07/24/2012 04:38 pm ET Updated Sep 23, 2012

Forget Arab Spring -- Isn't It Time for China's 'Silent Spring'?

Last year as the Jasmine Revolution swept through Arab states, foreign media gathered on the streets of Beijing in anticipation of a similar pro-democracy movement to take hold in China. And while this largely failed to materialize it's fair to say the country is being swept up in a rising tide of grassroots movements involving thousands of Chinese protesters who want their demands heard -- it's simply that those demands don't involve overthrowing the government. Instead the people of China are out on the streets, calling for an end to environmentally destructive and hazardous industry in the face of rapid development.

And they're getting results. Earlier this month protests over plans to build a copper molybdenum processing plant by thousands of concerned citizens in the city of Shifang, Sichuan led to clashes with riot police whose heavy-handed techniques included tear gas and stun grenades. But the real story here is not simply did the protesters triumph -- the construction plans have been cancelled -- but that the effort captured the attention of the nation and escaped the country's usually stringent censorship controls.

In 1962 Rachel Carson's treatise on pesticide use, Silent Spring not only facilitated a ban of the pesticide DDT, it kicked off a then-new environmental movement. It produced luminaries such as climate change activist Al Gore and laid the fertile soil from which Greenpeace would be born. The book's title was inspired by a John Keats poem, "La Belle Dame sans Merci," and the line, "The sedge is wither'd from the lake, And no birds sing." This handful of haunting words captures the state of China today, bogged by a quagmire of pollution issues. And as the world's biggest emitter of carbon emissions, is China not in need of its own "Silent Spring"?

"Mass incidents" are on the rise in China. In the last year alone there were protests over a Dalian petrochemical plant, the expansion of a Haimen coal-fired power plant in Guangdong, in Xilin Gol over coal mining, and this week in Shanghai due to a proposed incinerator, joining Shifang as a number of high-profile NIMBY (not in my backyard) civil disturbances. And while it's not possible to link these protests to any kind of coordinated environmental movement, Greenpeace East Asia's Head of Toxics campaigner Ma Tianjie does see signs of what could be called the precursor to one.

"What's remarkable is that these protesters are looking beyond their own community and beyond 'direct impact' change. They're sharing information on how to deal with officials and police and asking questions related to procedure: like environmental impact reports and hearings where they can air their opinions," Ma Tianjie says. "Before their demands on the government were simple: 'protect my health.' But now they also want institutional change."

Tianjie pins this new level of sophistication to the advent of social media, which often serves as a lightening rod for public discussion and has had a transformative effect in a country whose traditional media is so notoriously muzzled. This has been no more evident than in China's "blue skies revolution," where a series of netizen ("Internet citizen") actions pushed the government to begin including PM2.5 in their air quality readings.

"As more and more Chinese citizens are exposed not only to ideas outside the country, but also within, individuals and communities have become aware of their own rights," says Ma Tianjie.

Four ways that China's 'Silent Spring' will differ to the environmental awakening of the U.S. in the '60s and '70s:

Weibo (aka China's Twitter) FTW

Chinese activists and environmentalists today have access to a greater range of communication and social media tools than their predecessors, lowering the entry barrier for dissemination of information and organization of mass gatherings. Where once we rallied behind a book, today in China that book is more likely to be a blog, a Weibo account or Douban group.

The effect of Mao

He may be long gone, but his touch still lingers. "Maoism takes an instrumentalist view to nature. Nature is there to be conquered and lies at the service of man," Tianjie says. "This kind of thinking has dominated China for 50 or 60 years, and is the driving force behind all of China's dam building and other mega projects. Current environmental thinking needs to be a correction of that."

Environmentalism with 'Chinese characteristics'

Western environmentalism landing on Chinese shores is often met with resistance -- after all preaching sacrifice and scaling back doesn't go down well in a country that has painfully crawled its way out of poverty and is feeling the rush of rapid growth. "There's a smack of condescension when people from the West who've enjoyed decades of driving cars and living in big houses go and ask Chinese people to sacrifice under the banner of environmentalism," Tianjie says. "Chinese environmentalism will have to find a middle way, between growth and conservation."

A powerful state

Environmentalism of the '60s emerged out of a hotbed of social revolution: the anti-war movement, women's rights and racial equality were too creating a brand new United States. The political climate of China today barely resembles: the government clamps down on ideas and people it deems dangerous. On top of that the dominance of China's state owned enterprises and close ties between officials and corporations make activism of any kind a dangerous game.