Originally published in The Business Standard on September 3, 2010

One way of framing the complexity of China’s long history is to understand it as the interplay of ideas between the pragmatic, human-centric precepts of Confucianism and the nature-worshipping, harmony-seeking philosophy of Daoism.

This dichotomy between values that stress conquering nature for human benefit and those that emphasise the importance of seeking a sustainable balance between man and nature is mirrored in the modern-day clash between the mainstream advocates of GDP-before-all-else and the swelling ranks of eco-warriors.

The Guardian’s Asia correspondent Jonathan Watts’ new book is an eco-travelogue across the denuded topography of what is now the world’s second-largest economy, detailing the environmental consequences for and the world of a Confucian victory over Daoism.

The benefits of China’s economic miracle are well documented: the lifting of 400 million-plus people out of poverty, the financial salvation of multinational companies selling everything from burgers to cars, a re-orientalisation of the world away from its West-centric tilt.

But Watts’ travels tell another, less uplifting story. As he wanders from the deserts of Gansu and Ningxia in the north to the manufacturing hubs of the Pearl and Yangtze river deltas in the south, Watts elaborates a depressing catalogue of foul air, choking waterways, disappearing bio-diversity, ballooning urban waste and its terrible costs for human health.

In 2007, the World Bank estimated the cost of pollution in to be equivalent to 5.8 per cent of its GDP annually, taking into account health costs, 700,000 premature deaths a year and damage to crops and infrastructure.

China’s rivers are running dry and black, its 87,000 dams creating as many problems as they solve. The country’s air is so poisonous that lung cancer rates are galloping. Grasslands are turning into dusty deserts, forcing the relocation of millions of people. Entire species are vanishing, the Yangtze dolphin amongst them.

As China’s GDP swells and its people join the ranks of the global consuming class, nature is the loser, says Watts. The country’s march to GDP supremacy is ensuring that natural resources are gobbled up at an unprecedented scale and speed.

Yet, his conclusions are difficult. In its rush to get rich, may have polluted and ravaged the environment in the best western tradition, but what would the alternative have looked like? Seven hundred thousand people may die prematurely due to the health effects of pollution today, but were to have remained mired in poverty and famine, would its population be any more healthy?

The problem is that while Watts is disparaging of the rich world’s favoured strategy of “get rich first, clean up later”, there is no precedent for an alternative model of development.

Telling a country that its citizens must change their habits and consume less when they still have so little smacks of the unfairness that underlies much of the global discourse on climate change and other environmental issues. As a foreign correspondent in Beijing, Watts and his colleagues have privileged lives. While they may not consume as much as some of the new-rich in the big Chinese cities, they nonetheless live a comfortable existence peppered with air-conditioning and bottled water.

To Watts’ credit, he admits the underlying unfairness of the situation. China, he says, is extraordinarily unfortunate to be hitting this particular stage of development at this time in human history.

Watts’ conclusions are stark but he does leave some room for grey. As he travels across the country, the people he meets are optimistic and overwhelmingly believe their lives are getting better even as they cough from blackened lungs and the despair of having to drill ever deeper into the earth to obtain water.

He also sees some signs of emerging as a green superpower with businesses taking the lead in developing alternative energies and the country’s leadership increasingly making the right sounds. But overall, he tends to pessimism, believing Beijing’s new environmentalism to be akin to putting a bandage on a broken arm. The focus in China, he says, is on increasing the efficiency of the old model rather than developing a new model.

Ultimately, Watts’ arguments appear to boil down to the cold fact that is different from other countries because it has so many people. The population of is twice as large today than that of the entire world in 1750, he says. With finite global resources, the assault of a population this big is what appears to be at the heart of the country’s environmental stress as it seeks to feed and provide water for its mass of humanity. Watts’ Malthusian sympathies are evident in the title of the book itself, conjuring up the spectre of a billion Chinese jumping in catastrophic unison.

At the end of the book, Watts is honest enough to ask himself whether his perceptions are coloured more by the Chinese government’s propaganda or his own “Western, liberal, middle aged prejudices”. While some readers might well conclude the latter, the book is full of sobering, thought-provoking scenarios all of which are deeply relevant to India and its environment as the country embraces its own brand of GDPism.