What happens when you cross a young American engineer looking for the best place to build a dam on the great Yangtze River with a country steeped in 8,000-year-old beliefs? You get a story like “A Single Pebble”. The entire book is a bird’s-eye view of what it was like for a Chinese merchant ship to get past the dangerous sections of gorges on the journey. The junk (ship) has a team of 40 trackers, men that walk along the shore and pull it with long ropes. It’s a job on par with building the pyramids of Egypt – backbreaking, dangerous, and thankless. The engineer feels sorry for their miserable lives, and tries to convince them that the modern dam could make life so much easier for them.
Fifty-six years after this novel was written (in 2012), the Three Gorges Dam was completed, producing more energy than any other dam in the world up to that point. A few years later the ship lift was also finished, making merchant travel on the Yangtze what the young engineer had envisioned. But it came at a great price. One and a quarter million people had to be re-located. Many archeological sites were lost. Erosion became a problem, as well as landslides. The dam caused some deforestation, which led to the decline of certain plants and animals. Progress has its cost.