China's Syndrome

By James Lewis on October 8, 2008

A recent article in The New Yorker investigated where China gets its wood from now that logging has been widely banned in the country.  “The Stolen Forests: Inside the Covert War on Illegal Logging” states that the ban was instituted after the Yangtze River watershed flooded in 1999, killing more than three thousand people and causing more than thirty billion dollars in damage.  Some in the Communist Party blamed the clearcutting of forests, and the government soon thereafter banned logging in much of the country.  Reading this fascinating article brought to mind a short piece I wrote a few years ago in Forest History Today, “Theodore Roosevelt’s Cautionary Tale.”  One hundred years before the 1999 Yangtze flood, northern China experienced similar problems of clearcutting followed by the flooding of the Yellow River.  President Theodore Roosevelt discussed the crisis in his last State of the Union address one century ago this December.  He cited the deforestation in China as a warning to what the United States faced if it did not begin conserving its own forests and watersheds.  Drawing on natural history and science for his cautionary tale, he starkly made his case for conservation–“the great material question” facing the nation in 1908.  To me, why he talked about China is as interesting as what he had to say about China.  To paraphrase the Bard: Read on, MacDuff.