EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 1. A Planet under Stress: Ecological Meltdown in China

In the deteriorating relationship between the global economy and the earth's ecosystem, food is the most vulnerable economic sector, but geographically it is China that is on the leading edge. A human population of 1.3 billion and their 400 million cattle, sheep, and goats are weighing heavily on the land. Huge flocks of sheep and goats in the northwest are stripping the land of its protective vegetation, creating a dust bowl on a scale not seen before. Northwestern China is on the verge of a massive ecological meltdown.24

Since 1980, the Chinese economy has expanded more than fourfold. Incomes have also expanded by nearly fourfold, lifting more people out of poverty faster than at any time in history. Like many other countries, China is exceeding the carrying capacity of its ecosystemoverplowing its land, overgrazing its rangelands, overcutting its forests, and overpumping its aquifers. In its determined effort to be self-sufficient in grain, it cultivated highly erodible land in the arid northern and western provinces, land that is vulnerable to wind erosion.25

While overplowing is now being partly remedied by paying farmers to plant their grainland in trees, overgrazing is destroying vegetation and increasing wind erosion. China's cattle, sheep, and goat population more than tripled from 1950 to 2002. The United States, a country with comparable grazing capacity, has 97 million cattle, while China has 106 million. For sheep and goats, the figures are 8 million versus 298 million. Concentrated in the western and northern provinces, sheep and goats are destroying the land's protective vegetation. The wind then does the rest, removing the soil and converting productive rangeland into desert.26

China is now at war. It is not invading armies that are claiming its territory, but expanding deserts. Old deserts are advancing and new ones are forming, like guerrilla forces striking unexpectedly, forcing Beijing to fight on several fronts. And worse, the growing deserts are gaining momentum, occupying an ever-larger piece of China's territory each year.

China's expanding ecological deficits are converging to create a dust bowl of historic dimensions. With little vegetation remaining in parts of northern and western China, the strong winds of late winter and early spring can remove literally millions of tons of topsoil in a single daysoil that can take centuries to replace.

For the outside world, it is these storms that draw attention to the dust bowl forming in China. On April 12, 2002, for instance, South Korea was engulfed by a huge dust storm from China that left residents of Seoul literally gasping for breath. Schools were closed, airline flights were cancelled, and clinics were overrun with patients having difficulty breathing. Retail sales fell. Koreans have come to dread the arrival of what they now call "the fifth season"the dust storms of late winter and early spring. Japan also suffers from dust storms originating in China. Although not as directly exposed as Koreans are, the Japanese complain about the dust and the brown rain that streaks their windshields and windows.27

Each year, residents of eastern Chinese cities such as Beijing and Tianjin hunker down as the dust storms begin. Along with the difficulty in breathing and the dust that stings the eyes, there is the constant effort to keep dust out of homes and to clean doorways and sidewalks of dust and sand. Farmers and herders, whose livelihoods are blowing away, are paying an even heavier price.

Desert expansion has accelerated with each successive decade since 1950. China's Environmental Protection Agency reports that the Gobi Desert expanded by 52,400 square kilometers (20,240 square miles) from 1994 to 1999, an area half the size of Pennsylvania. With the advancing Gobi now within 150 miles of Beijing, China's leaders are beginning to sense the gravity of the situation.28

The fallout from the dust storms is social as well as economic. Millions of rural Chinese may be uprooted and forced to migrate eastward as the deserts claim their land. Desertification is already driving villagers from their homes in Gansu, Inner Mongolia (Nei Monggol), and Ningxia provinces. A preliminary Asian Development Bank assessment of desertification in Gansu Province reports that 4,000 villages risk being overrun by drifting sands.29

The U.S. Dust Bowl of the 1930s forced some 2.5 million "Okies" and other refugees to leave the land, many of them heading west from Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas to California. But the dust bowl forming in China is much larger, and during the 1930s the U.S. population was only 150 millioncompared with 1.3 billion in China today. Whereas the U.S. migration was measured in the millions, China's may measure in the tens of millions. And as a U.S. embassy report entitled The Grapes of Wrath in Inner Mongolia noted, "unfortunately, China's twenty-first century 'Okies' have no California to escape to—at least not in China."30


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24. Population from United Nations, op. cit. note 3; livestock population from FAO, FAOSTAT Statistics Database, at apps.fao.org, with livestock data updated 9 January 2003.

25. Chinese economic expansion from International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Economic Outlook Database, at www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo, updated April 2003.

26. Livestock population from FAO, op. cit. note 24.

27. Howard W. French, "China's Growing Deserts Are Suffocating Korea," New York Times, 14 April 2002.

28. Wang Tao, "The Process and Its Control of Sandy Desertification in Northern China," seminar on desertification in China, Cold and Arid Regions Environmental & Engineering Institute, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Lanzhou, China, May 2002.

29. Ibid.

30. California population from U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1930 Fact Sheet, at www.census.gov, revised 28 March 2002; U.S. Embassy, Grapes of Wrath in Inner Mongolia (Beijing: May 2001).


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