Poster’s note: the following post is a paper I wrote for Professor Plum in October. As a GECS major, I believe the environment is worth talking about, but I realized that none of my blog posts were related to environmental issues, so I decided to share this. It was originally titled “Picture in 1,000 Words: Tree SOS“.
The photograph below depicts one of the many ‘tree nutrient bags’ or ‘tree IVs’ that can be observed attached to trees throughout Nanjing. In this paper, the significance of these bags will be discussed in the following two contexts: 1) that of the environmental problems resulting from China’s recent industrialization atop a long history of environmental degradation, and 2) that of the social problems caused by economic disparity and environmental degradation in China and how these problems lead to different attitudes toward the environment in the cities and the countryside, especially with regard to sustainable development.
Sustainable development is one of the most talked about topics in the world today. With many countries currently undergoing rapid industrialization, concerns about the future viability of the world’s ecosystems and the ability of future generations to secure resources have become very serious. At the same time, millennia of gradually accelerating environmental degradation have created ecological crises the world over that are becoming more and more glaringly evident as continued urbanization places extra burdens on the environment. There is perhaps no place on Earth where the trends of recent urbanization and historical ecological degradation have a greater impact on peoples’ lives than in China. China’s recent history details incredibly rapid industrialization and urbanization atop a 5,000 year-old civilization’s worth of environmental degradation. This process has resulted not only in some of the world’s most severe environmental crises, but also a huge income disparity between urban and rural areas and resulting disparities in the education and political power available to the populace in urban and rural areas. Today, a national and global emphasis on sustainability has led to some incredible projects such as the “Great Green Wall” and other reforestation and sustainable energy initiatives across China (Li). However, peoples’ attitudes toward and participation in these projects vary with their access to education and ability to open a dialogue with their local government. Sustainable development initiatives certainly aim to raise the quality of life, not only by abating environmental crises, but also by creating more green and livable spaces, which have been demonstrated to have benefits for both the mind and body (Wilson). As part of the trend toward sustainable development, Nanjing has emerged as one of China’s greenest and most sustainably developing cities, and its sustainable development initiative is considered a future beacon for developing cities (Jim et al.). Taking the example of tree IVs from Nanjing, we can discuss the environment and society in Nanjing.
On both July 3rd and 4th, 2011, Nanjing’s temperature exceeded 35℃, which caused great stress for some relatively young trees along Magnolia Road. The trees, undergoing a “test of life and death” (生死大考验), did not stand up well to the heat and began to wilt. What happened next made the news: city management (管理部门), worrying that the trees would die from heat or in their weakened state catch disease, hung more than 2,000 bags of nutrient solution in order to save the trees (顾 et al.). This is not the first instance of tree nutrient bags (树木营养液袋) being used to save young trees in China, but it is the first instance of tree nutrient bags being systematically used in Nanjing to sustain huge numbers of trees. Now, if you walk along the roads beside Nanjing University Campus, you will find a tree nutrient bag attached to nearly every tree. For an environmentalist, it is like walking through a scene from a sci-fi horror movie that takes place in a future where even the Earth’s most capable and magnificent organisms cannot take care of themselves. But what does it mean?
The problem comes from Nanjing’s soil. Because China’s land has a long history of agrarian utilization and China itself was home to arguably the world’s earliest modern civilization, complete with cities and a blossoming population, most of the soil in China is rather poor. Furthermore, many of Nanjing’s trees are planted in narrow plots between pavement, and as a result the soil around them is smothered by pavement, contaminated by roadside runoff, or otherwise devoid of soil-building organisms, so the trees are very often unable to obtain the nutrients they need from the soil. In recent years, many trees have become diseased or begun to wilt. This is evident throughout Nanjing and is a very easily observed phenomenon. In response, city management and the citizens of Nanjing have begun to hang more tree IVs. Despite the hope this story inspires in the abilities of China’s urban governments and citizens to recognize and address some fairly serious environmental problems, it is obvious that this kind of measure is an extreme, last-ditch response, a band-aid solution that is not sustainable over the long-term. In some ways, the tree IVs represent both China’s historical environmental problems and the difficulties faced by those today who are trying to solve them. Citizen involvement in saving these trees by setting up and maintaining the IVs represents the willingness of those in the city who have access to information and who have a real potential to influence their environment to stand up for the environment.
Another example of Nanjing citizens participating in tree-related matters comes from a 2011 story about citizens who protested the uprooting of some fairly old plane trees to make way for subway line 3. Despite the fact that the protests did not save the trees, they did create significant political pressure that resulted in the formation of a “green assessment” advisory board consisting of urban planners, architects, engineers and botanists with input from the citizens and the promise that in the future, all urban projects involving the removal of trees will be posted for public comment (Zhang). This example again serves to highlight the willingness of educated citizens to raise awareness and involve themselves in environmental discussion.
Unfortunately, things in the countryside are quite different. When I was in Beijing, one of my professors arranged an excursion to the countryside of Shanxi to study environment and rural governance in China. On the bus ride from Beijing to Zhangjiakou City, Shanxi, we passed innumerable coal yards and factories, including a plastic processing plant that was spewing fire and thick black smoke into the air. This black smoke billowed through the atmosphere, forming a hazy gray shroud similar to those that covered all the cities we visited in this coal-dependent region. Later on, we had the opportunity to hike through the area surrounding Zhangjiakou, where our professor pointed out burial mounds believed to be from the Warring States period or earlier, which upon excavation have yielded coffins made from huge slabs of wood. The graves are so numerous that they can only have been made on the scene, which means that the huge slabs of wood were taken from the area. This indicates that perhaps as few as two thousand years ago, the provinces of Shanxi and Hebei and most of the Loess Plateau were covered with huge forests and grasslands. Looking at the fragile, crumbling yellow soil, harsh brush, and gullies that constitute the Loess Plateau today, it is hard to imagine the region was ever any other way. Even worse, where coal mines exist or have existed, there is hardly any vegetation, only barren, nutrient poor yellow soil that cannot be cultivated because it has been contaminated by poisonous metals like mercury.
Though the continuing air pollution and soil erosion are huge problems, they are not the worst examples of environmental problems in Shanxi.The most heartbreaking stories come from the people forced to put up with increasingly harsh surroundings, and my fellow students and I had the incredible opportunity to spend the night with some of these people. In a most glaring example of the national and local government’s failure to care for or understand its people’s needs, under the national government’s recently imposed renewable energy initiative, a large number of wind turbines have been installed in the mountains of Shanxi. In the name of “environmental protection”, the government has allowed huge truck paths to be forged on already fragile mountainsides, destroying many of the trees and bushes that had managed to take root there, reversing whatever benefit they had brought to the region, spurring soil erosion and leading to the formation of new gulls in the mountains. This process has taken a huge portion of farmland away from the villagers and threatened their livelihoods, but they have not been compensated. They have not even received any subsidies on the electricity produced by the wind turbines; they are still paying the full price for what little electricity they use, which can be very expensive for them but is practically nothing in terms of the national budget. Though I (speaking as an environmentalist as well as a scholar of China) was deeply hurt, bewildered, upset and outraged on behalf of my Shanxi Ayi and Shushu, they seemed to be complacently resigned to their living conditions. They were both very old and it was as if they have long accepted that the possibility of dialoging their needs and concerns is virtually nonexistent. Although one of my professors told me about an old man he interviewed in Xinjiang who, when asked what he thought about the environment he lived in, began to cry and lamented that he knows the farming he does is unsustainable but he simply has no other choice, it appears that most villagers in Shanxi and similar places do not even know that their land was once among the most lush and sophisticated ecosystems on Earth.
The lack of opportunities afforded for the rural populace is both a symptom and a cause of their poverty. They lack the knowledge and the political power to protest measures, made both with blatant disregard for the environment and the people who have to live in it, and–most frustratingly of all– under the guise of creating a more sustainable future. While Nanjing’s citizen protests and tree IVs indicate a high ability among the urban elite to recognize and address ecological problems, they also serve to indicate the severity of the environmental problems that plague all of China. Unfortunately, these problems are very severe and will require lots of planning and citizen participation to resolve. People in the urban areas are on their way to achieving that kind of power, especially in Nanjing. But the problem remains that if the social and economic inequalities surrounding the issue of environmental protection are not addressed, things will never get better in the countryside, and one has to wonder how people will be able to continue living in China once the countryside is lost.
Jim, C. Y., and Shuang Chen. “Variations Of The Treescape In Relation To Urban Development In A Chinese City: The Case Of Nanjing.” Professional Geographer 55.1 (2003): 70-82. Academic Search Complete. Web. 21 Oct. 2013.
Li, Wenhua (2004). Degradation and Restoration of forest ecosystems in China. Forest Ecology and Management 201: 33-41, 2004. Retrieved from: http://www.elsevier.com/locate/foreco on March 20, 2013.
Wen, Dong-mao, 2006,‘Impacts of social economic status on higher education opportunity and graduate employment in China,’ Higher Education Press, vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 426-438. Available from: <http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11516-006-0019-y>.
Wilson, E. O., 2001, ‘Nature matters’, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, vol. 20, no. 3, pp. 241–242.
Zhang Kun. “Fate of Nanjing’s trees firmly rooted among the public.” Chinadaily [Nanjing, Jiangsu, China] 24 03 2011, n. pag. Web. 21 Oct. 2013. <http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2011-03/24/content_12218569.htm>.
顾小萍 , and 葛妍. “玉兰路景观树挂2000多带营养液.” 龙虎网 [南京，江苏，中华人民共和国] 04 07 2011, n. pag. Web. 21 Oct. 2013. <http://city.ifeng.com/cshz/nj/20110704/111530.shtml>.
Mao, KuoRay “Underinvestment or Overdevelopment: A World System Perspective on Neo-liberal Development and Migration in Northwestern China, the Case of Northern Shangxi” Perspective on Global Development and Technology.
(Note: this is the citation as it appears in Dr. Mao’s CV).