Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China by Judith Shapiro. 2001. Cambridge University Press (book review by Alice Friedemann)
The main thesis of this book is that when free speech is squelched, the consequences can be dire for the environment.
Mao was a military leader. He saw that he could defeat the technologically superior Japanese by sheer force of numbers. In the fifties, demographers and other scientists became alarmed at the quickly expanding population and started speaking and writing about the need to practice birth control. Mao stopped them. He didn’t think you could have enough people.
Mao saw people as being extremely expendable. He shocked Nikita Khruschev in 1957 while visiting him in Moscow when he said: “We shouldn’t be afraid of atomic missiles. No matter what kind of war breaks out – conventional or thermonuclear – we’ll win. As for China, if the imperialists unleash war on us, we may lose more than three hundred million people. So what? War is war. The years will pass and we’ll get to work producing more babies than ever before.”[i]
Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” led to the greatest loss of life in history – it resulted in 35-50 million deaths from starvation. This came about because of various campaigns. One of them was to make China a steel-producing nation within five years. The implementation was a surreal nightmare: people had their cooking pots, the nails from their homes, and other metal that held the infrastructure together melted into steel bars at the village square to meet the production quotas. The “steel” that resulted was useless. The metal was such a motley mix, and wasn’t forged at high enough temperatures.
Firewood was used to melt the gathered metal. This resulted in the devastation of forests across China as millions of trees were cut to fuel the forges.
Simultaneously there was a campaign to rid China of the Four Pests: Sparrows, Rats, Flies, and Mosquitoes. Schoolchildren were the main actors in the anti-pest drive. One child recalled: “The whole school went to kill sparrows. We made ladders to knock down their nests, and beat gongs in the evenings, when they were coming home to roost…” Millions of children went into the hillsides at dusk, there were no tranquil places for the sparrows to retreat to.
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