Environmental China

Environmental China

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.

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4 thoughts on “Environmental China

  1. What about the Chinese people’s meat consumption? You’re talking about billions of people consuming meat which also negatively affects environment. I would guess that Chinese people don’t consume as much meat as we do here in the States. Interesting observation though in your blog. I think Chinese people feel that they need to protect the environment because they have so many people and significantly affects the environment much more than other nations, but having lived under a communism government for so long and now moving towards capitalistic economy and new found wealth, I think individuals are starting to just fulfill their own needs to live out the “American” life style, which is to have two cars, buy goods you don’t need and etc.

  2. I for one see no point whatsoever in restricting pollution control to developed nations. This is a global problem, and can only be solved globally. Perhaps richer countries can, say, contribute more money per capita to developing and implementing green technology both at home and in impoverished nations, but the problem of pollution will never be solved by allowing half the World’s population to continue increasing its pollution output. If nothing else, Earth just doesn’t have time for that.

    It is good that college students are environmentally conscious in China, but I would not make too much of that. First of all, people are almost always more environmentally aware in college than at any other time in their lives — they will almost definitely lose at least some of their enthusiasm as they grow older. Second, if you include all colleges and not just the well-regarded ones, “college students” are more or less regular people in the US, but form part of a small educational elite in China. Ergo, the views of college students in China are nowhere near as indicative of the views of the population as a whole as the views of college students in the US.

  3. By the way, I really do want to see some more comments on the “Nation of Entrepreneurs” entry. Some sort of comparison between stall owners in China and other developing countries would shed a lot of light on the issue of whether or not China is really more suited to micro finance than, say, Ecuador.

  4. I believe that in the next 20-40 years, Americans will become the world’s greatest “environmentalists”- balking at the burgeoning populations of China and India, whose developing societies are only keeping pace with the all-consuming USA- and we will shake our fingers at them saying “no, you can’t consume like that! Don’t drive so many cars! Don’t pollute so much!”. And at that point it will be entirely up to the Chinese and the Indians to either say “F-you, we’re following the rules YOU set for living the good life and when did you ever help to show us a better way when you were on top of the world?” OR “You are right, ignorant Americans, we will not choose to follow your destructive and irresponsible path to global domination, we will choose a better way”. And at that point, the future of humanity- not of the planet- will be entirely in the hands of these new planetary (not just global) superpowers….otherwise, it’s Americans, meet the underbelly of unbridled consumerism!

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