The People’s Republic of Chemicals by William J Kelly and Chip Jacobs

Each day air pollution in China kills more than 3000 people—that’s more deaths each day than the 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington, some 1.2 million a year. This comparison is one among a torrent of scary statistics in The People’s Republic of Chemicals, written by a self-described team of “gonzo mavericks of environmental reporting”.

How can one convey the magnitude of China’s environmental nightmare? After all, this is not September 11th, and people are not dying in deliberate terror attacks. Instead, China’s pollution victims are succumbing one by one to respiratory diseases in hospitals and clinics and homes and cancer villages. They’re dying before their time, yet the country is growing and becoming richer in part because of environmental degradation.

The authors’ message is to remind us that we’re in serious trouble and that the situation is getting worse. China’s many announcements about increased environmental protection and its impressive accomplishments in installing solar and wind power should not obscure the reality that the environmental situation continues to deteriorate. An obsession with growth continues to triumph over the environment. We may look back and see that the  severe air pollution in Beijing in recent winters, which on bad days has been like breathing the air in a forest fire, marked a turning point. For now, Kelly and Jacobs are understandably skeptical that environmental progress in China is for real.

This review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books. Can be accessed here