Is Environmentalism More Relevant Across Cultures Than Western Democracy?

Posted by Betty Zhang & filed under Identity, Sustainability Issue 2014.


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For the same reason that Vancouverites boast some of the best dim sum on this side of the Pacific, large communities of Vancouver residents also feel the urgency of environmental disasters and climate change, even as they are occurring across the world. In living here, we are uniquely tied to the Asia Pacific. And thus, for 1.5-Generation Canadians like myself, recent immigrants, and even international students contemplating building careers and homes in Canada, cultural identities can be complex, dynamic, and fluid.

A controversial Ubyssey article earlier this year asked, rather simplistically: “Why aren’t Chinese international students bringing liberal democracy back home?” Even disregarding the reality that so-called “Western values” cannot be seamlessly imported and instantaneously installed elsewhere (and as a matter of fact, not every aspect of our political system is inherently superior or desirable), “home” for many international students might not be a simple, static geographic location.

That is not to say, of course, that grassroots activism doesn’t exist in China. Since mainstream media approaches Chinese politics and foreign policy in a rather uniform way, frequently using the alarmist rhetoric that “China is overtaking the U.S. as the next superpower”, the voice of activists, youths, and civil society is generally left out of the coverage. The UBC International Reporting program’s project on environmentalism in China, however, tells a different story.

The project, titled “China’s Generation Green“, reports on activism and advocacy spanning the areas of biodiversity, food safety, waste management and water contamination, with a particular focus on the generation that has inherited both greater economic prosperity and catastrophic environmental degradation. Just as China’s rapid economic growth has been a hyper-accelerated version of development in the West, it will also need its own approach to environmentalism that progresses at a much quicker pace.

In North America, it has taken decades for environmentalism to stew, develop, and become ubiquitous. It’s only in recent years, for example, that popular trends have begun to look down on conspicuous consumption, and attempted to return to traditional ways of producing and consuming food, due to a growing awareness and paradigm shift. Meanwhile, the concern in China over food is urgent: due to the soil and water contamination and lethal food scandals, opting for an organic, farm-to-table approach to buying produce isn’t a political, or trendy, or luxury choice, but an urgent necessity for health.

As wildlife photographer Yuanqi Wu explains to the International Reporting team, the “green generation” in China has had access to information through the Internet, they’ve been able to travel internationally and are influenced by other countries’ environmental conscientiousness. In fact, a number of the environmentalists that the project has focused on have lived or studied abroad. Peggy Liu, for example, is an American born Chinese who had been working in venture capitalism in Shanghai before she founded the Joint U.S.-China Cooperation on Clean Energy (JUCCCE) to advocate for sustainable urbanization, industry, and consumption. While there is certainly Western influence in her work, Liu is trying to move Chinese aspirations away from American-style consumption — something that has become an important goal of China’s growing middle class, due to both access to Western media and the influx of foreign enterprises. Instead, one of JUCCCE’s initiatives is re-imagining the “Chinese Dream” to promote more sustainable consumption and production.

Perhaps environmentalism has been able to benefit from ideas abroad because it is a less politically-charged form of activism to champion and “bring back” to China; or perhaps the urgency of the issue was enough of a catalyst for a local movement. Regardless, the story of China’s environmental movement, as told by the International Reporting Project, is invariably connected to environmentalism globally. And it’s evident that local-, Canadian- and American-born Chinese alike are working in the same space to mitigate harm to the environment that ultimately, we inhabit together.

About Betty Zhang

Betty Zhang
Dalian-born and Vancouver-raised, Betty finds herself constantly torn between her fascination with the Asia-Pacific and her love for the Pacific Northwest. She is frequently writing, attempting to be trilingual, and tweeting @bettyyzhang

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