My fellow mammals, last one to leave please dim the lights and lock the door: Economics, the environment, and the Yangzi River dolphin

I wrote about this two weeks ago, but I just read a moving piece in the New York Times (via CDT) by Robert Pittman, one of the scientists on the six-week expedition that combed the Yangzi for signs of the Chinese River Dolphin (baiji).

Locally, the Yangtze River is in serious trouble; the canary in the coal mine is dead. In addition to baiji, the Yangtze paddlefish is (was) probably the largest freshwater fish in the world (at least 21 feet), and it hasn’t been seen since 2003; the huge Yangtze sturgeon breeds only in tanks now because it has no natural habitat (a very large dam stands between it and its breeding grounds). The whole river ecosystem is going down the tubes in the name of rampant economic development. There is a huge environmental debt accruing on the Yangtze, and baiji was perhaps just the first installment.

The counter argument one hears out of China is that millions of Chinese people still live in poverty. The economic demands of development trump the needs of fish and the sexy megafauna, like dolphins, to which Westerners seem so mawkishly attached. (Must be all those reruns of “Flipper” and class trips to Sea World.)

But Pittman’s scientific reserve breaks down as he describes the baiji not only as a symbol of the perilous environmental condition of China’s waterways, but also as part of a legacy that belongs to all of us regardless of national boundaries:

For the Chinese, I think that losing a half-blind river dolphin and a couple of oversize fish was a fair trade for all the money that is being made there now. China is an economic model envied by most of the rest of the world, and I think that many other (especially third world) countries will be confronted with similar decisions of economic development versus conservation of habitats and animals, and the response will be the same. From now on we will have to choose which animals will be allowed to live on the planet with us, and baiji got cut in the first round. It is a sad day. I know it is their country, but the planet belongs to all of us. We came to say goodbye to baiji, but after its being in the river for 20 million years, we apparently missed it by two years.

In related news today, the United States government listed polar bears as ‘threatened,‘ marking the first time “the United States has made a direct link between global warming and the threat to a species.” The bears’ habitat, the ice floes of the arctic, are melting, depriving the bears of their hunting grounds. There has been increasing evidence of cannibalism among the bears as well as several sad reports of bears drowning in the oceans off of the Alaskan coast after they became stranded on shrinking ice floes.

We are losing some of Earth’s greatest natural treasures and too many people seem okay with this. The Bush Administration still refuses to back mandatory controls of carbon dioxide emissions, American patterns of consumption continue to favor convenience over conservation (patterns of consumption that many urban Chinese seem all too willing to emulate), and officials and business interests in China zealously insist on economic growth above all other concerns. The loss of the last few dozen of a blind river dolphin half a world away hardly seems like news here in the United States. But it should be a wake up call for all of us, regardless of where we live.
Cross posted from the Chinese history blog Jottings from the Granite Studio

The Discussion: 10 Comments

Thanks for this wonderfully sad and moving elegy, J.

The larger point, to me, is that in the long run, wreaking environmental havoc will not lift your masses out of poverty, because you can’t create a sustainable society that way.

Now, excuse me while I go buy those flourescent lightbulbs.

December 28, 2006 @ 7:58 am | Comment

“We are losing some of Earth’s greatest natural treasures, and yet the Bush Administration still refuses to back mandatory controls of carbon dioxide emissions”

Excuse me, didn’t your dolphin friend just die because of giant hydroelectric dams in China? Carbon emissions had nothing to do with it; in fact, it was the avoidance of carbon emissions that did him in.

December 28, 2006 @ 10:16 am | Comment

How about the part with the ice-caps melting, polar bears drowning? Seems to me the connection J. makes is pretty clear. The Yangze river dolphin won’t be the only casualty if we don’t get our collective act together.

December 28, 2006 @ 10:23 am | Comment

No worries, Lisa. I just checked out Don’s website and it reads like that right wing parody that took us all in last week…except that I think Don is serious.

Apparently, he wasn’t allowed to watch “Flipper” as a child.

Anyway, the point about carbon emissions was that for many people, economic gains outweigh environmental costs. In China, not just “giant hydroelectric dams,” but also increased boat traffic, factory waste, and agricultural run-off have contributed to loss of habitat and decreased food supply for the dolphins. In the Arctic, global warming has resulted in the shrinkage of the polar ice pack, making a lot of bears very, very wet.

December 28, 2006 @ 10:41 am | Comment

Ah. A “dead-ender.”

December 28, 2006 @ 2:36 pm | Comment

You know, I’d like to think I’m a nice person. But the problem I have is this. It’s us or them basically, and by that I mean this. “Us” (humans) versus “Them” the animals.

I love animals. I am really pissed off that nobody saved a breeding pair. It is infinetly better to be save from extinction, but doomed to produce circus(zoo) living offspring. I think all species should be saved so they can happily live out their days in a prison operated purely to entertain humans…..

December 28, 2006 @ 3:56 pm | Comment

Admiral, I don’t get the “us versus them” – I think that’s a false dichotomy.

I do agree that captive breeding beats extinction.

December 28, 2006 @ 5:12 pm | Comment

Admiral, problem is that humanity needs to respect the environment for its own sake. China’s environmental catastrophe is causing harm to humans too – or are these people “expendable” like the baiji because they’re peasants and not city-slickers?

When species start to die/become threatened in these ways, it is a sign our own future is unsafe. By changing our lifestyles we would be doing OURSELVES a favour as well as other animals. But I guess the people who could make a difference won’t think about sacrificing personal convenience until they’re drowning or choking in polluted air.

December 29, 2006 @ 1:45 am | Comment


It isn’t us versus them; it’s us and them. Early humans thrived on fish from the oceans, lakes, and rivers. Now pregnant women and children are warned away from what used to be an ideally nutritious source of healthy fat and protein. Amaranth, considered the world’s most nutritious grain, nearly disappeared from the human diet after the Spanish banned it owing to its use in ceremonies involving human sacrifice. Stevia, a natural sweetener 600x sweeter than sugar, grows only in the Amazon.

Every living thing on this planet is a unique combination of genes. When we lose a species, we lose those genes, and living things that share the same food chain or ecosystem may be harmed.

Didn’t you watch The Lorax as a kid? 🙂 We need trees, not thneeds!

I’m shocked as heck that the US government actually wants to list a species as endangered. My guess is that no major US businesses have any economic interests in the land inhabited by polar bears.

December 29, 2006 @ 4:30 am | Comment

I’d agree with that, Sonagi, except for all that oil and natural gas in the Arctic – the pursuit of which, the Administration was quick to say, does not harm polar bears.

Um, right.

December 29, 2006 @ 4:59 am | Comment

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