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The River Runs Black

The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future

Author: , C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies

The River Runs Black - the-river-runs-black
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Publisher A CFR Book. Cornell University Press

Release Date April 2004

Price $29.95 hardcover

352 pages
ISBN 0801442206


Selected by the Globalist as one of the top ten books of 2004, The River Runs Black is the most comprehensive and balanced volume to date on China's growing environmental crisis and its implications for the country's development. Based on historical research, case studies, and interviews with officials, scholars, and activists in China, this book provides insightful analysis of the economic and political roots of China's environmental challenge as well as the evolution of the leadership's response.

China's spectacular economic growth over the past two decades has dramatically depleted the country's natural resources and produced skyrocketing rates of pollution. Environmental degradation has also contributed to significant public health problems, mass migration, economic loss, and social unrest. Elizabeth C. Economy argues that China's approach to environmental protection mirrors its economic development program: devolving authority to local officials, opening the door to private individuals, and inviting participation from the international community, while retaining only weak central control.

The result has been a patchwork of environmental protection in which a few wealthy regions with strong leaders and international ties improve their local conditions, while most of the country continues to deteriorate, and some regions suffer irrevocable damage. Economy examines the growing role of nongovernmental groups in protecting the environment and expanding the boundaries of political action, and she sketches out several environmental scenarios for the country.

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Voted one of the top 50 books on sustainability by the University of Cambridge's program for sustainability leadership in 2010.

"Elizabeth C. Economy's book hits my 'top ten' list....It is a clear and compelling reminder that no engagement with China—commercial, diplomatic, cultural, intellectual—can afford to ignore China's vast environmental dilemmas and the deep social, economic, and political structural problems that make environmental salvation an uncertain enterprise at best. The case for international engagement with China emerges even more strongly from this book; the case for 'irrational exuberance' is dashed to smithereens."
Robert A. Kapp, President, U.S.-China Business Council

"Rivers run black, deserts advance from the north, and smoky haze covers the country. Elizabeth C. Economy both provides a gripping account of a severely degraded environment and thoughtfully analyzes what could be China's most important challenge in the twenty-first century."
Gordon G. Chang, author, The Coming Collapse of China

"Elizabeth C. Economy captures extraordinarily well the complex historical, systemic, political, economic, and international forces that are shaping China's environmental outcomes. No other volume on this enormously important issue is as comprehensive, balanced, and incisive. True to her deep understanding of the crosscurrents of China's present environmental efforts, Economy is agnostic about which of three startlingly different futures will come to pass. Her book enables us to understand both the potential for each of these futures and the means to lessen the chances of environmental meltdown on the Chinese mainland."
Kenneth Lieberthal, Professor of Political Science and Professor of International Business at the University of Michigan

"Elizabeth C. Economy has written a well-researched analysis of the environmental degradation that has occurred in China and its implications for the rest of the world. This book will provide critical guidance for the U.S. and other nations to pursue enlightened policies that will help the Chinese address our mutual environmental problems."
Theodore Roosevelt IV, environmentalist and Chair of Strategies for the Global Environment

Read the Foreign Affairs review by Lucian W. Pye.

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Debate: Disasters

Author: Elizabeth C. Economy
China Daily

Elizabeth Economy argues that in the wake of a series of pollution related incidents in China, real effort is needed to save the environment.