Bad Earth

The Human Costs of Pollution in China

The promise to “pollute now, clean up later” was always dubious. During the early phase of China’s economic take-off, this was the excuse of environmental despoilers and growth-driven officials. They would argue that all advanced countries go through a dirty stage of development so “let us do the same and we will deal with the consequences later when we are richer—just as the West did.”

This logic was far from convincing even then. In the 1990s and the first decade of this century, there was already evidence of irreversible damage: toxic spills, contamination incidents, and the steady rise in coal consumption. Water sources were poisoned, air quality plunged, the soil in many areas became unfit for crops. Human health suffered. Countless millions died prematurely. For them, any clean-up was already too late.

Today, such doubts have grown ever more insistent. China’s economy has now passed $6,000 per capita GDP, the point at which other nations have appeared to turn the corner on environmental degradation, as economic improvement has had a tendency to lead to greater attention to environmental protections. Yet, despite impressive investments in clean energy, an economic slowdown, rising public anger, and ever more strident government rhetoric, the pollution problem remains severe.

That much is evident in this collection of grimly striking images by Souvid Datta. Traveling across the industrial northeast, the young photojournalist has put together a series of vast ruined landscapes and tragic portraits that reveal how far China is from restoring its environment.

From Beijing and Tianjin to Hebei and Inner Mongolia, Datta’s camera captures the ways lives continue to be diminished. Farmers look tiny beside open cast mines, endless lakes of tailings, and panoramas of smokestacks and cooling towers.

The first impression is one of familiarity. This is the dirty China that the world first grew accustomed to 20 or so years ago. Continuity may not make the news as much as change, but it can be a bigger story, especially when it comes to documenting persistent problems that have graver and graver consequences the longer they linger.

Yet the situation is not static. Datta turns the lens on activists and observes how the public is becoming more knowledgeable and less tolerant of pollution. As a result, many of the dirtiest industrial plants and mines are now out of sight, behind high fences in remote areas.

Datta also shows the other side of the picture—the improvements in Beijing’s air quality over the past couple of years thanks to government restrictions on factories and cars. But apparent solutions can also create new problems. Among the most powerful images is one of the toxic lake that has built up near the rare-earth mines in Baotou, Inner Mongolia. This is one of the fastest growing areas in China thanks to the global demand and scarcity of trace elements that are used in—among other things—“green” wind turbines and electric cars.

There can be no quick fix to China’s pollution problems. But that was always going to be the case given the recklessness of the past and the still patchy regulation of the present. And besides, the “clean-up” in other nations was never all it seemed. While part of the improvement in air and water quality in Europe, the U.S., and Japan was the result of technological enhancements, policy change, and greater public awareness, the real environmental benefits came from outsourcing dirty jobs to poorer countries. The problem of pollution was never really solved, it was just moved.

These images reveal how China’s land and people continue to pay the consequences.

Jonathan Watts