November 8, 2012
China Environmental Experiences #7: Environmental Philosophy - Conservation, Stewardship, and Scarcity
This essay, the seventh in my series about the environmental experiences of an environmental law professor in China, continues the discussion I began last time about how different underlying environmental philosophies held by American and Chinese people can lead to different approaches in environmental governance. (For the full background on this series, see February’s introductory post, March’s reflections on China and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, April’s account of air quality issues in China, May’s exploration of water quality issues, and June’s review of safety issues with Chinese food and consumer products.) The previous essay addressed differences in the human relationship to nature, and this one addresses differing approaches to conservation, stewardship, and scarcity. The final installation will conclude with thoughts about some ancient philosophical roots of these differences.
I began the previous essay by acknowledging the delicacy of exploring underlying cultural differences that correspond to some the environmental experiences I’ve written about in this series. I noted how exquisitely careful one must be in discussing cultural differences, given the inherent shortfalls of any individual’s limited perspective and experience. Yet these differences relate so directly to the challenges of international environmental governance and intercultural understanding generally that I thought it important to discuss them, notwithstanding the hazards. So I offered the important qualification, which I share here once again, that:
My observations are inevitably, hopelessly entangled with my own cultural vantage point. My Fulbright year did not make me an expert on the inner world of Chinese culture—nor, frankly, did my earlier Harvard degree in Chinese language, culture, and history. My observations qualify as neither empirical scholarship nor serious ethnography, based as they are on casual research, personal experiences, anecdotes, and generalizations. But in hope that they may be useful in illuminating the philosophical roots of some gaps between Chinese and U.S. approaches to environmental governance, I share them here.
From there, I opened a discussion about how diverging Chinese and American environmental perspectives may be informed by different baselines in our cultural relationships with the natural world. But other differences in underlying environmental philosophy are also important to understand—and as always, some reflect our two nations’ different stages of economic development.
Conservation. Take our shared goal of conserving natural resources. Both countries are developing policies to discourage the waste of scarce natural resources, and on many fronts—such as its first steps toward nationally pricing carbon—China is outperforming the U.S. (Then again, China also built a coal-fired power plant a week in recent years, or more.) But behind good goal-setting, both countries face cultural-philosophical challenges at the level of policymaking and implementation.
On the example of climate policy, the American challenge has been achieving a consensus for rational policy. Part of the failure reflects an ideologically divided nation, but other parts reflect more widely shared American ideologies. For example, American economists have long argued that a national carbon tax would be more economically efficient than the cap-and-trade proposals that have had more political traction (to the extent that any GHG regulation had traction in Congress). Yet even when climate policy was a hot topic in Washington, the carbon tax was considered a dead-letter given the popular resistance to taxes that reflects a libertarian streak in the American cultural consciousness. The (relative) enthusiasm for emissions-trading schemes, wetland mitigation banking, and other market-based environmental reforms reflect widespread cultural regard for free market ideals—even when these ideals are more poetry than reality in operation. (There hasn’t been enough consensus to have translated those ideals into actionable climate policy, nor are they universally shared in the U.S.—but they were circulating widely when Waxman-Markey passed the House in 2009. [Photo courtesy of The Chicago Dope blog.]) Yet another cultural-philosophical hurdle for American climate policymaking—and one pointedly not shared in China—is the scientifically unexplainable skepticism with which increasing numbers of Americans seem to regard science itself (or, perhaps, scientists).
In China, where policymaking isn't usually the obstacle, challenges will likely have more to do with ground-level implementation. In addition to ongoing competition with economic development priorities and the problem of translating centrally formulated mandates into locally implemented policies, there is also the problem of widespread public indifference--and not specifically to climate issues. In present-day urban China (as was equally true in the U.S. a few decades earlier), you don’t see a lot of conservation-oriented behavior by average citizens—at least not without an immediate economic incentive or legal requirement. Solar water heaters are popular, but mostly because they are relatively inexpensive (and in some cases, mandatory). Buses, taxis and other municipal fleets increasingly run on publicly incentivized natural gas. Public transportation is very well-developed in comparison to American cities, but mostly because people are only just beginning to afford cars (and unprecedented levels of traffic are developing as China’s emerging middle class gets behind their own wheels).
Yet where the immediate incentives for conservation end, so in general does public compliance—and at least for now, without regard to the kinds of generational or educational dividing-lines that often accompany diverging conservation habits among Americans. China does have a nascent recycling program for deposit bottles and cans, but it appears nearly entirely staffed by those on the poorest margin, who sort through others’ trash looking for recyclables on which there is a deposit. Goodness knows we see the same phenomenon in American cities, but in addition to our homeless entrepreneurs, many Americans participate in curbside collection of non-deposit recyclables without sanctions or incentives. From kindergarten forward, most American children are inculcated with recycling values as a societal good until it becomes part of their social conscience (whether or not they always follow it).
In China, the government is attempting to do something similar, with an all-out public information campaign to usher China toward the "Circular" or “Recycling Economy”—the Chinese version of “reduce, re-use, and recycle” writ large. The effort encourages all citizens to see the relationship between their everyday behaviors and environmental well-being, buttressed by a national law that exhorts sustainable practices by local government and the businesses community (though with few enforcement provisions). In public places, the government frequently places signs reminding people that “environmental protection is everyone’s responsibility” (the accompanying one is from May Fourth Square in downtown Qingdao). Even the Tsingtao (“Qingdao”) Beer Brewery & Museum includes a full exhibit on sustainability (including a full exposition of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring), notwithstanding its weak connection with the general subject-matter of the museum.
It’s good that Chinese leaders are beginning to take sustainability seriously, because there is much work to be done at the level of consciousness-raising. Sustainability certainly goes beyond the simple act of recycling, but it is a good index of public attitudes. And despite valiant attempts at public recycling cans conjoined to trash cans, most Chinese make no effort to differentiate between them, and both are routinely filled to capacity with identical mixes of trash. There was no recycling program in my neighborhood or at my university, and no paper recycling of any kind (my students were completely baffled by my repeated efforts to find a place to recycle news and copy paper). And as in the U.S., homes are often over-heated and under-insulated, engines are over-polluting and smokestacks are under-scrubbed, fertilizers and pesticides overused, products over-packaged, etc. There are many miles before Americans should soundly sleep on these matters either, but on the whole, fewer Chinese consider them a problem. The sustainability movement has not yet taken hold among public attitudes--though it is beginning to with rising consciousness of the direct human health effects of egregiously widespread air and water pollution.
Stewardship. Of course, it is perfectly understandable that many Chinese are still more pre-occupied with survival than sustainability, and that other development priorities still preclude advanced sustainability initiatives. A lack of sophisticated curbside recycling should not be surprising in a country still wracked with abject rural poverty, and the government deserves praise for its efforts to promote the Recycling Economy alongside other development initiatives. But here is where the effects of underlying, environmentally-relevant philosophies add a special challenge to the task of Chinese environmental governance. It appears that there is a less entrenched cultural tradition of environmental stewardship here as there is in other crowded nations, like Japan or many in Europe. Indeed, one feature of Chinese culture that often stands out to foreign visitors is the striking way that most Chinese differentiate between the care they take of the environment inside their own homes and the care they take of the environment beyond their front doors. The contrast is stark, and suggests potentially significant implications for the challenges of environmental governance in general.
Inside the home, Chinese people take immaculate care to maintain cleanliness and beauty. Shoes are often left at the front door. Walls and shelves are adorned with enchanting art and objects reflecting the majestic culmination of thousands of years of traditional Chinese culture: calligraphy, porcelain, paper cuttings, shadow puppets, poetry, landscape paintings, and the like. But outside that front door, the duty of care appears to end. Common doors, hallways, and stairwells in Chinese apartment buildings receive little attention from residents; empty walls are often cracked with peeling paint and crumbling cement in seemingly abandoned hallways that open surprisingly into those beautifully maintained dwellings once you cross the inner threshold. This may reflect other collective action problems relating to commonly-owned property, but it also reflects a widespread sense that what happens beyond the inner threshold is someone else’s responsibility.
Crossing the outer threshold onto the street reveals an even more dramatic difference. In many cities, trash can be found everywhere—heaped on the sides of buildings, and littering not only streets but mountain trails and otherwise beautiful beaches. Problems with consumer-product and water quality that I have previously written about feed into the overall trash problem. Easily-breakable products and legitimate fears of unclean re-usables compound the prevailing urban culture of disposability, leading to a stream of waste that is often unceremonially piled up around neighborhoods. A broken toilet and shards of glass have been piled outside our building for months, and it is only one of many such piles.
Here in Qingdao, our neighborhood market area is hosed down by a street cleaning truck every morning. I was surprised to hear this, because I would not have guessed this daily cleaning from looking at them in the afternoon—until I saw what they looked like in the morning beforehand: strewn with fish guts, corn husks, banana peels, discarded vegetable parts, used cooking oil, and every other kind of refuse that you can imagine left behind after the daily rush of morning street vendors. People discard these things on the street, knowing that the city will clean it up—and the city does a faithful job. But the hose can’t get to everything, and a fair amount of refuse accumulates in gutters and potholes. And there is no street-cleaner for the narrower village streets, forest parks, or beaches.
Just as in the U.S., some Chinese individuals admirably take it upon themselves to clean up after their fellow citizens. Even as I am dismayed to see so much trash along the mountain trails behind my neighborhood, I am heartened to see the small signs left by members of private groups who occasionally clear the area of litter. The China Daily reported movingly over the winter on the efforts of an elderly woman in Beijing who makes it her personal task to comb trash out of Tiananmen Square every day.
Nevertheless, while some conscientiously pick up their own trash and even that of others, many others routinely drop trash without thinking much about it. In many places, it’s a culturally permissible thing to do. We ourselves are trying to re-educate our four year-old to do otherwise after we watched him proudly demonstrate that he had learned at school how to peel his own banana—and then dropped the peel on the ground, as though it had always belonged there. Perhaps it came naturally to him to just drop it on the ground without thinking about it, because he sees this happening around him so often. Some leave water bottles and other garbage behind in buses and taxis, too—which is also common in the U.S. But what I haven’t seen outside China are the taxi drivers who clean up what passengers have left behind by simply scooping the trash out of their car and into the gutter of the street where they are parked.
Littering is a human cultural problem throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world, demonstrated by American smokers who continue to discard cigarette butts indiscriminately, long since cultural tolerance for this waned after the 1970s environmental movement. But in China, cultural permission to discard waste in public places extends beyond water bottles and cigarette butts, complicating the environmentalist message. Consider the entrenched Chinese tradition of encouraging children to use public streets while toilet-training. Chinese toddlers are weaned from diapers early—a great environmental good, given the obvious environmental problems associated with disposable diapers. In the U.S., for example, where the average baby goes through about 8,000 diapers, parents buy as many as 40 million disposable diapers a day (or more), most of which end up in landfills where they will hold their mummified loads for the next 500 years. But in China, toddlers wear pants with a split bottom, enabling children to squat to poo or pee wherever they happen to be when the urge hits. Which leads to different kinds of environmental problems.
I should be used to it after nearly a year, but I am always still surprised to emerge from our apartment to find a parent helping a squatting child unload beside the front gate. Small piles of poo on the sidewalk are commonplace, so we walk carefully, eyes cast down. I’ve seen parents allow their children to relieve themselves into large potted plants at airports. I once saw a child have an accident in the aisles of a big-box store, and while the child was immediately whisked away to be cleaned, the resulting pile was left behind for others to avoid. It’s not uncommon to see men urinating along streets and sidewalks, notwithstanding nearby public toilets erected to accommodate neighborhoods without indoor plumbing. A related tradition engaged in by both men and women is that of spitting on the streets and sidewalks, after expelling the product from deep within troubled-sounding lungs.
With so much Chinese ground thus anointed, the outside environment is generally (and correctly) viewed as a terribly unclean place. The American “five-second-rule” is humorously gross in the U.S., but unimaginable in China—because even indoor floors are trod upon by shoes that have walked through countless stages of decomposing goodness-knows-what. A Chinese student, eyes wide with horror, once asked me whether it was true that American students sit or even recline on campus lawns between classes. I laughed at the time, but months later would find myself cringing as a group of visiting American students sat to rest on the gracious exterior stairs of a provincial museum, and nothing I could say would dislodge them. Similarly, Chinese friends would gasp when I instructed my toddler to hold stair handrails, worried about what hands had been there before him, and what those hands might have touched. Their view—which I ultimately adopted—was that it was better for him to fall down the stairs than to allow whatever was on those railing onto his thumb, which inevitably drifts toward his mouth. By necessity, Chinese parents wean thumb-suckers incredibly early (and by whatever means necessary).
Here’s the thing. If you see the world outside your own home as a legitimate place to offload waste—even E. coli-laden human waste—how can this not extend to greater environmental management? If it’s culturally permissible to drop litter (and worse) on the street or the beach, why wouldn’t it be okay to release manufacturing waste into the river, or pipe it into the air? The potential implications for environmental law are obvious. Because it’s not just an economic challenge for the government to convince industrialists not to pollute; in some important way, it’s also a cultural challenge. Professional polluters aren’t just doing it because it’s cheaper than the alternative. They are doing it because—at some level—it’s what they have always done, and without any moral misgivings.
Scarcity. The legacy of scarcity in an era of rapid economic development also factors in to environmental philosophy. Indeed, a discussion of scarcity provides an especially poignant point of contrast between Chinese and American approaches that reflect their different stages of economic development.
Let’s start by acknowledging the obvious: Americans are fortunate to have lived through a period in which most have not endured the scarcity regularly experienced by people in the developing world, and they should do better to remember that. My family and I are often ashamed by the patterns of conspicuous consumption in the United States, where ever bigger cars, houses, and other forms of cultural bling are marketed to consumers who enjoy far more than their fair share of world resources. Yet this year, we have also been perplexed by the contrasting patterns of consumption and waste that we have witnessed in China—from the trash piles of used disposables to the missing efforts to maintain buildings against the effects of weather and time. Especially in a developing country, where resources are comparatively scarce, why not conserve and maintain? Why not fix old things, rather than just tossing them aside for a new ones?
In puzzling over this question with some environmental faculty at Wuhan University, I learned how a nation’s developing status can also push in the opposite direction. One spoke of an experience decades earlier, in the pre-PowerPoint era, when he was using an overhead projector with transparencies to accompany his lecture. Something like a filament in the ancient projector blew, so everyone waited while the university repairman was called in. Using tweezers and tiny metallic wire, he got it working again. The man knew how to fix virtually anything—because he had to. At the time, there was no alternative but to fix things, over and over again. But now, in this age of emerging wealth, perhaps there is national pride in not having to fix things this way. For some, he suggested, it is a sign of growing status to be able to toss out the old rather than fix and maintain it indefinitely.
Similarly, several students once explained to me that their parents absolutely forbid them from licking their fingers when they ate—a good habit that they adhered to even at the local Kentucky Fried Chicken, a popular foreign restaurant chain in China. At first, I assumed this was a matter of good hygiene, and I regretted the manners my own child displayed (after all, KFC’s American slogan is “finger-lickin’ good!”). But I later learned the back-story: that these parents had come of age at a time where they sucked every last drop of grease from their fingers because there simply wasn’t enough food, and not a calorie could go to waste. Now, when their own children licked a tasty finger over a full plate of food, these parents would passionately bat the sticky fingers away from little mouths, proudly reminding them that they would never have to lick their own fingers for nourishment. They were not to do it, because doing it symbolized a desperation that the nation had triumphed over (at least in these urban areas) through economic development.
The cultural memory of extreme scarcity runs deep in China, and it is reflected in other curious cultural differences between China and the West. One possible example that often confuses foreign visitors is the way that Chinese tend not to queue. There is not a strong tradition of waiting in line for goods or services—so, for example, when the bus arrives, the crowd simply surges the door and people gradually push their way through, one by one. There are something like lines at street food stalls, but rules are relaxed and there is no hard order to them; if someone wants it badly enough, they can just insert themselves close to the counter. Even at the airport, as people wait to board the plane at the gate, many will queue, but others force their way through to the front as the group moves toward the plane. My Western sensibilities were often jarred by this behavior, but my Chinese friends mostly tolerated this with either patience or indifference. (Though I discovered how fully I had crossed over while escorting that delegation of American students through Beijing, frustrated by their halting efforts to politely advance through crowds while I soared through cracks and openings like a native…)
Why no tradition of lining up? One Chinese lawyer explained to me that this is just another response to the nation’s long history of extreme scarcity: in a world where there is never enough to go around, people long ago learned to grab for what they need. This tradition is changing with new cultural developments and as problems of scarcity ease in China, but I have occasionally wondered whether it could lead to intercultural confusion in international affairs, such as negotiations over hotly contested resources in the Arctic or South and East China Seas. That said, I am very self-consciously making these observation as an indirect beneficiary of the former American tradition of “manifest destiny”—our most spectacular example of not respecting a first-come, first-served ethic of access to natural resources. So I suppose that both of our cultures—like all of them really—are on an ongoing path of philosophical development…
[To be continued in the final installment, in which I’ll conclude with some thoughts about the relevance of ancient philosophical traditions.]
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Thanks very much, Joe! I will definitely look into this exchange. I fear that my final installment (mostly already written) will almost certainly lack the insight that Tuan Yifu offered there, but I'm very interested to learn from the exchange and look forward to discussing it with you one day, perhaps in these pages. Best, --Erin
Posted by: Erin Ryan | Dec 7, 2012 3:30:26 PM
As always, I enjoy reading your insightful blogs. When I read the opening of your blog, I expected what apparently will be your next blog, an inquiry into the long developed philosophical traditions in the West and in China. This brings to my mind the exchange between Lynn White ("Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," 155 SCIENCE 1203 (1967)) and Tuan Yi-Fu ("Our Treatment of the Environment in Ideal and Actuality," 58 AM. SCIENTIST 244 (1970)). White famously argued (at the birth of environmental law in the US) that our problems were rooted in the "be fruitful and multiply" command of Western religions and that we would be better served by adopting the philosophical approaches of China. Tuan responded by pointing out that Chinese philosophy had not prevented the Chinese from making a great mess of their environment (which Tuan identified as problems that went back centuries). If you are not familiar with this exchange, you might find it of interest. I would enjoy hearing your comments on it either when you write about the relevance of the ancient philosophies or separately.
Posted by: Joe Dellapenna | Nov 10, 2012 4:39:37 AM