The land is hurting
The waters cry out
Weeping, she askes…
Can you feel my pain?
I’m in awe of you!
I’m in awe of you too!
I’m in you and you’re in me!!!
But, nothing last forever
Today we hold the smoking gun
Spread your arms big
Precious water, I kiss you
Let’s get together
There’s just one Love
Relishing Natural Beauty
I croon inside when I see nature that is happy and healthy here in China.
Walking through a very urban and busy part of Guangzhou in the Guangdong province several weeks ago with Xiao, we approached a little park… the park’s straggly vegetation was overhanging the sidewalk so much that we had duck our heads to avoid becoming entangled in it.
There was nothing special about the shrubby trees but I noticed a very strong response inside- the visual contact with the vegetation gave me a sense of being home- not “home” in the US, but home in my body and my spirit- it was analogous to getting a breath of fresh air or feeling warm sunlight on a cold day. This is not something I willed or wanted… it just arose in my awareness and in my heart. I assume that the stark, devoid-of-vegetation, highly urbanized, noisy surroundings helped create conditions for this experience to arise.
I grew up in Fairfax and San Anselmo, California (I still live in Fairfax). I’ve always loved my home in Marin. How could I not? I was blessed to be born into a place of staggering natural beauty surrounded by lakes, forests, trails galore and weather permitting, clear blue skies.
Fairfax and other places in nature do not lend themselves to the experience I had in Guangzhou. Of course, it’s when we are deprived of such natural beauty that we lovers of nature long for it most.
The day before I left for China, my bro and I visited Cataract Falls on Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, California. Ahhhh I love that place!
My bro Michael and I at Cataract Falls in Marin the day before I left for China.
I am torn here in China. China has 1.3 billion people. Shanghai’s and so many other Chinese city’s high-rise buildings that number presumably in the tens of thousands are housing millions of Chinese people. Never before has the world seen these kinds of population densities; without such, there would be no other way to house the 24 million people living in Shanghai (San Francisco has 0.8 million by comparison). China is doing a great job at housing it’s huge population but the costs of her population and the associated urbanization are very, very high with respect to the ecological environment.
Whether looking out the plane, car or train window (this is true wherever I have traveled, not just China), I can’t help but see what has been lost.
When I was doing stream assessment work in Mill Valley during my graduate work in the late 90’s, I met a women who, using contemporary urban photos as a canvass, painted the historic landscape of those locations over the photo, while allowing the original photographic image to still be slightly visible. Her awesome and unique art form is so powerful- at one moment you see a beautiful wetland and then a moment later, squinting your eyes, you see, for example, Market Street in San Francisco filled with cars and people (in the same image).
Whenever I travel, near or far, I more and more see the landscape as does this artist. I perhaps too often see what was lost. Yes, I see what is still there too but I think about the trees, the butterflies, the birds and other life that are no longer are there.
In the highly urbanized concrete jungles, many of which are understandably a source of great pride here in China (clean, modern, efficient), I can scarcely see what was there ecologically because, in many cases there is not a square inch of the original landscape- of course, this can be said about any highly urbanized place in the world, the US included.
Magic of Xingping
When we arrived in Xingping, near Guilin, in the Guangxi Autonomous Region, I saw my first stunning natural landscape here in China.
Because of the steepness of these amazing limestone mountains much of the forest cover remains in tact, but the demands of food and desire to make money growing cash crops (like citrus fruit) is taking it’s toll on the less steep forests even here- it’s ironic that the 20 yuan bill has an image of this very landscape that is being impacted by those seeking monetary wealth.
Deforestation in Xingping
China’s Water Crisis
Before coming to China, I read, “China’s Water Crisis” by Ma Jun. It is an amazingly well researched look at China’s water situation, past and present and foretells China’s grim water future should dramtic positive changes not occur. The beauty of a book on a nation’s water is that such a book must and does touch nearly all other aspects of human existence- it’s a powerful lens through which to view China.
I didn’t expect that reading what was essentially a book on water geography of China, I would find myself weeping throughout several parts of the book. The parts that bring the greatest sadness are the parts where animals, habitats, plants, lakes, etc. have been erased forever- a heart-breaker.
Unlike the US which has conducted much of it’s environmental destruction over a few hundred years, China has been modifying her landscape significantly for a thousand years and in some places twice that. And, like the US, the vast majority of destruction has happened in modern times and is accelerating dramatically now with China’s rapid industrialization.
Regarding water, China has damed it’s rivers, deforested it’s headwaters, drained, diked and built cities in its flood plains. And, with the advent of “progress” replaced the use of animal and human manure with chemical fertilizer along with adding chemical pesticides to the land. The result: China’s historic sustainable means of agriculture (for sure requiring hard manual labor) was replaced such that the animal and human manure, instead of fertilizing the fields, runs into China’s great rivers along with the excess chemical fertilizers. This along with industrial discharge and untreated sewage from substandard (or non-existant) sewage treatment plants (combined with reduced flows from water being dammed and/or diverted for city’s use), means that clear flowing water that originates in the upper reaches of China’s majestic, beautiful watershed runs, in some cases, at water quality “Class 5” (severe degradation)- essentially flowing sewers in many areas.
Modern China’s Dark Side- Pollution
Attitudes and views toward China in the US range from negative to neutral on average, in my experience. Since China was “opened” to the US by Richard Nixon (a hero here in China, by the way) and since the Cold War ended and China has opened up economically to the West, American views of China continue to improve. I certainly had an opportunity to examine my own views and pre-judgments and cultural assumptions being in here in China and especially traveling and being with Xiao.
One of the favorite criticisms of China by Americans (at least in my circles) is it’s fossil fuel use (especially coal) and its associated environmental consequences. It is certainly a great concern, especially with respect to the highly polluting nature of coal, (mercury and other heavy metals) and more importantly its global warming impacts.
(Image from the film Manufactured Landscapes.
Xiao and I have a running joke in which we get lots of humorous mileage. We parody those who express intolerance of one group toward another by using the expression, “you people”- we recognize the parody of this (and feel it passes the Right Speech test ;o). When I jokingly say to Xiao, “you people (the Chinese) are burning too much coal, etc”, she reminds me that “you people” (the Americans) are a major factor driving the expansion of unsustainable factories and energy use through American’s rampant consumerism/consumption of cheap consumer goods from China, etc. Of course this is not the whole story but is certainly an important part of it.
Plastic waste in another serious pollutant in China’s landscape and waterways. In the early 2000’s, Stuart Moody and I did years of work together with Green Sangha raising awareness and helping to create policies around single use plastics in San Francisco Bay Area towns, cities and counties and at the state level. When giving presentations, we used to brag about the fact that China had banned the single-use plastic bag. If China, with it’s (relatively) new global economy and myriad of ecological problems could ban the bag, the US certainly could do so as well! Well, China did ban the single use plastic bag as far as we know, but that is now just historic footnote. Single use plastic bags are back (assuming they were every gone here) with a vengeance. Like in the US in most places, virtally everything purchased leaves shops and stores in a plastic bag. Because of health scares around dirty utensils and the apparent spread of hepatitis because of inadequately washed dishes, etc. many restaurants have sterilized plates/utencils that are wrapped in plastic too. Yes, single use plastic is very much alive and well here in China and the costs are high… oy vey!!!
Where does it go?
Where does it go? In the US we have an imperfect system for dealing with our obsession with plastic (which the American Chemistry Council is a key player in maintaining). We do one of three things: we burn it (never a great “solution when we turn a solid waste problem into a air pollution problem), we bury it in landfills or we “recycle” it (meaning it goes to China or some other third-world country to be processed back into plastic beads for reuse). Such “recycling” has a huge ecological footprint with cities doing the recycling often having the most polluted air, water, land and undoubtedly serious health consequences. The simple solution is reduce, reduce, reduce- or as Nancy Reagan was so fond of saying “just say no!”
In many of the places I visited in China, especially rural ones, there is simply no solid waste infrastructure at all. Like in the past in the US, communities have created make-shift “dumps” that on occasion are burned. It’s not uncommon to see partially burned heaps of trash in some of the most stunning, beautiful places in China. Often times this is done on the edge of rivers and streams.
And when it rains and the water rises the partially burned waste is washed away. But… as you know, on this Earth, there is no away. My heart breaks yet again.
There is no water body/waterway (stream, creek, river, lake or the ocean) that I have seen here that is not impacted by plastic. It’s truly a sad site. It’s not only ugly but is having a serious negative impact on aquatic/marine life (most of this plastic humans are using is ultimately ending up in the world’s oceans).
As Thich Nhat Hahn reminds us, “… we inter-are”. This is as true with individual people as it is with people and nature. We are not stewards or “managers” of the Earth, we are the Earth. As has been quoted so often, what we do to the water and the land, we do to ourselves.
The ideological battles in Washington DC regarding people being anti-science or the talk of abolishing the EPA is a reflection of a deep and profound lack of understanding of the interbeing of humanity and this precious Earth.
There’s no problems, only solutions…- John Lennon
I taught a course entitled, Environmental Problems and Solutions, at San Francisco State University a decade-plus ago and have attended many Bioneers conferences. One thing that has given me great hope from these experiences is the fact that there are simply no shortages of solutions for every imaginable problem we have on Earth. The solutions are not a lack of technology (in fact many solutions are super low tech), but have more to do with the severe level of greed that grows out of control in the human heart. This greed expressed itself in the most concentrated form with large corporations that have institutionalized greed in the form of corporate charters with the sole purpose of making money often at the expense of the environment, social justice and human rights.
Just an hour ago, I walked through an amazing park in the city of Hangzhou in the Zhejiang Province. This park is actually part of an amazing pollution control effort to protect the beautiful Xi Hu’s (West Lake’s) water quality. Using a series of ponds, wetlands, aeration (small waterfalls), sediment traps, etc., water that used to run into this lake as raw sewage, now runs clear like the water in the upper reaches of Marin’s creeks.
Before leaving the Shanghai area in early February, Xiao’s brother arranged a tour for me with a very high level official, Mr. Du, from the water treatment plant for the city of Yancheng- I got some crazy VIP treatment, usually reserved for high level polititians. Using a series of vast ponds and wetlands for sediment removal and biological treatment along with other traditional means of water treatment, this amazing facility is treating water for over 2.5 million residents of Yancheng!
These are only two examples of countless amazing efforts going on here in China that give me great hope. The challenge, however, is China’s future. China’s population is likely to continue to grow (the one child policy has been relaxed) and movement toward concentrating a high percentage of China’s 1.3 billion people near the coasts is sure to exasperate China’s water and other environmental problems.
The quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” couldn’t be more true with respect to China and the Earth, generally. The “costs” of protecting the air, the land, the water and the soil are minuscule compared with the extremely high costs in terms of money, technology and human/ecological heath of polluting this planet and its life support systems. How do we develop the wisdom to protect what we have first and then begin cleanup and restoration.
The big question not only for China but for the world is, do we have time? As Native American Faithkeeper Oren Lyons of the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy says, “What if we choose to eradicate ourselves from this Earth by whatever means? The Earth goes nowhere. And in time, it will regenerate, and then all the lakes will be pristine. The rivers, the waters, the mountains, everything will be green again. It’ll be peaceful. There may not be people but the Earth will regenerate. And you know why? Because the Earth has all the time in the world…”.