Cover of Circular Ecologies by Amy Zhang
Circular Ecologies
Environmentalism and Waste Politics in Urban China
Amy Zhang


July 2024
216 pages.
from $28.00

Hardcover ISBN: 9781503637962
Paperback ISBN: 9781503639294
Ebook ISBN: 9781503639300

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After four decades of reform and development, China is confronting a domestic waste crisis. As the world's largest waste-generating nation, the World Economic Forum projects that by 2030, the volume of household waste in China will be double that of the United States. Starting in the early 2000s, Chinese policymakers came to see waste management as an object of environmental governance central to the creation of "modern" cities, and experimented with the circular economy, in which technology and policy could convert all forms of waste back into resources. Based on long-term research in Guangzhou, Circular Ecologies critically analyzes the implementation of technologies and infrastructures to modernize a mega-city's waste management system, and the grassroots ecological politics that emerged in response. In Guangzhou, waste's transformation revealed uncomfortable truths about China's environmental governance: a preference for technology over labor, the aestheticization of order, and the expropriation of value in service of an ecological vision.

Amy Zhang argues that in post-reform China, waste—the material vestige of decades of growth and increasing consumption—is a systemic irritant that troubles China's technocratic governance. Waste provoked an unlikely coalition of urban communities, from the middle class to precarious migrant workers, that came to constitute a nascent, bottom-up environmental politics, and offers a model for conceptualizing ecological action under authoritarian conditions.

About the author

Amy Zhang is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at New York University.

"As the world's most dynamic economy drowns in its detritus, what do we make of the state's green dreams? Powerfully written and brimming with insights, Circular Ecologies reveals the devalued work beneath the fantasy of a circular economy and the potentials of grassroots collectivities. So much to be gleaned here."

—Timothy K. Choy, University of California, Davis

"How are ecological cities imagined and made? How do they create new communities, new solidarities, and unexpected human and more-than-human collaborations? Focusing on the megacity of Guangzhou, Amy Zhang masterfully addresses these and other questions by tracking waste as both material and socio-political process. We follow her to incinerators, landfills, and dumps, to public government meetings and citizen protests. Through rich ethnographic detail and brilliant storytelling, Circular Ecologies show us how waste is never too far from matters of life and death. It will be read, shared, and debated across multiple disciplinary spaces- urban studies, discard studies, infrastructure studies, and the environmental humanities. Circular Ecologies should be read by anyone interested not only in the future of China, but in the future of the planet."

—Ralph Litzinger, Duke University

"A rare, intimate look at everyday environmental activism and waste management in contemporary urban China, where decades of economic growth have given rise to a massive consumer waste crisis. This compelling ethnographic account details how local activists formed unlikely coalitions to contest technocratic – and unsafe – approaches to waste management. Zhang's vivid and eloquent writing uncovers the logics and strategies driving grassroots environmental activism under authoritarian conditions. More broadly, this book offers crucial reading for anyone concerned about the human costs of common technological solutions to today's environmental problems."

—Melissa Checker, Queens College