Tuesday, December 18, 2012

China Environmental Experiences #8: Environmental Protection as an Act of Cultural Change

This essay, the last in my series about the environmental experiences of an environmental law professor in China, concludes my three-part discussion about how different underlying environmental philosophies held by American and Chinese people can lead to different approaches in environmental governance.  The first part addressed differences in the human relationship to nature, and the second addressed differing approaches to conservation, stewardship, and scarcity.  This essay concludes with parting thoughts about the philosophical roots of some of these differences, the Cultural Revolution and the processes of cultural change, and the significance of all this for environmental protection in China. Laoshan Mountain 033(For the full series background, see the introductory post, reflections on China and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, an account of air quality issues in China, an exploration of water quality issues, and a review of Chinese food and consumer product safety.) 

I began the previous two essays about environmental philosophy by acknowledging the delicacy of exploring the underlying cultural differences that correspond to some of the environmental experiences I’ve written about in this forum.  I noted how exquisitely careful one must be in discussing cultural differences, given the inherent shortfalls of any individual’s limited perspective and experience.  And before plunging once more into that fraught territory (and with apologies for the repetition), I’ll once more share the important qualification 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. 

Shanghai Jade Buddha Temple, World Financial Center, Bund 016In the prior two essays, I discussed how diverging Chinese and American environmental perspectives may be informed by different baselines in our cultural relationships with the natural world, and expressed through our different approaches to managing conservation, stewardship, and scarcity.  This final piece, the most fraught and likely flawed of the three, considers the relationship between the Chinese approach and the Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian ideals that undergird Chinese culture.  It engages issues of gender roles, environmental protection, and cultural change in both China and the United States (with a shout-out to Vietnam).

But first, a brief note about the cultural baggage that I bring to the project.  Long before this seemed prudent to the average American college student, I majored in Chinese language, culture, and politics as an undergraduate in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  I had started out as a philosophy major but switched departments in order to study Eastern traditions that were not part of the standard Western philosophy curriculum.  I locked myself in the language lab to catch up on my Mandarin so that I could graduate on time, but it was worth it to peer into the incredible story of this unfamiliar nation.  I was riveted by the breadth of Chinese history, the expanse of Chinese philosophical traditions, and the cultural foundations—so contrasting my own—that enabled modern societal movements like the Cultural Revolution and One Child PolicyLaoshan Mountain 125I was curious about Confucianism and Buddhism and especially enchanted with the Naturalist School of Taoism, in which I saw an emphasis on harmony between the human and natural worlds that resonated with my own personal sensibilities.  From Taoism originates the philosophy conception of Yin and Yang (literally, “the shadow and the light”), emphasizing the surprising but inevitable ways that seemingly opposing forces are interdependent and interconnected within the world, suspended in an organic embrace of balance.

So I was very excited when the Fulbright program and Chinese Ministry of Education placed me in Shandong province, the historic home not only of Confucius but also to many renowned Taoist temples among the enchanting Laoshan mountains.  I knew that China faced daunting environmental challenges, but in some subconscious way, I hoped that home-grown Taoist principles would provide cultural support for resolving them.  But the Taoism I found in China held little in common with the stylized, “Tao-of-Pooh” version that I studied in college.  Laoshan Mountain 127The Taoist temples that I visited appeared to emphasize faithful worship of colorful immortals over personal adherence to the Way (or “Tao”) of simple joy and interconnected balance.  On the surface, they seemed very similar to Buddhist temples, which I had expected to differentiate a contrasting path of detachment to avoid suffering within cycles of rebirth. 

Fully recognizing the interpretive limitations of my tourist perspective, I asked the students Shanghai Jade Buddha Temple, World Financial Center, Bund 028accompanying me to help me understand the differences between Taoism and Buddhism from their own vantage points, but I found that they were generally unable to articulate much about either tradition—nor were they terribly interested in doing so.  What they did describe was wholly unrelated to my own schooling, focusing on important historical moments rather than underlying ideas.  Granted, I’m sure I would have had a very different experiences talking with the actual Taoist or Buddhist monks in those temples, and I suspect that many echoes of these traditions continue to reverberate through Chinese culture in ways that neither I nor my students fully appreciate.  Shanghai Jade Buddha Temple, World Financial Center, Bund 046 (I’m also sure that the sterilized versions I learned at Harvard never accurately reflected the full reality of Chinese experience.)  Either way, I discovered that the majority of mainland Chinese don’t pay all that much attention to these ancient traditions these days—many seeing them as quaint at best, and culturally backward at worst. 

I shouldn’t have been surprised, given how strongly (and often violently) ancient Chinese philosophies were discouraged during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.  In that second Chinese revolution, Chairman Mao set out to eradicate the traditional belief systems that he warned were holding the Chinese people back--and also, most likely, to consolidate his own weakening political power.  Women were liberated from centuries of repression and peasants at the bottom of the social order were exalted, but teachers were pilloried, libraries destroyed, and many monks and scholars persecuted to their deaths.  (Horrifying estimates suggest that somewhere between one and twenty million people were killed during the decade-long struggle.)  Four decades later, it was fascinating to see how the Cultural Revolution had succeeded in some of its ideological objectives, especially in eroding the overt roles that Taoism and Buddhism play in the philosophical world of most mainland Chinese.  Women hold up half the skyFor what it’s worth, though, the same routing of “old thinking” has also succeeded in fundamentally changing the status of women in society.  While women are hardly co-equal with men in modern China, their position in society has improved immeasurably since 1949, thanks in part to the relentless urging of the early communist party that “women hold up half the sky.” 

Hanoi 067This example of purposeful cultural change yields an especially fascinating comparison with Vietnam, a neighboring socialist republic that is also the result of a political revolution, but this one uncoupled from a cultural revolution of the sort that rocked China.  In Vietnam, the rhetoric of the new political order stands on seemingly equal footing with ancient cultural and philosophical traditions.  Nearly every home, hotel, or restaurant that I visited included a little shrine, honoring a mix of immortals, ancestors, and other objects of traditional worship— Hanoi 196unselfconsciously adjacent to political propaganda signs honoring heroes of the revolution or touting contemporary political objectives and loyalty. Hanoi Friday 062  The richness of traditional Vietnamese culture continues to suffuse people’s everyday lives, in contrast to modern China, where cultural traditions flourish around holidays but seem less entrenched at other times. (Indeed, several Chinese privately lamented to me that the nation had lost its ethical moorings after the decimation of the Cultural Revolution, perhaps explaining the hunger for spiritual entrepreneur movements like Falun Gong—which revives some elements of Buddhism and Taoism—and Christianity.) 

Yet in Vietnam, I also observed the inevitable flip-side of entrenched ancient traditions—a literal expression of the Yin and the Yang—epitomized by the plight of a remarkable woman I met while guest lecturing there, whom I’ll call Linh.  Hanoi 138Linh is a twenty-something, overseas-educated, up-and-coming young professional with a plumb job working for the government who nevertheless fretted about her future, especially regarding marriage.  She feared getting married because, according to traditions once universal in China and still prevalent in northern Vietnam, marriage would require her to leave her family home and become a member of her husband’s family household, where she expected ill-treatment from her parents-in-law. 

She had a vivid picture of what that treatment might look like based on the experiences of her own sister-in-law, who lived together with her, her brother, their toddler, and Linh’s parents in her father’s home.  The sister-in-law had been unable to see her own family since the birth of her son, because Linh’s father had forbidden her from taking the child away from the family home for the two hour journey to her village.  Hanoi 160
Linh summoned the courage to tell her father that he should be nicer to his daughter-in-law and allow her to see her parents.  After all, she reminded him, one day she would be someone’s daughter-in-law wanting to see him.  But he did not take well to being scolded by his daughter, and nothing changed as a result.  Linh seems resigned that she will someday have to get married, but she does not look forward to that day.

It broke my heart to hear—in 2012!—this age-old story of fear and sorrow from a well-educated professional woman at the pinnacle of Vietnamese society.  Aside from the foreign education and government job, her story is reminiscent of countless Chinese women over the thousands of years that young brides were forced to leave their parents’ households for their husbands’, often to be persecuted by an unhappy mother-in-law once forced to leave her own family.  I recall learning in college that the suicide rate among young Chinese women during this time was estimated to be the highest of any social group anywhere on earth at any time in human history, evidencing the misery that so many endured.  (Sadly, recent studies show that this trend continues in rural China, where traditional family structures remain entrenched.)  Hanoi Friday 046Fortunately, that time is long gone in the urbanizing parts of China that I visited, and the situation is much improved in Vietnam as well, given the social and economic power that comes to women like Linh from working outside the home.  So at least some of the “old thinking” extinguished by the Chinese Revolution should not be missed—even if many of the methods can never be condoned. 

Yet not every aspect of traditional Chinese culture was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.  Notwithstanding the dismantling of so many foundations, one critical cornerstone of traditional Chinese culture survived relatively intact: ConfucianismIMG_0170Founded on the teachings of the ancient philosopher Confucius, the philosophy of Confucianism continues to provide a strong ethic of righteous living and rules of conduct in relationships that redounds throughout Chinese culture.  As a humanist delineator of right and wrong behavior, it focuses on the cultivation of personal virtue, respect for authority, and deference to proper roles within the community.  Among its principles, Confucianism emphasizes the importance of education, reverence for the ancestors, and the critical responsibilities of individuals within clearly articulated social hierarchies. 

Confucian ethics are among the proudest cultural traditions of China, and they form the backbone of many other Asian cultures, from Vietnam to Japan to Korea.  Hanoi 040They infuse the flavor and texture of Chinese society, gracing it with respectful behavior, deep regard for the wisdom of elders, and societal support for teachers and education more generally.  It also emphasizes the proper role of individuals given their particular role within the social order.  Children should obey parents, wives should obey husbands, and husbands should obey local leaders, who should, in turn, obey national leaders.  This system of ordered relationships has provided needed social stability during times of great political upheaval, reaching back over thousands of years of territorial conquest and dynastic change that might have otherwise torn Chinese culture apart. 

So even after the Cultural Revolution successfully eradicated the already weakening traditions of Taoism and Buddhism from the Chinese popular consciousness, the Confucian bedrock of Chinese society continues to thrive—probably because the current political system is itself so well-aligned with Confucian principles.  The success of the Chinese Communist Party is inextricably intertwined with broad-based Confucian respect for the wisdom of national leadership, deference to authority, and Confucian-cultivated obedience within an explicit societal hierarchy.  Shanghai Jade Buddha Temple, World Financial Center, Bund 079 Of course, in reinforcing these strict social hierarchies, Confucianism has also facilitated the long stability of arguably oppressive traditions like the practice of female foot-binding (eradicated by the mid-20th century), and the gender roles that continue to haunt women like Linh throughout Asia.  The Yin and the Yang.

How, then, does all this relate to environmental governance?  Possibly profoundly.  Even as the great tradition of Confucianism exhorts right behavior within the social order (and even setting aside the most contested areas of that social order), I cannot help but wonder about the relationship between Confucian principles and environmental ethics.  As I discussed in the previous essay, I found a less entrenched cultural tradition of environmental stewardship in China than I have seen in equally crowded nations, and I wondered why.  For example, I remarked on the striking way that most Chinese seem to 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:

“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….  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… Dylan's Kindergarten 002Littering 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... [discussing the tradition of allowing children to toilet-train on public streets and sidewalks].  With so much Chinese ground thus anointed, the outside environment is generally (and correctly) viewed as a terribly unclean place…. 

“Here’s the thing.  If you see the world outside your own home as a legitimate place to offload 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 moral misgivings.”

Laoshan Mountain 036Indeed, in China, moral misgivings are more likely to come from the violation of Confucian ethics than the violation of relatively new, state-mandated environmental laws.  And herein lies the great challenge for Chinese environmental law. 

Confucianism teaches the maintenance of social order through right behavior within strictly nested social hierarchies.  Chinese culture is permeated with Confucian ethics, which teach people to focus on their own sphere of responsibility and act obediently toward the sphere above them.  These ethics reinforce the power of the very political system now earnestly trying to generate meaningful environmental laws and nurture the “Recycling Economy” that I discussed in the previous essay.  But in teaching people to focus on their own sphere and not beyond, is it possible that these same ethics unwittingly support an underlying environmental tendency to think, perhaps, a little too locally and not enough globally?  Could Confucian ethics unintentionally encourage a duty of care that extends only to the corner of the world under one’s direct control—the inside of one’s home—leaving responsibility for the rest to others?  Could this help explain the comparatively weak tradition of environmental stewardship in China?

It certainly can’t be the only explanation, given the confluence of Confucian ethics and strong environmental stewardship traditions in neighboring Japan, another Asian nation founded on deeply Confucian traditions, coupled with a Shintoist reverence for natureJapan - L. Ashi, Temple, Old Stone Road, Mtn Train, Hakone Vents 059 Still, I can’t help but wonder whether there is some explanation lurking here to account for the remarkable way that the Chinese duty of care for the environment seems to coincide with Confucian circles of agency, responsibility, and authority.  Americans sport buttons and bumper stickers exalting us to “think globally, act locally.”  But most Chinese people seem to orient both their thinking and acting within the bounds of their most powerful culturally designated sphere of responsibility: the family home.

Confucian ideals remain steadfast in China, but cultural change is imminent—and on the rise, thanks to both top-down and bottom-up sources.  Operating through the Internet from the bottom up, a thriving economy of Chinese social media has dislodged young people from the strictly local sphere as they build communities of interest across the country (although not the world, thanks to the “Great Firewall” that blocks domestic access to social networks abroad).  Shenyang December 2011 098And as I discussed in the previous essay, the Chinese government is working hard from the top-down—hopefully harnessing citizens’ Confucian respect for leadership—to inseminate a “Recycling Economy” within the new social order.   The Recycling or “Circular Economy” sustainability campaign exhorts citizens to see the relationship between their every-day behaviors and the health of the overall environment beyond their front doors, and to connect the health of the environment to overall human well-being. 

Hanoi 163But there is no way around it: the environmental project in China is going to take an act of cultural change.  The Cultural Revolution represents one way of successfully implementing cultural change, but nobody inside or outside China would advocate the tragic human and cultural violence of that method today.  Instead, this is the time for a gentler variety or ideological entrepreneurship—best accomplished through the old-fashioned tools of community-based education and consciousness raising and the new-fangled platforms of mass and online social media.

Facebook and Weibo aside, it’s the same kind of cultural change that made recycling ideals an every-day part of American life.  I still remember when curbside recycling began in my childhood neighborhood and we were asked, for the first time, to rinse cans and bottles before putting them out for street-side collection in big blue bins.  My incensed father simply could not get past the idea that he was being asked to “wash garbage” (and then to pollute his pretty neighborhood with ugly blue bins).  “But it’s not garbage,” my sister and I insisted—“it’s recycling!” And the blue bins weren’t ugly to us, because we found beauty in the good they would do for our environment (similar to the philosophically-driven aesthetic I find in many of today’s modern wind farms).  Xinjiang - Turpan 009This is what we had learned in school, though obviously not at home, and our family demonstrates the way that cultural learning can move through the generations backwards as well as forwards.  My father, now in his seventies, today dutifully washes the recycling and my mother maintains separate receptacles for paper, plastic, glass and aluminum, and trash.  This is what cultural change looks like.

Cultural change should come from within, not without, goes the very wise wisdom.  The good news is that the “Recycling Economy” and other efforts to increase public sustainability awareness show that Chinese leaders are taking steps toward environmental progress, and a series of unprecedented public protests over pollution show that the Chinese public is also beginning to engage serious environmental issues.  Just as China takes on issues of conservation and stewardship, so should Americans better grapple with our issues of overconsumption and waste.  Indeed, all human beings must learn to live more sustainably, but the world’s two largest economies bear special responsibility.  All of us must take care not only of our homes, but the hallways, streets, creeks, lakes, rivers, oceans, atmosphere, and biosphere that make up our shared environmental home.  And as we move forward together through separate acts of philosophical growth, economic development, and cultural change—it just might help us to understand a little bit about exactly where each of us is coming from. 

Shanghai Jade Buddha Temple, World Financial Center, Bund 041Which, in the end, has been the ultimate purpose of this series of essays.  Now that I am back in the U.S. and reintegrating into the strange traditions of my own culture, I conclude the year-long series with the sincere hope that they have contributed helpfully in some small way to our ongoing cultural dialog, conducted in hundreds of thousands of individual points of contact every day.  Indeed, U.S.-China relations have never been more important than they are right now, for both nations—and because of the collective environmental, economic, and political impacts beyond our own borders, to all the peoples of the world.  Together, with a little patience, humility, humor, and mutual respect, we can all continue building that bridge toward a brighter future, brick by individual brick. 

Shanghai Jade Buddha Temple, World Financial Center, Bund 070After all, it was the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu—the founder of Taoism—who intoned around 500 B.C. that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  What do you think would happen if all 1.8 billion Chinese and Americans took that single step at the same time?

--Erin Ryan

December 18, 2012 in Asia, Governance/Management, International, Law, Religion, Social Science, Sustainability, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Into the Wild

Every summer, it seems, I am reminded of something I always think I will never forget.

For the past several years, I have made a point every summer of visiting a national park.  Living in Utah, which is blessed with five of these most beautiful and amazing places, this is a relatively easy task.

IMG_2115Last year, I spent several days with my sons hiking and camping in what has become one of my favorite parks:  Capitol Reef.  Not only does Capitol Reef sport some of the most breathtaking canyons I have ever seen, but it is, at least from my perspective, a relatively less used park.  Sometimes solitude is nice.  In Capitol Reef, I have found myself on many hikes, for hours, with no one but those in my party.  Add to this the chance to see ancient rock art, find desert creatures like snakes and lizards, and partake of a searing summer heat, and I can think of few places that make a nicer getaway for a few days from the city.  (It also doesn't hurt that the nearby town of Torrey also features some amazing food.) 

IMG_6645   This past week, I camped with my sons as part of my wife's family reunion in Yellowstone.  It has been almost two decades since I was there last, in a frigid winter to snowmobile.  Two things immediately overtook me as we drove in through West Yellowstone in a misting rain turning to dusk.  I was reminded of just how gorgeous the place is; there is a reason why it was the first national park.  And I realized how each of these parks has their own personality, their own story to tell.  Capitol Reef and Yellowstone could not be much more different, but I love them both.

Toward the end of the trip, as I looked into the brilliant turquoise and coral pools at Mammoth Hot Springs, I contemplated this.  I recalled Prof. Daniels' comment from earlier this year about why he got into environmental law in the first place, and how each of us has our own back-story about why we did too.  For me, I realized, much of it is bound up in my childhood, and part of that was a trip I took when I was about the age of one of my sons to this same park.  I recall standing face to face with a bison; I remember hiking into the aspen with my father; I see clearly in my mind the awe I felt then, that I feel now.

IMG_6843 Each of us decided to study environmental law, to teach it, for a reason.  Each summer, it seems, I am reminded of why I did -- and I am glad I take the time to pause and reflect.

As we drove out of the park, having just hiked Geyser Hill near Old Faithful, we came into a valley.  We were on our way out, and on its way in was a lone gray wolf, undisturbed, traversing the greens, following the Gibbon River to the trees.

Once again, I was reminded.  I was so glad I was.

-Lincoln Davies

 

 

July 17, 2011 in Biodiversity, Religion, Sustainability, Travel, US | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

World Council of Churches Statement on Eco-Justice and Ecological Debt

Many of us attempt to bring ethical perspectives to bear on issues raised by our classes in addition to ecological and economic perspectives.  Although it may be a bit late for those of you who have already started class, here is the most recent statement by the World Council of Churches on eco-justice and ecological debt.  In a related, but fascinating, note, the WCC as part of its current  programme work on poverty, wealth and ecology is attempting to articulate a consumption and greed line -- in addition to the more typical poverty line.  This would provide practical spiritual guidance on when, in Christian terms, too much is too much.  Check it out!!!


WCC Statement on eco-justice and ecological debt

02.09.09

The World Council of Churches (WCC) Central Committee adopted a "Statement on eco-justice and ecological debt" on Wednesday, 2 Sept. The statement proposes that Christians have a deep moral obligation to promote ecological justice by addressing our debts to peoples most affected by ecological destruction and to the earth itself. The statement addresses ecological debt and includes hard economic calculations as well as biblical, spiritual, cultural and social dimensions of indebtedness.

 The statement identifies the current unprecedented ecological crises as being created by humans, caused especially by the agro-industrial-economic complex and the culture of the North, characterized by the consumerist lifestyle and the view of development as commensurate with exploitation of the earth's so-called "natural resources". Churches are being called upon to oppose with their prophetic voices such labeling of the holy creation as mere "natural resources".

 The statement points out that it is a debt owed primarily by industrialized countries in the North to countries of the South on account of historical and current resource-plundering, environmental degradation and the dumping of greenhouse gases and toxic wastes.

In its call for action the statement urges WCC member churches to intervene with their governments to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adopt a fair and binding deal at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen in December 2009, in order to bring the CO2 levels down to less than 350 parts per million (ppm).

 Additionally the statement calls upon the international community to ensure the transfer of financial resources to countries of the south to refrain from oil drilling in fragile environments. Further on, the statement demands the cancellation of the illegitimate financial debts of the southern countries, especially for the poorest nations as part of social and ecological compensation.

In a 31 August hearing on "ecological debt" during the WCC Central Committee meeting in Geneva, Dr Maria Sumire Conde from the Quechua community of Peru shared some ways that the global South has been victimized by greed und unfair use of its resources. In the case of Peru, Sumire said mining has had particularly devastating effects, such as relocation, illness, polluted water,and decreasing biodiversity.

 The concept of ecological debt has been shaped to measure the real cost that policies of expansion and globalization have had on developing nations, a debt that some say industrialized nations should repay. Dr Joan Martinez Alier, a professor at the Universidad Autònoma de Barcelona in Spain, said climate change, unequal trade, "bio-piracy", exports of toxic waste and other factors have added to the imbalance, which he called "a kind of war against people around the world, a kind of aggression."

 Martinez went on saying: "I know these are strong words, but this is true." He beseeched those present, at the very least not to increase the existing ecological debt any further.

 The WCC president from Latin America, Rev. Dr Ofelia Ortega of Cuba, said ecological debt was a spiritual issue, not just a moral one. "The Bible is an ecological treatise" from beginning to end, Ortega said. She described care for creation as an "axis" that runs through the word of God. "Our pastoral work in our churches must be radically ecological," she said.

 Full text of the statement

 More on the 31 August hearing on ecological debt

 WCC countdown to climate justice

WCC programme work on poverty, wealth and ecology

More information on the 26 August - 2 September 2009 Central Committee meeting

 

September 3, 2009 in Africa, Agriculture, Air Quality, Asia, Australia, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Current Affairs, Economics, Energy, EU, Forests/Timber, Governance/Management, International, Land Use, Law, Legislation, Mining, North America, Religion, South America, Sustainability, US, Water Quality, Water Resources | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

How this virus developed and why it may be a killer

The Mexican swine flu virus is a swine influenza A/H1N1 virus hybridized (mixed) with human and bird viruses.  We have some immunity to human flu and to some strains of swine influenza A/H1N1;  We don't have immunity to bird flu, which is why that virus is so virulent - with a kill ratio of almost 50% -- and why so much pandemic planning and preparedness focused on bird flu.

New Scientist reports:

This type of virus emerged in the US in 1998 and has since become endemic on hog farms across North America. Equipped with a suite of pig, bird and human genes, it was also evolving rapidly.  Flu infects many animals, including waterfowl, pigs and humans. Birds and people rarely catch flu viruses adapted to another host, but they can pass flu to pigs, which also have their own strains.If a pig catches two kinds of flu at once it can act as a mixing vessel, and hybrids can emerge with genes from both viruses. This is what happened in the US in 1998. Until then, American pigs had regular winter flu, much like people, caused by a mutated virus from the great human pandemic of 1918, which killed pigs as well as at least 50 million people worldwide. This virus was a member of the H1N1 family - with H and N being the virus's surface proteins haemagglutinin and neuraminidase.  Over decades, H1N1 evolved in pigs into a mild, purely swine flu, and became genetically fairly stable. In 1976, there was an outbreak of swine H1N1 in people at a military camp [Fort Dix] in New Jersey, with one death. The virus did not spread efficiently, though, and soon fizzled out.

But in 1998, says Richard Webby of St Jude's Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, swine H1N1 hybridised with human and bird viruses, resulting in "triple reassortants" that surfaced in Minnesota, Iowa and Texas. The viruses initially had human surface proteins and swine internal proteins, with the exception of three genes that make RNA polymerase, the crucial enzyme the virus uses to replicate in its host. Two were from bird flu and one from human flu. Researchers believe that the bird polymerase allows the virus to replicate faster than those with the human or swine versions, making it more virulent.

By 1999, these viruses comprised the dominant flu strain in North American pigs and, unlike the swine virus they replaced, they were actively evolving. There are many versions with different pig or human surface proteins, including one, like the Mexican flu spreading now, with H1 and N1 from the original swine virus. All these viruses still contained the same "cassette" of internal genes, including the avian and human polymerase genes, reports Amy Vincent of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Ames, Iowa (Advances in Virus Research, vol 72, p 127). "They are why the swine versions of this virus easily outcompete those that don't have them," says Webby.

But the viruses have been actively switching surface proteins to evade the pigs' immunity. There are now so many kinds of pig flu that it is no longer seasonal. One in five US pig producers actually makes their own vaccines, says Vincent, as the vaccine industry cannot keep up with the changes. This rapid evolution posed the "potential for pandemic influenza emergence in North America", Vincent said last year. Webby, too, warned in 2004 that pigs in the US are "an increasingly important reservoir of viruses with human pandemic potential". One in five US pig workers has been found to have antibodies to swine flu, showing they have been infected, but most people have no immunity to these viruses.

The virus's rapid evolution created the potential for a pandemic to emerge in North America.  Our immune response to flu, which makes the difference between mild and potentially lethal disease, is mainly to the H surface protein. The Mexican virus carries the swine version, so the antibodies we carry to human H1N1 viruses will not recognise it. That's why the CDC warned last year that swine H1N1 would "represent a pandemic threat" if it started circulating in humans. The avian polymerase genes are especially worrying, as similar genes are what make H5N1 bird flu lethal in mammals and what made the 1918 human pandemic virus so lethal in people. "We can't yet tell what impact they will have on pathogenicity in humans," says Webby. It appears the threat has now resulted in the Mexican flu. "The triple reassortant in pigs seems to be the precursor," Robert Webster, also at St Jude's, told New Scientist.

While researchers focused on livestock problems could see the threat developing, it is not one that medical researchers focused on human flu viruses seemed to have been aware of. "It was confusing when we looked up the gene sequences in the database," says Wendy Barclay of Imperial College London, who has been studying swine flu from the recent US cases. "The polymerase gene sequences are bird and human, yet they were reported in viruses from pigs."

So where did the Mexican virus originate? The Veratect Corporation based in Kirkland, Washington, monitors world press and government reports to provide early disease warnings for clients, including the CDC. Their first inkling of the disease was a 2 April report of a surge in respiratory disease in a town called La Gloria, east of Mexico City, which resulted in the deaths of three young children. Only on 16 April - after Easter week, when millions of Mexicans travel to visit relatives - reports surfaced elsewhere in the country.

Local reports in La Gloria blamed pig farms in nearby Perote owned by Granjas Carroll, a subsidiary of US hog giant Smithfield Foods. The farms produce nearly a million pigs a year. Smithfield Foods, in a statement, insists there are "no clinical signs or symptoms" of swine flu in its pigs or workers in Mexico. That is unsurprising, as the company says it "routinely administers influenza virus vaccination to swine herds and conducts monthly tests for the presence of swine influenza." The company would not tell New Scientist any more about recent tests. USDA researchers say that while vaccination keeps pigs from getting sick, it does not block infection or shedding of the virus.

All the evidence suggests that swine flu was a disaster waiting to happen. But it got little research attention, perhaps because it caused mild infections in people which didn't spread. Now one swine flu virus has stopped being so well-behaved.

This leads us to the policy question: why should humans keep pigs?  Like other meat, pigs consume an extraordinary amount of resources to provide nutrition.  Maybe the ancient Israelites had an insight that we have lacked -- there may be more wisdom in the Torah and its laws than we knew.  Perhaps it is time, or past time, for our eating habits to evolve lest an even more virulent strain of swine flu develop.  Assuming that this pandemic passes without too many deaths, we may need to rethink whether it is good to keep large quantities of pigs.  For now, the virulent bird flu does not seem easily communicable.  Let's keep it that way. 

April 29, 2009 in Agriculture, Asia, Australia, Biodiversity, Current Affairs, Economics, EU, Food and Drink, Governance/Management, International, North America, Religion, Sustainability, US | Permalink | TrackBack (0)