Efforts To Go “Green” Have Modern, Old Ties in China

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I saw this article in the newspaper the other day and figured I’d share it and add a few of my thoughts.  It’s an account of a columnist traveling through parts of rural China and some of the environmentally-friendly measures she saw from the locals.   I believe the Des Moines Register only keeps articles up for about a week, so I’ll cut and paste the text below.  If the link isn’t working, feel free to scroll down to the italicized text at the bottom.

China has a reputation as not exactly being the most environmentally friendly country in the world – by all accounts, most Chinese cities are completely miserable due to poor air and water quality.    China’s economic rise has caused concern around the world due to the increase in commodity consumption and pollution that a more prosperous economy will undoubtedly bring about (see:  China’s Rise and Competing for Resources).   Criticism and alarm over China’s effect on the environment is valid, but (as the author points out) it’s notable that most of it comes from our society where no one bats an eyelash over driving an SUV to the gym to walk on a treadmill.   The author, Kirsten Jacobsen, doesn’t exactly paint the whole of China as some kind of ecologically-friendly wonderland, but does point out some promising happenings in this part of rural China.

The write-up includes a quote from Qiu Baoxing, China’s vice minister of housing and urban rural development taken from The Guardian were he states “We cannot continue to blindly follow the American dream.  This is simply unsustainable for China and the world”.
I’ve heard statistics that if the rest of the world had a level of consumption similar to ours in the US, we would need the resources of five more earths.   Being as China constitutes approximately a fifth of the world’s population (not to mention other heavily-populated rising economies), even the slightest increase of consumption can have a notable effect on the planet’s ecosystem and resources.

Fortunately for China they have the benefit of being able to look at some of the ways we went wrong in urban planning and infrastructure and possibly learn from our mistakes.   If Baoxing’s words reflect the sentiment of the people calling the shots in the middle kingdom, China could have the opportunity to go forward in a more sustainable fashion.

The article describes a lifestyle in this part of rural China where low-tech and highly effective environmental solutions are simply a way of life.   People are used to bicycling and walking for their primary sources of transportation and food is usually produced within the community by members of the community.    Modern conveniences like refrigeration, air conditioning and such are kept on an as-needed basis, instead of being implemented as a way of life.   It kind of reminds me of The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil in that both societies came to the same conclusion on how to deal with their situation – In Cuba they were backed into it, in this part of China they’re just keeping what’s always worked for them knowing that a lifestyle like ours isn’t going to be sustainable for them.

In addition to maintaining a traditional lifestyle, the article points out that China is looking forward with alternative energy technologies like solar and wind energy.   Although the industry is still working out some of the kinks, demand for low-cost alternative energy measures in China could spur some real innovation in this field and make these things more accessible to the rest of the world.   As things stand now, I can’t very easily afford to throw some solar panels on my roof and have it make sense economically to me now but what if mass production due to demand in China makes the cost of photovoltaic energy for the average homeowner drop to a point where it becomes reasonable?   If I can get a photovoltaic solar energy system that will be financially viable to me, I really don’t care if “Made in China” is stamped on it.

So anyways, I thought this article was kind of cool because it brings up the possibility that China’s rise might not pan out to be the kind of ecological disaster it’s always made out to be, as they pretty much have a clean slate to work with as far as infrastructure.  Many people are continuing to do the same kinds of low-tech things they’ve been doing for generations while they’re making technological advancements in “green” areas such as renewable energy and public transportation.   Hopefully at this juncture China chooses to go towards a more sustainable route rather than chasing down the kind of lifestyle we have here in the western world.

 

Efforts to go ‘green’ have modern, old ties in China
Like in Iowa, rural provinces naturally are eco-conscious.
3:52 PM, Jul 13, 2012 |
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One of many garden plots shared by a whole neighborhood in Yongzhou. Here, people tend to different plots and sell the extra produce in downtown markets. This way, those who purchase goods from individual sellers benefit from locally grown food and keep many people employed.
One of many garden plots shared by a whole neighborhood in Yongzhou. Here, people tend to different plots and sell the extra produce in downtown markets. This way, those who purchase goods from individual sellers benefit from locally grown food and keep many people employed. / Kirsten Jacobsen/ Photos Special to The Register
Written by
Kirsten Jacobsen
Special to The Register

Who needs plastic bags when you can just carry tonight’s dinner home by bus? There are definitely some cultural differences to the ‘green’ approach, especially when it comes to perceptions of animal rights.
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Who needs plastic bags when you can just carry tonight’s dinner home by bus? There are definitely some cultural differences to the ‘green’ approach, especially when it comes to perceptions of animal rights. / Photos by Kirsten Jacobsen/Special to The Register
MAKING IT IN CHINA

KIRSTEN JACOBSEN is a former reporter for The Des Moines Register and a native Iowan currently teaching in Yongzhou and writing about life in China. Read her blog at DesMoines Register.com/Life.

We Iowans fancy ourselves pretty green. From the piles of reusable bags stuffed in the trunk for that unforeseen Hy-Vee run to our love of everything free-range, cage-free, au naturale and locally grown, it’s fair to say that many Des Moines residents are eco-conscious.

Thursday night? You’ll find recycling bins on our curbs, set out like clockwork. Saturday morning? You’ll find us milling about at the Downtown Farmers Market. (And it doesn’t come as a surprise that Iowa as a whole ranks second for most farmers markets per capita in the United States.) We even made the top 20 in Greenopia’s 2012 “Greenest States” listing — easily beating out our neighbors Illinois (27) and Nebraska (40).

But there is a place that may give Des Moines a run for its “green” money, a place similarly situated in the middle of miles and miles of unadulterated cropland in the middle of a country, a place both purposefully and unintentionally Earth-friendly (kind of like the hipster of the locavore world). A place where reusable bags are as cheap as plastic ones, recycling is literally a full-time job, and “locally grown” is often the only option.

It’s just a blip of a place in Hunan province, but the prefecture of Yongzhou is remarkably environmentally efficient.

“But China is so polluted!” you gasp. People wear masks to keep from choking on the smog. Everything from baby formula to vermicelli noodles is contaminated. If the communist-era building asbestos doesn’t get you, surely the coal dust and Avian Influenza will! How can a place like that be “green”?

To be fair, there is no shortage of pollution. There have been a few weeks where I haven’t seen the sun for the smog. People have a habit of throwing their trash on the ground rather than in rubbish bins (hence, the army of hundreds of hired street-sweepers). A third of all China’s fresh water — including ponds, lakes, and rivers — is deemed unfit even for industrial use. In 2010, more cars were sold in China than in the U.S., adding 13 million new vehicles to the country’s expanding automotive roadways.

But stick with me here: It might surprise you just how green-minded the Red State is becoming, even in less-developed rural areas like Yongzhou.

The eight-lane expressway into our prefecture is lined with solar and wind-powered streetlights, which illuminate the innumerable busy bus stops along the highway each night. This elaborate bus system connects the main cities in the prefecture. According to Bill McKibben of National Geographic, “China now leads the planet in the installation of renewable energy technology — its turbines catch the most wind, and its factories produce the most solar cells.” The country, fast developing, is also home to more low smog-emission “supercritical power stations” than anywhere else in the world.

This doesn’t even account for the dozens of trains that pass through the Yongzhou Huoche Zhan (train station) each day, taking passengers to the farthest corners of the country using far less fuel per person than as many cars. As the remotest parts of the 20th century-era Middle Kingdom meet the environmentally friendly technological advancements of the 21st, there is a rare chance — and necessity — for a greener Chinese Industrial Revolution. (As recently as 2010, China was already investing $12 million per hour on clean energy alternatives, according to the Center for American Progress.)

Yet it’s not necessarily the implementation of a modern “green” mindset that makes places like Yongzhou worthy of imitation. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Here, people prefer to walk, bike or take a bus to their intended destinations, while cars are treated as a luxury for long-distance travel. Instead of visiting the sterile and expensive “Hyper-Mart” for groceries, most residents prefer to stop by the early-morning or late-night meat and produce markets that pop up downtown.

Food at these impromptu farmers markets is as locally grown as it gets — usually from the seller’s backyard, or a nearby plot shared by a neighborhood. The growers then haul their offerings downtown by any means possible, from shouldering the load to piling a three-wheeled cart high with lychee berries (or even quacking ducks).

Bartering and trading are part of the experience as well; prices are never set, and the same goes for purchasing snacks or clothing from a street vendor. In this way, thousands of people are kept employed in any given Chinese city, and people are able to live affordably and sustainably.

Other necessities are used on an as-needed basis to maintain a sustainable standard of living. Despite the stifling summer heat in southern China, the vast majority of Yongzhou residents go without air-conditioning (something tells me this isn’t by choice, though, as I’ve seen plenty of teenagers hanging out in KFC just for respite from the heat). Refrigerators and washers are compact and keep energy costs low.

I’m not suggesting that developing cities and nations curtail improvement efforts in order to make the world a greener place. Rather, it is imperative that they follow a path different from our own. Instead of returning to reusable bags, farmers markets, rechargeable cars, and energy-efficient methods after the fact, places like Yongzhou would do well to keep these things in the forefront and develop around them.

“As China gets richer, it will slowly but surely create its own equivalent of a Whole Foods buying, eco-tourism-enjoying middle class. That’s the very group that will be most likely to question the cost of unbridled development,” wrote Rana Faroohar in Newsweek. She makes an important point: While it has been mentioned that China produces most of the world’s wind turbines, 90 percent of them are still exported to other countries.

Qiu Baoxing, China’s vice minister of housing and urban rural development, agrees. “We cannot continue to blindly follow the American dream,” Qiu told the U.K.’s Guardian in June. “This is simply unsustainable for China and the world.”

Will the residents of Yongzhou, in a decade’s time, adopt a capitalist-centric “Chinese dream,” or will they see development of their city through green-tinted glasses?

As for myself, I can say for certain that rural Chinese living has changed my habits for the better. While I, too, have been known to dip into Better Life Mall for a moment away from the heat, buying local shucai (vegetables) and biking to and from errands isn’t actually as hard or time-consuming as it first seemed. Hang-drying clothes gets progressively less menial as the summer drags on. Now, taking the bus to the next district is no sweat (except that buses aren’t air-conditioned, either).

It may sound tedious, but we all have some work to do. (Here’s looking at you, Iowans who drive SUVs to the gym.) Perhaps one day soon, even Des Moines will emulate Yongzhou, installing some of those solar energy-powered streetlights around a nighttime farmers market.

 


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