We all share in the basic necessity of keeping the world’s ecological functioning working so that we may live and have chances at better lives. China’s environmental history, spanning millennia and encompassing one of the oldest continuous civilizations and largest populations of the world shows that very well – and its present puts this need in/as a modern challenge into stark relief.
Chinese traditional art may be all about the lone person lost in the mists of mountain forests, but its culture is based on the notion of the farmer pushing back the wild forest and the nomadic peoples.
Its present is increasingly urban, dominated by neon-lit skylines in the haze of economic growth’s exhaust.
No wonder, then, that China (or at least, its core regions) is an area rich mostly in “anthromes,” human-created landscapes. However, where the change in the USA has come about mainly just in the last few hundred years, and China has seen an extreme increase in the rate of change in just the last 30 years, the change to anthromes in China reaches back up to 5000 years (to use the somewhat mystical number that keeps getting thrown around as the age of Chinese civilization).
This, mainly agricultural, but also proto-industrial, change had its influence, it caused “The Retreat of the Elephants” (as Mark Elvin’s environmental history of the country is entitled). Wilderness was destroyed; wild animals were pushed back or even brought close to extinction. The ecological functioning of the landscape, however, was not usually destroyed. In fact, Chinese environmental management was considerably more advanced than that of Europe, where the idea of sustainability was only invented (in forestry) in the nineteenth century, and where, even then, “many European doctors and botanists blamed forests for disease-bearing ‘miasmas’ and recommended clear-cutting woods as a public health measure” (K. Pomeranz. The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. 2000: 116)
Since the beginning of “Reform and Opening-Up” around 1978, however, change has been tremendous – and in some respects, terrific, in others, terrifying.
Paul Theroux, in “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star” summed the current motivations and developments in China up scathingly:
“China exists in its present form because the Chinese want money. Once, America was like that. Maybe this accounted for my desire to leave. Not revulsion, but the tedium and growing irritation of listening to people express their wish for money, that they’d do anything to make it. Who wants to hear people boasting about their greed and their promiscuity? I left for Japan, reveling in the thought that I was done with China – its factory-blighted landscape, its unbreathable air, its unbudging commissars, and its honking born-again capitalists. Ugly and soulless, China represented the horror of answered prayers, a peasant’s greedy dream of development. I was happy to leave.”
That “getting rich is glorious” is only one side of it, though.
Everybody has to struggle to make it somehow, some are truly striking it rich, so everybody tries to somehow join in. China rises. Ideas of fairness or justice, let alone the environment, be damned.
“First you have to get rich, then you can worry about the environment and have the resources to pay for the clean-up” is the official policy. And it certainly is everybody’s practice, as trash tends to get treated (not so badly) as resources for scrap vendors and (very problematically) as something that has been handled properly as long as it’s just away from your own place. Out the car window, for example.
Then again, this very headlong drive towards “development” and riches has enabled a higher number of people than ever before to live better than ever before. Mud-brick houses and work in the rice paddies may seem bucolic to the stranger who’s never tried it, but it’s backbreaking labor and poor conditions that are better escaped.
Rural residents who are not the poorest of subsistence farmers (anymore) may have it better in some ways, being able to grow (some of) their own food and having more room – but chances for advancement and aspirations for consumer goods are great, and they are very understandable.
Urban citizens who haven’t yet made it may be in worse circumstances, materially, but at least the city offers many more opportunities for venturing out and making money. And if it is an escape to factories churning out knick-knacks for export, under dangerous conditions and with lots of pollution, you’ll still make more money than you could with most farming, rather more easily, and therefore with a better chance at improving your lot.
Even those who made it, comfortable as their lives may be, need to worry about problems such as air and water pollution and food safety, though.
Thus, the side-effects of said development(s) are bringing the desire and need for better environmental conditions to the fore.
With water that is not potable, air that is dangerous to breathe, and food that is tasty but carries the fear of antibiotics, pesticides, heavy metals, and even outright noxious fakes, it is only too obvious that “the environment” is not a luxury to care about after having made money. Natural/cultural environments that are working well enough are a basic necessity, at least some environmental concern and understanding of ecological connections is rising and is being pushed on the people.
With cities that are crowded, noisy, and a threat to one’s health, an appreciation for calm nature, whether in the shape of unspoiled landscapes far away or quiet city parks and other greenery all around, also rises – and China has quite the tradition of landscapes, both rural and urban, that integrate houses and gardens, cities and fields, humans and nature.
Not to forget are the traditional approaches to living, and living well. People do like to get their TVs and smartphones, be entertained and go shopping, and preferably for luxury products that show what you’re worth – but there’s also a support for savings and frugality in some respects, and an appreciation of ways of simply socializing, sitting outside and chatting while playing cards, doing some TaiQiJuan or communal dancing in the park, flying kites high into the sky or water-writing calligraphy on the ground at one’s feet.
The big challenge is that people want it better and are getting rather fixated on money (and conspicuous consumption going along with it) as being the answer. The government sees no other way to power and public support than by growth and development in none but the Western ways, either. Or worse.
With urbanization, for example, the view seems to be that the economy worldwide has grown with the growth of cities – so, cities will simply be built and rural citizens moved in there. Unfortunately, industry doesn’t necessarily follow, and neither do other kinds of jobs. People aren’t magically transformed into urban cosmopolitans and entrepreneurs who will create the new and inventive businesses so desired, either. It’s putting the cart before the horse – but what is one to do?
All would rather live better, but normality for most also, still, is that having a regular income and not having to worry about putting food on the table is already quite a good thing. It doesn’t take much to live better than before, but not to be satisfied – with people around who’ve truly struck it rich and consumerist temptations everywhere, plus social pressure for having a house, a car, and enough savings and/or a regular income as the minimum even just to be able to find a wife and start a family, no one wants to be left behind.
Easy, #ecohappy ways that would look for happiness in other things than conspicuous consumption, then, are hard to argue for… at the same time at which the lives of many Chinese people are close to such lives of relatively low consumption and simple pleasures – and struggle.
The challenge lies in finding other ways than low-impact pasts founded in poverty or rich presents based on destruction and consumption that can have no future. It is all the more pressing an issue given that ecological footprint analysis shows us that, with the ways we currently live, we’d need more than the one planet we have even if we all lived like the average Chinese of today.
It takes #ecohappy ways, with less negative impact, more (co-)creativity, in technology and technique, that are ecological, fitting into and creating landscapes that function, shaping lives that work out better, producing riches in life, not just in money.
But, that’s the challenge everywhere.