Saturday, June 23, 2012

Book Review: China's Environmental Challenges


China’s environmental story is full of contradictions. What does one make of a country where the government severely limits the freedom of NGOs, yet has some of the most thorough environmental laws and most sustainably-minded leadership in the world? A place where the opening of a nature preserve is celebrated with a banquet that includes endangered animals? A country that builds the most wind turbines—and burns the most coal?

Judith Shapiro’s readable new book, China’s Environmental Challenges, untangles these contradictions and provides a snapshot of China as it teeters on the edge of unprecedented ecological limits. Shapiro was one of the few Americans to enter China before relations between the two countries were normalized in 1978 and now teaches global environmental politics at American University. In the book, she looks at how national identity, government structure and civil society play into China’s approach to environmental issues.

By now, we’re familiar with news of polluted cities and “cancer villages,” enormous factories and contentious dam projects, rapid desertification and a growing middle class eager to model the West’s worst consumerist excesses. With news like this, one gets the impression that Chinese society is a monolithic ogre blindly pulling its people, and the world, toward environmental ruin.

But according to Shapiro, the country’s domestic realities and international relations are complex.
She reveals that China’s leadership under Mao Zedong was just as undeniably brutal to nature as it was to millions of Chinese during the “Great Leap Forward” (1958-1961): swaths of forests were felled for unusable steel smelters, sparrows were systematically killed as “pests” despite their important role in defending crops from insects, and ecologically-sensitive areas throughout the country were converted to  experimental farmland, leading to famine (Shapiro’s 2001 book Mao’s War Against Nature digs further into this period).

But China’s government has become increasingly more fractured and sensitive to environmental issues in the last few decades, just as the stakes have been raised. Echoing Jonathan Watts in When a Billion Chinese Jump, Shapiro writes that it’s not the national government, but an entrenched network of corrupt and uncontrollable developers and local officials, that are driving most of the country’s environmental problems today.  

A Factory on the Yangtze River / Wikimedia Commons
The same rich countries that lament China’s environmental record are far from blameless either. For decades, the US and Europe have displaced environmental harms to China, especially in the textile and electronics industries. Now China, with its rising economic prowess and disgruntled, savvy middle class, is exporting harms itself: to poorer areas domestically, and to Southeast Asia and Africa.

Though they’re hampered by repressive rules about activism and fundraising, Shapiro describes China’s community of environmental groups as large, active and, for the most part, respected. She delves into the contours of this community in what turns out to be the most encouraging part of the book.

Chinese NGOs have attended the last few UN climate negotiations to pressure their government and the global community to take bolder action on climate change. Famous journalists-turned-activists like Liu Jianqiang and the 2012 Goldman Prize winner Ma Jun are well-known for their publicizing environmental harms and challenging corporations and government projects.

Low estimates put the number of environmental protests at 5000 each year, many of them originating from the same middle class that fuels the country’s resource consumption. While the difference between human rights abuses and environmental damage isn’t as distinct as it might be in developed countries, Shapiro says environmental groups enjoy a greater level of freedom than other types of political organizations.

Protesting a Chemical Plant in Dalian, August 2011 (Getty)
Any hope of addressing China’s enormous environmental problems will involve strengthening this mostly feeble civil society sector, giving voice to the rural and minority populations most affected by environmental damage, and tapping into China’s home-grown notions of sustainability found in its religious and cultural traditions. With Western-style consumerism ascendant and free speech still stifled, the prospect of such a shift happening is slim, but the seeds of change do exist. One suspects that US leadership on climate change, which is currently lacking, may also influence China’s actions on the global stage.

Although Shapiro’s book is aimed at students (each chapter ends with discussion questions), general readers will find the book helpful when placing news items like the recent US-China clean technology trade tensions or friction over embassy smog reporting in context. Those wishing for more in-depth discussions on particular issues will need to look elsewhere.

It’s impossible to be a globally-minded environmentalist today without considering the role China plays. Shapiro rightly says that “it is within China that much of the future of the planet will be decided.” 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Equity and Sustainability in Washington, DC

Elvert Barnes / Flickr
I moved to DC at an interesting time: after years of declining population, the city now has more people than it's had in 2 decades: 617,000. As Grist has pointed out, cities are the new suburbs in terms of desirability. Young professionals don't want the 'burbs they grew up in: they want transit-friendly, lively neighborhoods and DC is seeing the effect of this shift.

But the obvious downside to this trend is that property values rise with desirability, making it harder for low income (and often long-time) residents to stick around gentrifying neighborhoods.

This was one of the major themes that surfaced in tonight's Sustainable DC community discussion on equity. The conversation was charged at times (as a new resident, I mostly sat back and tried to figure out what was going on!), but even the tough topics were satisfying to hear spoken about so candidly.

Segregation in the DC-metro region (blue is white, red is black: WaPo)
In the midst of Mayor Gray's Sustainable DC initiative launched last year (with the intention of making DC the "healthiest, greenest and most livable city in the US"), the city faces some tough stats: an 18% poverty rate, 11,000+ homeless, a 25% unemployment rate in Ward 8 where our meeting was held.

With those kinds of problems, the word "sustainability" certainly sounds a bit elitist, but everyone agreed that's more of a framing and communication issue than a substantive disconnect. At its core and done right, sustainability is about fostering resilient communities and that's something everyone can hitch their wagon to.

The insights from Wards 7 and 8 residents were valuable to hear. They live in a catch-22 situation: frustrated that they have to travel to other parts of the city for work, shopping and healthy food, but weary of developers that might come into their neighborhood to build fancy housing and amenities for rich folks. In either scenario, access to the benefits of a healthy community are out of reach.

It's easy to see why "green" can be seen as a tool of gentrification, but not if diverse voices are given the chance to define sustainability for themselves. As one participant said: traditionally "green" cities like Seattle or Portland don't "feel black". What works for Portland, in other words, is not necessarily what will work for DC, a city with a majority African-American population.

There are also more political and bureaucratic issues: how do zoning and education, for instance, and advisory neighborhood commissioners influence residents engagement with sustainability? What's the best way to communicate Sustainable DC to people? Who are the best local partners to work with?

Dennis Chestnut, a local hero and Director of Groundwork Anacostia, summed up the best way to reach out to underserved communities: "Come with resources, come with an open mind, and listen". Listening is an excellent place to start.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Singing from a Coal Town

English folk singer Kate Rusby comes from a family of coal miners in Yorkshire. In her song "My Young Man", she sings from the perspective of her grandmother, who lost her grandfather to emphysema from working in the mines. We rarely see the emotional toll of industrialization, but Kate makes it plain:

Friday, June 15, 2012

Afternoon View: Green Roof

I took a tour of the World Wildlife Fund green roof on Wednesday. They installed it in 2010 and it's beginning to fill in nicely. Eventually, one of the guides told us, the gravel won't be visible. DC installed more green roofs than any other US city in 2011. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

Comfort in Communal Spaces

When I was a kid, I claimed I would to grow up to be a hermit like Adam on Northern Exposure: cabin in the woods, gruff attitude, haughtily shunning society and its pedestrian rules. I hated teamwork time in school - I felt I could accomplish things with less struggle if I did it myself. In other words, I thought I was special. As I get older, though, I'm beginning to appreciate the comfort of melting into a crowd and working on something with a group - it's a transformation reflected in the Fleet Foxes song, Helplessness Blues:

I was raised up believing 
I was somehow unique 
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes 
Unique in each way you can see 

And now after some thinking 
I'd say I'd rather be 
A functioning cog in some great machinery 
Serving something beyond me

This weekend I went for the second time to a Korean-style spa in Virginia called "Spa World". One of the unique aspects of the place is its large common room where people of all ages and nationalities nap and read and chat on mats laid out on the floor.


You stake out your temporary real estate, park your head on a cushion and drift in and out of wakefulness as the older Korean couple on the mat next to you talk in even, comforting tones you can't understand or the kids a few mats over unwrap red bean popsicles. In whatever section of the building you're in, there's a feeling of relaxed, anonymous intimacy with those around you - you're either wearing your birthday suit like everyone else in the pool area (and why feel self-conscious when everyone else is naked too?), or you're dressed in matching orange jumpsuits in the co-ed rooms as if you're all rooting for the same team.

Through my friends, I've also gotten into social dances like Square and Contra.

jack_mitchell_iv / flickr
Although the building block of such dances is the couple, the unity and integrity of the whole group is what's important. By the end of the night, everyone has danced with nearly everyone else on the floor, giving the event a feeling of shared joy and accomplishment. I can show up alone to an event like this and immediately feel embraced by the crowd.

Tryst in Washington, DC. A kind of community living room (Photo: Poldavo)
The buzz about walkable communities, collaborative consumption, placemaking, and localism all signal a shift from the illusion of separateness which Americans have been operating under for past few decades. We made a bargain, it seems: things over people; possessions over community. There are signs that we're now beginning to see the value in trusting each other and working together, in a shared purpose that transcends the nuclear family. Despite my youthful affinity for solitude, I welcome this shift.