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Should We Try to Defeat Nature, and Win?

Many human ideologies presume that we can manipulate nature without cataclysmic consequences. Yet history begs that we try to live in harmony with nature, and within our means, but who wants to live with this hippie nonsense? Zero growth? Sustainability? Do these ideologies drive nations? Let us cast back to the late 1950s– early 1960s China, to the period in history when Mao Zedong’s war against nature and the scientific establishment killed 36 million people.

At the start of the 1950s, China was bankrupt and shamed from successive onslaughts: the colonial West had divvied up imperial China a century before; around 10–20 million Chinese had died at the hands of Japanese during World War II; and afterwards, a brutal civil war left over three million dead. In its wake, Chairman Mao Zedong and the Communist Party reunified China, with an idealism that made China’s future seem limitless. Their ideology convinced millions of Chinese to emigrate back and rebuild their homeland. So how did this lead to the greatest man-made famine ever seen?

China was industrialised and modernised under Chairman Mao by campaigns such as ‘Let a hundred flowers bloomto advance creative arts, and ‘Let a hundred schools of thought contend’ promoting academic debate. However, this renaissance of thought was cut brief as Mao’s reign entered its sunset. His military ideology and extreme communist views proved to be catastrophic. The Anti-Rightist Movement (1957-1958), with the brief of denouncing capitalists, Malthusians and the bourgeois, resulted in over half a million intellectuals being publicly disparaged by students and peers, forced to self-criticise, and either kept under house arrest or re-educated through labour. Many committed suicide. China suffered one of the greatest 'brain drains' in history in just two years.

Some historians 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 Shi Huangdi (221-210BC), the first man to unify China and who also burnt 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. Its philosophy was one of dominance and submission.

The Great Leap Forward brought a plethora of slogans meant to achieve great social mobilisation to modernise 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 Ren Ding Sheng Tian, 'Man must conquer nature'.

The campaign Chu Si Hai, ‘Wipe out the four pests’, started on 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 their 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).


In August 1958, a few months after the four pests campaign, Mao declared that within 15 years China’s steel production would surpass that of the UK. To achieve this aim, 100 million people, or one in six Chinese, were prevented from farming and made to smelt iron and steel. Useful pots, pans, farming equipment and any other iron objects or materials were used to try and achieve this quota providing raw material to manufacture masses of identical 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. Although steel production doubled within a year, half of that was of unusable quality. When coal was unavailable, the furnaces burnt 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 amount of time, in the whole of the Amazon.

China had silenced its own intellectuals, but revered Soviet ideology. The Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko—a Lamarckist who caused the death of numerous scientists—forced socialist ideas on biology, ideas that became sacrosanct in China. Lysenko emphasised deep ploughing, up to 10 feet deep, and close planting. In China, close planting was taken to an extreme when up to 5000 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 sitting on rice plants were used as ‘poster boys’ by officials to claim that one sixth of an acre could produce 27.8 tonnes 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.

Some Chinese intellectuals bravely chose to oppose each one of Chairman Mao’s campaigns. Professor Hou Guangjun increased agricultural yield through ziran miangeng, no-till agriculture. However, every time there was a rebellious act, Mao’s anti-science stance silenced them. Such stringent policies resulted in people being pulled off collective farms to forge inferior iron. The farmers who remained had to use ineffective ploughing techniques that led to infertile farmland. The nail in the coffin was that harvested grain became infested. Hindsight makes the world’s greatest famine, with deaths estimated at 36 million, seem so easily avoidable.

The famine was one of the greatest human catastrophes in history. Yet, 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 nature in the campaigns huilin kaihuang, 'Destroy the forests, open the wastelands’; weihu zaotian, ‘Encircle lakes, create farmlands’; and 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’. These ideas caused widespread and irreparable destruction of the environment. Inner Mongolia lost three million acres of land due to these efforts. Hubei, known as the land of a thousand lakes, lost over half of them. 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.

Since then, the situation in China has changed; it is currently 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 shining 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, and 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. This was taken to an extreme, and even harming a blade of grass was considered a grave offence. Yet, Daoism wasn’t always impractical. 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 prior to 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. When people’s basic needs are not met, unrest follows.

It is unfathomable to think that the world can support today’s rate of exploitation endlessly. A more Daoist mentality to life might help some countries change this unsustainable mentality. In my version of Utopia, greater scientific knowledge and technological advances would be used to maintain current yields, and a reasonable quality of life with less exploitation. Yet, I still have a question that keeps nagging me: how do you create sustainable economies that are prosperous, but do not need constant exploitative growth?

Edward Duca is a freelance science writer and communicator


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