and better water supplies.

By 2003, there were signs that the government was quietly expanding the project, and silt had begun to accumulate at a second location on the river. Dujiangyan is home to a local irrigation system that has functioned for more than two thousand years and has been declared a World Heritage site; it would have been effectively destroyed by the new dam. The city’s World Heritage Office opposed the project, contacting journalists from Chinese publications. The press was allowed to report with relative openness, in part because it portrayed the dam as destructive of cultural heritage. But one of the local entities that openly opposed the dam was the Dujiangyan Seismological Bureau.

In August of 2003, dam construction was forced to stop. In the history of the People’s Republic, this represented the first time that an engineering project on such a scale had been cancelled because of public pressure. (For a full account, see “Unbuilt Dams,” by Andrew C. Mertha and William R. Lowry, published in the October, 2006, issue of Comparative Politics.) Today, with Dujiangyan in ruins and the government struggling to respond, there’s some small consolation in the fact that at least there wasn’t another major dam on the site. And maybe later, after the emergency has passed, officials will remember the importance of the press and the seismological experts in stopping the dam. Sichuan’s greatest resource has always been its people, and sometimes the government just needs to listen to them.

Hessler also wrote about China’s Instant Cities in last year’s National Geographic, and on What’s Next on development in China in the May 2008 issue.