“A pity you didn’t get here yesterday,” one of my hosts lamented. “You can’t believe how clear and blue the sky was.”

It was late May, in Shanghai’s financial district. But instead of seeing China’s commercial heart aglow in afternoon sunlight, I watched a wall of fat, dusky haze surge down the Huangpu River, cloaking the city’s hypermodern skyline in an eerily premature twilight. Chinese tourists donned disposable cotton facemasks, a custom I quickly adopted.

Ships brimming with containers of finished goods or piled with sand and coal moved in and out of the smog. Half a kilometer away, skyscrapers looked more like translucent shadows than solid structures. On the shores of China’s Wall Street, factory feed stocks and consumer goods chugged resolutely past each other, leaving waves of environmental destruction in their wake.

The Huangpu is fed by a tributary that some have called the River of Ten Thousand Pigs, thanks to upstream pork producers illegally dumping deceased, diseased animals into the water. The Guardian reported that government officials removed more than 16,000 dead pigs in several massive cleanups. To my surprise, a friend saw this as somewhat good news: in the past, farmers would plow dead pigs back into the food supply; now, at least, they dump them in rivers. And, my friend observed optimistically, with sufficient resources they would dispose of them properly.

Chinese waste management stands at a watershed moment. Rising environmental consciousness among the educated, urban middle class—who insist on clean air, clean water, and a clean landscape—may compel the Chinese government to act.

One foreign observer I spoke to noted that contemporary Chinese protests are “always environmental.” Recent events seem to support his point. Grist has reported on artist-activists who make pollution the central feature of their work. And in May, protests exploded after locals caught wind of imminent groundbreaking on a new garbage incinerator in Hangzhou, south of Shanghai. It is the latest example of what has become widespread opposition to burning waste.

China lacks sufficient infrastructure for storing waste. The Chinese industrial revolution piggybacked on American consumerism: it produced products cheaply for export to the United States. Along the way, China’s own consumer economy exploded, as its leaders had intended all along. But the explosion took place with little attention to the waste the burgeoning consumer society would generate.

In fact, according to anti-incinerator activists I met in Beijing, the city’s first landfill opened only in 1994, with World Bank financing. The city quickly built several more. Before then, Beijing’s waste found its final resting place in a necklace of open dumps that ring the city. Now, these relatively new landfills have reached capacity much sooner than anticipated. Those that haven’t already closed are slated to do so within the next five years. I visited one that managed to add a few years to its lifespan by diverting organics to a Canadian-designed composting facility.

In China as in urban North America, real estate for new landfills comes neither cheaply nor easily. The United States has resorted to pushing garbage farther afield, trucking and rail carting it ever-greater distances in an increasingly complex game of shuttlecock between urban centers of garbage production and rural centers of garbage disposal. This maze allows Americans to increase consumption with little thought for the immense volume of material we throw away. The quiet and invisible efficiency of our garbage-disappearance system at least partially explains why we possess little in the way of waste activism: garbage, unless it doesn’t get picked up, rarely triggers protest. The sheer capacity of our landfills bolsters that complacency. We have been storing garbage for more than a century, which creates mental distance not only from our waste, but also from the consumerism that inevitably produces it.

China, by contrast, lacks such convenient landfills. To date, it has followed the lead of densely occupied Europe and Japan, where incinerators, rather than landfills, absorb consumer output. The upside for Europeans is that the relatively high cost of incineration compared to landfilling discourages waste production: Europeans generate less garbage per capita than do Americans. To be sure, that difference has less to do with consumption than with production. Consumers can’t generate less waste if manufacturers do not make less to waste in the first place.

So the world’s second-largest economy is preparing to burn a huge portion of its trash. This may continue to fire up environmental activists, who remain determined to combat incinerators. And for good reason, as many suffer from the same flaws that plagued their early American analogues. In the United States, incinerators left cities drowning in both garbage and unpaid bonds. City after city saw incinerators fail from 1890 to 1920; many opened and shut down in the space of just a couple of years. And as they flamed out, they spewed odors and fumes so foul that Americans lost confidence in incineration. The same concerns have fueled Chinese opposition to incinerators, even the high-tech, efficient, and emissions-neutral “waste-to-energy” facilities that generate surplus electricity.

China’s environmental protestors face the possibility of imprisonment or worse. Foreign media routinely report that while Chinese officials tolerate some level of critique in wildly popular microblogs called Weibo, the government swiftly quells gatherings that take place outside of cyberspace.

This makes the Hangzhou incinerator protests even more remarkable. Photos collected online chronicle a peaceful assembly that turned violent, as police brutally subdued participants and protestors burned security vehicles, leaving three dead (a “rumor” state media staunchly denied). That Chinese even contemplate protesting in this climate underscores the anxiety many middle-class, urban, and educated people feel about three decades of dirty, fast-paced industrial development.

Foreign observers often see this anxiety as a sign of progress. They rely on a logic many in the cleaned-up portions of the industrialized world take for granted: economic development stimulates environmental consciousness, environmental consciousness in turn incites political action, and political action finally drives comprehensive environmental protection.

But this causal chain is perhaps too neat. Usually, social processes are messy. The muddied history of environmentalism in the United States is a case in point. The first histories of environmental activism in the United States had little to say about pollution. They did not see environmentalism springing from the woes of industrialism. Instead they painted the early environmental movement as a kind of rich man’s hobby romance with nature.

These early histories, exemplified by Samuel P. Hays’s 1959 Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency, typically begin with Henry David Thoreau as iconic father-figure and follow the “preservationist” versus “conservationist” dispute between John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, who argued about whether to set aside public land for its own sake (as in national parks and wilderness areas) or as strategic resource reserves (as in Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service land).

Then, in the 1970s, a second telling of America’s environmental history gradually unseated this narrative, as historians came to see Progressive Era municipal sanitarians, who championed street cleaning and comprehensive waterworks, as proto-environmentalists. By the 1990s, historians wanted a backstory to American outrage over industrial pollution. It was histories such as Robert Gottlieb’s 1993 Forcing the Spring that made pollution prevention, abatement, and remediation the central focus of the modern environmental movement. But while this work helped to solidify concern surrounding pollution, questions remained. When did America become aware of its pollution problem? And exactly what role did that awareness play in the development of comprehensive environmental policy?

In 1991 economists began employing sophisticated econometric tools to settle the debate quantitatively. The result was the Kuznets Environmental Hypothesis. Kuznets, economists hoped, would reveal precisely the level of per capita GDP at which a country begins to control the noxious byproducts of industrialization. The Kuznets curve—adapted from Nobel Prize–winning economist Simon Kuznets’s work on the relationship between inequality and per capita income— follows an inverted U-shape: measures of environmental pollution rise with increasing per capita income, reach a turning point, and then gradually decline.

While the Kuznets model has met severe criticism—for instance, it does not account for the fact that countries produce their pollutants on a global scale, which makes local measurement somewhat artificial—it must seem compelling to anyone reporting from China today. The country’s environment has palpably worsened in the last three decades. So if recent protests provide any guide, environmental degradation may finally have peaked. At least, many living in the midst of the miasma hope so.

The popular version of the Kuznets model may yet prove valid in China. Or it may not. The masks, for example, speak to popular environmental concern but also to resignation. They suggest not only protest but also accommodation.

Smog can appear a harmless, if inconvenient, fact of life—the price of doing business. Today it may seem obvious that air in which you can’t see a quarter mile is bad for your health, but people living in the thick smoke of industrialization have not always recognized it as dangerous. Thomas Edison, for example, celebrated it. Farther back, in the seventeenth century, smog already suffused London so completely that it bothered kings and commoners alike. But what could they do? Coal fueled the city’s economy. Two hundred years later, when Dickens described “London peculiar,” smog was so ubiquitous that is seemed like a natural feature of the city.

Fast forward to contemporary China, where particulate masks have a surprisingly short history. One of Beijing’s pollution artists dates them to the 2008 Olympics when residents saw visiting athletes dawn masks rather than breath Beijing’s unfiltered air. Locals suddenly began to see haze from coal-fired power plants as something to ward off rather than glumly accept.

The incinerator demonstrations may signal a turning point in Chinese environmentalism—away from accommodation. Incinerators unite concerns about air quality and waste disposal, two issues usually sealed off from each other in public debate. Protesting garbage can help raise environmental consciousness in ways that protesting air quality alone cannot.

What happens next will likely happen soon, given the magnitude of China’s daily output of solid waste. Local officials may abandon incineration and follow the more politically palatable—but arguably less environmentally friendly—model of long-distance hauling and landfilling. Or maybe activists will address the issue that has always vexed anti-waste activists across the developed world. The problem is not so much the garbage already produced. It is the fantasy of limitless production into the limitless future.