February 27, 2012
China Environmental Experiences #2: Rocky Mountain Arsenal
As I explained in a previous post, this year I am blogging about my environmental experiences in China, where I am spending the year as a Fulbright Scholar at Ocean University in Qingdao. In this series, I’ll describe what it’s like to live in a rapidly developing society without effective environmental regulation of air, water, and product safety—but also those environmental realms in which the Chinese surpass American efforts, including public transportation, overall consumption levels, and the national commitment to encouraging cultural change toward a “recycling economy” (while Americans argue about teaching climate science in schools). (For the full background on this series, see my introductory post.)
But as this blog speaks directly to environmental law professors, the first story is one that clutched at my heart while teaching Natural Resources Law in my first semester here. Teaching environmental law and policy here is, as you would imagine, endlessly enlightening. Environmental decision-making in the U.S. proceeds from very different underlying assumptions than those most prevalent in China. So it was fascinating to begin class the way I usually do, probing the conflicting assumptions about the goals of natural resources management that make the enterprise so challenging in any context.
As many of you probably do as well, I especially like to raise these issues through the Rocky Mountain Arsenal discussion problem posed by environmental historian Bill Cronon (in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature) and nicely excerpted in the Rasband, Salzman, and Squillace NRL textbook. (Attached photo by Oborseth, with Creative Commons license.) This compound outside of Denver was left so toxic after decades of manufacturing mustard gas, napalm, and other chemical weapons that it was completely sealed off from human contact for years after its closure in 1992—a respite from human intervention during which it evolved into the nation’s “most ironic” wildlife refuge. Wildlife driven out of the developing Colorado front-country was finally able to establish undisturbed habitat in the arsenal, notwithstanding its toxic soils and contaminated waters. If the frogs had five legs, at least those frogs had wetlands to live in.
After sharing the story with my Chinese students, we debated the questions posed by Cronon and the textbook authors—how would you best manage these lands in accordance with nature? Would you initiate the massive disruption required to decontaminate the very earth underfoot, even though it would likely displace (and kill) a lot of wildlife? Or should you leave the five-legged frogs alone to live out their happy if shunted lives, peacefully unaware of the toxic soup in which they live? This began a lively conversation with the class that continued pleasantly and provocatively for months.
But over those same months, several of these students also became involved in my family’s experience of navigating the environmental challenges of our new life in China.
A few were there on the day that we arrived in Qingdao, helping us move into our new apartment. There were huge flakes of paint peeling from every wall, window, and doorway, collecting in piles on the floor no matter how often swept, beckoning my three-year-old like so many giant, lightly-sweetened corn-flakes. My very first question to the student in charge, an environmental law major with impeccable English, was whether I should worry about lead in the paint. “Why?” he asked. But even translating the problem into Chinese (and noting the established problem of lead paint in some Chinese toys) didn’t quite convey my concern. He assured me that children all over China grow up without incident in identical apartments with the same kind of paint, whatever it was. (Between this and the fact that the bathroom drain piped dirty water directly into the kitchen tap, we did not last there long.)
Several students traveled with me on congested area highways on days when I was overcome with the fumes of auto-emissions to which they were so accustomed that they didn’t even notice. Many times, on days thick with foul-smelling cloudy air, they assured me that Qingdao is a coastal city, and that this was just fog. Having lived in coastal cities most of my life, I am quite familiar with the difference between fog and smog. Fog is wet, I would say, and it doesn’t sting your eyes or your throat. “You feel this in your eyes?” they would ask, incredulously. I would later discuss EPA’s new Mercury Rule with a group over lunch, touching on its significance for coal-fired power plants. None had ever heard of the relationship between coal-fired plants and mercury, even though we could see three belching furiously into the air just from where we were sitting. Chinese coal doesn’t have any mercury, one assured me.
Others were on hand when our (second) apartment became infested with insects that ravaged us at night until my son looked like a smallpox patient for all his sores. The bites were so intense that bitten fingers would swell and go numb for hours at a time, preventing us from sleeping at all. After two weeks, we were so obviously exhausted and haggard that even my students were anxiously trying to help resolve the problem. And the solution was so obvious to them: just douse the apartment with successive rounds of pesticides as hard and thoroughly as possible until whatever was preying on us was gone. They contacted the building manager to explore options for beginning the process immediately, and secured a promise to do so. The solution was so simple that they were astonished by our polite but strident refusal to allow it.
Although we were desperate to be rid of the pests, we were even more concerned about the potential poisons used to eradicate them. Indeed, one of the hazards of being an environmental law professor is knowing a little too much about the hazards environmental laws are designed to prevent—such as the neurological consequences of organophosphate exposure. We had already puzzled everyone by declining to use the standard pesticide aerators that most Chinese use to kill mosquitoes, opting for minor suffering over the unknown consequences of an inhaled pesticide that we couldn’t research in English. We knew about some very dangerous Chinese chalk pesticides that are especially harmful to children, but we couldn’t evaluate the safety of those being offered to us now. After my son experienced some unusual neurological symptoms as an infant, we had avoided even American pesticides regulated for consumer safety, and this just didn’t seem like the time to shed precautions. But how to explain this to our kind hosts, for whom pesticides are a regular, widespread, and unquestioned part of life?
I finally just had to acknowledge that our behavior probably seemed completely unreasonable to most Chinese people, who would easily opt to fumigate and forget. I said a little bit about my son’s special medical history and explained that we were probably even more cautious than the average Americans. But I also noted the concerns raised by public health advocates around the world about the negative consequences of introduced chemicals in the environment, especially on young children. I explained the care that many American parents increasingly take in limiting the early exposure of their children to potentially dangerous substances in pesticides, cleaning products, and even plastic baby bottles.
In the end, with a little creativity and help from our friends, we were able to find some non-toxic solutions to our pest problem. But a few days later, one of my favorite students came up to me before class to say that he had continued to ponder the pesticide situation—and the eye-stinging air, and the peeling paint. This was the same student who had assured me not to worry about lead paint in the first apartment, and one of the many who regularly assured me that the cloudy air was coastal fog. “I cannot stop thinking this,” he said. And then in hushed but earnest tones: “China is the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, isn’t it?”
My jaw slowly dropped as I tried and failed to form words. He looked at me steadily, with an intense but quiet pain behind his eyes. I hated the comparison between China and a toxic dump. I especially hated it from this brilliant student, so proud of his country’s accomplishments and protective of the many ways that it differs from mine. But he persisted: “Not perfect comparison, I know, but really, the same basic situation, right? Environment is fouled, and we are like those frogs. We don’t even know it, do we? That we live in a toxic world?”
Still speechless, I nodded gently, to acknowledge the part of the comparison that tragically held some truth. Then I mumbled something semi-coherent about the same problem happening worldwide, and I politely turned away to ready my notes for class (but mostly so that he would not see me brush away the wetness from the corners of my eyes).
The pain behind his broke my heart. He was right, of course (and to some extent, his observation holds true for all of us). But in that moment, the last thing I wanted was for my teaching to make him feel ashamed of his country, or betrayed by his government, or panicked about the future—or, really, anything other than just a little more educated than he had been the day before.
But he is that much more educated, and this I did come to do. I am here to teach American environmental law, and in so doing, I find myself surprisingly torn. In sharing with my students some of the ways that I see the world, I necessarily force them to see theirs a bit differently, and it is not always for the best. To be sure, our educational exchange works in both directions, and that student reminded me that all of us are living in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in varying degrees. But the Chinese students with whom I spend the most time no longer believe that the cloudy air is fog, and I am sad for them that they will now worry for their children in a way that their neighbors won’t. They will worry about mercury poisoning and lung cancer, and worse—they will feel powerless to change it, at least for now. Without genuine levers of participation in governance, there really is some bliss to be had in ignorance.
Their lost environmental innocence is cause for grief, especially when it brings pain without obvious remedy. As midwife for this loss, I share in that grief. But I also cherish the hope that it will one day be a reason for celebration, when—thanks to their generation’s rising consciousness—the air no longer stings. If nothing else, I hope that my students will have that much more fire in their bellies, as their bellies are increasingly well-fed, to protect the next generation more effectively. And on that front, knowing even this small sample of Chinese young people fills me with confidence.
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This piece is partivcularly moving, but the entire series is fascinating and enlightening, even for one like I who has spent many years trying to help China overcome its grave envionmental problems. Thanks so much for doing this. Dick Ottinger
Posted by: Richard Ottinger | Nov 11, 2012 4:59:10 PM
Erin: Your story almost moved me to [turning head away] wetness around the eyes. I've never been to China, but I spent many years in Denver as an attorney for EPA Region 8, working on the cleanup of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. If China is the Arsenal, then along with the contamination, China - like the Arsenal - must also offer moments of astonishing beauty. I remember one magical morning about 15 years ago with the local Audubon society when we spotted over 60 species of birds at the Arsenal, including wild turkey and my first white-faced ibis. I hope you find your moments of beauty in China, in among the peeling paint and mystery fog.
Posted by: Cliff Villa | Mar 4, 2012 8:54:23 PM
Thank you for sharing your experiences! It has been really interesting so far. I have shared this post on my blog. I am excited to hear more!
Posted by: Dawn | Mar 1, 2012 9:23:21 PM
Thank you very much for sharing this insight.
Posted by: Jane Kloeckner | Feb 29, 2012 9:09:16 PM