National Geographic : 2011 Jun
pouring out of the poor provinces with high hopes for urban prosperity. Increasingly, though, Chinese anger is di- rected at the environmental degradation that has come with that growth. On one trip I drove through a village north of Beijing where signs strung across the road decried a new gold mine for destroying streams. A few miles later I came to the mine itself, where earlier that day peasants had torn up the parking lot, broken the windows, and scrawled gra ti across the walls. A Chinese government-sponsored report estimates that en- vironmental abuse reduced the country's GDP growth by nearly a quarter in 2008. e o cial gures may say the economy is growing roughly 10 percent each year, but dealing with the bad air and water and lost farmland that come with that growth pares the gure to 7.5 percent. In 2005 Pan Yue, vice minister of environmental protection, said the country's economic "miracle will end soon, because the environment can no longer keep pace." But his e orts to incorporate a "green GDP" number into o cial statistics ran into opposition from Beijing. " ," said one Beijing-based o cial who refused to be identi ed (itself a reminder of how sensitive these topics are), "China seeks every drop of fuel---every kilowatt and every kilojoule it can get a hold of---for growth." So the question becomes, What will that growth look like? One thing it already looks like is: big and empty. Ordos, in Inner Mongolia, may be the fastest growing city in China; even by Chinese standards it has an endless number of construc- tion cranes building an endless number of apart- ment blocks. e city's great central plaza looks as large as Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and towering statues of local-boy-made-good Gen- ghis Khan rise from the concrete plain, dwar ng the few scattered tourists who have made the trek here. ere's a huge new theater, a modern- ist museum, and a remarkable library built to look like leaning books. Coal built this Dubai- on-the-steppe. e area boasts one-sixth of the nation's total reserves, and as a result, the city's per capita income had risen to $20,000 by 2009. ( e local government has set a goal of $25,000 by 2012.) It's the kind of place that needs some environmentalists. And indeed it has at least one. In the neigh- boring city of Baotou, a steelmaking center whose mines also supply half the planet's rare earth minerals (see page 136), I found Ding Yaoxian ensconced in the headquarters of the nonpro t Baotou City Environment Federation, on the second oor of a day center for retired party cadres, who were playing badminton on the mezzanine. Director Ding is one of the most cheerful and engaging Chinese I've ever met; he's needed every bit of charisma to build his as- sociation into a real force, numbering by his ac- count a million area citizens. Issued little green identity cards, they serve as a kind of volunteer police force. "If people from the association see someone spilling trash, they go and sit on their doorstep," Ding said. "The government can't have eyes everywhere. A voluntary organiza- tion can put more pressure on. It can shame." But the campaigns the group focuses on most of the time make clear how nascent environ- mental concern in China still is. ey've handed out a million reusable shopping bags---but also hundreds of thousands of small folding paper cups, so that people will stop spitting on the street. One minor victory: When showing those hundreds of thousands of new condo units, real estate agents used to hand customers plastic booties to go over their dirty shoes; now they supply washable cloth socks. e association has tried to introduce the concept of garage sales, in a country where secondhand goods carry a stigma. And members have launched a big e ort to teach Inner Mongolians to smile. "In the West people are happy and smiling, and that makes people feel positive," Ding said. His deputy, Feng Jingdong, added, "We tell them, Use your personality to get people to enjoy themselves instead of using resources." e three of us were eating a delicious lunch at a nearby restaurant (lamb is the staple here), and when we were n- ished, Ding made sure to ask for a doggie bag. " at's one of our campaigns," he said. "Before, it felt like you lost face if you did that." We took in a view of the skyline. On top of every building for blocks around a solar array sprouted.