BEIJING - Not everyone in China believes that climate change is a serious problem or makes a clear link between their daily actions and climate change, yet certain practices advocated by those trying to mitigate climate change are widespread. Among those I surveyed and interviewed, for various reasons individuals were consistently doing things that are seen as being good for the environment and more specifically mitigating climate change: recycling; using water and energy efficiently; trying to take public transportation instead of driving a car. It becomes important to recognize that one may do things in one’s life that contribute to mitigating climate change independent of how one feels about climate change.
Whether to change one’s habits
On my survey I asked individuals why they did various practices such as those listed above, and I offered the following choices: to protect the environment; save money; habit; because its popular; no reason; not sure. The two most common explanations were to protect the environment and out of habit, with saving money not far behind. As the market economy of China continues to develop and individuals transition from the rural to the urban life, daily practices often done out of habit and/or thrift are re-examined. Is it modern or backwards to ride a bicycle? Is it modern or backwards to recycle and to repair and mend old items instead of buying new? Domestic and international government and non-government individuals and organizations, conscious of the steadily increasing per capita CO2 emissions of Chinese, advocate that Chinese should continue efficient practices of old while they fear that Chinese will adopt habits of Americans, seen as unsustainable.
A Different Lifestyle
Comparing Chinese to Americans is part of efforts by marketers, activists and academics to understand actions as part of a repertoire or lifestyle; an effort to understand what it means to live the modern urban life in post Reform and Opening China. Ogilvy earth probably has gone farthest in this regard breaking young Chinese individuals into seven groups from those that feel free to spend their hard earned money as they please to those that could but choose to live as efficiently as possible as a sort of a game. Those that answered my survey, contrary to the instructions, quite often did not list just one but rather two or even three reasons for why they did various practices like recycling. Further, what I noticed doing my research is that for every respondent the reasons varied by the action, with one likely to do some practices like save water and energy out of habit and to recycle as a means of saving money or protecting the environment.
Larger Structural Factors
Yet these actions are also influenced by the larger structures surrounding them, specifically Chinese and international actorsand the policies they put in place. Take for example riding mass transit. Within Beijing there has been a steady shift away from the bicycle, but that shift has not only been towards private cars but also public transportation. Within Beijing there are over 900 bus lines with fares that cost 1/10 the price of instant noodles. Beijing also has the fourth largest subway system in the world, with plans to significantly expand by 2015, allowing the vast majority of urban residents to walk no more than fifteen minutes to a subway. There is a conscious effort to keep the fare low (1/2 the price of instant noodles) as a means to get as many people as possible using the system. In addition to the infrastructure that is visible, there are also efforts behind the scenes by Chinese government agencies to work with foreign governments, NGOs, and academic institutions to improve the efficiency of buildings, changing the stage on which urban Chinese youth live their daily lives.
Yet just as there are international partnerships to try and help Chinese youth live more sustainable and lower energy lives, there is also global political and economic pressure, including from the United States government, to get Chinese to consume more and to further develop a carbon-based economy built on consumption.
China is a developing country
In no small part the global partnerships and pressure are based on China’s status as a developing country, legally (Kyoto Protocol), economically but also culturally as Chinese define what it means to live a modern life. Perhaps, this sense of developing or sense of fluidness is more significant than anything else, and can explain why respondents help protect the environment for multiple reasons as their lives are in flux. Just as one sees one’s own life in flux, by seeing one’s country as developing rather than developed, it becomes easier to imagine a country that is able to address climate change and to see a role for one’s self in such a project.
Follow Chris on Twitter @enviroeberhardt
Climate Change, China, Consumerism, Urbanization