This Note surrounds the focus of Jonathan Watts’ environmental road trip book ‘When a Billion Chinese Jump’. It is, however, based on Watts’ comments in the two interviews that sparked my interest in his book in the first place, in The Guardian and over at ABC News Australia. For now, I will simply highlight the book’s central strands, as well as add my own brief anecdotal contribution.
A week or so ago, just as the gentleman that is kindly bringing a copy of this book over from England for me was landing in Xi’an, I was taking off for Beijing, as I was returning he was taking to the skies again in the opposite direction. We should have better luck early next month. As well as missing each other, we were also not doing much to assuage our own carbon footprints, though, I can assure you, our hearts are in the right place. And, there in lies a simple way of introducing Jonathan Watts’ take on things green, ecological and sustainable in China.
In China, economic pragmatism and growth are still out stripping concern for environmental consequences as the motivating forces behind developmental practices and policies. The Chinese government is certainly seen as recognising the problem but the practical implications at this particular point of development means change isn’t happening fast enough. In terms of our own nations’ time-scale of development, and late-to-the-table environmental concerns and accountability, Watts concludes that the Chinese peoples feelings that they too should be able to go through this heavily polluting stage of development is both ‘completely fair and utterly calamitous.’ Watts:
‘In a sense, China is extraordinarily unfortunate to be hitting this stage of development at this time in human history.’
Watts doesn’t hide from outlining the stark choice between a future of global ecological balance or one of utter devastation. But, it is here he also focuses on the fact that it is a fresh search for the values that guide our choices that will have as much to do with the resolution of this epic problem than simple finger pointing; whether those fingers are pointed towards undemocratic regimes, global financial institutions, self-serving nation/market states or individuals.
I will continue this Note by highlighting a few of Jonathan Watts’ key statements and relating them to a little bit of Daoist thought, as Watts, and others he interviewed, raised the potential significance of Daoism in terms of developing what could be called an eco-mind set, as opposed to an all-conquering and consumption centred way of looking at our world. First however, I will indulge myself by contributing a little anecdotal evidence, to point out in a milder way the scale of the problem. Though, it does come with a slightly less resounding title:
When an Englishman Shouldn’t have Jumped
This is a brief look back at my experiences on flight ZX 1818 to Beijing last week. I boarded my plane as normal, read for a while, stared out into what seemed like space, but which was of course just the night sky, and which, in actual fact, meant I was actually just staring at my own image reflected in the window. I was soon hurriedly closing the shutter. As I turned in my seat a food box landed abruptly on the opened tray before me.
I hungrily ripped open the quite large and not noticeably recycled cardboard container, which was about the size of an iPad. Inside were 2 pieces of less than juicy looking cucumber. They sat snugly within a white plastic tray, which was itself surrounded by a vacuum-sealed plastic bag. There was one perfectly circular roll also tucked neatly into a protective plastic cover, a piece of chocolate cake – in a plastic bag – and a white plastic spoon and fork, yep, covered in a plastic bag. I ate the contents in about 45 seconds, using the last 15 seconds of the minute to take a few deep breaths. I used the next minute of time to survey the leftover wrappers collected by the two passengers sitting next me. I multiplied that impression in my mind by the few hundred souls on our plane, and then by the few hundred journeys made around China that day, at which point, and before I could begin to conceive of the quantity of plastic discarded from a years worth of flights, I began feeling a little queasy.
I pleaded illness to defy the stay in your seat signs, made it look as if I was going to the bathroom, before I side-stepped a disorientated looking stewardess and darted for the emergency exit – the stewardess’ concerns ringing in my ears. I wrenched open the door and without a moment’s thought jumped headlong into the cold night’s darkness, escaping that plastic bag coated hell. Sadly, ironically or otherwise, we had, by the time I leapt, been approaching Beijing and I found myself landing on one of the Airport’s designated landfill sites. So, instead of falling to my shortened fate just south of the Great Wall, a glorious ending, I actually lay staring up at the stars, comfortably cushioned in a field of plastic bag wrapper remains. A hell to be sure.
However, you have to take all of life’s little ups and downs in the spirit they are intended and move on. Experiences such as these are obviously meant to make us the people we are supposed to be. I quickly resolved to never jump from a plane again. And, that next time, when faced with the same situation, I would make a stand: I would refuse the aircraft food and explain to anyone prepared to listen why. Unless, of course, they start serving inflight McDonalds.
Now, back to a Billion potentially jumping Chinese, Jonathan Watts and Daoism. When Watts was asked: “How did you become convinced of the importance of this topic?” he responded by first emphasizing his emotional response to discovering that something, the Baiji Dolphin, that had been around for 20 million years no longer existed. He went on to point out that:
‘[A]s I looked more into the story my priorities changed, and the story changed. It’s about pollution, climate change and one-party governance, but its even more about consumption and biodiversity and the long-term trend of human development. This is not just about China.’
It was here that he went on to make the comment about China in essence being very unlucky to be developing at this rate, and on this scale, at this time in human history. He was next asked to comment on how the deeper tension in Chinese society between the Daoist and Confucian traditions affects the situation and the Chinese response to it. Watts begins here to focus on what seems a fundamental strand of his book, the fact that:
‘The importance of values hasn’t really kicked in, but it’s absolutely essential.’
Here, Daoism is raised as an alternative or at least as a counter point to the modern application of Confucian philosophy, the latter being seen as a kind of taming of nature perspective. This philosophy can be recognized in such projects as the Three Gorges Dam and the rail road to Lhasa. Watts also observes that:
‘Clearly Western values haven’t stopped the west from screwing up the environment. So its worth looking to China’s philosophical and cultural roots.’
Which, seemingly, means more Daoism than Confucianism. For those, like myself, uninitiated in the ways of Daoism, here is a brief introduction from that modern day sagical resource, Wikipedia:
‘The word 道, Tao (or Dao, depending on the romanization scheme), roughly translates as, “path” or “way” (of life), although in Chinese folk religion and philosophy it carries more abstract meanings. Taoist propriety and ethics emphasize the Three Jewels of the Tao: compassion, moderation, and humility, while Taoist thought generally focuses on nature, the relationship between humanity and the cosmos (天人相应), health and longevity, and wu wei (action through inaction), which is thought to produce harmony with the Universe.’
Watts quotes the environmental philosopher Tang Xi Yang as saying: “If China is going to solve its problems, it needs more Daoism.” While the popular philosopher Yu Dan, although admitting she is more Daoist than Confucianist, doesn’t believe that: “China is ready for Daoism yet.’’ It might however have to get ready quickly. As Watts notes:
‘We are heading into a difficult 30 or 40 years for our species. We are over the limit already by just about every ecological measure. And yet our population is probably going to rise by another two billion in the next 40 years. We need to get through this rough period and over that 40-year hump… [T]he country that is in the best position – and the worst position – is China.’
A conclusion in part based on the fact that China is a country that over the last century, has been able to make radical changes of direction, as Watts reflects: ‘With some ideas catching on so quickly that it’s almost terrifying… I have to hope that this might be the case with the environment.’ On this point he concludes by observing that:
‘China’s trapped by momentum, it has to keep moving forward. By contrast, the US is trapped by inertia – it’s trying to protect what it already has. This is also why China is in a better position to become a green superpower.’
I will wrap up my introduction here to this important book by adding a few more of Watts’ own words, while relating them back to the image at the top of the page, taken from The Illustrated Book of Laozi. There is a question embedded on that page that was asked during the period following the Warring States in China, around 475-221BC. Given the context that I have outlined here, that question seems to have a remarkable relevance to the period 2010-2050AD. Watts:
‘The environment and the economy, which used to run pretty much in parallel, have become so detached from one another. The economists, the governments and the corporations all think the solution to the world’s problems is more consumption in China, whereas the environmentalists are all saying: be careful what you wish for. If there is to be any solution, it is in the reattachment of economy and environment.’