This review in the latest issue of Books & Culture by John Copeland Nagle, associate dean for Faculty Research and professor at the Notre Dame Law School, reflects on a book on the environmental history of China, by Mark Elvin.

Nagle begins the piece with a brief personal anecdote of his experience with environmental problems in China:

On the morning of March 20, 2002, I left my windowless office in the Tsinghua University Law School for a short break. Then I saw it: a bright orange sky, which soon turned brown and finally a dusky gray before eleven o’clock in the morning. What I was seeing was dust. Lots and lots of dust. So much dust, in fact, that two days later the United States Environmental Protection Agency reported that the particulate levels established by the Clean Air Act had been exceeded in Aspen, Colorado, because of the millions of dust particles that had been blown all the way from China. I soon learned that it was Mao’s fault…The orange sky that I saw in Beijing that morning was the predictable result of overgrazing and its resulting desertification.

The review is well worth reading. Nagle writes that Elvin’s book

recounts how generations of Chinese have labored to modify the natural environment to better achieve their own ends. Three thousand years ago, China was a land where forests filled much of the landscape, elephants and other wild animals roamed, and rivers and lakes provided abundant freshwater. Today most of the forests and wild animals have long since disappeared, China suffers from some of the worst air and water pollution in the world, and the government is struggling to create the legal and social mechanisms necessary to halt and reverse its deteriorating environmental conditions.

The laundry list of environmental mistakes over the millennia in China, along with China’s classification as a “developing nation,” makes it nearly inexplicable how China is exempt from greenhouse gas emission standards under the terms of the Kyoto protocol.

Nagle ends his review with a somewhat hopeful conclusion that one of the positive consequences of the great numbers of Christian converts in China is that they might help address China’s environmental dilemma. He writes, “The last several decades have produced an extensive literature that explores the extensive biblical teaching concerning creation, stewardship, and our duty to care for the natural world in which we live.”

But this speaks to the need for freedom of speech and the practice of religion. In distinction from a place like the United States, where religious leaders are free to engage in debate over environmental policy, “the challenge is far greater in a country where the practice of religion is strictly regulated, and where the first hints of political activity inspired by religious beliefs are just emerging.”