Should we try to defeat nature, and win?
Dr. Edward Duca
In 1932–1933, 5 to 10 million people died throughout the USSR. The dignity of people was destroyed when they ate dogs, cats, field mice, birds, tree bark and each other. This was not caused by the greatest drought man has ever seen but by Stalin, Lysenko and the policies of the USSR.
Unfortunately history has a habit of repeating itself, and humanity’s drive to bend nature to its will has resulted in the suffering of countless millions to this day. But let us cast our minds back to the late 1950s-early 1960s; to China as a case study on why humanity needs a new political system that takes into account flower-power ideology like zero growth and sustainability.
In the 1950s China had just emerged from a brutal civil war that killed over 3 million people. This was preceded by an even more atrocious Japanese invasion during World War II leaving around 10 to 20 million dead. A century before, China was humiliated by the colonial west when it piecemealed imperial China. At the start of the 1950s, this history left China bankrupt and humiliated but reunified by Chairman Mao Zedong and the Communist Party. Reunification and the idealism of Chairman Mao made the future seem limitless, and millions of Chinese from overseas migrated back to rebuild China. So how did this lead to the greatest man-made famine ever seen?
Chairman Mao was brilliant as a military leader and helped to industrialise and modernise China. In 1951 Mao he advanced the creative arts with the campaign, “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom”, followed by an emphasis on academic debate through, “Let a Hundred Schools of Thought Contend”. This brief renaissance was cut short by the anti-rightist movement (1957-1958). Over half a million intellectuals were affected. They were publically criticised by students and peers, forced to self-criticise, and either kept under house arrest, or re-educated through labour. Many committed suicide. China had suffered one of the greatest brain drains in history in just two years.
Mao’s next grand plan, The Great Leap Forward, 1958-1961, followed. Mao’s critics link him with legalism. Legalism was expounded by Qin Sin Huangdi (221-207BC), the first to unify China and who also burned 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.
The Great Leap Forward brought a plethora of slogans meant to achieve a great social mobilisation to modernize 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 over-populating policy of “with many people, strength is great”) would unleash raw labour with the slogan “Man Must Conquer Nature”.
China silenced its own intellectuals, but revered Soviet ideology. The Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko—who used Stalin’s favour to cause the death of numerous scientists—forced socialist ideas on biology that were partly to blame for the devastating famines of the USSR.
The first campaign was, “Wipe out the Four Pests”, started in 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 “shock attack” was launched with people banging gongs, using ladders to knock them out of nests, breaking 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. The Four Pests campaign is still used to this day; cockroaches have replaced sparrows.
August 1958, a few months after the Four Pests campaign, and Mao declared that within 15 years China’s steel production would surpass that of the U.K. To achieve this aim, 100 million people, or 1 in 6 Chinese, were diverted from farming to smelt iron and steel. Useful pots, pans, farming equipment and any iron object or materials, were melted down to try and achieve this quota providing raw material to make identical (mass manufactured) 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. So although production was doubled in one year, half of that steel was of unusable quality. When coal was unavailable, furnaces burned 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 throughout the Amazon basin in a single year.
A modern reinterpretation of Daoism could lead to ideas of recycling, zero-growth, no-till and organic farming.
China silenced its own intellectuals, but revered Soviet ideology. The Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko—who used Stalin’s favour to cause the death of numerous scientists—forced socialist ideas on biologists, which contributed to the devastating famines the USSR suffered. His ideas became sacrosanct in China. He emphasised deep ploughing, up to 10 feet deep, and close planting. In China, close planting was taken to an extreme when up to 5,000 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. Infamous pictures of plump children were shown supported by rice plants where, officials claimed, one sixth of an acre could produce 27.8 tons of rice. These children were later revealed to have been sitting on a bench. Such fabrications were performed to out-compete other officials, to please Chairman Mao, and to avoid persecution. Distorting facts had become common practice.
Even under Mao’s draconian regime, some Chinese intellectuals still opposed each one of these great leaps. For example, Professor Hou Guangjun had managed to increase agricultural yield through “no-till” agriculture. However, each time Mao’s anti-science stance silenced them. These policies resulted in people being pulled off collective farms to forge inferior iron. The farmers who remained had to deep plough and close plant the land to the point of infertility. The nail in the coffin was that harvested grain became infested. Hindsight makes the greatest famine the world has ever seen—with deaths estimated at 36 million—seem so easily avoidable.
There are further examples of how Mao’s war on nature led to a loss for all, but this situation has now changed. China 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. How can China use the lessons in its history to build a better future for itself and the rest of the World, including Russia?
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 that promotes a patriarchal society. Yet it holds education, selfimprovement and a strict moral code as its shining lights. Its view on nature is condescending, accentuating how the ruler needs to take care of the environment since it is very useful for mankind, 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. Since the Way (every Daoist’s ideal) imitates nature and people are part of nature, harming a blade of grass is a grave offence. Needless to say, this viewpoint is extreme, although it wasn’t all so far fetched. 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 emphasises that economies must be in constant growth, relentlessly exploiting the environment. This is the essence of the consumption-oriented society we live in today. It is impossible for the world to sustain this. Economic growth cannot occur at the expense of the environment indefinitely.
Economic growth is vital for a country’s well-being, which forces upon humanity a need to incorporate a Daoist ideology within our current state of capitalism. Greater scientific knowledge and technological advances need to be coupled to political will to create sustainable economies that are prosperous but do not need constant exploitative growth. This demand applies not only to China, but also to Russia to prevent the horrors of their shared history.