mabroda May 26th, 2009
How to sum up this incredible experience? On the one hand, I know that we have barely scratched the surface in trying to understand the social context of environmental attitudes and practices in China. On the other hand, we did see and learn a ton in just two weeks so what follows is a first, tentative (and a bit lengthy—sorry!) attempt to organize some thoughts.
I had read about China’s double-digit growth over the past decade, but it was fascinating to actually see and feel it. To me, it felt like Japan in the 1970s and 80s in the heyday of the bubble economy. Everywhere we turned we saw signs of China’s embrace of “modernity”—from billboards to construction cranes to mobile phones. One of our colleagues at Sichuan University put it this way: no matter what their current standard of living, everyone is working hard to get to the next level. One night in Beijing we made a brief foray into a “hypermarket”—this one was named WuMart, which probably explains why we were drawn to it. A smaller version of the bigger hypermarkets, WalMart and Carrefour, this place was nonetheless packed with shoppers buying everything under the sun. It would be interesting to explore further the cultural twists on consumerism in China, but there is no question that it is here to stay and that it is going full-tilt .
As Thomas Friedman points out, the prospect of 1.3 billion people aspiring to middle-class lifestyles is a scary prospect for the global environment. I remember that at our last meeting of the Hales reading group prior to departure, we half-jokingly described the Iceland/Denmark and China trips as looking at “best practices” and “worst practices,” respectively. So, is China headed for an environmental train wreck?
We’ve certainly seen firsthand some sobering results of the fervor for economic growth. We haven’t been to a single spot where the tap water is safe to drink (though we were told locals in some places drink it without boiling). Driving to the Great Wall we passed numerous dried up river beds north of Beijing, evidence of the acute water shortage that city is facing. Air quality is still a major issue in the big cities (of which there are many), though the Shanghai Daily reported today that April had 23 “blue sky” days, the most since the year 2000. The many dams on China’s rivers have had an adverse effect on biodiversity—in fact, we were told that ten of China’s top scientists had recently written an editorial in one of the leading newspapers stating the scientific argument against more dams. And, ironically, traveling to Shangri-la, we encountered garbage dumped along the roadside at regular intervals.
In spite of all this, I have to say I came away from the trip cautiously optimistic about China’s prospects for balancing economic growth and conservation. In some areas, China is clearly ahead of us in environmental standards.
For one thing, from what we could tell, many of China’s leaders do recognize the seriousness of environmental problems. Green signage is everywhere, for example, exhorting people to be eco-conscious and “civilized” citizens (it’s not clear how these are interpreted, however). Every day we were in China seemed to bring news of some new initiative—a $60 million loan from the World Bank for clean coal technology, government subsidies for alternative energy, including a plan to cover one-fifth of rooftops with solar panels, the postponement of several dam projects due to environmental impact reports. The government’s ability to engage in intentional planning and nationwide implementation of environmental standards was evident in, for example, the requirement that cars older than ten years must be taken off the road, the use of solar panels (and occasionally small wind turbines) on street lights, and the banning of scooters with two-cycle engines. Electric bicycles were also prevalent—owners simply remove the battery and recharge it in their apartments (a fully recharged battery gets you about 80 km).
The difficulty seems to come in the implementation of top-down policies, however well-intentioned. One Chinese proverb apparently states that “for every top-down policy, there is a counter-measure from below to evade it”. In our limited experience, it did seem that rural areas were clamoring for jobs and development projects, especially tourism that could provide jobs for ethnic minorities. In the process it is easy to see how environmental concerns can get swept aside.
On the other hand, though we certainly saw rural areas that could be considered “poor,” I was struck by the relative absence of slums and “abject poverty” that are a grim staple of urban life in many cities in India and Africa. To my mind, this is a considerable achievement, and it makes me wonder how we should weigh the environment consequences of growth against the fact that China’s economic boom has been responsible for pulling millions of people out of poverty. This is pure speculation, but if the names of the structures we saw in the Forbidden City—Hall of Complete Harmony, Palace of Earthly Peace—or the philosophy underlying the many traditional Chinese medicinal clinics—health depends on balancing opposing forces such as hot and cold, excess and restraint—is any indication, there may be a deeper cultural and religious compass that can help guide restoration of the balance between the seemingly opposing goals of economic development and conservation (full disclosure: I did receive a 70-minute foot massage at one of these clinics☺.
Finally, we got some interesting glimpses of Chinese attitudes towards American stewardship of the environment. I remember asking Ted Burger’s friend, Lin Lang, who took us to see his 93-year old grandmother, whether there was hot water in the hutong (traditional Beijing neighborhoods). He just laughed and said, “No, of course not. We always joke about how the Americans can’t do without their hot showers.” The same sentiment came up in our conversation with party officials at the national environmental protection agency, who confessed that their image of Americans was of wasteful use of electricity and water. Similarly, an editorial in the China Daily News promoting green practices reminded readers that most of global warming to date has been caused by the harmful policies and practices of the U.S. and other “developed” countries. In this respect, the trip has definitely confirmed for me that there is no moral high ground Americans can occupy in the debate over global environmental change. We did discover that hotels in China take no chances with guests of any nationality —your room key activates all the power in the room so power is automatically cut off when you leave.
Well, I’m out of time, but just want to conclude by saying that this trip has exceeded my expectations in every respect. I am extremely grateful to the Hales Fund, to my colleagues in the reading group, to Rujie Wang (for his assistance at every turn!), and to my wonderful travel companions, Susan and Matthew. I have a feeling that this is a trip that will “keep on giving” for many months and years to come.