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175 China’s Fraught Food System: Imagining Ecological Civilization in the Face of Paradoxical Modernity Donovan Conley O n March 15, 2014, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC or the Party) and the State Council launched something called the “National New-Type Urbanization Plan.” A colossal, $6.8 trillion undertaking, this initiative aims to migrate one hundred million rural Chinese farmers into the nation’s urban centers by 2020, reaching the staggering number of 250 million relocated by 2025.1 The prevailing belief of the CPC equates urbanization with modernization , and modernization with progress, so this massive social-engineering project—the thirty-chapter report covers everything from roads, hospitals , schools, and residential buildings to social security, water cleanliness and basic health conditions, public services for entrepreneurship, and so on—is touted to increase the quality of life for approximately 60 percent of the overall population.2 The plan will also dramatically increase domestic consumption, since urban residents spend far more than their rural counterparts, thus reducing China’s reliance on export 176 Donovan Conley markets while addressing its worrisome housing bubble.3 Already the modern world’s most expansive and dynamic example of sociohistorical transformation, China’s National New-Type Urbanization Plan will carry a seismic ecological toll. Indeed, the plan amounts to the single largest engineered human migration in the history of the world.4 The unintended consequences of this undertaking are therefore unimaginable, yet we can be certain that the ecological impact will be unprecedented. What makes China’s National New-Type Urbanization Plan all the more consequential is the 2014 report by the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which confirms the existence of a global ecological emergency brought on by human factors. The report is the boldest statement to date by the world’s leading body studying climate change and the result of a more than two-decade-long collaboration involving thousands of scientists from almost two hundred countries. The unequivocal message of the report is that “changes in climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans.”5 Glaciers are shrinking, disrupting water resources in both quantity and quality; negative impacts on crop yields have become more prevalent than positive ones (with the price of grain being linked to social unrest);6 and extreme weather events are increasing. Further, the report asserts, People who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally , or otherwise marginalized are especially vulnerable to climate change and also to some adaptation and mitigation responses (medium evidence, high agreement). This heightened vulnerability is rarely due to a single cause. Rather, it is the product of intersecting social processes that result in inequalities in socioeconomic status and income, as well as in exposure. Such social processes include, for example, discrimination on the basis of gender, class, ethnicity, age, and (dis)ability.7 The implicit conclusion of the IPCC report is that advanced global capitalism has wrought and continues to wreak havoc on the planet and its populations, with ever greater risks posed to those increasingly cut out of the winnings. As Jeff Goodell puts it, “Climate change is, at its base, an environmental justice issue in which the rich nations of the world are inflicting damage on the poor ones.”8 The 2010 earthquake devastation in China’s Fraught Food System 177 Haiti offers a stark illustration of how sufferings are multiplied when ecological upheaval and global inequality collide.9 As the UN report makes clear, this interfacing of environmental catastrophes and political turmoil is going to increase over the coming decades, plunging large swathes of the planet into turmoil. Even the U.S. Department of Defense recently acknowledged that climate change is now among the United States’ top national security concerns.10 China’s urbanization plan is of grave importance, then, for it will become the primary theater where the dynamics of global capital and ecological turbulence collide during the coming decade. Despite the plan’s erstwhile commitment to such public virtues as “people-oriented urbanization ” and being “ecologically friendly” and “sustainable,” to “agricultural modernization” feeding “green cities and smart cities” designed with “smart planning” to create “healthy development,” there is every reason to expect a portentous decade.11 At present, China stands at the global apex of both socioeconomic growth and ecological upheaval, a tenuous situation I describe throughout this chapter as paradoxical modernity: unprecedented progress borne out of unprecedented environmental calamity. No nation on earth has achieved such colossal...


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