William and the big bad dam

Much like the three gorges dam, this post is behind schedule. I took this picture a month ago, at the end of my boat trip down the Yangtze from Chongqing. Back in Beijing, I asked my environment-minded Chinese friend William for his two mao on the subject. In the spirit of tidying up before the new year, I’ll write up what he told me. And in the spirit of it being the morning of Christmas eve, I’ll write it up in brief.

“It’s impossible to be objective” were the first words out of William’s mouth. I remember this as: a) I’d learnt the word ‘objective’ that morning, and b) my attitudes to the three gorges dam were anything but. Like Peter Hessler in River Town (which I read while we boated past Fuling, the river town in question), I instinctively felt that turning a flowing river into a potentially stagnating reservoir was wrong, as was drowning century-old temples and relocating millions to do it. More so, shouldn’t the message be cooperation with nature and not conquest of nature? As I neared the dam itself, whenever I struck up a conversation with a fellow passenger I would ask if they supported the project, and would always get the same answer: “dangran”. “Of course.” Why shouldn’t I? My government does.

But I knew that dissenting opinions were out there too, and, frankly, I expected an environmentalist like William to share them. Rather, he choose to sit on the fence (or dam, if you insist). To make his point, he retold a story of a professor at Beida – and friend of William’s old teacher, who told him the story – who was invited by the government to participate on a panel of experts, created to appraise the dam before it was green-lighted. (Or more realistically, in William’s opinion, pressured by the government to scientifically justify the decision they had already made.)

Regardless of any pressure on him, as the story was told me, this professor considered the project from all angles and decided … to abstain. He simply couldn’t tally up the pros (energy, flood control, more energy…) and cons (disaster risk, cost, humanitarian concerns…) and choose a side. Who could objectively judge if damming the Yangtze was for the better or worse? What was the point, if a government as stubborn and unshackled as China’s was clearly going to go ahead anyway?

And between the lines, I got the impression William was also telling me: China’s naysayers – so yaysayed in the West – have to pick their fights.