If you live in any major city these days, you're probably used to regular prods to "Save the Earth" from just about any direction the penny flips: Change your light bulbs! Reuse grocery bags! Cut your carbon! If you're not already turned off by the borderline sanctimony of the green police, you should know that profligate energy and resource mass consumption is a systemic problem that individual consumer behavior basically can't change.
John D. Liu, an environmental filmmaker in Beijing, brings light to what individuals can do about collective behavior. Consumers act "without understanding how the basic ecosystems function," Liu said. That knowledge is fundamental if economies are to value them appropriately -- and ultimately fix problems, he said.
Liu has spent the last three decades living and working in Beijing, documenting environmental issues as the founder and director of the Environmental Education Media Project. Liu and I spoke about how ecological thought might change, for individuals and ultimately for China as a nation.
Q: How do the Chinese themselves understand energy and environmental issues?
A: In the '90s, when we started to do environmental education, there was very little understanding that people had any responsibility for this. People would just walk outside and dump their trash in the street. Well, whose responsibility is that? Over the last 15 years or so, you've had a tremendous change in awareness but that doesn't change the basic fact that there's toxicity coming from all the major manufacturing facilities. When you see thousands of people marching, getting the local and central authorities to stop putting in polluting manufacturing facilities, and you see constant demonstrations for increased worker rights and clean ecosystems, then yeah, I think there is a huge awareness growing in China.
Q: You often talk about a "shallow" and "deep" awareness of ecology. Can you define how you use these terms?
A: One is "shallow" ecology -- "can we change our light bulbs? Can we use an electric car?" We need to do those things, but those are not very likely to provide the type of transformational change that will be sustainable. And then we have "deep" ecology, which is about ecosystem function -- the basis of air, water, soil, fertility… [It's] necessary to understand atmospheric science, microbiology, botany. The atmosphere, fresh water, air, soil, are what provide for life… Ecological function is more valuable than production and consumption.''
Q: What "deep" ecological problems does China face?
A: Every place in China needs to be looked at. Pollution abounds in industrial areas around Shanghai, the Pearl River delta, along the Yangtze River. It comes from manufacturing automobiles, computer parts, textiles. There's also desertification, deforestation.
Q: Can you give me an example where restoration in China was a success?
A: The Loess Plateau [a France-size area that crosses seven Chinese provinces along the Yangtze River] is an example of what can be done in 14 years, to really transform a degraded ecosystem. The Chinese Ministry of Water Resources and the World Bank designed a plan to rehabilitate the area, by banning planting on steep slopes, free-range grazing, land tenure and tree-cutting.
We're telling people the way to fix the economy is to go shopping; I think the way to fundamentally change the economy is to align the economy with natural ecosystems, because they're the basis of wealth and the basis of life.
Q: Has the Chinese government recognized the issue of emissions and degraded land?
A: The state forest administration has planted 56 billion trees in the last three decades across China, and that's about 2.5 times the rest of the world combined. If they're benefitting from that trend, then they're likely to continue.
Q: Whose responsibility is it to push greater environmental restoration?
A: You have to have national policies especially in a country like this, where the central government is so powerful. And then it's up to the provincial and local parts of government to implement. So you need both. Ultimately, it has to be implemented by individuals and communities, but it has to be part of this overarching policy in order to work.
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