“Choking on Growth” is the apt title of the new New York Times series on the “human toll, global impact and political challenge of China’s epic pollution crisis.” Epic, indeed. The first installment shows how “As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes.” The statistics are daunting:

Public health is reeling. Pollution has made cancer China’s leading cause of death… Nearly 500 million people lack access to safe drinking water. Chinese cities often seem wrapped in a toxic gray shroud. Only 1 percent of the country’s 560 million city dwellers breathe air considered safe by the European Union…

The European Union stipulates that any reading above 40 micrograms [of particulate matter greater than 10 microns in diameter is unsafe. The United States allows 50. In 2006, Beijing’s average PM 10 level was 141…

Farmers in the north once used shovels to dig their wells. Now, many aquifers have been so depleted that some wells in Beijing and Hebei must extend more than half a mile before they reach fresh water…

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An internal, unpublicized report by the Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning in 2003 estimated that 300,000 people die each year from ambient air pollution, mostly of heart disease and lung cancer. An additional 110,000 deaths could be attributed to indoor air pollution caused by poorly ventilated coal and wood stoves or toxic fumes from shoddy construction materials…

Annual premature deaths attributable to outdoor air pollution were likely to reach 380,000 in 2010 and 550,000 in 2020…4,700 people died last year in China’s notoriously unsafe mines, and 89,000 people were killed in road accidents, the highest number of automobile-related deaths in the world…

In 2005 alone, China added 66 gigawatts of electricity to its power grid, about as much power as Britain generates in a year. Last year, it added an additional 102 gigawatts, as much as France. That increase has come almost entirely from small- and medium-size coal-fired power plants that were built quickly and inexpensively.

China has become the world’s biggest producer of greenhouse gases, much of it from its coal-powered plants — and if you think that Coal Is Evil, you will see pictorial confirmation in the slideshow with the article.

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There is one statistic I actually find encouraging: “Officials blame fetid air and water for thousands of episodes of social unrest.” To borrow an idea from Paul Hawken’s latest book Blessed Unrest, it is as if Chinese society is building an immune system that rejects the damage being done to its ecosystems.

But if history is any guide, the existence of dictatorship will make the work of these social antibodies more difficult. After all, the worst ecological damage in the world occurred within the Soviet Union. In China, the problem of active state suppression of environmental activism is combined with China’s age-old problem: how to control the world’s largest political system.

The NYT gives an example of the problem:

Provincial officials, who enjoy substantial autonomy, often ignore environmental edicts, helping to reopen mines or factories closed by central authorities. Over all, enforcement is often tinged with corruption. This spring, officials in Yunnan Province in southern China beautified Laoshou Mountain, which had been used as a quarry, by spraying green paint over acres of rock.

Even if the central government wanted to change course — and the article details evidence that a sizeable faction within the ruling elite does — it can’t force the provinces to change.

The only way the provinces will change is if the provinces become democratic, because only grassroots pressure can lead to the kinds of changes in China that will prevent eco-collapse. In other words, the Chinese Communist Party is faced with a stark choice: they either allow the democracy that was suppressed in Tianamen square in 1989 to spread throughout the society, or the corruption and greed that are endemic in local jurisdictions will strangle the Chinese economy.

The NYT comes to pretty much the same conclusion, if not as explicitly:

China’s authoritarian system has repeatedly proved its ability to suppress political threats to Communist Party rule. But its failure to realize its avowed goals of balancing economic growth and environmental protection is a sign that the country’s environmental problems are at least partly systemic, many experts and some government officials say. China cannot go green, in other words, without political change.

In other words, it’s either free green movements or more green paint.