In June of 1969, the Cuyahoga River, a feeder to Lake Erie and Cleveland, Ohio’s main waterway, burst into flames. The August 1969 issue of Time magazine featured an article on the fire, and it wasn’t kind: “Some river! Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows.” Cleveland, my hometown, a great American city with world class museums, music and major league sports, would soon be known as “the mistake on the lake.”

America’s environmental awareness did not have its beginnings with the Cuyahoga blaze, but the image of the river’s spontaneous combustion became etched in the nation’s consciousness as a symbol of the environmental decay wrought by industrial progress. The Cuyahoga fire is often described in history books as a wake-up call to the nation. By the early 1970s, a strong environmental consciousness took hold.

China today — as it begins to come to terms with air, water and land befouled by three decades of industrialization — bears some resemblance to the United States of the late 1960s. The Chinese are beginning to wonder, just as Americans did back then, whether “industrial progress” has come at too high a cost to the environment. Attitudes in China are changing.

When the PEW Research Center asked Chinese people in a 2008 survey to rate the seriousness of air pollution on a scale ranging from “not a problem at all” to a “very big problem,” 31 percent rated it a “very big problem.” In 2013, in a repeat of the PEW survey, 47 percent called it a “very big problem.” While these numbers tell us only so much, the trend is clear: environmental anxiety is spreading.

This growing anxiety is reflected in the rising frequency of environmental protests. In the past year, people have taken to the streets in cities throughout the country to protest the building of coal-fired power plants, chemical plants, oil refineries, waste incinerators, and the like. According to Chen Jiping, a former leading member of the Communist Party’s political and legislative affairs committee, pollution is now the leading cause of social unrest in China.

Why this budding environmental consciousness now? The answer is simple: 2013 was, by any accounting, one horrific year for the environment.

The year started with the “airpocalypse.” In January 2013, Beijing was enveloped by a thick, soupy concoction so dirty, so polluted, that day in China’s capital turned to night. The quality of the air over Beijing was worse than a typical airport smoking lounge. The World Health Organization said it was 40 times higher than the level deemed safe to breathe. Since then, incidents of equally deadly air pollution have struck Shanghai, Tianjin, Hangzhou and other cities.

In March, pig carcasses came bobbing up and down the Huangpu River, a major source of Shanghai’s drinking water. For two weeks, not just a few dead pigs or even a few hundred, but 16,000 pig carcasses floated past Shanghai. Farmers upstream were apparently disposing of dead and virus-stricken hogs by dumping them in local rivers.

In 2013 the Beijing government acknowledged what environmentalists had long suspected: some villages in the countryside had become so-called cancer villages, communities where cancer cases “cluster” and far exceed the norm. These villages are usually just downstream from an industrial plant that discharges hazardous waste into rivers that villagers use to drink and to irrigate their crops. Chinese nongovernmental organizations and environmental experts put the current number of cancer villages at more than 450.

In May of 2013, officials in Guangzhou, one of China’s largest and most prosperous cities, informed the public that 44 percent of rice samples sold throughout the city contained dangerous levels of the metal cadmium. Cadmium in rice comes from the contaminated soil in which it is grown and is known to harm the liver, kidneys, lungs, and the respiratory tract — and lead to cancer.

The bad news didn’t end there. People living in northern China were informed by a team of American, Chinese and Israeli researchers that they should expect to live much shorter lives — a full 5.5 years shorter — than their countrymen to the south. The reason: Heavier coal dependency in the north makes the air they breathe that much more toxic than the air in the south. Around the same time, several partner universities and institutions, including the World Health Organization, issued a report finding that 1.2 million Chinese died prematurely in 2010 alone owing to the country’s polluted air.

China’s environment is a disaster. But by casting a bright light on the country’s severe pollution problems, the crises of the past year have stirred a greater environmental consciousness in the people. At the same time, they have spurred the country’s leaders to take more aggressive environmental action.

In March of this year, top officials in Beijing declared a “war on pollution.” A month later they reformed the country’s Environmental Protection Law for the first time since 1989, strengthening the system for fining polluters, permitting some nongovernmental organizations to bring public-interest lawsuits against those who violate the law, and holding local officials accountable for the environmental quality of their regions.

The leadership has banned the building of new coal-fired power plants in key economic areas and all coal use in Beijing by 2020. Trial carbon-trading programs have been introduced in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou. Caps have been placed on coal consumption in some highly polluted regions. The government has committed $277 billion to an air pollution “action plan” and $333 billion to a water pollution “action plan.” China now invests more than any other country in renewable energy.

Finally, the authorities have restricted the number of cars on the road, set higher vehicle-emission standards and are offering huge rebates on the purchase of electric and hybrid vehicles.

We can’t yet know how effective these measures will be. But we shouldn’t be blind to the enormous effort China is making. Looking back years from now, my guess is that we will regard 2013 as a tipping point — China’s Cuyahoga moment. It was the year China as a nation became environmentally engaged. That engagement isn’t good just for China; it’s good for the entire world.

By DANIEL K GARDNER September 15, 2014 in The New York Times