Saturday, November 17, 2018
David Takacs is a Professor at University of California Hastings College of the Law
This is the thirteenth and final essay in a series from the Environmental Law Collaborative on the theme: "Environmental Law. Disrupted."
Biodiversity is disappearing rapidly, portending grave results not just for nonhuman species (and the populations and individuals that comprise them), but for the functioning ecosystems they constitute, and the human communities that depend on diverse species and thriving ecosystems -- that is to say, all of us. It is perhaps the single greatest problem our species faces. Even though 15% of the Earth’s land has designated formal protection, about 1/3 of that land “is under intense human pressure,” and only ¼ of Earth’s land surface remains free from substantial human impacts. Such degradation harms the wellbeing of over 3 billion people, and consumes more than 10% of annual global gross product through loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Only 13.2% of oceans are “wilderness,” and only 4.9% of those areas are within protected areas.
While cultivation (agriculture, ranching, forestry) and direct exploitation remain the gravest harms to biodiversity, climate change increasingly threatens biodiversity as species are unable to adapt to a rapidly and chaotically changing world: Our current, static methods of conserving species become increasingly inadequate if we do not preserve or restore habitats species will need in a climate-addled future.
We have made strides making laws that constrain humans from wantonly destroying everything. The need for conservation is a customary norm around the world. Nearly all nations have acceded to the Convention on Biological Diversity, and nearly all nations make some attempts to preserve their genetic heritage, with laws that sustain endangered species and/or protect land important to vital ecosystems and the biodiversity they sustain.
But the cataclysm of species annihilation proceeds apace. According to the IUCN over 26,000 species are threatened with extinction, including 41% of amphibian species, 24% of mammal species, and 13% of bird species face grave extinction threats.The human population is projected to grow to nine billion by 2050 and likely to eleven billion by 2100, while the average person’s buying power and consumption will grow by 150%.Our laws to conserve are not keeping pace with our drive to destroy.
To stave off a disastrous disruption in human and nonhuman survival, law needs to evolve quickly andradically. I am not challenging current legal foci on endangered species and protected lands, which, at least, concentrate easy to identify entities (I do know what a bald eagle is, but might have trouble drawing the parameters of a given ecosystem type), and has meant that some species that would otherwise be gone still live alongside us. We can certainly exponentially ramp up what we’ve been doing. Nor am I advocating one or more of the following legal disruptions as the ones we oughtto choose. But we do have to rethink, drastically, our current approaches to living alongside biodiversity if we are to have ample biodiversity along which to live, and if human civilization is to be sustained in some recognizable form.
E.O. Wilson and other prominent conservation biologists proposed setting aside “half for nature.” Protected areas do help biodiversity survive. If done smartly -- with careful planning to conserve megadiverse areas that human communities depend upon for local and global ecosystem services -- biologists estimate we could steward 85% of nonhuman species while sustaining the human communities that depend upon them.
This would also require that the law evolve from a static conception of species and landscapes -- put a fence around an area, manage species in forms and places they’ve long been -- to a more dynamic form grounded in pinpoint adaptive management. We’d need to think about maintaining evolutionary potential outside of formally protected areas so that species could migrate, and develop nimble systems for prioritizing high level protection as areas formally protected for species no longer suit their needs in a changing climate. Law would need to specify performance standards for areas and species of concern, i.e. ecological indicators or benchmarks that must be met, and if not, required pathways to change how we’re doing what we’re doing. Managers would constantly be measuring, monitoring, reporting, and verifying in accordance with the standards. This would also result in greater employment for local people as biodiversity managers, green jobs rooted in caring for the Earth.
Current efforts to conceptualize and operationalize “Nature’s Contributions to People” broaden our notion of “ecosystem services.” Including harder-to-quantify contributions of biodiversity to our well-being may result in being more inclusive in who gets to define what those contributions are and thus what should be preserved. For selected areas, law might provide management autonomy with transfer of property rights for local guardians with a track record of care and stewardship. Law would need to be nimble and place-specific for whom are the legally mandated managers, who monitors that performance standards are being met, and what are the legal consequences for derogation from those standards.
Concerted, focused, effective efforts to stave off biodiversity loss will likely be very, very expensive. To afford this, particularly in the global South, (but even in the North, where no country comes close to preserving “half Earth,” or are successfully staunching species loss) would be to take the legal principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) seriously. Wealthy countries (and individuals) have become wealthy by exploiting lands and species of the South (or by exploiting other citizens) without proper compensation. The same entities have polluted the global atmospheric commons without paying for the externalities of that pollution. Laws implementing CBDR would alleviate the poverty that requires the poor to degrade nonhuman landscapes, and to pay for land and species conservation, including employment for a cadre of conservation professionals and paraprofessionals. All of this could be abetted by negotiating a new multilateral environmental agreement to replace the weak voluntary commitments embedded in the Convention on Biological Diversity, or by amending that agreement to put some teeth into it, including requirements to implement CBDR aggressively.
Law hasbegun, increasingly, to ask those who degrade the global environment to pay for such degradation. Under the aegis of “polluter pays” principle, REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) allows greenhouse gas polluters to “offset” their pollution by investing in reforestation or avoiding deforestation, allowing trees to work their photosynthetic magic by sucking up CO2. Biodiversity offsetting takes this logic one step further, by asking developers to offset damage to targeted species or ecosystems by paying others elsewhere to conserve those species. Both practices are controversial; but to stave off mass extinctions, when done right and on a large, monitored scale, market mechanisms could inject many billions of dollars into government conservation coffers, particularly to incentivize conservation on private lands (where otherwise conservation would not occur). State of the art collaborations between regional planners, social scientists, community groups representing disparate interests, climatologists and conservation biologists could predict where species and ecosystems might likely migrate, where human communities are likely to expand, and to prioritize migration corridors that will allow natural communities to adapt to climate change: Market mechanisms can direct and prioritize conservation in these areas.
Desperate and wildly ecologically changing times require us to rethink all of our notions of what “belongs” where. Law could permit and define parameters on aggressive conservation translocation. In a paradigm change from traditional static notions of biodiversity conservation, we might assist colonization andintroduce species to where they’d historically been, exporting species from places where habitat no longer exists or soon will not exist due to changing climates or growing human demands. These can be reintroductions to where species have been and now disappeared, or reinforcement of individuals into existing populations of that species. The “rewilding” movement focuses on top carnivores whose (re)introduction revitalizes ecosystem functions and augments species diversity. Such programs could also consider introducing species that have not existed in a place, that would be “invasive,” but nonetheless might have some chance of fulfilling ecological roles and adapting to the onslaught of climate change.
And given that we are already radically altering what may exist and where, we might use genetic manipulation or “rescue” for endangered species. Taking this one step further, we could resuscitate extinct species through genetic manipulation. So, for example organizations like Revive & Restore seek “de-extinction,” the return of the woolly mammoth, passenger pigeon, and heath hen through tissue biobanking, intense genetic (re)sequencing, and cloning.
A different line of thinking suggests that radical conservation interventions -- put a fence around half the Earth’s surface, manipulate the genetic endowment of life -- are dystopic interventions that totally miss the point that poverty and inequality drive biodiversity loss, and that “put a fence around and protect it” conservation lead to human dislocations, political upheaval, and general human misery. The only sustainable way to maintain nonhuman communities (and thus human communities) is to change the paradigmatic drive towards ever greater economic growth that inevitably degrades ecological and human capital, and to transfuse wealth from overconsuming rich to disenfranchised poor, North to South.
The ultimate sustainable route to biodiversity conservation is through what I call “deep equity,” i.e., a fundamental change in what we value and how we operationalize those values in law. Deeply equitable solutions maximize and synergize individual, community, and nonhuman health and potential. Such values, as they become deeply rooted in societies, would also become deeply rooted in those societies’ laws, creating a virtuous circle. One such value change might be reflected were we to give various different biological (or nonbiological) entities fundamental rights, reflecting our expanding conception of beings to whom we owe ethical obligations, with laws implementing those obligations. Or, simply, the wealthy need to consume much, much less than current rates, reflecting the urgency of our situation.
But law evolves slowly, and we are unlikely to pursue many of these in the short term, and in the long term it may be too late to preserve large swathes of functioning ecosystems or the magnificent creatures that inhabit them, or to save our own species that ineluctably depends upon these ecosystems. And that is the ultimate disruption that environmental law has thus far been ill-equipped to prevent.
Wednesday, November 7, 2018
Does the President Really Matter to U.S. Participation in International Law? A View from the Perspective of Oceans Law
Robin Kundis Craig is the James I. Farr Presidential Endowed Professor of Law, University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law.
This is the third in a series of essays from the Environmental Law Collaborative on the theme: "Environmental Law. Disrupted."
How much do Presidents really matter to the United States’ participation in international environmental law?
Fairly obviously, presidential turnovers in the United States are absolutely critical to how the United States conducts its international relations. President George W. Bush’s pursuit of Middle Eastern terrorists in the wake of 9/11, including wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, represents a far different engagement with the rest of the world regarding international terrorism than President Obama’s reliance on drones and attempts to bring American troops back home. In turn, President Obama’s engagement with the rest of the world on climate change, including committing the United States to the Paris Accord, represents a radically different path than the one President Trump has thus far chosen to walk with regard to the same issue. Indeed, President Trump’s “America First” approach to international relations shows every sign of becoming one of the most presidentially-driven idiosyncratic periods in the United States’ relations with the rest of the world since at least the conclusion of World War II.
But how much does any of that matter to the United States’ participation in international environmental law?
The issue, of course, is that the United States Constitution formulates treaty-making as a two-body problem: The President signs and the Senate advises and consents. Failure of the United States to participate can occur at either stage. For example, President Clinton signed but Congress refused to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (to which the United States remains, at least for now, a party). Indeed, as of late August 2018, according to the U.S. Department of State, Presidents have sent 42 treaties to the U.S. Senate that still await the Senate’s advice and consent to ratification.
One of those 42 treaties is the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III). President Reagan refused to sign the treaty when it opened for signature while he was in office, but President Clinton signed it on July 29, 1994. It has been sitting with the Senate since October 7, 1994—that is, through Presidents Clinton, Bush II, Obama, and, so far, Trump. Clearly, the identity of the Chief Executive has not mattered much to the United States’ failure to ratify.
Perhaps perversely, however, the United States’ non-ratification and the identity of the Chief Executive also don’t seem to have mattered all that much to the treaty’s operation—including in U.S. waters. Of the 193 United Nations member states, 168 (including the European Union) have ratified this “constitution for the ocean,” which went into effect on November 16, 1994. The United States follows UNCLOS III’s jurisdictional provisions on the grounds that they are customary international law. Indeed, after refusing to sign the treaty, President Reagan first proclaimed a 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone for the United States in March 1983, then in December 1988 added a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea —both exactly as UNCLOS III allows. All subsequent Presidents have accepted these proclamations. Finishing up, in September 1999, President Clinton proclaimed a contiguous zone for the United States out to 24 nautical miles, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=56452—and, again, all subsequent Presidents have accepted that declaration. In addition, the United States ratified the supplemental Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of the Convention Relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocksin August 1996, and this treaty came into force on December 11, 2001.
The United States has perhaps been most out of step with the rest of the world with regard to rights in the seabed. In September 1945, more than a decade before the first Law of the Sea conventions opened for signature in 1958, President Harry Truman proclaimed the United States’ assertion of control over the continental shelf, a post-World War II recognition of the importance of offshore oil and gas reserves. The United States’ most prominent objection to ratifying UNCLOS III was its treatment of the deep seabed (denominated “The Area”) and its minerals as “the common heritage of mankind.” However, deep seabed mining is just now getting underway, and, so far, it is taking place only on the deeper parts of continental shelves controlled by coastal nations (gold and copper deposits off the coast of Papua New Guinea, and iron sands off the coast of New Zealand). As a result, the United States’ objection might be regarded as 40 years premature.
Even with respect to the seabed, however, the United States is beginning to behave like the rest of the world. Specifically, the United States is mapping its extended continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean in conformance with UNCLOS III—even though our non-ratification of the treaty means that we cannot submit a claim to that extended shelf to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Moreover, U.S. companies like Lockheed Martin prefer the legal safety of UNCLOS III when pursuing deep seabed mining; Lockheed Martin formed a U.K. subsidiary, UK Seabed Resources, so that it could receive its mining licenses from the International Seabed Authority pursuant to the treaty. Such industry preferences and the United States’ interest in the Arctic might finally induce the Senate to ratify the treaty.
Maybe. The larger point here, however, is that the United States’ relationship to UNCLOS III has been more or less the same since President Reagan, despite the fact that he did not sign the treaty and President Clinton did. Part of the reason, no doubt, is that President Eisenhower signed, and the Senate under a new President Kennedy ratified, the four 1958 United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea, which set forth many of the same kinds of obligations and rights as UNCLOS III. Another part, no doubt, is that the new jurisdictional provisions in UNCLOS III, and many other of its provisions, work to the United States’ advantage. But an important part of the reason is that Senate procedures and politics—not presidential inclination—have been an effective roadblock to ratification, underscoring the basic constitutional point that the United States’ assent and strict adherence to international environmental law is only partially a matter of who the President is.
Monday, November 5, 2018
The Environmental Law Collaborative (ELC) comprises a rotating group of law professors who assemble every other year to think, discuss, and write on an important and intriguing theme in environmental law. The goals of this meeting are both scholarly and practical, as ELC participants seek to use their disparate areas of scholarly expertise to study trends and important events in the law, and ultimately to improve the environmental conditions of the world in which we live.
In 2018, we watched the U.S. regulatory environment change rapidly, even as we witnessed the escalation of visible and profound impacts from climate change. Alongside these events, and with full knowledge of the limited time left in which to address existential environmental challenges, the question the group attempted to tackle at our collaborative meeting was whether environmental law as we know it is up to the task of meeting these ongoing, escalating, and perilous threats.
Each of us has challenged ourselves to think deeply about where environmental law should be headed in the next decade or more, and how we might get there. The blogs we will be posting in the next two weeks discuss our individual conclusions about how we might reframe and reshape -- and ultimately, disrupt -- the environmental law landscape to better address the catastrophic, synergistic, and disruptive ecological changes portended by climate change, biodiversity destruction, and social inequality. We asked ourselves, what would it look like if we radically and fundamentally reoriented our environmental law and policy agenda? Is this possible, desirable, or both?
As we are a diverse group of scholars and thinkers, our conclusions are by no means uniform, but they share a common thread: this is not time for business as usual. The system requires significant, potentially disruptive changes, some of which may make us profoundly uncomfortable. As you will read, Sarah Krakoff and Shannon Roesler ask what law would look like if we conceived of global climate change as a social justice challenge and accordingly remade laws addressing poverty, wealth distribution, public infrastructure, and health care, while Keith Hirokawa and Jonathan Rosenbloom would reorient adaption to climate change by heeding and disseminating legal strategies local governments are formulating. J.B. Ruhl argues that to confront the urgent need for climate change adaptation, environmentalists will have to compromise in strategic ways, while Inara Scott asserts that it is time to bid goodbye to environmental law and start fresh by reconceptualizing a more inclusive, more effective “commons law.”
Continuing in this line of disruptive thinking, David Takacs suggests radically rethinking biodiversity laws before it is too late to preserve functioning ecosystems or the magnificent creatures that inhabit them, or to save our own species that ineluctably depends upon these ecosystems. Erin Ryan argues that with environmental laws under attack, we must think of creative, out of the box ways to defend it at multiple levels of legal hierarchy. Blake Hudson points out that many kinds of ecological disruption can be tied to land development -- where there has never been much effective law to disrupt in the first place. And in an essay that may surprise many, Robin Kundis Craig argues that in international environmental law, the role of the president may be overstated.
Melissa Powers writes about the urgent need for deep decarbonization, with clear targets and strategies to achieve them, as Vanessa Casado Perez tackles the problem of rethinking water law to address inevitable conflicts over water shortages. Turning away from the public sector, Jessica Owley suggests an expanded role for private actors in forwarding the goals of environmental law. Importantly, Katrina Kuh challenges environmental lawyers look more closely in our mirrors to insure that embedded professional norms, practices, and structures do not inadvertently contribute to a “malignant normality” that deepens the climate crisis.
We hope these essays disrupt your thinking in provocative, productive ways, and look forward to opening a dialog with you about how we can reframe, reshape, and ultimately disrupt environmental law to meet the challenges of our day.
November 5, 2018 in Agriculture, Air Quality, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Current Affairs, Economics, Energy, Forests/Timber, Governance/Management, International, Land Use, Law, Legislation, North America, Sustainability, US, Water Quality | Permalink
Monday, November 3, 2014
Responding to the IPCC Fifth Assessment during the Month of November (from the Environmental Law Collaborative)
As a special post-Halloween treat for the month of November, a series of guest blogs will be appearing here examining the latest IPCC report. The essays are the latest production of the Environmental Law Collaborative, a group of environmental law scholars whose goal is to meet and work collaboratively to discuss and offer solutions for environmental law’s major issues of the day. ELC facilitates dialog among thought leaders on environmental policy priorities, practical implementation strategies, assessment mechanisms, and cooperative analysis of science, economics, and ethics. It has become increasingly apparent that, although environmental policy benefits from a robust drive for the dissemination of information, environmental policy is also influenced by strategic misinformation and effective use of persuasive communication. To advance society and secure welfare at local and global scales, our professional activities must contribute to resolution of the divisive issues that confront our environment.
November 3, 2014 in Biodiversity, Climate Change, Current Affairs, Energy, Forests/Timber, Governance/Management, International, Land Use, Law, Sustainability, Water Quality, Water Resources, Weblogs | Permalink | TrackBack (0)
Thursday, April 24, 2014
China's Amendments to its Environmental Protection Law: Can it really lift the curse of Midas Touch?
News reports are abuzz with China's amendments to its environmental protection law that will come into effect in January 2015. The amendments reportedly add several new provisions that primarily strengthen enforcement by increasing the amount of fines imposed on non-complying polluters on an ongoing basis (that is for each violation) as opposed to a single pollution, as well as providing for some form of punishment such as demotion of officials that fail to enforce China's pollution control laws. It also reportedly supports whistle blowing to enable citizens to take action much like citizens suit provisions in the United States. A report of China's new law is available here.
Without having the benefit of reviewing the actual laws, it is hard to comment about the prospect of China's new laws. However, one must admit that at the very least it is a step that demonstrates China's serious commitment to tackling domestic environmental problems that are steadily becoming catastrophic in proportion. It is highly symbolic since it is a big step towards action as opposed to rhetoric.
Yet, much as I hate to sound pessimistic, the law fails to make any fundamental changes to addressing its environmental woes. The law remains essentially regulatory; essentially dependent on government officials to enforce. Will the threat of demotion, if found guilty of non-enforcement, suffice to improve enforcement in a country the size of China? Can a company influence the law-making process so as at least make compliance easier, so as to avoid the problem of facing fines for non-compliance? Will a large enterprise be affected by naming and shaming? I ask these questions because the law in its original form (here) was not entirely lame. The law had enough room for stringent enforcement, including preventing the importation of obsolete technology. However, these provisions were never enforced. The new law appears to focus on enforcement, but assumes that greater fines, threats of demotion, and potential for shaming will make a dint. The sad reality is that these tactics have not been successful even in developed countries. Can they be effective in a country where transparency is sorely lacking?
Monday, March 31, 2014
Recently I have been reading Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming, by the journalist McKenzie Funk. It is a fun and illuminating, if somewhat frightening, read. Funk takes to the road—in a trans-planetary sense—to report on the entrepreneurs, engineers, hedge funds, investment banks, corporations, nations and others who are angling to profit from climate change. The prose is accessible and engaging, the perspective deeply informed. The chapters would serve as excellent conversation generators in the classroom.
I mention this not only to share a good read, but also because the concept at the center of Funk’s book is closely related to an interdisciplinary study I am undertaking with the visual artist and landscape photographer Alex Heilner. Alex and I hope to explore the industrialization of the Arctic that will inevitably come with increased access to offshore oil and gas and to onshore mineral and carbon deposits, with the opening up of the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage that makes transport of extracted resources more feasible, with easier cruising for tourist vessels, and with the re-focusing of the world’s attention on the Far North. The process, of course, is already underway. Last summer Alex and I embarked on our maiden voyage, a two-week road trip across North Norway. A selection of Alex’s photos is here.
I am still working on sorting through my interview notes and observations to craft an intelligent story about what is going on up there, but, in short, what we found was an intriguing instance of interlocal competition on the Arctic frontier. Ports, municipalities and private investors are all looking for opportunities to build facilities that can serve the Arctic oil and gas and maritime shipping industries. Planners and economic development officials are dreaming big. Everyone in North Norway wants to be a climate “winner.” There is some resistance to increased Arctic drilling from the Green Party, but Norway is, as one interviewee told me, a “benevolent petrostate,” and for most people “oil and gas is king.” As a result, North Norway—long a land of cod fishing and reindeer herding and mining for iron ore, and a place absolutely devastated by WWII—is in growth mode. It is a microcosm of the broader changes Funk writes about, making the global phenomenon visible in development pressures and land use changes in a few of the small places at the top of the world.
- Michael Burger
Saturday, April 20, 2013
Over the last year and a half, I contributed a series of essays about my environmental experiences while living in China as a Fulbright Scholar and Visiting Professor at Ocean University of China. A few readers who had missed installments suggested that I create a single post with a roadmap of links to all nine essays. That seemed like a good idea, so with apologies to regular readers for the redundancy, here it is (truly the last of the series):
New Series: Environmental Adventures in China. “This first post provides some context for my series of through-the-looking-glass observations about what it’s like to plunge into China’s modern industrial revolution as an American environmental law professor....”
China Environmental Experiences #2: Rocky Mountain Arsenal. “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….”
China Environmental Experiences #3: Breathing Air with Heft. “…It’s easy to cite the mind-boggling statistics of how bad the air quality can get here. It’s hard to describe the actual experience of it. Harder still to endure it.…”
China Environmental Experiences #4: Wifi Without Potable Water. “This month, I peek beneath one of the more surprising, seemingly contradictory stones in China’s path toward increasing prosperity and world power….”
China Environmental Experiences # 5: Milk, Pesticides, and Product Safety. “Friends joked that given how much of what we use in the United States is actually made in China, we probably didn’t have to bring anything—whatever we needed would be here! But after our arrival, we were surprised to discover how mistaken these assumptions were.…”
CEE #6: Environmental Philosophy and Human Relationships with Nature. “In these final musings from the field, I reflect on a topic that is admittedly delicate but equally important, and which has been simmering behind many of the substantive environmental issues that I’ve addressed to now: environmental philosophy…."
CEE #7: Environmental Philosophy - Conservation, Stewardship, and Scarcity. “[Previously], 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….”
CEE #8: Environmental Protection as an Act of Cultural Change. “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….”
CEE #9: Post Script: Returning from China to the U.S. “This essay is about the experience of coming back to the United States from China, or perhaps more generally, returning to the developed world from that which is still developing. It mixes deep gratitude for the blessings of the American bounty with queasy culpability over the implications of that bounty for international and intergenerational equity….”
April 20, 2013 in Air Quality, Asia, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Current Affairs, Economics, Energy, Environmental Assessment, Food and Drink, Forests/Timber, Governance/Management, International, Land Use, Law, Legislation, Sustainability, Toxic and Hazardous Substances, Travel, Water Quality, Water Resources, Weblogs | Permalink | TrackBack (0)
Wednesday, March 27, 2013
This is a post-script to my 2012 series about my environmental experiences living in China as a visiting American environmental law professor. (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, a review of Chinese food and consumer product safety, differing Chinese and American conceptions of the human relationship to nature, cultural approaches to conservation, stewardship, and scarcity, and parting musings about the philosophical roots of some of these differences and the processes of cultural change.)
My family and I returned from Qingdao to Portland, Oregon months ago, but the experience remains vivid. As the Year of the Snake begins, we find ourselves poignantly missing our friends and adopted family members across the Pacific. Yet as news reports broadcast apocalyptic levels of air pollution in North China this winter, we are also grateful to be home. This essay is about the experience of coming back to the United States from China, or perhaps more generally, returning to the developed world from that which is still developing. It mixes deep gratitude for the blessings of the American bounty with queasy culpability over the implications of that bounty for international and intergenerational equity.
(Note: To contextualize our experience returning to the U.S., I include photographs depicting our contrasting experiences in China.)
The Long Journey Home Begins. In departing Qingdao, we flew to Seoul, South Korea, then on to Los Angeles, and finally to Portland. It was a long trip, but the transitioning away from China began immediately. Seoul is barely an hour’s flight from Qingdao, but the airport was already worlds away—eerily foreign from that with which we’d become accustomed. Surfaces were shiny and clean (and strangely well lit), as though everything had just been wiped down. Airport shops sold unimaginably expensive perfumes, gadgets, and chachkis. We devoured the best sandwiches we have ever had in our lives from a Quizno’s free-standing cart in the middle of the airport corridor. We didn’t speak for the entire meal; we just savored the fresh lettuce, tomato, and avocado.
And I should note that despite this overly indulgent reunion, I was intensely aware of no longer being the fattest person in every room that I occupy.
On our second or day back, I went grocery shopping with my four-year old son. I was mentally prepared for how psychologically fraught this might be. I had often heard tell of the experience from the other side—what it was like for Chinese and other foreigners to walk into an American supermarket for the first time. I knew it would be overwhelming, with fifteen brands of nearly identical peanut butter and every possible signal of over-consumption. I believed that knowing this would steel me for the experience, but I was wrong. I walked in with my son and within seconds I felt dizzy and confused. Everything was so sterilized, and there was just so much of it all. No animals roaming around or strung up on a rack, but so much light and color and so many brands... So much electronic activity, so much everything.
I dropped something, and I froze in my tracks like a crashing computer, because I couldn’t figure out whether to pick it up (the correct response in the U.S., to avoid littering) or leave it on the ground (the correct response in China, where things that have touched the ground should not be touched with clean hands). It was all I could do to lead my baffled son back out the door and collect myself on a nearby bench.
I shut my eyes, centered my breathing, and considered how much we wanted those strawberries. And then, after just a moment’s recovery, I weirdly just walked back inside and went shopping. Like I had never left. In fact, I knew exactly what to do. I plucked a sani-wipe from the dispenser, cleaned the handle of a shopping cart, plopped my son in the front, and roamed the aisles collecting milk, toilet paper, and just the right brand of peanut butter. Suddenly, it wasn’t so strange after all.
Which became its own haunting experience: was all this excess really my personal norm?? So help me, it was. This was my normal, and normal for everyone else now around me, auto-piloting through this most basic American chore. But why didn’t they know how abnormal it really was? Don’t they know what the rest of the world eats and where they find it? That most people alive today (or at any time in history) could never imagine a place like this? Why aren’t all these people moving distractedly around me more upset about the imbalance, the gluttony, the unfairness of it all? Why are they just walking around like there’s nothing weird at all about any of this at all, when EVERYTHING about it is completely bizarre?
Strangers in Our Own Land. Navigating the rest of our renewed American lives continued along the same strange lines of being simultaneously refreshing and disturbing.
It was hard to get over how clean the world suddenly seemed. Like a movie set, because it couldn’t really possibly be that clean. The streets and houses are clean. The air is brilliant; sweeter than I had imagined. Colors seem brighter because the air is clean, without the billowing Chinese particulates that dull the visual edges of everything in sight. We revel in immersing ourselves in a bathtub once again, and running the clothes dryer is a guilty pleasure. Our clothes no longer smell like air pollution, inevitable as they hang to dry amidst those plumes of particulates. But of course, running that American clothes dryer is probably adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere in ways that rival particulate pollution.
There is not so much litter here in the U.S., and not so much dust. We were amazed to discover that our house had less dust on its surfaces after having been left alone for an entire year than we experienced on a daily basis in China. (No exaggeration: our East China home dusted in the morning was saturated again by evening. But then again, we all know what dust is mostly made of—dead skin cells. There are more than a billion people crowded along China’s East Coast; you can do the math.) Nature in the U.S. is spectacular. The grass really is greener; the sky improbably blue. The moon is no rounder in America (as the Chinese sometimes joke it must be), but here you can find the man in it. And yet we also have to remember not to look directly at the sun, as we so often could in China.
This was a hard lesson for my son, who had become used to gazing openly upon that smoky, blazing orb in the sky. But oh, how his eyes lit up to once again play in a public playground—that monument to the carefree, whimsical freedoms of childhood! We never once found a children’s playground in China (at least one that wasn’t gated into the grounds of an expensive private school). And in his own preschool yard, the children were required to follow a prescribed order of activities, one at a time, during outdoor play: up the rope ladder, down the red slide, and then back in line, single-file, to wait your turn for another chance.
My son loved his Chinese teachers, who could not have been more loving or patient with him, and he gradually adjusted to the controlled style of Chinese schooling. But back in Portland, we enrolled him in a local Montessori preschool, where learning activities were largely self-directed. At first, the teachers didn’t know what to do with his hesitation to act independently. “He asks permission to do everything!” one said, openly exasperated, “I’ve never seen anything like it!” After I explained the up-the-rope-ladder, down-the-red-slide nature of his previous experience, she began to better appreciate the depth of his transition. And perhaps more about the infinite cultural differences that follow from these deeply contrasting starting points.
Cultural Pride and Cultural Shame. Public safety and sanitation is different here. It took a while for us to trust that cars would truly stop for us in crosswalks and were not likely to pull up and park on the sidewalk we were walking along. I’m happy to no longer scour medical offices for unclean surfaces and unsterilized needles, as I had learned (the hard way) to do in China. I no longer worry about giving my child medicine when he is sick. That said, after a year of regularly assuring our Chinese friends that not every American owns an assault rifle, we returned directly to the Clackamas Town Center mall shooting that took place just a few miles from our home, and then the unspeakable tragedy in Newtown. I have never been more speechless, and so filled with national shame, trying to explain these events to some former Chinese students studying abroad here.
But there are also moments of immense cultural pride. I cannot boast enough about American tap water, with which we are all hopelessly in love. Drinking directly from the sink never gets old, and Oregon water is especially heavenly. My husband’s workmates found him drawing a mug from the bathroom faucet and reminded him that there was a filtered cooler somewhere in the office—and he laughed until he almost cried. We now understand that there is nothing in the world better than lukewarm, reliably running, municipally treated American tap water. Nothing! (And we need to do better to protect this hard-won feature of modern American life against backsliding regulation that would endanger it.)
Still, it has been confusing for me to wash dishes and water plants with this perfectly potable water. It feels excessively wasteful. It boggles my mind to see people using it to sprinkler lawns and wash cars. “No, no,” I think, “are you crazy? You could drink that!” But here in the U.S., all water that flows from a municipally-linked faucet is treated to be drinkable—even what gets used at the carwash. Which is obviously insane, especially in the arid West. I hope Americans will come to understand how incredibly fortunate we are to have drinkable tap water, before we end up not having it anymore.
At Home in America. Our neighborhood is lovely with trees and grass and wildlife, but strange with people. It’s weird the way we all drive to our individual houses, press the button on a garage door opener, and then drive into our homes without ever even getting out of the car. If you don’t walk a dog, it’s easy to never see neighbors face to face. In China, families take purposeful neighborhood walks after dinner, where they see friends and spontaneously mingle with strangers. Public spaces are alive with community in China, but here, we are much more isolated. We live close to our neighbors, but with little random interaction. With Tivo and Pandora, we don’t even partake in the same real-time broadcasts—no longer united in this last vestige of shared experience.
Americans are so alone, my visiting Chinese students tell me from their disbelieving vantages points. Public spaces are so empty by comparison. The country is so empty, with vast unpopulated tracts of land. “And I am so lonely here,” they almost always say, anxious to return to the thick sense of community they left behind. One student has his own room for the first time in his life—and he hates it. There is nobody to talk to. Nobody to care if you are even there or not.
While adjusting to being back in our own house—and as a reaction to how careful we were about not eating anything that had been in contact with anything that had been in contact with a floor—we became unreasonably nonchalant practitioners of the “five second rule,” to an indefensible extreme at first. But after eating and breathing for a year in China, we returned with the impression that it didn’t really matter what we put in our bodies anymore. A little dirt won’t hurt, we tell ourselves; how bad could that floor really be? (There’s barely even any dust!) And for that matter, why bother with organic? Why sweat the preservatives? After our year abroad, we have been fully absolved of the illusion that our bodies are temples.
But our house—goodness gracious—is ridiculously, shamefully big. I was deeply embarrassed when my Chinese students came to visit us in December. I wanted so much to host them here, while they were alone in a strange land and unable to be with their own families as Americans celebrated unfamiliar holidays. But at the same time, I cringed at the thought of showing them where I live. I didn’t want them to think about what it represents, in terms of the differences in our lives that were invisible while I lived in the boxy Chinese apartment in which my own family members nearly killed each other for lack of personal space, and which was about twice the size of the apartments that my students lived in with their families their entire lives. True enough, their eyes nearly left their heads when they arrived, and I somehow managed to never show them the master bathroom.
That said, I have never loved a material object more than I love my own oversized, coil-spring, pillow-top, all around over-the-top American bed now that I am back in it. It is soft, and it doesn’t hurt my bones the way every Chinese bed I slept in did while we were gone. I returned from China with bursitis in my hips because Chinese beds are so hard. But it isn’t just my American bed that has me in thrall: here there are comfortable chairs, with back support and arm rests. There is wall-to-wall carpeting, with padding beneath. On my first day back, I sank into the family couch and realized with astonishment that it had been a full year since I’d been physically comfortable. Embarrassingly, my body wilted into the cushions like a crying child to her mother. My fallen arches stopped screaming about the constant concrete floor underfoot.
Of course, this too is purely a matter of culture. One of my visiting Chinese students confessed that he had been sleeping on the floor since his arrival in the US because American beds are all too soft. Everything in the US is so unbearably soft, he complained—even the floors are soft! “Why are Americans so soft?” he asked innocently, honestly unaware of the gravity of his question.
Freedoms for Granted. The night before we left Qingdao, I stayed up past midnight with some of my favorite students talking about everything we could fit in before my departure, everything we hadn’t spoken about yet. Tiananmen. Terrorism. When NATO accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Serbia during the Clinton administration. What our parents tried to teach us about our roles in the world.
My students told me that the number one message their parents had tried to impart to them was to stay out of trouble: keep your head down, don’t stand out, don’t call attention to yourself. In the wake of Tiananmen, these were survival instructions. They described how their parents lovingly prepared them for their world by teaching them to disappear as much as possible into the background. Then they asked me what my parents taught me while I was growing up. I answered hesitatingly that my parents had raised me to never be afraid, to believe it was my responsibility to speak out, to stand up for what was right, and to change the world if necessary. We collectively stared at each other from across this enormous gulf of cultural experience, with both affection and amazement, as the significance penetrated.
In the air between Seoul and Los Angeles, while scribbling purposely vague notes about these conversations, it suddenly occurred to me that I no longer needed to be so vague. I could write freely. I didn’t have to be purposely ambiguous about connecting names with events or statements. I could make full sentences rather than mnemonics. For the first time in a year, I didn’t have to worry about my notes being found by uninvited visitors to my apartment, as I’d been warned to possibly expect at our orientation in Beijing. I didn’t have to worry, as I had meticulously done all year, that the details I recorded would bring trouble for my friends.
I had the same experience during my first telephone conversation with my sister (a sibling—so un-Chinese!) on arriving home. After a year’s worth of careful email and skype communication, always aware that what I had to say could be unintentionally interesting to someone other than my intended audience, I could suddenly speak freely. My Chinese friends had warned me to assume that my phone calls in China were not private, and I experienced at least one clear instance of intercepted email. But now, nothing I said could hurt anyone anymore. I could relax! But no, I couldn’t relax. It took a long while for me to shed the feeling of carefulness that must be part of the fabric of communication for many Chinese.
Between Worlds. So yes, the paradox of our homecoming has been this disjuncture between feeling so at once lost on return and like we never left. Supermarkets aside, it was remarkably easy to rejoin American culture. Just as one never forgets how to ride a bicycle, it turns out that I had no trouble at all remembering how to drive a car, even after my year as a passenger (in a culture with unrecognizable traffic rules). I knew how to use a credit card, seek directions, and chat idly at the checkout line—at just the right level of detail, and for just the right amount of time. I knew how to watch television, program the remote, read the news, operate a dishwasher, cook in an oven, and do all the other things I had not done for the full year away. I knew how to operate American culture like an expert. It was easy to return, seductively comfortable, and mercifully welcoming to one already on the inside.
Yet reverse culture shock sneaks up on you. A few weeks after we got back, I fell into what I can only describe as a brief but intense depression. I had heard that culture shock on return could produce something like this, and I figure that’s what it was, because it seemed untethered to anything else I could point to. I was delighted to be home in my soft bed and comfortable chair with my candy bowl of grape tomatoes, breathing fresh air and drinking tap water, using my clothes washer and dryer. Reasonable expectations of privacy, food and drug inspection, pedestrian safety, political freedoms—hallelujah, we were home!
But these were guilty pleasures, most, because of course life is nicer in the first world. Back now to that dizzy place. How to feel about all this? What about those we left behind? So strange to have worked so hard to find a way to fit in to this vastly different country—to penetrate the language, politics, and cultural traditions beneath the surface most tourists encounter—and then to just seemingly leave it all behind.
Then again, I know I’m not really leaving it all behind. Each of us will remain a bridge between the two cultures in our own ways—me as a teacher and scholar, my husband in his own career, my mother in her study of Chinese poetry, and my son as a child of two worlds now.
Indeed, in the weeks after we returned, my son spoke Chinese fluently and frequently, confused when his efforts to engage strangers in Mandarin failed. As time wears on, his moments of Mandarin are fewer and farther between, even though I take him to a Saturday afternoon class for children at the local community college. As the Year of the Snake began, he proudly adorned the scarlet New Year’s suit that our Chinese friends had given him at Spring Festival last year. He was so proud to be Chinese again, if only for the day. The next day, he was happy to be an American again, romping freely around the neighborhood playground. So yes, he is a clearly a child of two worlds now.
And in some smaller way, I guess I am too.
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
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. (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.
In 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 Policy. I 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. The 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 accompanying 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. (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. For 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.”
This 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— unselfconsciously adjacent to political propaganda signs honoring heroes of the revolution or touting contemporary political objectives and loyalty. 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. Linh 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.
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.) Fortunately, 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: Confucianism. Founded 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. They 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. 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… 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... [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.”
Indeed, 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 nature. 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). And 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.
But 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). This 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.
Which, 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.
After 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?
Monday, December 17, 2012
Rethinking Sustainable Development, ELC Essay #11: Sustainability is the Answer--Now What was the Question?
On September 16, 2012, the National Ice and Snow Center announced a record-breaking loss of Arctic sea ice. That day also happened to be my 47th birthday. In my relatively short life, the Arctic has changed beyond imagination—and more change is coming. We have a growing litany of climate ills—wildfires, heat-waves, droughts, floods—each perhaps not directly attributable to climate change, but collectively harbingers of the emerging Anthropocene. Yet, rather than prompting any urgent response, each new climate disaster leaves us, in the words of Bill McKibben, “in the same position we’ve been in for a quarter-century: scientific warning followed by political inaction.” The explanations for our impotence in the face of overwhelming evidence that human activities are destroying the very fabric of life on Earth tend to focus on economics—too many powerful actors are making too much money from business as usual and therefore use their power to prevent change.
Without really challenging this basic outline, this essay suggests that this power-based narrative is incomplete. It leaves out the role that law and legal systems play in obscuring this power dynamic. The system by which we structure our decisions in a democratic society—the rule of law itself—actually prevents us from perceiving or confronting this more fundamental power conflict.
It is all too easy to dismiss sustainability as a contentless marketing label lost in a fog of meaningless verbiage. The marketplace of “sustainable” practices, technologies, and gadgets contains far too many gimmicks intended to maintain the cherished illusion that sustainability will just somehow “happen.” As a marketing ploy, sustainability encapsulates our fantasy a sudden technological breakthrough that will allow 7 billion, or 10 billion humans to live the typical American consumption-based lifestyle, only without destroying the Earth in the process. This belief that an external, game-changing solution will save the day is a dangerous fiction. There can be no sustainability when we start with the existing economy and then try to graft change onto its margins. If we needed proof that this approach has failed, is failing and will continue to fail, we need look no further than the rate of melting sea ice—which continues to accelerate despite decades of high-level international climate negotiations.
If we heed climate change’s call, we might begin to rethink sustainability—to take seriously its mandate to maintain, support, and hold. If so, sustainability can offer us a set of organizing principles by which to restructure the core, yet largely invisible, functions of production and transportation that precede the consumption on which so much current sustainability rhetoric focuses. To change these less visible aspects of society, we need to mobilize the power of the law as a framing institution. We can, if we choose, arrange our infrastructure and define our markets to cause sustainable outcomes. Embracing sustainability as our primary framing narrative would create space for new thinking about the ways to balance the power of the state, the market, and civil society.
Getting from here to there may be daunting, and sustainability may seem a slender reed on which to pin our hopes. Yet, the fundamental choices about balance that are sustainability’s essential feature have the capacity to offer us a new vision of the basic social contract—one that could transform human life on planet Earth. To make that happen, we do not need perfect conceptual clarity about sustainability—core indeterminacy is, after all, a definitional part of post-modern existence. Instead, we need to embrace sustainability’s potential for multiple, independent generation of ideas. A range of social, cultural, and political forces seek to frame sustainability through multiple disciplinary lenses. Each frame offers a different conception of the problem and its component parts. From this base, each approach proposes an alternative array of solutions along with the tools by which those solutions might be implemented.
This contest between alternative frames for sustainability has both declarative and constitutive significance. Framing does more than shape how we analyze the sustainability of any particular choice—which variables must be assessed, weighted, and evaluated; and which can safely be ignored. Framing also shapes the process by which we define what constitutes a choice (or a variable) in the first place. Once we acknowledge that framing matters—that disciplines have blind spots and path dependencies—it becomes clear that the very articulation of sustainability is itself a consequence of inevitable disciplinary limitations.
This insight is as liberating as it is daunting. It means that by posing our questions differently we might begin the process of uncovering hidden possibilities, thereby paving the way for a new understanding of the sustainability challenge and opening space for new responses. Perhaps a good beginning would be to shift from a conception of “the environment” to “Mother Earth”—which might help us rediscover a deeper, more profound relationship with the world we are rapidly recreating than the consumption-focused conception that currently predominates.
The future of our children, our species, and our planet hinges in the balance. The window for change is narrow—and closing. Unless we transition away from our consumptive, single-use society into a sustainable one, we will doom our children (as well as our future selves) to life in an increasingly impoverished, depleted, and inhospitable planet.
-- Rebecca M. Bratspies
Thursday, December 13, 2012
Rethinking Sustainable Development, ELC Essay #9: Climate Sustainability Through Ethics, Economic, and Environmental Coordination
Sustainability can become more than the sum of its parts by transcending its literal meaning to become the synergistic trampoline for ethical, economic, and environmental resilience and coherence. From sustainability of forests and fish stocks to sustainability of future generations and a call for fusion of ethical, economic, and environmental understandings, complex systems are increasingly challenging humanity to adapt both language and governance. It makes little sense to speak of literal sustainable extraction of ancient water from aquifers nor of fossil fuels. The diplomacy that emerged from Rio in 1992 sought to bind a mindfulness of ecological carrying capacity with equitable use of resources to alleviate poverty. To date, both environmental and development communities find sustainable development lacking. Yet, time is running out to rename policy approaches without genuine follow-through in the form of environmental and human security. The international community has the capacity to embrace sustainability as an overarching framework for coordinated ethical, economic, and environmental decision-making. It is not the only means by which to proceed but represents one plausible response to increasingly disconnected fields that impact one another. A sensible first step down this coherence path is to recognize good governance as crucial to achieving sustainability and climate cooperation.
How do we calibrate efforts to build a sustainability arc that can enhance human and environmental integrity? High-level forums for inclusive meaningful dialog can enhance network creation and expansion into new public-private, local-regional-international, and a myriad of interdisciplinary patterns of cooperation. Complex adaptive systems and good governance principles can inform decision-making that results in rule of law enhancing predictable, efficient, and fair outcomes. The rule of law depends upon accessible, independent, and efficient decision-making. None of these processes is rapid or inexpensive. Yet, they can be rightly called investments and folded into respected economic climate-energy-water recommendations when decision-makers use sensibly long-term time horizons for efficiency analysis and recognize the value of equity, ecosystems, and other important yet not easily measured public and private goods.
As Dan Taylor has note, “the answer still is Gandhi’s. We know more clearly the processes for how to move toward his vision that improving people’s wellbeing is grounded in their mobilization, and that vision can be summed up as: begin simply, be true to process, the means are the ends, grow capacity in the partnership.” Sharing best practices from human rights and environmental law may provide a synergistic catalyst for ethics, economic, and environmental coherence.
International human rights law offers a robust justice framework with which to address climate change. Applying human rights thresholds to climate change may catalyze sustainability cooperation. Decisions informed by an understanding of climate justice can bring together dialogue from development, human rights, environment, trade, and business communities. Energy-food-climate security can be discussed as the interwoven crisis that threatens humanity rather than as unrelated dilemmas. What appear to be fragmented trade, environment, and human rights regimes can be sustainability framework building blocks.
Challenges to transitioning to greater efficiency and renewable energy use include the degree to which fossil fuel is embedded in the economy and the degree to which pricing carbon is a prerequisite for substantial private sector investment in environmentally sound innovation and participation in diffusion. A good starting point would be for trade and environment regimes to set clear criteria for what constitutes environmentally sound innovation based upon ongoing life cycle analysis that is mindful of science and equity. Network coordination can facilitate breakthroughs in trade and environment relations and build upon best practices.
With a background in economics, human rights, and environmental law, I haveparticipated in the drafting process for the UNFCCC, Agenda 21, and the Rio Declaration. More recently, I was a member of UN, IGO, and NGO delegations to the climate negotiations. It is my understanding that substantive life cycle analysis, procedural capacity building, and cultural sensitivity remain open issues. Bringing together a wide range of perspectives in a catalytic manner can converge insights that resonate. A collage of narratives from ecology, ethics, economics, and environmental law may be able to galvanize collective action—with or without a single shared sustainability vision.
Individuals have gained subject status at international law, and civil society voices are not only being heard but responded to. The quiet desperation of humanity that Thoreau spoke of has become a powerful force—potentially capable of incentivizing climate coordination. Irrespective of the rhetoric with which we converse, we need to figure out how to come together as a global community that feels its collective loss enough to cooperate (both quickly and effectively) to achieve a sustainability arc that enhances ethical, economic, and environmental cooperation.
-- Elizabeth Burleson
Tuesday, December 4, 2012
Rethinking Sustainable Development, Environmental Law Collaborative Essay #2: The "What" and "How" of Sustainability
Sustainability has become a popular topic in law and society, yet the exact meaning of sustainability is often glossed over or assumed without any substantial analysis. Without an understanding of what sustainability means overall, it is impossible to determine what it might mean in any particular context or problem. This essay argues that there are two essential elements to a holistic meaning of sustainability: the “what” and the “how”. To understand the meaning of sustainability in an age of climate change, we must examine both of these elements and their interrelationship with climate change rather than focusing simply on a one-dimensional and concept of sustainability that lacks a defined meaning.
The “what” element of sustainability is fluid. Sustainability, using the classic definition from the Brundtland Commission, encompasses “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This wide-ranging definition includes environmental protection/conservation along with other issues such as poverty eradication, economic development, health concerns and labor issues. Thus, sustainability is perhaps one of the best vehicles to address climate change since from the “what” perspective it encompasses the concerns of the present—through such concepts as adaptation and mitigation—while also seeking to ensure that the ways in which we adapt to climate change are not harmful to future generations. The issue here, of course, is that climate change introduces an element of unforeseeability to determining the needs of future generations because the climate they inhabit will present unique challenges and opportunities. However, the crux of sustainability does not require clairvoyance. Rather, it requires the present generation to act in a responsible way toward future generations given the knowledge that is presently available. And, since knowledge is ever-evolving in law as it is in science, the actions needed to further sustainability will continue to evolve as well. This is why the “what” element is necessarily fluid.
This brings us to the “how” element of sustainability. The standard definition of sustainability is expansive and can include adaptation and mitigation practices. In many geographical areas, these practices are quite useful. However, key issues of the “how” element of sustainability render its meaning questionable in relationship to climate change. How, for example, do we promote sustainability in the Maldives when the nation will be uninhabitable within decades due to rising sea levels? Does sustainability support a plan to help the Maldivians remain in their homes, even though the island will be underwater within decades? Or do we assist the Maldivians in finding alternative locations for their people and their state now, in advance of a future immigration and governmental crisis, and call that sustainability instead? The “how” element of sustainability is key to the meaning of sustainability in an age of climate change because it must deal with both the charge to assist present and future generations and the reality that the needs of these generations will be quite different due to climate change related forces.
Taken together, the “what” element and the “how” element of sustainability provide the meaning of sustainability in an age of climate change that is necessarily flexible while at the same time encompassing the core principles established in the Brundtland Commission report. Although there will be challenges in squaring some climate-change induced issues with the “how” element of sustainability, the fluidity of the sustainability definition ensures that the concept will continue to have meaning and—more importantly—a place in the dialogue regarding climate change. In this way, viewing sustainability as being composed of the “what” and “how” elements makes the definition and concept of sustainability itself sustainable.-- Alexandra R. Harrington
Saturday, December 1, 2012
For the next three weeks, we are going to be doing something a little different here at Environmental Law Profs. We are going to be posting a series of 15 short essays all addressing the theme of sustainability and climate change. These essays that will appear each week day from now until Christmas are the product of discussion of the Environmental Law Collaborative.
A few hardy souls, which include some of the bloggers here at Environmental Law Profs, formed the Environmental Law Collaborative with the goal of engaging environmental law scholars in the thorny issues of the day. In the summer of 2012, scholars gathered in the woods of Connecticut to debate the value of scholarly research and the potential of legal literature to effect social and environmental change. With visions of Airlie House and armed with the principles of collaboration and the necessities of ecological fragility, the group sought to foster progress toward an adaptive, conscious, and equitable governance of actions that impact local and global ecologies.
This inaugural Workshop addressed the re-conceptualization of sustainability in the age of climate change. Climate change is forcing developments in the norms of political, social, economic, and technological standards. As climate change continues to dominate many fields of research, sustainability is at a critical moment that challenges its conceptual coherence. Sustainability has never been free from disputes over its meaning and has long struggled with the difficulties of simultaneously implementing the “triple-bottom line” components of environmental, economic, and social well-being. Climate change, however, suggests that the context for sustainable decision-making is shifting. Accordingly, the Workshop focused on examining the re-conceptualization of sustainability in the age of climate change, including (but not limited to) framing the term in climate change discussions; reaching sustainable practices across disciplines such as law, economics, ethics, and the hard sciences; and conceptualizing the role of sustainability in adaptation and resiliency preparation.
The event produced an intensive and collaborative assessment of sustainability in the age of climate change. The essays that will be appearing this month examine the process of adapting the principles and application of sustainability to the demands of climate change, including (but not limited to) framing the term sustainability in climate-change discussions; coordinating sustainable practices across disciplines such as law, economics, ethics, and the hard sciences; and conceptualizing the role of sustainability in formulating adaptation and resiliency strategies. Furthermore, these essays also contemplate the role of law and legal systems in crafting effective climate-change-adaptation strategies and consider feasible strategies in the context of specific examples.
In the coming weeks, we will post contributions from Rebecca Bratspies, Michael Burger, Betsy Burleson, Robin Craig, David Driesen, Alexandra Harrington, Keith Hirokawa, Sarah Krakoff, Katy Kuh, Stephen Miller, Pat Parenteau, Jessie Owley, Melissa Powers, Jonathan Rosenbloom and Shannon Roesler.
Please tune in, comment freely and help us further the conversation on sustainability and climate change.
-- Betsy Burleson, Michael Burger, Keith Hirokawa and Jessie Owley
Thursday, 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.]
November 8, 2012 in Asia, Climate Change, Current Affairs, Governance/Management, International, Law, Legislation, Sustainability, Toxic and Hazardous Substances, Travel, US | Permalink | Comments (2)
Thursday, October 25, 2012
On November 14-15, 2012, the Marine Affairs Institute at Roger Williams University School of Law is putting on its 9th Bi-Annual Marine Law Symposium. This year's theme is...climate change! (Shocking, right?) But even with all the attention given to climate change at similar events, this symposium fills an important gap: The symposium will specifically address climate change's impacts on the oceans, and the ways in which coastal and ocean law and policy are (and are not) responding. We have scientists, policymakers, practitioners, and a good helping of legal scholars to talk about ocean acidification, rising sea levels, state and munipal adaptation efforts, the implications for the maritime industry, and emerging issues in the Arctic. You can find the agenda here. And here is the description:
This Symposium will examine the laws and policies that are implicated as climate change impacts coastal and ocean environments. The land-sea boundary is shifting, ocean water is warmer and more acidic, fluctuating weather conditions and storms increasingly impact coastal communities, and the melting Arctic ice cap raises new international boundary and resource exploitation issues. These changes trigger many corresponding legal considerations for natural resource managers, planners, attorneys, insurers and law enforcement entities. At this Symposium, experts and legal practitioners from governmental bodies as well as private industry, academia and non-profit organizations will explore the state of the law, how disputes have been handled to date, and what may be on the horizon. Attendees can expect to walk away with the law and policy tools necessary to engage in these rapidly changing issues, and an understanding of the natural and social science behind changing coastal and ocean conditions.
You can contact me if you have any questions. And I hope to see you in Bristol!
- Michael Burger
Monday, September 17, 2012
I had been wondering what ordinary people in India think about climate change. So last week on my ride home from the office, I asked my auto-rickshaw driver. He was a talkative guy, bearded, with black spectacles and a navy blue turban. He had been keen on identifying for me the many troubles a man like him endures on the subcontinent. “Too many people!” he shouted, his voice competing with the cab’s rattling frame and the bleats of oncoming horns. “Too much traffic!”
We swung around a landscaped rotary. I gripped my seat. A copse of date palms swerved by, and then a billboard: “Enrich Delhi’s Green Legacy.” I took the bait. “So what do think about global warming?” I shouted. We slowed to a stop behind a row of cars and two-wheelers waiting at the light. He cut the motor. A small boy pranced into the stalled traffic and began turning cartwheels in hopes of a small remuneration. “Yes, I know about that,” the driver said. “Too much warming. Too much heat.” “But do you worry about it?” “Me—no.” He fired the engine and frowned slightly. “You know, India has too much noise!” he shouted. “And too many dogs! Too many everything.”
I continue to grill my Indian acquaintances on climate change, but I’ve now found a more scientific source of information. The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication released a report last month, “Climate Change in the Indian Mind,” that takes a broad look at climate change awareness and attitudes in modern India. Based on a survey of 4,035 Indians—both urban and rural, from a range of income and education levels—the report presents an encouraging view of the world’s biggest and most perplexing environmental challenge in the world’s biggest and most perplexing representative democracy.
Like the rickshaw wallah in Delhi, most Indians are aware of changing trends in the climate. According to the report:
Only 7 percent of respondents said they know “a lot” about global warming, while 41 percent had never heard of it or said, “I don’t know.” However, after hearing a short definition of global warming, 72 percent said they believe global warming is happening, 56 percent said it is caused mostly by human activities, 50 percent said they have already personally experienced the effects, and 61 percent said they are worried about it.
(Compare that to public opinion the United States. According to a recent Gallup poll, only 52% of Americans say the effects of climate change are now occurring. But ask about the cause, and one finds numbers similar to those in India: 53% percent of Americans, according to Gallup, attribute global warming to human activity.)
But, unlike the rickshaw wallah, most Indians are worried enough about global warming that they want their government to address the problem.
Here’s another excerpt from the report’s “Highlights”:
• Millions of Indians are observing changes in their local rainfall, temperatures, and weather, report more frequent droughts and floods, and a more unpredictable monsoon. A majority of respondents said their own household’s drinking water and food supply, health, and income are vulnerable to a severe drought or flood and that it would take them months to years to recover.
• 54 percent said that India should be making a large or moderate-scale effort to reduce global warming, even if it has large or moderate economic costs.
• Majorities favored a variety of policies to waste less fuel, water, and energy, even if this increased costs.
• 70 percent favored a national program to teach Indians about global warming.
This glimpse into Indian minds must come with caveats. Like any survey, it captures only a moment in time. Plus, it’s easier to favor conservation policies when you don’t know exactly who would bear the cost. Even with a firm public commitment to action, the translation from public will to government policy is notoriously complicated in India. (Or, for that matter, in the United States.)
But the survey offers a ray of hope. India’s ambition of becoming a true global power will depend on its ability to harness green energy and cope with higher temperatures, bigger rains, and longer droughts. In a general way, Indians know this. But ambition means nothing without political leadership. And that is one thing in India that is not in oversupply.
Robert R.M. Verchick is a 2012-2013 Fulbright-Nehru Research Scholar and holds the Gauthier ~ St. Martin Chair in Environmental Law at Loyola University New Orleans
Wednesday, September 12, 2012
This is the sixth in my series of reports from the field about the environmental experiences of an environmental law professor in China. (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. This more reflective essay, mostly written on my last day in China, grew so long that I have decided to publish it in several parts, beginning with today’s thoughts about the different relationships that average Americans and Chinese maintain with the natural world.
In these final musings from the field, I reflect on a topic that is admittedly delicate but equally important, and which has been simmering behind many of the substantive environmental issues that I’ve addressed to now: environmental philosophy. With the help of so many patient teachers here (most of them my own students), I’ve come to understand some deep cultural differences corresponding to many of the environmental experiences that I’ve been writing about in this series. At bottom, they reflect important underlying differences in environmental philosophy—differences, at least, between the average Chinese approach and that which underlies much environmental governance in the U.S. (and other like systems, but in drawing fraught comparisons, I’ll stick to what I know best).
These issues are hard to talk about, because they go to the heart of the cultural differences that one must be exquisitely careful about describing, let alone evaluating. Every culture has elements that are puzzling, even troubling to those outside it. (To test this, ask virtually any non-American what they think about our Second Amendment—or for that matter, our First!) Yet as dangerous as such discussions always threaten to be, I brave it because these cultural differences relate so directly to the challenges of international (and even domestic) environmental law that it seems critical to at least broach the subject.
Acknowledging these difficulties, I begin with the humble 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. They contrast environmental perspectives as revealed through our different relationships with nature, conservation and stewardship obligations, and scarcity—concluding with some thoughts about ancient Chinese philosophical traditions. This first essay addresses the surprisingly different qualities of our respective relationships with nature (conceding with William Cronon that the very concept is something of a cultural construct), and how that might impact our respective visions of environmental law.
The average Chinese environmental perspective contrasts with American counterparts in so many ways, and at seemingly every level—whether comparing Chinese undergraduates with American college students, farmers with farmers, bureaucrats with bureaucrats, or grandmothers with grandmothers. So it’s only natural that we’re not going to see things exactly the same way when it comes to nature itself. We all like pandas, and we all agree that our children should not be poisoned by toxic chemicals carelessly released into the environment. But beyond that—what are the contours of our ethical relationships with that environment, and to what extent might it inform natural resource management choices?
From the modern U.S. perspective, American natural resources laws mostly attempt to balance competing demands for scarce resources, including public land and water resources that are simultaneously valuable for extractive, recreational, aesthetic, and intrinsic reasons. We came to this idea of balance after the first half of American history, during which our policies erred squarely on the side of extraction and reclamation. But today, this idea is the essence of our Multiple-Use-Sustained-Yield approaches in the National Forest and BLM lands, and it is even reflected in the tension between the occasionally competing mandates to provide for the enjoyment of our National Parks by both present recreationalists and future generations.
We seek balance, but that balance is constantly contested because Americans divide over when to err on the side of extraction or preservation, whether to proceed from an anthropocentric or biocentric management ethic, and when to prioritize present or future needs. Today’s debate features environmentalists who favor preservation and lower-impact recreation versus “wise-use” advocates who favor freer extraction and recreation policies. Yet the same conflicts have played out for at least the last 150 years of U.S. natural resources policy, since the early contests between John Muir, progenitor of the National Park Service’s preservation mandate, and Gifford Pinchot, architect of the U.S. Forest Service’s multiple use mandate.
Even so, while today’s John Muirs and Gifford Pinchots may disagree on the precise balance, most find common ground in the belief that we ought to protect at least some natural areas from as much human intervention as possible, in at least some circumstances. They may come to this shared value for very different reasons, and they will often choose different ways of enjoying that wilderness. But as a former U.S. Forest Service ranger east of Yosemite National Park, I never once met a Sierra Club hiker, four-wheeling rancher, Audubon Society birder, or Ducks Unlimited hunter who didn’t sing the praises of their respective pilgrimages to the backcountry, where they found communion with their respective ideal visions of the natural world.
This regard for (relatively) unmediated nature was the intuition behind the U.S. National Park system, by which we purposefully set aside remarkable natural areas like Yosemite and Yellowstone from further human modification. Here, American public policy proceeds from a generally shared conviction that the best in nature is somehow at its best when it is left alone. We admittedly transform nature for countless economic reasons elsewhere, but we value at least some left unchanged (a belief affirmed even more forcefully by the Wilderness Act of 1964). Flawed though this conviction may be in modern times—when even Arctic ice is contaminated with the chemical residues of industrial development—it runs so deep in American cultural consciousness that our National Parks remain a centerpiece of family recreation, a visual representation of pride in country, and a psychological trope exploited for selling things as ironic as sport utility vehicles.
To be sure, most Americans are proud of such public works accomplishments as Hoover Dam, the Erie Canal, and interstate highway system. They form the backbone of national infrastructure that enabled our own economic development to the point where many families can afford that iconic road-trip to visit the National Parks. But as proud (and utterly dependent) as we are on the national highway system, hopelessly romantic Americans are generally even prouder of those treasures in our National Park System that seem to tell us something about who we are as a nation. After all, there are roads all over the world! But there is only one Grand Canyon.
Most modern Chinese see the human relationship with nature very differently, and from the bottom up. Traditional Chinese landscape paintings (of stunning natural vistas with tiny people in the periphery) seem to pay homage to a natural order in which in which human beings play a proportionately small role. There may have been a time in Chinese history where that reflected cultural ideals, and there may be parts of rural China where this still feels true. But today, in both government policy and popular consciousness, the balance appears reversed. By mechanisms cultural and political, the traditional Chinese reverence for the integrity of natural systems has waned, ironically just as Americans were “finding religion” in nature. Americans went from an early ethos of ruthlessly bending nature to our will—for example, taming mighty rivers and “reclaiming” the desert through massive dam and irrigation projects—to a modern turnaround in which we are now dismantling the very same dams to return ecological systems to a more natural state. The Chinese, perhaps, have been on an opposite trajectory.
Just as in the U.S., Chinese natural resources management policy seeks to balance many competing interests, and with perhaps even greater urgency, given the continuing crisis of rural poverty. After all, the Three Gorges Dam, though environmentally controversial, was designed to bring electricity and flood relief to tens of millions of people, many without other means. In contrast to U.S. policy, however, the consideration of John Muir-style preservation—whether for anthropocentric or biocentric reasons—ranks low, if at all, on the scales. In fact, my Chinese Natural Resources Law students were baffled by the very idea of biocentric environmental ethics, in which nature is considered to have value independent of direct human needs. To be sure, many Americans are equally utilitarian, but they tend to see the biocentric viewpoint as romantic or idealistic, even if wrongheaded. For my Chinese students, it is simply incomprehensible—as in, hard to even grasp what that could possibly mean. But even from the vantage point of anthropocentric, utilitarian values—the ideal that nature is valuable because people derive benefit from it—preservation ranks low in the national interest.
Again, part of the reason for this doubtlessly comes from the pressure of managing such an immense population on such a comparatively small chunk of land. After all, the vast majority of China’s 1.4 billion people live only on the eastern and central part of the nation’s overall land area, which is comparable to, say, the eastern half of the United States. The Sichuan Basin, comparable in size to the state of Michigan, is home to some 100 million people. The North China Plain, including the Shandong Peninsula where we have lived this past year, is about the size of Texas but home to more than the entire U.S. population. This kind of population density understandably changes the calculus in allocating all scarce natural resources, including physical space. Most Chinese would happily trade wild open space for new housing developments, and usually out of sheer necessity.
Still, China doesn’t exactly lack open space: the western mountains and deserts that constitute half of China’s territory are home to only 6% of the population. And though more of China is more densely populated than the U.S., the population density of New York City ranks up there with Beijing, and many native New Yorkers (myself among them) still crave wilderness. But by and large, most Chinese people don’t. Even though there is a burgeoning domestic tourist industry to serve China’s burgeoning middle class, ecotourism of the American family-camping and river-rafting variety isn’t really part of it. Development pressures aside, there’s something different in the human relationship with nature at the cultural level, reflected in recreational preferences as well as management policy.
Of course, the average American didn’t always love wilderness—for the first hundred or so years of American history, western settlers cursed the wilderness for threatening their very survival. New Yorkers like me only developed our taste for wilderness when our safety within well-developed cities had become so secure that civilization itself grew boring and it was the wilderness—an increasingly scarce resource—that seemed novel. Indigenous Americans have long enjoyed a very different relationship with nature, and later-comers have learned from their example over our last hundred years together. But Chinese civilization had made its peace with the natural world for thousands of years before American settlers cursed and then longed for their wilderness. It was just, in some regards, a different kind of peace.
Chinese culture has long celebrated the natural world in achingly beautiful paintings, poetry, and the placement of simple pagodas from which to contemplate the splendor of the natural world. But in contrast to modern American ideals, the Chinese have also long celebrated their extraordinary ability to manipulate nature as needed to suit human ends, both functional and aesthetic. They take great cultural pride in their proven ability to remake the natural world in ways that have offered tangible benefits to their people over the eons. The term for this pride that I learned while touring the mountains and deserts of the west roughly translates to “Man-Made China.” In many cases, the Chinese have remade nature to survive and even thrive within the most challenging of natural environments. As I described in an earlier installment, the native Xinjiangnese did this in creating thousands of kilometers of the Turpan Karez’s underground water channels over thousands of years, each dug by hand to keep mountain streams from evaporating before reaching cropland eeked out of the Takla Makan desert. The fifty-year North-South Water Project and the Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric project in the world (with power generating capacity some eleven times that of the Hoover Dam), reflect similar modern-day ambitions.
Another ancient example is the Dujiangyan Irrigation System west of Chengdu, one of the three great hydraulic engineering projects of ancient China. More than two thousand years ago, civic engineers there calculated how to seasonally split the Minjiang River just so—in a way that provides both flood relief to the lands annually inundated by spring meltwater on one side and irrigation to the lands on the other side that would then become the breadbasket of China. Now celebrated as a U.N. World Heritage Site, the project works flawlessly to this day, using “natural topographic and hydrological features to solve problems of diverting water for irrigation, draining sediment, flood control, and flow control without the use of dams,” leaving the channel open for commercially and strategically important navigation. Americans and others have also learned to alter nature as needed for the purposes of human safety and economic development—but in China, projects like Dujiangyan hold a place of pride in the Chinese heart that roughly corresponds with the place the Grand Canyon occupies in the American psyche.
Related to national pride in Man-Made China is the strong preference that most Chinese hold for managed nature over pristine wilderness. You can see it in the stunningly beautiful Chinese gardens of sculpted trees, flower beds, carefully placed rocks (often imported from great distances), usually permeated by a carefully designed creek leading to a pond improbably stocked with huge, crimson koi. These are the places where people go to enjoy nature, but like (a much better version of) an English Garden, they are enjoyed as a work of human-mediated art. Just as nature-enthusiasts in the U.S. might go for a day hike to watch birds in the wild, Chinese nature enthusiasts go to a managed garden to “shang hua,” or appreciate the carefully groomed flowers. Early American colonists and their Europeans forbearers shared a similar regard for pastoral version of nature, cultivated in farms and gardens. But together with Thoreau and the Transcendentalists, Aldo Leopold and the land ethicists, and even through the crossfire between John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, many Americans developed something of a “back to nature” idealism—reflected in our shared love of the National Parks—that most Chinese don’t share.
In fact, the Chinese preference for heavily mediated nature extends even to their own national parks. Even in magnificent natural areas that have been protected as parks, natural wonders are improved upon. I learned this most poignantly while visiting Tian Shan Tianchi, or “Heavenly Lake of the Celestial Mountains”—a high alpine lake nestled among the Tian Shan mountains in northwest China. I had first learned of the place on my first day teaching Natural Resources Law in Shandong, when I asked my students if there was a Chinese analog to the American Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—a famous but remote wilderness that all would know of but few would ever visit. They described this place in Xinjiang Province, and I was thrilled to be able to visit it while later lecturing at a university in nearby Urumqi.
Like an American National Park, the site was protected from development in a region rich with extractable resources, and you could enter only in an approved guided tour-bus that crept up the mountains alongside the river draining the lake. But unlike an American National Park, the once wild mountain river had been terraced into a series of flat concrete pools designed to spread the water out and slow it down as it comes down the mountainside. It was lovely, in that Chinese garden way, though it had nothing to do with the mountain stream hydrology that I had expected to see. (Though it is exactly what I should have expected, having seen similar things at many other Chinese parks.)
At the top, the lake itself was stunning—surrounded by snow-covered peaks and passes reminiscent of the Swiss Alps. That is, except for the crackling speakers—poorly camouflaged as tree stumps and boulders—that lined the paved trail every few feet, piping in music to complete the experience. And they were not playing a mountain flute, erhu, or some other kind of peaceful traditional Chinese music. As I live and breathe, what I heard as I summited the Heavenly Lake of the Celestial Mountains was Michael Jackson. “Bad,” I believe. Followed by Abba. (Which also shouldn’t have surprised me too much, as audio-enhancement is fairly common among nature parks here.)
To enjoy the area in the absence of Abba, I asked the park guide where to find a hiking trail around the lake that I had read about online—but she looked at me blankly. There is no trail around the lake, she insisted, and she’d been giving tours here for five years. I would later confirm that the trail really did exist, but she probably didn’t know about it because most Chinese visitors never use it. It’s just not part of what they want from their encounters with wilderness. Perhaps reflecting this sentiment is the adjacent photograph of an elaborate, wood-carved sign posted conspicuously along the lakeshore: "Civilization is the Most Beautiful Scenery."
Of course, this is a generalization from which there countless exceptions, and I've been the fortunate beneficiary of wisdom and company from many Qingdaonese who have introduced me to remarkable features of the Lao Shan landscape. But I've been surprised to discover the more general indifference to wilderness experiences again and again while traveling the country. Most of the time, the only information I can find about local trails comes from foreign tourists and the website instructions they leave behind. My family once roamed the southwestern-most part of the country bordering Myanmar (Burma) for days, despairing for a simple walk into the surrounding rainforest. We were repeatedly told by our professional Chinese guides—hired through local contacts by a Chinese student who accompanied us—that what we were asking for was impossible, that there simply were no trails. But on our last day, we met a young pair of traveling Germans who directed us to an expat coffeehouse run by a Frenchman, who showered us with maps of exquisite routes that it was now too late for us to attempt.
Learning from that mistake, I later used the Internet to research a spectacular trail alongside a
majestic mountain pass in northern Yunnan Province, at around 9,000’ along the upper reaches of the Yangtze River near the border with Tibet. Although I downloaded a hand-penned map of the trail, our local Chinese guide (seemingly genuinely) knew nothing about it. I finally found a guesthouse whose operators knew of the nearby trail, though they warned that only sheepherders and Western tourists used it. They were right, even though the incredible trail lay at the foot of the Snow Dragon Jade Mountain and within the Leaping Tiger Gorge of the Yangtze, some of China’s most heavily domestically-touristed areas. As long as I live, I will never forget that hike. But as far as I can tell, most visiting Chinese will never take it.
I once took some environmental law students on a modest hike in a river canyon—the first time in their lives they had ever gone “hiking.” Managing unsecure footing down a dirt trail turned out to be a challengingly unfamiliar physical skill, and even the word was confusing to translate. The closest Chinese word would be “pa-shan,” which means to climb a mountain. But in China, most mountains are climbed on paved trails and stone staircases. In fact, it’s hard to find a mountain of repute that is not adorned with a stone staircase from base to summit. When I first arrived in Qingdao, I was delighted to discover that the small mountain behind my neighborhood didn’t have one. But in an effort to improve public enjoyment, local workers later began hauling concrete slabs up its steep flanks with tiny bulldozers, and by the time I left, it too could be summited in heels and flip-flops. This saddened a few Western language teachers in the area, but our Chinese neighbors were mostly happy to see the progress.
As an American in China, it’s been hard to separate myself from my own cultural bias in favor of unmediated wilderness. I long for earthen trails, and not for piped-in music. Still, it’s impossible to deny the accomplishment of the ancient parting of the Minjiang River at Dujiangyan, saving countless people from the misery of annual flooding while saving countless others from starvation. Mountain staircases enable young and old Chinese to climb them in good health, without fear of breaking an ankle or a hip on a rugged trail. And they often lead to spectacular temples and contemplative pagodas nestled among the hills, a classical and undeniably beautiful feature of traditional Chinese culture. Nevertheless, I wonder how this cultural difference may bear on environmental public policy choices in a way that may be confusing to westerners unfamiliar with it. For example, ambitious geo-engineering projects that might give pause to many Americans will seem like nothing more than the logical next step of civil engineering to most Chinese...
[To be continued in the next installment, in which I’ll engage further differences in our approaches to conservation, stewardship, and scarcity.]
Thursday, August 30, 2012
NEW DELHI — Here’s what the monsoon season looks like in India. This summer, the northern states have been lashed with rain. In the northeastern state of Assam, July rains swamped thousands of homes, killing 65 residents. Floods and mudslides in northeast India sent nearly 6 million people heading for the hills in search of temporary housing (a tarp, a corrugated roof) and government aid (when they can get it). In New Delhi, the monsoon hasn’t caused anything nearly as traumatic. But one cloudburst can easily flood roads and storm canals, sending bubbling streams of grease and sewage across the urban slums.
Haven’t heard about all this? Normally, I wouldn't have either. But this semester I’m living in New Delhi, near one of those storm canals, working as a Fulbright-Nehru Research Scholar affiliated with India’s Centre for Policy Research. My plan is to examine the ways in which Indians are adapting to climate change, at the national, regional, and local levels.
Perhaps no country in the world is as vulnerable on so many fronts to climate change as India. With 7,000 kilometers of coastline, the vast Himalayan glaciers, and nearly 70 million hectares of forests, India is especially vulnerable to a climate trending toward warmer temperatures, erratic precipitation, higher seas, and swifter storms. Then there are India’s enormous cities (home to nearly a third of the population), where all of these trends conspire to threaten public health and safety on a grand scale—portending heat waves, drought, thicker smog layers, coastal storms, and blown-out sewer systems.
Those floods I mentioned earlier are typical of India’s monsoon season—data for this season, in fact, show a monsoon with slightly less total precipitation than normal. But the floods demonstrate the kinds of extreme events that if multiplied in the future will bring even more risk to a fragile country. According to a recent report issued by India’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry, current projections indicate “a 3% to 7% overall increase in all-India summer monsoon rainfall in the 2030’s with respect to the 1970’s.” In contrast, during the winter and pre-summer “dry” season, most regions “are likely to have lower rainfalls.” Such a “barbell effect”—a more extreme wet season joined to a more extreme dry season—could mean trouble for India’s growing cities and struggling rural farmers.
India’s public and private sectors have begun developing adaptation strategies, although most are at the beginning stages. With prodding from the national government, some states are now developing vulnerability assessments and setting priorities. International non-profits like the Rockefeller Foundation are joining with local governments and citizens’ organizations to find better ways to control storm water, irrigate crops, and improve health against the backdrop of a changing climate. Manufacturers, insurance companies, and banks are also examining ways to adapt. This has led to an array of discussions about how public or private initiatives should be used to build resilience in the Indian communities, to make them “climate-ready.” Some of these ideas are particular to India, but many of them will be tested here and exported to the rest of the world, including the United States.
Should rural farmers in India be encouraged to protect against monsoon vagaries by investing in a legalized “weather derivatives” market, like some American hedge funds do? Is there a way that India’s expansive Public Trust Doctrine (inspired by American case law) could be used to protect threatened assets like coastal wetlands and groundwater supplies? Am I nuts to think that a megacity like New Delhi—home to 16 million people, 11 million vehicles, nearly half a million stray dogs, and scores of loitering cows—can coalesce into an environmentally sensible and climate resilient city of the future? Over the coming months, I’ll take on some of these subjects in this blog. I’ll talk with local experts, visit project sites, and venture an assessment or two. As for now, the afternoon thunder is rattling my office window, and I need to find my rubber sandals.
- Robert Verchick, Gauthier-St. Martin Chair in Environmental Law, Loyola University, New Orleans.
August 30, 2012 in Asia, Climate Change, Current Affairs, Environmental Assessment, Governance/Management, International, Land Use, Law, Sustainability, Water Resources | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Thursday, July 5, 2012
Today I discuss the curious contrast between China’s role as an international and domestic producer of consumer goods, and some of the implications for average Chinese people. (This is the fifth in my series of reports from the field about the environmental experiences of an environmental law professor in China—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, and May’s exploration of water quality issues.)
While preparing for our year in China, we wondered what we should bring with us from home. Friends joked that given how much of what we use in the United States is actually made in China, we probably didn’t have to bring anything—whatever we needed would be here! But after our arrival, we were surprised to discover how mistaken these assumptions were. It’s true that China produces a lot of the manufactured goods now sold in the U.S. and throughout the world. What’s not true is that they are available for purchase in China. As it turns out, China has two separate manufacturing industries—the factories that produce for export, and those that produce for domestic consumption. In fact, it’s illegal to sell goods produced for export on the domestic market. And while Chinese exports are generally of decent quality, that’s not always the case for products sold in domestic Chinese markets.
Before I say more, it’s important to acknowledge the relationship of this problem to China’s stage of economic development, and the mind-boggling progress it has made over a very short period of time. Just a few decades ago, China was still reeling from the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution and the chaos of the Great Leap Forward and famine times preceding it. Only after the Deng Xiaoping reforms in 1978 did national priorities shift toward full-speed-ahead economic development. In the thirty years since, the nation’s progress in creating new industry and providing for basic human needs has been astonishing—especially in urban areas, and most markedly in the coastal areas like Shanghai and Shenzhen, or the northern city of Qingdao, where we live. But even though there are some 500 million Chinese now using the Internet, some 170 million of them—more than half the population of the U.S.—still live on only a dollar a day.
Of course, such rapid development has been accompanied by the environmental degradation that I’ve written about in previous posts, just as American industrialization did a century ago. And indeed, when you’re trying to feed 700 million mouths in the underdeveloped countryside, it can be hard to focus on ground-level ozone. Still, people living close to the margin are especially vulnerable to environmental harms from pollution and climate-related disasters. Understanding this, the government has increasingly recognized that ongoing development efforts must be better partnered with effective environmental regulation, evidenced by a steady stream of reports about new environmental goals and sustainability initiatives. As far as I can tell, these are mostly hortatory at the moment, but hey—every environmental movement has to start somewhere, and it’s usually with consciousness-raising.
This is all just to fairly contextualize my observations here that, in addition to better managing pollution, China faces an uphill challenge to better ensure the safety of the products its people come into contact with each day. Product safety is like any other environmental regulation; both rely on state enforced rules to ensure that people are not harmed by toxins or hazards, especially when the harm is of the sort that most people couldn’t reliably identify on their own. And at least generally speaking, the safety and quality of domestically marketed Chinese products leaves a lot to desire.
Americans may recall how this problem reached the export market in 2007, when Chinese toys sold in the U.S. were found to have been produced with lead paint. Teething children, those most vulnerable to neurotoxins, risked exposure when they inevitably gummed or sucked on these toys.
As the parent of new baby at the time, I carefully pulled out all of his new toys that had been made in China, just in case. But now imagine the same kind of problem here in China, in every kind of product line, and with only a fraction of the government regulators available to inspect products for health and safety. You can’t just pull everything out, just in case. There will be nothing left.
In China, the most troubling examples relate to food safety. In recent years, there has been a parade of scandals in which chemical toxins have been found in local meats, vegetables, and other products. The most tragic was the milk scandal of 2008, in which several Chinese babies died and hundreds of thousands were sickened by milk products purposefully contaminated with melamine, an industrial chemical that raises the apparent protein content of watered-down dairy products (and also causes kidney failure). Responsible parties were fired, jailed, and even executed in punishment—but two years later, it was discovered that 170 tons of contaminated formula that was supposed to be destroyed after the scandal was simply repackaged and resold on the domestic market.
I know Chinese parents who will only give their child imported milk, even though it is by far the most expensive item in the family budget—in absolute terms, 400-500% more expensive than the average milk sold in the U.S. (and this purchased by families with a fraction of the average U.S. income.) These frightened parents will carefully scan UHT milk products to make sure that the only Chinese characters appear on stick-on labels—not the original cartons—ensuring that no part of the production process took place here in China. We were taught to do the same on our arrival, and imported milk soon became the most expensive part of our family budget as well.
Baby formula price differences are even more exaggerated—even one can of imported formula can cost as much as a week’s worth of groceries—which is obviously prohibitive for most Chinese families. But this week, the China Daily reported that formula produced by one of China’s biggest dairy manufacturers was pulled from shelves after testing positive for elevated mercury levels. The Yili Industrial Group recalled three series produced between November and May after inspectors discovered high mercury levels, presumed the result of air, water, and soil pollution from coal-fired power plants and industrial and mining projects. Afterward, the government made an emergency announcement that it had tested 715 samples from all infant milk powders on the market, and none showed abnormal mercury content except Yili’s. But note the use of the word “abnormal,” rather than illegal: perhaps the most chilling aspect of the story is that China doesn’t actually have an official safety standard for mercury in milk power.
(Writing on July 4th, it’s a good moment for me to pause and reflect on the many things I am grateful for in my own country. And even with all of its flaws, I’ve never been more grateful for the FDA than I am right now. Let this be yet another post-it to all my fellow-citizens who have come to take our own regulatory state so for granted that they have forgotten what life would actually look like without it.)
China’s regulatory apparatus is struggling to catch up with the herculean pace of its industrial sector, and the gap between them is exposed by these tragic examples in which local people are hurt by the very products they are racing to produce, ever more quickly and inexpensively. The United States has been here before as well, and it may just be a necessary part of the process of economic development. But China is at that stage where its people are beginning to decide that the health and safety of their children is just as important as other aspects of economic development. The bottom line is that too little of what reaches the Chinese consumer is subject to reliable health and safety inspection based on sensible regulatory standards. And we know Chinese producers can do better, because they meet all kinds of health and safety standards when making goods for export!
Because milk is just the tip of this iceberg. Chinese of means are willing to pay extraordinary amounts for all kinds of foreign products—not just food, but also clothing and electronics. This puzzled me at first, until I lived here long enough to witness just how often the things I buy at the local market break, tear, or otherwise self-destruct. From clocks to toothbrushes to ziplock bags—I don’t know how else to say it—the Chinese goods we buy here just here don’t work very well, or very long. Even as I write, I am sweeping away from my son’s mouth the disintegrating pieces of the nice couch that was relatively new when we moved into our apartment last year (and worrying about what may be in it).
I’m no economist, but I can’t help but relate this to the high tariffs the Chinese government adds to imports—the source of so much international tension with economic competitors like the U.S. It’s no wonder the government favors these tariffs: if imports were not made artificially more expensive than they already are, Chinese consumers would prefer them even more strongly to local products. I had a conversation about this once with a student complaining about how expensive American-made clothing was in China (the tariffs make it much more expensive than it would be at home, even in absolute terms). I pointed out that from the perspective of his government, this was a way of accelerating the developing economy by harnessing the enormous purchasing power of China’s emerging consumer class. He responded that, yes, if he were a Chinese official, he would probably do the same thing. But as a Chinese consumer, all he really wanted were some quality shoes.
Of course, a lot of what I am describing is just the reality of life in a developing country, and I certainly don’t want to whine about that too much. My purpose in sharing this is not to complain, but to help those from the developed world understand the full scope of the environmental and economic challenges on the other side. If you were a government official trying to get 150+ million people out of abject poverty, wouldn’t you try to harness the purchasing power of your vast citizenry to do it, free trade notwithstanding?
Regulatory regard for individual health and safety here seems different from the west anyway, reflecting differences both economic and cultural. In flying back to China after lecturing in Vietnam, I was astounded to be fumigated without warning by an aerosolized pesticide sprayed on me in my seat by the Chinese flight attendant. I later learned that it was required by Chinese law, doubtlessly to prevent the spread of serious insect-borne diseases. But my eyes, nose, and throat burned worryingly for the rest of the day, and I wondered how I’d have felt about it had I been pregnant or carrying an infant. In an earlier post, I wrote about our harrowing experience trying to avoid domestic pesticides whose safety we could not ascertain, and I felt affirmed when it was later reported that the government was taking steps to ban twenty commonly used pesticides for reasons of human toxicity.
In another example, my husband—the grandson of a lifelong Milwaukie firefighter—was dismayed that our apartment has barred-in windows and no fire escape, for which I chided him as an over-privileged westerner until I saw ordinary people exploding fireworks just feet from neighboring homes and businesses. The displays are spectacular, but they also cost fingers, lives, and some famously devastating fires. Similarly costly are the traffic-related mortalities that are unfortunately common here. Still, most don’t wear helmets on their motorbikes, and seat belts are purposefully dismantled in most cars because people consider them a nuisance. (In one of our more hilarious cross-cultural moments, we lugged a child car-seat here all the way from the U.S., knowing we’d never find one in China—only to discover it useless because there are no seatbelts to secure it in place!) Traffic lights to help pedestrians cross the street are rare, and even those that exist are of limited value: “don’t walk” means that you will surely be killed if you cross; “walk” means it is now somewhat less likely that you will be killed.
Yet this is only part of the story. Notwithstanding the lack of health and safety standards, there are so many other elements of Chinese culture that are much more committed to human health than western cultures—and especially American culture. Americans may be good at regulating for health and safety, but our lifestyles certainly don’t do much to advance the goal—as documented by our famously expanding waistlines. Healthful living is a huge and important part of Chinese culture, and among its most admirable. Chinese people eat dried fruits and nuts instead of cheese doodles. They rest regularly and sleep well at night. Chinese medicine emphasizes the maintenance of wellness over the post-hoc treatment of disease. Most of all, healthy exercise is a foundation of everyday life.
I don’t just mean that Chinese people are in better shape because fewer have cars and must walk where Americans usually drive, although that’s also true. Here, exercise is a ritual part of daily life—and especially community life—in a way that would be wholly unfamiliar to most Americans. In the morning, people gather for morning exercise in public parks, courtyards, and parking lots, often doing tai chi. Seeing a hundred people spontaneously join in perfect, soundless unity this way is truly one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. After dinner, families take a ritual “digestive” walk around the neighborhood together. Then begins evening exercise, when people again gather in public areas for a variety of activities. Children play openly while men play team sports. Women regularly gather for a Chinese cultural version of line-dancing, in which they collectively perform a repeating, multi-sided sequence to accompanying music. We were sad to discover very few playgrounds for children—but in perhaps a wiser use of scarce resources, every neighborhood has an exercise parks for adults, with metal equipment to keep people fit and limber, especially as they age. They are frequently used, especially after work, by young and old alike.
So I end this essay where I began, acknowledging the developmental and cultural differences that make my observations here admittedly fraught. Nations struggling to feed rural populations have to be more concerned with crop yields than genetically modified organisms, more concerned with child malnutrition than child obesity rates. Chinese culture protects health in other ways, and it’s understandable that regulatory priorities have focused elsewhere than health and safety to this point—although perhaps the time has come for change. But where American regulations offer models for China, Chinese culture offers lessons for Americans, in exactly those realms we need them most.
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
This is the fourth in my series of reports from the field about the environmental experiences of an environmental law professor in China. (For the full background on this series, see February’s introductory post, March’s reflections on China and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, and April’s account of air quality issues in China.)
This month, I peek beneath one of the more surprising, seemingly contradictory stones in China’s path toward increasing prosperity and world power. China is the world’s fastest-growing major economy—the second largest economy of all nations, the largest exporter, and the second-largest importer in the world. It is a nation with 500 million Internet users, 100 million cars, and the world’s largest standing army. It is the third nation on earth to independently launch a successful manned space mission, with plans to send astronauts to the moon in the coming years. At least in urban areas, China is a thoroughly modern, explosively developing place—with department stores selling Prada, goofy reality TV, and wifi at the local tea house... but you still can’t drink the water.
Visitors to China are carefully warned that the water is not potable and must be boiled thoroughly before consumption. Every hotel room has a small water boiler for this purpose, and the more expensive ones provide a nightly bottle of safe drinking water by the bedside. Water quality problems are traditionally associated with the continuing use of “night soil” (human and animal waste) to fertilize crops—an effective and inexpensive alternative with an inexhaustible supply. Yet the problem continues even as farmers embrace more modern chemical fertilizers (perhaps too heartily, at the alarming expense of soil health), and as other contaminants enter the water supply. While visiting the old city of Lijiang in Yunnan Province, for example, I rose for an early morning walk to find cooks cleaning the carcasses of recently killed animals, intestines and all, directly into the Venice-like canals from which others draw their drinking water.
Shortly before our arrival, we were warned by a vaccination nurse familiar with the most dangerous waterborne diseases to only sponge-bathe our 3-year-old, rather than risk his inadvertent exposure to waterborne parasites through his open eyes or mouth in a shower. Once here, we quickly decided that this level of precaution was unnecessary, at least in urban areas where the municipal water supply receives some level of filtration or disinfection before reaching the tap (especially true in Beijing). Still, we have learned well the rules of life here in China: drink only boiled or bottled water, no ice that can’t be sourced to boiled or bottled water, no fruits or vegetables that haven’t been cooked or peeled, and brush teeth with tap water at your own risk. (Some friends do; others, including me, don’t.) You should also ensure that bottled water is truly factory-sealed, as scandals have occasionally revealed empty bottles refilled with tap water being resold as new.
Without a doubt, adapting to life without potable water was the biggest cultural adjustments for us when we arrived last summer. The first consequence was minor physical dehydration: without easily accessible clean water to drink, we drank less, and soon found ourselves more easily exhausted, ornery, and sick. (Indeed, nothing confirms the critical nature of this life-sustaining resource more effectively than losing the taken-for-granted tap.) Every journey away from our apartment involves water planning, as we take careful stock of how many are traveling, what will be needed, and how best to transport it. I seem to drink more than my Chinese friends, but I still seem to be always thirsty.
And there were other puzzling features of our new world. For example, we struggled to understand at exactly what point our dishes were clean enough to eat off after washing them in tap water. Were the still damp chopsticks safe to use, or the recently-washed cup still bearing that fine sheen? And when dealing with my son’s inevitable scraped knees and elbows, was it better to wash with soap and water to disinfect, or was the water itself a source of potential harm? (For the record, we have decided that dishes must be completely dry to be safe, and that cuts should be washed with soap and water until the dirt is out, but subsequently sterilized with disinfectant whenever possible.)
Chinese culture adapted long ago to the perils of non-potable water. Chinese people boil all their water before drinking it, but it doesn’t seem like a burden, because they prefer to drink their water hot. They range from amused to amazed when foreigners request cold water, which to them is as distasteful as drinking plain hot water is those foreigners. When I invite my students to ask questions of cultural exchange—anything they want to know about American culture, politics, or lifestyle—the most frequent question is always “Why do Americans like to drink cold water? (Yuck!)” Perhaps as a result, there is no groundswell of popular sentiment to “do something” about the water situation. From the perspective of most Chinese, there is no problem with the water. Everything is as it should be.
Yet China is suffering from increasingly serious water pollution problems that can’t just be boiled away. Chemical pollutants entering the water supply from industry and agriculture are getting worse, involving toxins oblivious to disinfectants. The World Health Organization has identified 2221 different pollutants in waters worldwide, and 765 of them in drinking water—but current drinking water standards test for only 35 indicators, and new criteria that will go into effect on July 1st will regulate only 106 pollutants. (Source: Dr. Yu Ming, water pollution researcher at Ocean University of China.) Chinese lawmakers and the Ministry of the Environment are struggling to cope with these problems through the PRC Law to Prevent and Control Water Pollution, but the even greater hurdle for environmental law is that of implementation.
Even where China’s environmental laws are comprehensive, their goals are imperiled by under-enforcement. Illegal discharging is reportedly very common, because there simply aren’t enough agency personnel to monitor them. And even when violations are discovered, they may or may not be prosecuted by the relevant government agency—depending, perhaps, on the economic importance of the violators, or their political influence. When the government fails to act, it can be hard for citizens and NGOs to take up the slack, because most Chinese courts don’t recognize standing for public-interest citizen suits. And even if traditional standing were established by a directly injured party, the court may or may not decide to hear the case (for my money, one of the most surprising features of the Chinese legal system). For these reasons and others, enforcement is usually seen as the major weakness in China’s environmental law regime. Perhaps China’s new experimentation with a handful of specialty environmental courts will help redress these important problems.
In the meanwhile, water quality problems intersect with and exacerbate other environmental problems. For example, one unfortunate consequence of unreliable tap water is the resulting prevalence of disposables: single-use bottled water, disposable plates and bowls, even the single-use toothbrushes that hotels at every level routinely provide. I spent the last year spearheading a university sustainability initiative that sought personal pledges to avoid bottled water and other disposables as much as possible, so it was particularly jarring for me to adjust to this new norm—where we are happy to eat at a restaurant that provides disposable bowls, plates, and chopsticks, because we know they won’t make us sick that evening. (And I was happy to note that, at least at our favorite local restaurant, the plasticware is marked as biodegradable.) By contrast, at restaurants that provide the reusables I normally seek out at home, we nervously try to sterilize them with hot tea before using them, because they have likely been rinsed in the too-thoroughly recycled dirty dishwater that compounds the problems already coming out of the tap.
So, after religiously toting my reusable aluminum bottle to my every American class last year, I now carry plastic bottles of water everywhere. And though I reuse the small bottles as long as possible rather than discarding them after a single use, they are usually filled with water that I get at home from the water-cooler bottle that many Chinese families use. On any given day, you can spot a handful of strong men riding motor-scooters with an improbably number of these strapped to the back, exchanging filled ones for empties at private homes and businesses. I’m happy to report that at least these large bottles are faithfully recycled. But I’m unhappy to say that smaller plastic bottles litter the streets, parks, mountains, landfills, beaches, and accordingly, rivers and oceans.
Neither is the important relationship between water quality and water quantity lost on China, which has one of the lowest per capita rates of fresh water in the world. Northern China is arid and especially lacking sufficient water, marked by some of the world’s great deserts, like the Gobi and the Taklimakan. But it rains plentifully in the south and along much of the coasts. As a result, China has erected the most massive water-delivery infrastructure in world history to shift enormous quantities from south to north, a project already underway for fifty years and scheduled for completion in another forty. Linking China’s four main rivers together in a network of diversions, it will eventually move almost 50 billion cubic meters of water annually. Although the project has already caused its fair share of negative environmental consequences and human displacement, most of the Chinese I have spoken to—even those from regions in which water is taken—are comfortable with the need for extreme inter-basin transfers to support northern population centers like Beijing. And they are proud of the ingenuity and engineering that underwites this aspect of "man-made China."
Like nearly everything else in China, its history of mind-boggling human interventions with water began thousands of years ago. I had the opportunity to explore a classic example last week while visiting the Turpan Depression near Urumqi in Xinjiang. Turpan is the lowest and hottest place in China, at 150 meters below sea level and in the middle of China’s most arid province. And yet there in the desert was a blooming oasis of vineyards, agriculture, and Uighur community. How was it possible? It is because 2,000 years earlier, the people who still live there dug 5,272 kilometers of underground canals with 172,367 vertical well shafts to collect and redistribute the groundwater accumulating from melting snow on the nearby mountains. At its height, the “Turpan Karez” channeled 858 million cubic meters of water into 1,784 lines to distribute it to all parts of the region. (You can’t even imagine what this looks like—best to see it, so try this aerial photo and this diagram). It is a staggering feat of civilization—a celebration of creativity, environmentally sustainable terrascaping, and the human ability to thrive against all odds.
Modern-day Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang, relies on similarly creative water technology. During my visit, I saw acres of recently planted, spindly young trees in the desert outskirts of the city, lined up like toothpicks piercing the mostly barren earth. I would often ask my hosts, “How will these trees take root? With what water?”, and I was always told, “Oh, there is enough water here in Urumqi.” I knew that the trees had been planted for environmentally sound reasons—to help stabilize the soil, moderate ground temperature, and trap airborne dust—but I still couldn’t understand how they would survive in such arid ground, only occasionally studded with dwarflike sagebrush scrub. In my broken Chinese, I would persist, “but if there were really enough water to grow trees, wouldn’t there already be trees here?” And they would quietly insist, “no, no—there will be enough water,” though I could never understand from them why.
Then on my last day, I visited a popular public park in the middle of the city, where the temperature was ten degrees cooler thanks to the canopy of the many mature trees that ringed its central hill and the banks of the creek flowing around it. I followed my idle curiosity to the crown of the hill, where I was astonished to find a complex terrascaping system for just this park. There was a small, swimming-pool like reservoir at the top, supplied by a large pipe snaking up the hill (it wasn’t clear to me from where), and a network of canals extending radially outward down the hill in all directions. Indeed, the park’s oasis was created in the same manner as the Turpan Karez: decades earlier, the now lush trees had been planted in rings around the hill, and the reservoir fed them a steady supply of water through the canals at their base. I was awed by the success of the project, and the clear joy it gave the city residents who collected there en masse to enjoy its peace and beauty. And I suddenly understood what mechanisms were likely helping those new trees take root in the desert surrounding the city.
With such scarcity at hand, China is trying harder and harder to avoid squandering its precious water resources with regulatory efforts targeting both quantity and quality. Wherever there are flush-toilets, they are almost always low-flush toilets, with separate levers for the two types of waste they will encounter (one of which needs a stronger flush than the other). Solar-powered water heaters effectively reduce consumption by limiting hot water to what can be stored on the roof at any given time (although the more expensive ones have a gas or electric backup). Greater efforts are being made to reduce use and recycle water wherever possible. Hopefully, China will find a way to enact and enforce more effective water pollution laws to avoid further industrial and agricultural degradation of its water resources.
But for what it’s worth, I’m told there are no great plans on the horizon to achieve potability from the tap, because potability is just not a cultural priority in China. So the mantra will continue: boiled or bottled, cooked or peeled, rinse at your own risk…