Waste in the Water Machine: Three Gorges Dam and Rituals of Clean Energy Production

Publication Date
October 4, 2018

In its 2011 Social Responsibility Report, the China Three Gorges Corporation (CTG) began to label itself a “global corporate citizen.” By mapping its philanthropic projects in Laos, Sudan, and Ghana, and through closely followed standards and reporting checklists, the company manifested its new identity as a well-behaved citizen making positive contributions to the global ecological system and the international development community.[1] Equating itself with a legal person, CTG expands and grows ever more smoothly under the cover of its manifested responsibility.

CTG manages the Three Gorges Project (TGP), the largest hydroelectricity power station in the world. 181 meters in height and 2,335 in length, the dam has an installed capacity of 22,500 megawatts, enough to illuminate half of China.[2] For the Chinese Communist Party, the TGP is not only an energy-generating project, but a monument to its capacity to govern both natural and political systems. The dam has raised the water, altered the seasons, and tamed the upper Yangtze into a well-tempered lake. With ruthless mechanical logic, the TGP dictates the organic cycle of the river system by controlling water levels above and below stream via its floodgate. These climatic and hydrological changes of the Three Gorges Region have precipitated a series of attendant urban effects.

Yet, frictions between the dam and its surrounding landscape prevail along the entire upper Yangtze Basin. Issues such as landslides and floating debris contrast sharply with CTG’s international image as a global corporate citizen and the TGP’s domestic representation as a monument to Chinese nationalism. The capacity factor of the TGP is 45%, which means 55% of the energy generated by the falling water is lost in the dam’s mechanical friction. However, this calculation leaves out the human energy required to maintain the Three Gorges Reservoir.[3]

Every year between June and October, the floodwater of the Yangtze River flushes over 200,000 tons of floating debris into the reservoir.[4] The debris poses a serious threat to the delicate turbines of the dam. To ensure the TGP’s operation, CTG orders thousands of workers to remove the debris from the river before it reaches the dam. Addressing such issues requires the constant input of labor, capital, and technology from all over the world. Even though CTG’s annual report complies with the Global Reporting Initiative checklist point by point, the reality of floating debris seems to contradict all that CTG claims in its social responsibility report.

In studying the discrepancies between the formal structure of organizations and their actions, sociologists John W. Meyer and Brian Rowan have shown that, rather than taking such structures literally, one can consider them as myths and signs. Actions executed through the chain of management thus become mere rituals designed to exhibit good faith in an elaborate dramaturgical performance, thus preventing inspection. Achieving all the goodwill projects they advertise would preclude the fulfillment of their practical activities (expansion). This results in a “loosely coupled state” where the organizations act in good faith, but inefficiently.[5] Meanwhile, the amount of floating debris in the Three Gorges Region has not subsided for over 15 years. The company cannot attend to the maintenance of its existing projects because of its desire to expand.

Running out of suitable sites to dam in China, the company has shifted its focus to solar and wind energies. Since 2008, the company has indexed the entire territory of China for proper sites to harness renewable resources. Renewable energy production companies rely on the discourse of the fossil fuel crisis to expand. Following the Belt and Road Initiative, CTG has expanded into a latent geography of energy scarcity discourse, implementing fields of solar panels and wind turbines wherever possible. CTG’s clean energy business has penetrated into Europe, South and North America, and South Asia.[6]

To be sure, this essay does not mean to dismiss the entire clean energy production endeavor of CTG. What is in question here is the company’s detachment from the local problems caused by its projects. For Meyer and Rowan, rituals refer to a series of insincere actions that organizations undertake to appear as well-behaved members of society. CTG’s clean energy production is a ritual because the results and consequences that its projects might cause are completely beyond the company’s concern. The floating debris in the Three Gorges Reservoir reveals how CTG handles the discrepancy between its action and its reports.

The expansion of CTG relies on the discourse of political ecology (clean and renewable energy) – the exact discourse adopted by activists to prevent such expansions. This irony reveals a profound contradiction embedded in the very core of environmentalism. In Politics of Nature, Bruno Latour declares that politics must let go of nature. The dual arenas of nature and politics have limited the contemporary discourse of political ecology to the domain of power, leaving nature out of consideration. For Latour, the premise of ecological political action is to form a “single arena of the collective,” a concept requiring a drastic shift in our comprehension of the relations of subject and object, parts and whole, nature and culture.[7]

We live in a world, where effective resistance rarely happens through direct opposition.[8] As the French philosopher, Michel Serres, puts it,“the counter-norm is never a noise of the norm, but the same norm reversed”[9] – opposition is reinforcement. CTG understands how to arrive at the center by playing the periphery, how to bend an entire discourse to serve its ends, and how to cause the metamorphosis of a beast from inside. We should too.

[1] CTGPC Social Responsibility Annual Report, 2011: 21.

[2] CTGPC, China Three Gorges Project (Beijing: The News and Publicity Center of the CTGPC, 2011).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Mr. Liu, the director of CTGPC’s environmental protection department, Interviewed by the author, recorded conversation, July 10, 2017.

[5] John Meyer & Brian Rowan, “Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony,” American Journal of Sociology, No.2 (1977): 340-363.

[6] CTGPC Environmental Protection Annual Reports, 2015: 14.

[7] Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 1-32.

[8] Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).

[9] Michel Serres, The Parasite (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 68.

Publication Date
October 4, 2018
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