Notes on the Environment
Here is the audio from last week’s podcast. I apologize for the delay, I was a bit ill and did not have quite the vocal stamina to maintain the podcast. As a result watch for another one later today, as I’ll be recording an episode about Thanksgiving in China.
It’s a bit of an injustice to talk about environmentalism or construction and infrastructure development in China without mentioning the Three Gorges Project, for which China has been widely criticized both internally (for a while) and to a much greater extent by international environmental and human rights organizations. The topic, however, is strictly off limits from public debate and at the risk of saying something that might get me deported, I’ll leave it to you the listener to determine the environmental impact of this project. I will note that Peter Hessler’s River Town contains an in-depth exploration of the subject told from his perspective during his two years in Fuling, a city on the Yangtze.
A few weeks ago, the construction crews were tearing apart the paver-stone path that runs from the new dormitories to the campus. At first it was just a small square hole, barely wide enough to fit a person in, but each day it got longer. By the end of the week, the hole ran about thirty feet from the construction site at the top of the hill, down the path nearly approaching another, smaller, hole near the campus’ entrance. The dirt dredged up from the hole probably a few feet deep, was piled onto the remaining pathway thus causing a significant disruption in the students’ abilities to walk to class, bottlenecking traffic down to about eight feet of path space for two directions of traffic. The annoyance was easy to get past, but trying to figure out what exactly was going on in the hole was intriguing. Why was it getting bigger, and why was it being dug so deep?
Around wednesday this started to make more sense. The construction crew had some kind of runoff stream running through a series of stepped streams down the hill through this tunnel. The stream appears to be coming from the living quarters of the cosntruction site and it seems to be a steady stream. There aren’t many reasons for this consistent of a stream running from a bunker like this, and given the smell surrounding the path, it seems appropriate to conclude it was sewage. There is a similar stream running down the other side of the hill where the sewage runs through a series of channels and tubes, eventually spilling into a pool at the bottom of a short cliff near three manholes and Block One of the dormitories. At the other end of the path there is another construction camp and, running parallel to the driveway leading from the road up to the dormitories, a similar stream running into a giant pool next to the road. The smell on this side of campus is overwhelming to the point where you often need to hold your breath or cover your nose as you walk by.
All of this causes some curiosity about China’s environmental policy which, as near as this reporter can tell, has very little regulation. A Gustavus student who was in Shanghai last spring wrote a paper regarding the topic and described it as a problem of enforcement, rather than of policy. According to him, China’s policy has, historically been very strong, and often progressive, on environmental issues. It’s first policy was implemented during the Xia Dynasty some four millennia ago, and modern environmental policy dates back to the 1930s, and since 1971 China has an active record of environmental protectionism, at least on a national level. The problems, however, come about when the implementation and enforcement of these policies is left to the local government agencies. The local agencies are usually dually interested in both upholding the policy and in not enforcing it at all. As a general rule, the municipal government owns, or has a good stake in the health of, the local businesses: and we’re talking big businesses like factories, here. If the new policy, like a pollution or emissions regulation, will adversely affect those businesses, the government is likely to look past or only partially enforce the regulations at play in the law.
A good example of this is the recent plastic bag ban which adds an additional fee to any purchase delivered in a thin plastic bag, the kind you might get at a grocery store. The plan is similar to Ireland’s recent ban, and, if successful, could eliminate a significant amount of waste and pollution in the country. Putting this well crafted policy into place, however, has apparently been a bit more difficult.
It is definitely the case that when I go to the supermarkets in town I am charged an additional fee of 5 jiao, about seven cents, if I take a plastic bag. I didn’t notice it at first, mostly because I didn’t know how to find prices on some items, but have started paying more attention recently. If I don’t need the bag, I wont take it. But it hasn’t taken hold everywhere just yet. Most places, in fact, will give you a bag without thinking about it, sometimes two. There is a bakery on the BNU side of campus. It is small and crowded, like most places, and bakes all kinds of delicious things including Pineapple bread, sweet bread rolls, and breakfast pastries. I went there one day to pick up a light lunch during my hour off between classes. I picked out an interesting looking pastry with bits of sausage baked into the bread, and a can of Coca-Cola. Most bakeries I have been to offer either a piece of tissue paper or tongs with which to grab your tasty treat, but this bakery had only plastic bags on top of the bakery case that I could use to grab the pastry I want. I found what I wanted and then grabbed a coke from the fridge. I paid my 5 kuai and then the clerk put the coca-cola and the bagged pastry into yet another bag. Apparently the clerk assumed I could not carry both a bag and a coke between my two hands. Consequently I got two free bags out of the deal. Unfortunately these plastic bags are exactly the kind of bag that the ban is attempting to eliminate. These bags have little if any use to most people as they are too small and fragile to carry anything but a small pastry, and so the bags are thrown away because they cannot be recycled, and make me inadvertently part of the problem.
This indifference to the environment is counteracted with a seemingly strong environmentalism movement on-campus. There may be a campus policy relating to the matter—most of the policies here are written in chinese and your author would not be able to read it if it were posted somewhere—but there is also a strong movement among the students to reduce waste by turning off lights, printing on both sides of the page, turning off your air conditioner, and other similar acts of conservation. In addition to all of these measures, all of the lights on campus are either compact or standard fluorescents and the students are especially energy conscious because they all pay their individual power bill. (A fact, I should note, I was not aware of until my roommate asked me to pay him 40 kuai for the power.) We recently shut off our air conditioner, and I turn my power strip off when I’m not using it in order to help reduce the impact, and save myself some money. In spite of all this conservation and waste reduction, it seems like there is a significant amount of irreversible damage done to the environment from the projects described above, causing me to calculate the potential net impact of the campus’ environmental policy around zero or lower, it’s as if the school took two steps forward and one step back.
In addition to the raw sewage running through the ground, garbage and recyclable material is often littered across the campus, and the construction site has something resembling a small landfill flanking the path and the sewage run-off. The green liquid pooling at its base, dripping down from the heap of garbage bags, clothing, food, styrofoam and likely a plethora of other hazardous wastes above, is unsightly. Several similar pools are scattered in various locations around the construction site, the noxious smell becomes increasingly salient closer to these and their mere presence informs any curiosity as to groundwater quality here. Another landfill lies near the other construction site, and on the side of the road there is a daily exhibition of the emptying of barrels of organic waste into the street, creating a particularly strong and unappetizing odor on the way to the restaurants for lunch.
Environmental problems are not exclusive to the campus, and if anything, the campus is doing a better job of controlling it than the rest of the city simply by the fact that the school is at least taking two steps forward. Zhuhai has some of the cleanest air in all of China, but there is still a light haze hanging over the city, the street lamps and city lights have a glow around them, giving the Macau and Zhuhai skylines a sort of halo effect. There is no coal dust clinging to the buildings and visitors from America are not likely to cough up black phlegm on a regular basis, but it is still a little bit harder to breathe, especially on hot days, and looking out from the roof of the campus building the haze is thick and sometimes covers the building tops. In addition to air pollution, the sea is so dirty here that people go to the beach, but no one dares swim. The water in the runoff-stream-fed artificial ponds on campus is not blue, but a brownish color, and this reporter often wonders where the water comes from. Like many things that fall victim to severe pollution, these ponds would probably look nice if the water was clean, but instead are merely an eyesore.