All Tied Up


BEIJING - In 2007 during the US Presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton voiced support for funding a Woodstock museum. John McCain quipped in opposition, that he wasn’t there, he was all tied up. When I try to explain to myself why it is that American environmental groups are in China trying to make Chinese greener and not the other way around, I often use the same excuse – during the 1960s China was all tied up. While McCain was a prisoner of war in the Vietnam War (1964-1975), China was tied up in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) where intellectual rigor was stymied.

In the 1960s the United States was not just revving up a war machine, it was also revving up a new environmental machine of bureaucracy and intellectualism. The bird-watching and hiking of the previous fifty to sixty years of the Audubahn Society and the Sierra Club was being replaced by science and law, as Americans were being challenged by the likes of Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, to believe in scientific reports about things they could not see. Washington, D.C. became the new center of activity for the likes of Environmental Defense Fund and National Resources Defense Council, organizations that took advantage of US laws that allowed private donations to environmental organizations. Membership in an environmental group increasingly meant sending checks to support lobbying efforts, no longer that you joined friends for a weekend outing.

Amid the uncertainty of the Cultural Revolution, there was continued efforts on the part of China to rev up its economy, not content to be outdone by countries a mere fraction of its size in geography like Great Britain. The Cultural Revolution was a time when livelihoods were ruined, as children, parents, students and teachers became each other’s enemies. Nature was also seen as an enemy to be conquered, and if one stood on the side of nature, one could be seen as an enemy of the state.

As China entered the 1970s, there was a realization of what China had done to itself, both to its people, but also to its land. Led by Premier Zhou Enlai there was a desire to try and address the environmental destruction that China had wreaked on itself. China took part in the first UN environmental conference in Stockholm, and joined an emerging global discourse on environmentalism. This global discourse was influenced by the United States, who at the time had one of the most developed movements to address environmental issues. It is because of the United States’ global leadership in decades past that some today lament the United States’ unwillingness to commit to emissions reductions through the UN Framework on Climate Change (Kyoto Protocol).

In recent decades China, like other countries around the world, has followed this global environmental peer pressure. Following the model of countries like the United States, it has an environmental ministry and it also has national parks. It has domestic environmental organizations, limited in their ability to solicit funds, that talk about what plants you can eat, go bird-watching and also lobby (or should I say collaborate with) the government on new policies like the banning of plastic bags. Yet, as the world increasingly is discovering, China continues to have many pressing problems.

As I arrived to do research on climate change, more than once I was told that the most pressing problem is water pollution. In the last few years new studies have shown that the water pollution issue is much worse than people thought. China, a country that banned the use of wood for seemingly everything in the early 1980s also faces deforestation, desertification, and air pollution, symbolized by Beijing. Environmental problems are not unique to China, and can be found throughout the world: oil spills in Brooklyn or air pollution in Tehran. It is the international activity in China that perhaps is unprecedented.

The social sciences might try to describe the activity in China as international activist networks or groups; networks of career activists who have decided to come to China because they face obstacles at home. China has its share of international environmental groups from abroad, including the Environmental Defense Fund, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Greenpeace. Yet you also have think tanks like Brookings Institute, cultural organizations like Asia Society and the Göthe Institute, schools like UC Berkeley and MIT, and governments like the UK and the U.S. involved.  Challenging the theories, within this nexus can also be found actors trying to sell green, build wind farms and trade carbon.

From the two-person partnerships of Chinese and Americans, aka Green Brothers, to the energy giants like Duke Energy, there is a sense that you can do things in China that you can’t do anywhere else, that you are not tied up. But in actuality, China is tied up, because it struggles to improve the likelihood of its people, and survey respondents will readily tell you that there are many problems that China faces other than environmental issues, like jobs, health and education.

In Climate Change debates, China brings up that it wants its people to be able to enjoy the same comforts that Europe and North America were already able to achieve in a time when we did not live in such a networked society. If you look at the work of Monet or photographs of the United States sixty years ago, there is an eerie similarity with what can be seen now in China.

But perhaps most troubling is the pictures of Greenpeace and the words of Guardian reporter Jonathan Watts (see What is an Englishman To Do?), that remind of the interconnectedness between China and the rest of the world. The good life in the United States or the UK, of iPhones and designer jeans today means pollution in China.

Jon Watts, like the activists he mingles among, echoes a sense that China is ground zero for addressing the Earth’s environmental challenges. I came to China because I disagreed with a classmate from Shanghai who said China is just one country. But in this moment of China grappling with environmental challenges, I begin to agree with her as I think about environmental challenges from Scotland to India. The question today becomes, have countries like the United States indeed become tied up, no longer places for addressing environmental issues with intellectual rigor,  just as China has become untied, and if this is indeed the case, how to untie them?

Follow Chris on Twitter @enviroeberhardt

What I read to write this blog post:

Brettell, Anna. 2000. "Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations in the People's Republic of China: Innocents in a Co-opted Environmental Movement?" The Journal of Pacific Asia. Vol. 6.

Chan, Anita, Stanley Rosen and Jonathan Unger. 1980. Students and Class Warfare: The Social Roots of the Red Guard Conflict in Guangzhou (Canton). The China Quarterly, 83, pp 397-446

Dunlap, Riley E. and Angela G. Mertig. 1992. “The Evolution of the U.S. Environmental Movement from 1970 to 1990: An Overview.” Dunlap, Riley E. and Angela G. Mertig, eds. American environmentalism: the U.S. environmental movement, 1970-1990. Taylor & Francis: Philadelphia.

Economy, Elizabeth. 2004. The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future. Cornell University Press: Ithaca.

Elvin, Mark. 2004. The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. Yale University Press: New Haven.

Frank, David John, Ann Hironak and Evan Schofer. 2000. "The nation-state and the natural environment over the twentieth century." American Sociological Review. 2000; 65, 1.

Gottlieb, Robert. 1993. Forcing the Spring: the Transformation of the American Environmental Movement. Island Press: Washington, D.C.

Hess, Steve. 2011. "Environmental Protest and the Greening of the State A Comparison of Pre-Transition Poland and Contemporary China." Problems of Post-Communism, vol. 58, no. 2, March/April, pp. 45–57.

Ho, Peter. 2008. "Censorship and de-politicized politics." China's Embedded Activism: Opportunities and constraints of a social movement. Peter Ho and Richard Louis Edmonds, Eds.  Routledge Studies on China in Transition. Routledge: New York.

Jamison, Andrew. 1996.`The Shaping of the Global Environmental Agenda: The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations', in Scott Lash, Bronislaw Szerszynski and Brian Wynne (eds) Risk, Environment and Modernity: Towards a New Ecology, pp. 224-45. London:Sage.

McCarthy, John and Mayer Zald. 1977. “Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory.” American Journal of Sociology.

Mertig, Angela G., Riley E. Dunlap, and Denton E. Morrison. 2002. "The Environmental Movement in the United States." Riley E. Dunlap and William Michelson, Eds. Handbook of Environmental Sociology. Greenwood Press: Westport, Connecticut.

Morton, Katherine. 2008. "Transnational advocacy at the grassroots: Benefits and risks of international cooperation." China's Embedded Activism: Opportunities and constraints of a social movement. Peter Ho and Richard Louis Edmonds, eds.  Routledge Studies on China in Transition. Routledge: New York.

Schreurs, Miranda A. 2002. Environmental Politics in Japan, Germany, and th United States. Cambridge University Press: New York.

Shapiro, Judith. 2001. Mao's War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China. Cambridge University Press: New York.

Stalley, Philip and Dongning Yang. 2006. "An Emerging Environmental Movement in China?" The China Quarterly. Volume 186: 333-356. Cambridge University Press.

Watts, Jonathan. 2010. When a Billion Chinese Jump: how China will save mankind--or destroy it. Scribner: New York.

China, Climate Change