Thousands of environmental groups have sprung up in China, hoping to protect its land and wildlife from the ravages of economic development. "The past 30 years of breakneck economic growth have been a disaster for China's environment," says journalist Jonathan Watts.
As Watts tells NPR's Steve Inskeep, his new book, When a Billion Chinese Jump, details how China's environmental activists are trying to lessen the effects their country's growth is having on natural resources.
The book also details the challenges the smart-growth advocates face.
"Earlier this year, the government said 60 percent of China's lakes and rivers are dangerously polluted; the water is not fit to drink," Watts says. "You have air quality problems in so many Chinese cities. You can just travel from city to city to city, and it's just gray smog; gray smog; gray smog."
And to Watts, the same rapid growth that created those problems might help to solve them. Even as they build new infrastructure, he says, developers are showing a willingness to build "eco-cities."
"I think China is moving very, very quickly on renewable energy and clean tech," Watts says, "precisely because its environment is so bad that they have to take extreme actions."
Watts is the Asia Environment correspondent for Britain's The Guardian. He says that compared to other causes that spur activism and protest in China, people who seek to protect the environment don't face as much risk that they could be punished for speaking out.
"If you were a democracy activist, if you were a labor activist, you would be looked upon with great suspicion, and you would face very considerable risk of being locked up," he says.
And Watts says that environmentalist groups like Friends of Nature, founded by the late Liang Congjie, have succeeded in getting developers to alter their plans to protect rivers and other resources.
Still, it can be difficult to grasp the scale of China's economic growth — and the massive effects it can have on the world's climate.
Watts says that "even within China, they know they're hurtling forward at this rapid speed. And they're not quite sure what the future means."
But the United States, and the rest of the global community, has a profound interest in seeing China cope with its future growth in a way that minimizes harm to the global environment.
As Watts writes in his new book, "Even if every other country in the world acts radically to reduce greenhouse gases, we are all still doomed if China fails to deal with its emissions from coal in the next 20 years."