This month's National Geographic has a great piece on the Yellow River in China, that erstwhile cradle of civilization that now sustains more than 150 million people and is in danger of both drying out and being poisoned to death (that photo's no joke; toxic chemical leaks have a habit of painting the river red or white or maroon from time to time). This passage on the uneasy adolescence of China's environmental movement was especially interesting:

In the mid-1990s a mere handful of environmental groups existed in China. Today there are several thousand, including Green Camel Bell. Jiang Lin's 25-year-old son, Zhao Zhong, founded the group in 2004 to help clean up the city and protect the Yellow River. With only five paid staff, Green Camel Bell is a shoestring operation kept afloat by grants from an American NGO, Pacific Environment. The name they chose, after the reassuring bells worn by camels in Silk Road caravans, is meant to be "a sign of life," says Jiang. "The bell is supposed to give hope to everyone who hears it."

At long last Beijing appears willing to listen. After three decades blindly pursuing growth, the government is starting to grapple with the environmental costs. The impact is not simply monetary, though the World Bank calculates that environmental damage robs China of 5.8 percent of its GDP each year. It is also social: Irate citizens last year flooded the government with hundreds of thousands of official environmental complaints. Whether to save the environment or stave off social unrest, Beijing has adopted ambitious goals, aiming for a 30 percent reduction in water consumption and a 10 percent decrease in pollution discharges by 2010.

Yet despite the good intentions, the crisis is only getting worse, reflecting Beijing's loss of control over the country's growth-hungry provinces. Leading environmental lawyer Wang Canfa estimates that "only 10 percent of environmental laws are enforced." Unable to count on its own bureaucracy, Beijing has warily embraced the media and grassroots activists to help pressure local industry. But pity the ecological crusader who speaks out too much. He could end up like Wu Lihong, an activist who was jailed and allegedly tortured last year for publicizing the toxic algal blooms in central China's Tai Lake.

Back in the Green Camel Bell office, Jiang stresses the group's cordial relations with local authorities. "The government has been working hard to stop factories from dumping," she says. Nevertheless, along her office wall stand plastic bottles filled with water discharged by factories and ranging in color from yellow to magenta—all unanalyzed for lack of funds. Even with its modest resources, Green Camel Bell has mobilized volunteers to help survey the ecology of the 24-mile section of the Yellow River that flows through Lanzhou. Their most important, and stealthiest, work is publicly exposing the most egregious polluters. It's enough to give a laid-off worker a sense of power and purpose. "I feel like a detective," says Jiang, laughing about her narrow escape at the paper mill. "But ordinary people like me have to get involved. Pollution is a problem that affects us all."

Christina Larson wrote a Washington Monthly piece a few months back exploring this dynamic at length: Beijing's genuinely worried about the ongoing environmental devastation, and can't rein in the provinces on its own, so the government has given green NGOs a little slack in hopes they can work their magic. But once you let the civil-society groups run wild, it can be hard to pull the lasso tight again. (During the 1970s and '80s, environmental and anti-nuclear groups in Indonesia and the Philippines ended up evolving into anti-authoritarian, pro-democracy movements.) Meanwhile, water has become scarce in China in part because it's so heavily subsidized and no one has incentive to conserve. But the government doesn't even want to contemplate hiking the price of water—that's a sleeping grizzly they'd rather not poke.

P.S. Check out this addicting interactive map of photos from all around China, which really gives a great visual sense for parts of the country that almost never pop up in the news.

--Bradford Plumer