Books: risking hell and high water

"The environmentalists I know are China's most foresighted people," with "a pure and resolute heroism", writes Feng Yongfeng in Environmentalism in China. Zhang Lirong, too, is comforted by their growing numbers.

Environmentalism in China: Declaring War on the Development Extremists
Feng Yongfeng
Zhongshan University Press, 2007

The last drop of water on earth will be a human tear. In modern China, this may not be just a poetic exaggeration. Feng Yongfeng’s collection of environmental criticism, Environmentalism in China: Declaring War on the Development Extremists, issues yet another warning to humanity.

The author is a well known Chinese environmentalist and journalist, and he has covered environmental management and protection for more than a decade. He believes that in China, there are more development extremists – people who pursue economic growth at all costs — than there are environmentalists. Businesses in China – including multinationals – often place their own profit over the social good, and the government habitually uses economic indexes as measures of social progress.

If, in contrast, China has any “environmental extremists”, they are currently few in number. If we are to achieve balanced growth in population and the environment, we need more such environmentalists to battle with their development counterparts and the polluters.

It is comforting to see that the number of environmentalists in China is increasing, and we can see more and more environmental organisations forming. Feng says “the environmentalists I know are China’s most foresighted people, and they are willing to risk hell and high water to protect China’s environment. There is a pure and resolute heroism about them, and I cannot help but respect them.”

In fact, as the author himself is an environmentalist, it is easy to see his love for the cause in his writing: “I dream of China having a ‘Year of the Environment’, with environmentalism becoming a craze, as studying the national culture has been in the past. I dream of Chinese people all caring about the environment and reading environmental literature.”

In the meantime, the book points out, environmental protection is a struggle to “improve the relationship between man and nature,” and a challenge to humanity’s own selfish nature. The outcome, therefore, is uncertain.

Feng sees environmental protection as a matter for all society, but private interests mean that there is little hope of businesses taking the initiative. Some environmentally harmful, yet profitable, behaviour is still widely supported, and consciously or otherwise many still protect “human selfishness”.

Someone once said that the surreptitious release of pollution represented a chronic disease – one hard to cure at the root. But according to Feng, there can be no such thing as surreptitious pollution. Regardless of whether it is released through kilometre-long pipes or dumped into the sea, those living nearby and those passing by will be aware of it. The real chronic disease is that those who know what is going on have no way to spread the word; that there is no justice for an injured nature; that we treat lovers of the environment as disruptors of society; and that we still believe a government authority or two, and closer supervision of local officials, will solve the environmental problem.

Relying on government officials alone will not protect the environment. Placing all our hopes in them leaves us vulnerable to their different views, but also leaves us shackled, overcautious and indecisive. “It would be better to energise society in the right direction,” writes Feng, “letting the people do their bit for the environment. Then power saving, the reduction of emissions, protecting the environment – it will all become a part of people’s lives, an active demand rather than a forced response.”

On the government’s environmental responsibility, Feng is incisive. Environmental protection is one of the most important of public undertakings; the government needs only to raise an environmental flag and pass on responsibility to business, the individual and organisations, while carrying out monitoring and supervision. Proposals such as this are common in the book.

Feng believes that with today’s grave situation, China must overcome selfishness. Businesses are constantly asked to sign environmental commitments. But if these are never put into practice, if development extremism continues to reign, if people continue excessive consumption and guilt-free entrepreneurship, if the government sacrifices the environment and natural resources for economic gain under the banner of social progress, then it is inevitable that the environment will continue to worsen.

Zhang Lirong is an associate professor with the Guangdong Social Sciences Association