It’s become cliché to say that China is at a cross-roads. Becoming a world power, an economic force to be reckoned with, leaving traditional ways behind for more modern ones – every book you read or self-proclaimed lao-wei (foreigner)-cum-native has said his piece on this one.
It’s true also about China’s environmental consciousness. In some small ways, it is more advanced than even my “liberal” home state of Massachusetts. Like California, by law consumers must pay an additional amount for plastic bags at the store, 0.3 kuai. On public streets, trash bins have two clearly labelled compartments, one for recycling and one for non-recyclables. Such a system is convenient – everyone here is a recycler. While there are those with their pick-up tricycles who are professionals, street sweepers and others will ask you for your plastic bottle so that they can get the money back. Electrical outlets for large appliances like the water heaters and air conditioners have switches so that you can directly turn the power on when you need it, eliminating the energy waste from both phantom volts and from keeping the water unnecessarily hot all day. Washing machines are small and clothes are hung outside to dry. Even toilets are built with two buttons, depending upon the power you need, and save water.
Transportation is also progressive – more for the necessity of moving so many people than for the good of the environment. Busses are cheap and regular (though bus schedules posted at the stops are still impossible for the Chinese illiterate to decipher), and affordable taxis will take you to any place you don’t know how to reach by bus. In addition, the city has a limit on the number of car licenses it allows, because the traffic would be impossible otherwise. There is also a limit on the number of mopeds, which means that bikes and electric bikes are the form of transportation for most people. The bikes are built for this role, with baskets in the front, a bell for passing, and a kind of seat in the back for passengers.
The streets are, theoretically, also built for this transportation system. Along the sides of the streets, where cars are not supposed to go, is a full-sized lane dedicated for bikes and mopeds, while the main lanes are for cars. The sidewalks should be reserved for pedestrians, but many sidewalks climb high hills or are crowded with parked bikes, pushing pedestrians into the dangerous bike lanes. At major intersections, there are underpasses for walkers, or white-gloved traffic cops policing the pedestrians. However, the crazy nature of bike, moped, and vehicle drivers makes the Chinese streets dangerous for pedestrians, bikers, and car passengers alike.
Yet China has a bipolar environmental personality. The number of cars continues to grow, contributing to the pollution that blocks out stars in the night time and causes lengthy orange sunsets prematurely. An excess of plastic and paper packaging secures many goods. While tireless street sweepers keep sidewalks clean, we constantly see people litter, even when trash barrels are nearby.
Energy waste is rampant. Stores leave their doors open to invite customers in, unconcerned about the air conditioning and heating spilling onto the sidewalks. Store fronts, restaurants, and even the public train station are walled with poorly insulated glass.
One concerning trend is a kind of disposablility attitude. Many goods, from clothing to fingernail clippers, are cheap in price, but also in quality, and crumble in your hands, left to fill landfills. It would not be so concerning except that the attitude is brought also to large things – new apartment complexes are built with plumbing cemented into walls, which means that, in 15 years when the plumbing has deteriorated, the entire building will have to be taken down. It’s as if the new found wealth, the ability to create and buy new things, has formed a necessity to create and buy new things, which means that goods must be lower quality – not unlike something we have seen in the United States.
China and India are frequently in the news when first world countries complain that they want equal standards for green house gas admissions reductions. But I feel some sympathy – sure, they produce a ton of pollution, but they have a ton of people. Australia, a first world nation dedicated to reducing their carbon footprint, produces more green house gas pollution per capita than even the US. What exactly is the definition of fair?
One heartening observation, though, is that the younger Chinese college students we talk with believe in protecting the environment, which gives hope for both the Chinese and the global future.