Books: society and the environment

In Secondary Anxiety, Chen Ajiang says pollution is an example of Chinese society’s loss of values and direction. For action to be purposeful, writes Liu Lican, social causes and consequences must be better understood.

Secondary Anxiety – A Social Interpretation of Pollution in the Taihu Basin
Chen Ajiang
China Social Sciences Press, 2009

There is much buzz and bustle about environmental protection in China, and it is no doubt politically correct – but it also is ill-defined, repeatedly covering the same ground. Solutions remain elusive. Every year huge resources, both financial and human, are invested in environmental protection. We see green slogans and events and hear the government announce that environmental targets have been achieved. But there also are many incidents of pollution, and our daily experiences show us no perceivable improvement. Why is this?

One major reason is that it is easier to understand the need for environmental protection than to actually protect. Why does pollution occur? Why is it so hard to resolve? Why do different government bodies, organisations and individuals behave so differently during environmental incidents? Why, as we get richer and more technologically advanced, is our environment deteriorating?

We don’t examine these questions; we just think we know the answers and leap into action. Clamour about the obvious problems, a rush from hot issue to hot issue — and even misguided attempts to deal with pollution — all result in much activity but little result. While continuing our efforts, there is a need for basic investigation and research, for a fundamental understanding of the causes and consequences of environmental problems.

Hohai University professor Chen Ajiang’s Secondary Anxiety – A Social Interpretation of Pollution in the Taihu Basin is a fine example of the social understanding of environmental issues. Chen employs investigation and observation of the Taihu basin to provide a sociological interpretation of the behaviour and psychology of pollution, leading to a search for the social and historical roots of pollution and an examination and criticism of current tactics for dealing with water pollution.

He takes aim at the understanding of environmental protection, rather than the action that is carried out, attempting to answer the questions presented above in order to provide the cognitive basis for environmental protection. As sociological interpretation and analysis of the environment is little understood, and as many activists and policy-makers lack a real understanding of environmental issues, this book is worthy of their attention – and that of anyone concerned with the environmental issues that affect their lives.

The author’s concern for the pollution of the Taihu basin is understandable enough – he was born there. The water once was clean, and used for several purposes, but some years ago people and water parted ways. Chen did not understand why, and decided to find out – hence this work of environmental sociology. And as he is personally affected by what happens to his native region, his narrative is pervaded by deep concern and distress.

The best part of his book is the author’s analysis and summary of the development of water pollution in the Taihu basin. Based on his own experiences and site observations, Chen refers to the “polder system” widespread in the area – that is, the “ecosystem formed by the geographical environment of fields, land and water and the people and other organisms that live here”. In this system, the locals’ work and lives are coordinated with the environment, the norms and ethics that arise are environmentally friendly, and ecological balance is maintained.

But the arrival of urban pollution and the worsening of local industrial pollution – “external pollution”, from outside the immediate area — weaken the functions of the water. It can no longer be used for drinking or fishing, but is only good for carrying away pollution. This forces the local people away from the water and they also start producing pollution themselves – “internal pollution”. They stop being protectors of the water, and become polluters; their behaviour and norms no longer consider harmony with the water. Both water and the human spirit are polluted. Chen has developed the description of harmony between man and water in the traditional polder system and the explanation of the development of external and internal pollution over 10 years, and it is worthy of note.

His concerns do not rest with the analysis of the origins and development of pollution; he looks for the “cause of the cause”, taking a wider and longer-term look at the culture and psychological factors that influence our norms and behaviour. He says that Chinese society has lost its basic value system, that there is widespread conflict over norms, and that society as a whole has lost direction. The appearance and continuation of pollution is one demonstration of that loss.

Chinese society faces the pressures of modernisation, and “Great Leap Forward”-style movements create cultural and psychological anxiety. Chen terms the anxiety of Protestants in the already modernised west the original anxiety, while the social anxiety of China’s pursuit of modernisation is secondary anxiety. This is “the socio-cultural root of China’s environmental and other social issues”, he writes.

This point is worth further examination. Not enough discussion is given to the definition of secondary anxiety in the book, and the idea that “the cause of the cause is not the cause” means that discussion of social, cultural and psychological factors can easily cover up more direct causes. The idea that secondary anxiety is the root of the problem is somewhat pessimistic. If it is an inevitable anxiety, we can only hope that time or a complete socio-cultural transformation will solve the pollution problem – not institutional or other methods.

But this cannot be the attitude with which we face pollution. In fact, attribution to any social or psychological cause will create a sense of powerlessness and a submission to fate. So while researchers contribute to the understanding of environmental issues, I hope they will pay attention to the complex but direct factors at play and their interactions, while discussions of the psychology and culture should be discussed a greater length elsewhere.

Chen presents many accurate descriptions and evaluations of the characteristic behaviour and causes of the behaviour of those involved in pollution incidents, and of current forms of water protection. Unfortunately, some important areas have been overlooked – such as the role of the media. This is not a failing of Chen’s research as a sociologist. We must simply await experts in those areas to carry out their own careful analyses. But the fact that environmental NGOs do not appear in the scope of analysis of this book should be matter of concern — not just for the author, but also for the environmental activists who create the buzz and bustle over environmental protection.

Although the object of Chen’s research is water pollution in the Taihu basin, his academic ambition need not be limited to one locality or one issue. He says pollution of Taihu is a social disease, and so the cure must be social. This is insightful, and allows for a re-examination of many environmental issues nationwide. Members of the public concerned with the environment and environmental professionals alike can use the book as a starting point: While continuing to act, we must better understand the social causes and consequences of environmental problems if that action is to be purposeful, rather than just Brownian motion.

Liu Lican is coordinator of the environmental health and climate-change programme at the International Center for Communication Development (ICCD).