Should we try to defeat nature, and win?

A slightly different version of this article was first published in EUSci, and followed by Passport Magazine. This article is longer than either one.

In 1932–1933, 5 to 10 million people died throughout the USSR. The dignity of people was stripped off when they ate dogs, cats, field mice, birds, tree bark and each other. This was not caused by the greatest drought man has ever seen but by Stalin, Lysenko and the policies of the USSR.

Unfortunately history has a habit of repeating itself, and humanities drive to bend nature to its will has resulted in the suffering of countless people to this day. But let us cast back to the late 1950s – early 1960s China as a case study on why humanity needs a new political system that takes into account flower power ideology like zero growth and sustainability.

In the 1950s China had just emerged from a brutal civil war that killed over 3 million people. This was preceded by an even more atrocious Japanese invasion during World War II leaving around 10-20 million dead. A century before, China was humiliated by the colonial west when it piecemealed imperial China. At the start of the 1950s, this history left China bankrupt and humiliated but reunified by Chairman Mao Zedong and the Communist Party. Reunification and the idealism of Chairman Mao made the future seem limitless and millions of Chinese from overseas migrated back to rebuild China. So how did this lead to the greatest man-made famine ever seen?

Chairman Mao was brilliant as a military leader and helped to industrialise and modernise China. In 1951 Mao he advanced the creative arts with the campaign, “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom”, followed by an emphasis on academic debate through, “Let a Hundred Schools of Thought Contend”. This brief renaissance was cut short by the antirightist movement (1957-1958), with the brief of denouncing capitalists, Malthusians and the bourgeois. Over half a million intellectuals were affected. They were publically criticised by students and peers, forced to self-criticise, and either kept under house arrest, or re-educated through labour – many committed suicide. China had suffered one of the greatest brain drains in history in just two years.

Cynically, some observers think that the Hundred Flowers Campaign was a lure to identify opposition to Chairman Mao’s next grand plan: The Great Leap Forward, 1958-1961. This cynicism was not wholly unwarranted since Mao’s thoughts in his ‘little red book’ are strikingly similar to one of the three pillars of Chinese thought: legalism. Legalism was expounded by Qin Sin Huangdi (221-207BC), the first to unify China and who also burned countless books, built the Great Wall and was buried with the Terracotta Army. Legalism places the state above individual needs. The ruler is also meant to be charismatic, his thoughts mysterious and most importantly revered. The philosophy was one of dominance and submission. Mao attacked nature with the same viciousness he attacked the Japanese and Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist Kumintang.

The Great Leap Forward brought a plethora of slogans meant to achieve a great social mobilisation to modernize China. Mao Zedong Thought held that socialism could reshape the material world by sheer willpower. The masses of China (over 600 million at this point due to the overpopulating policy of Ren Duo, Lilang Da – with many people, strength is great) would unleash raw labour with the slogan “Man Must Conquer Nature” – Ren Ding Sheng Tian.

The first campaign was, “Wipe out the Four Pests” – Chu Si Hai, started in May 18, 1958, with the declaration by Chairman Mao: “The whole people, including five-year old children, must be mobilised to eliminate the four pests.” The four pests were rats, sparrows, flies and mosquitoes. Sparrows were thought to eat grain, so a synchronized tujizhan “shock attack” was launched with people banging gongs, using ladders to knock them out of nests, breaking eggs or simply whacking them with a stick. By 1959 sparrows were not found in local markets, whilst more insects, which the sparrows ate, resulted in more grain infestations. Chu Si Hai is still used to this day; thankfully cockroaches have replaced sparrows.

August 1958, a few months after the Four Pests campaign, and Mao declared that within 15 years China’s steel production would surpass that of the U.K. To achieve this aim, 100 million people, or 1 in 6 Chinese were prevented from farming to smelt iron and steel. Useful pots, pans, farming equipment and any iron object or materials, were used to try and achieve this quota providing raw material to make identical (mass manufactured) items. Adults and children alike smelted iron day and night in backyard furnaces, but these furnaces were not hot enough to produce high quality steel. So although production was doubled in one year, half of that steel was of unusable quality. When coal was unavailable, furnaces burned wood. In Yunnan province alone, this resulted in the loss of 30,000-40,000 square kilometres of forest cover. This was greater than the amount of forest cleared, within a comparable time period, in the whole Amazon.

China had silenced its own intellectuals, but revered Soviet ideology. The Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko—who used Stalin’s favour to cause the death of numerous scientists—forced socialist ideas on biology that were partly to blame for the devastating famines of the USSR. His ideas became sacrosanct in China. He emphasised deep ploughing, up to 10 feet deep, and close planting. In China, close planting was taken to an extreme when up to 5,000 cotton, 20,000 sweet potato or 12,000 corn seeds were sowed per sixth of an acre. Such practices lead to widespread decay of plants and subsequent infertility of the soil. Infamously pictures of plump children were shown supported by rice plants where, officials claimed, one sixth of an acre could produce 27.8 tons of rice. These children were later revealed to have been sitting on a bench. Such fabrications were performed to outcompete other officials, to please Chairman Mao, and to avoid persecution. Distorting facts had become common practice.

Even under Mao’s draconian regime, some Chinese intellectuals still opposed each one of these great leaps. For example, Professor Hou Guangjun had managed to increase agricultural yield through no-till agriculture or ziran miangeng. However, each time Mao’s anti-science stance silenced them. These policies resulted in people being pulled off collective farms to forge inferior iron. The farmers who remained had to deep plough and close plant the land to the point of infertility. The nail in the coffin was that harvested grain became infested. Hindsight makes the greatest famine the world has ever seen – with deaths estimated at 36 million – seem so easily avoidable.

This was one of the greatest human catastrophes in history. It did not change Mao’s stance of “War Against Nature”. It intensified it. In the 1960s and 1970s Mao coerced the Chinese to attack, forests: huilin kaihuang – destroy the forests, open the wastelands; lakes: weihu zaotian – encircle lakes, create farmlands; deserts: zhisha zaotian – manage the sand and create farmland. Even mountains could be tamed: cong shitou fengli ji di, xiang shitou yao liang – squeeze land from rock peaks, get grain from rocks. This caused widespread and irreparable destruction of the environment. Inner Mongolia lost 3 million acres of land due to these efforts, Hubei known as the land of a thousand lakes (1,065) lost over half of them, and Shanxi whose forests covered 60 percent of the province lost most of them.

The examples that could be cited are endless, highlighting the extreme attitude of Maoist China. The situation in China has changed; it currently is the largest investor in green technology. However it also happens to be the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, has hundreds of so called cancer villages, and the largest number of polluted cities worldwide. China’s future is bright but faces many challenges. What does all this mean for Nature?

China has three pillars of thought. Mao is linked with extreme legalist ideas. The current government, whilst still evoking the legalists also has a strong dose of Confucianism, as evidenced by the numerous government-funded Confucius centres found globally. Confucianism unfortunately promotes a patriarchal society. Yet it holds education, self-improvement and a strict moral code as its shinning light. Its view on nature is highly condescending accentuating how the ruler needs to take care of the environment since it is very useful to mankind, in China’s case, to maintain natural ingredients for traditional Chinese medicine.

The current Chinese government’s treatment of nature seems highly in line with this practical human-first ideology. However there is a third pillar of Chinese thought, Daoism. Daoism describes harmony among man, society and nature. Humans and nature are linked, therefore it is wrong to exploit nature to satisfy oneself and everything has to be done in deference to natural laws. Since the Way (every Daoist’s wet dream) imitates nature and people are part of nature, harming a blade of grass is a grave offence. Needless to say, this viewpoint is extreme, although it wasn’t all so far fetched. For example there were clear prohibitions against hunting animals that were rearing their young.

A modern and less extreme reinterpretation of Daoism could lead to ideas of recycling, zero-growth, no-till and organic farming. Humanity would seek not to over-exploit and plunder nature’s riches, but to work with nature. Conversely, capitalism, the world’s current ideology, emphasises that economies must be in constant growth, relentlessly exploiting the environment. This is the essence of the consumption-oriented society we all live in today. It is impossible for the world to sustain this status quo. Economic growth cannot occur at the expense of the environment indefinitely.

The World Wildlife Fund has just released a report showing that by 2007, the world was consuming 1.5 Earths worth of resources every year. At this rate, oil will run out, as will rare metals, whilst population growth remains exponential. Economically this is also detrimental. “Scarcity of resources and degraded natural systems will increase the price of food, raw materials and other commodities,” says David Nussbaum of WWF-UK. Even politics cannot escape the changing environment. A few days after the New Year was celebrated, riots in Tunisia sparked by increases in the price of food led to governmental collapse and the Arab Spring. When people’s basic needs are not met, unrest follows. The environment is intertwined with a functional society.

Economic growth is also vital for a countries well being. These diverging needs force upon humanity a need to incorporate a Daoist ideology within our current state of capitalism. Greater scientific knowledge and technological advances need to be coupled to the political will necessary to create sustainable economies that are prosperous but do not need constant exploitative growth. This demand applies not only to China, but also to every country in the world to prevent the horrors of our shared history.

Further Reading

Mao’s War against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China (Studies in Environment and History) by Judith Shapiro — Main Source and a brilliant read.

What Does China Think? by Mark Leonard — a great modern update on Chinese politics

On Daoism — Chuang Tsu and Tao Te Ching 

  1. A really well written article I just happened to read right now. For me it’s just so sad that humanity always strives to do better and then just fucks up completely. Of course this happens because people have no clue or don’t want to have it. But people… well no one should die or suffer due to crass ‘growth’ politics and then the people who decide such nonsense will survive at the end with nothing much learned. Strange world.

    • Edward Duca said:

      Thanks for that mate. I agree and we still have individuals harking about the benefits of communism. It’s unfortunate when history cycles instead of learning from our past mistakes. Communism has beautiful ideas, but it doesn’t take into account human nature. While capitalism seems to exploit it to a ridiculous extent without rewards benefits to social capital. Ideally even capitalism is meant to make the rich richer, so that the wealth trickles down and makes the poor richer. History has shown this has failed. I can only place my finger on scientific progress, industry, hygiene, medicine, technology and so on improving lives in general (and several of these backfire).

      We need a new political system.

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