If Only the US Were More Like China

BEIJING - The last two weeks as I have begun to conduct interviews I have been asked why I have come to do research on environmentalism in China. Both times I have replied that I first came to China in 2008 to research Internet cafés, mistakenly thinking that Chinese had to go to Internet cafés to surf the Internet. Both times I said that my sense was that the habits of Chinese were more environmentally friendly than those of Americans and I hoped Americans could learn a thing or two. Yet both times I had a sense that I had to justify myself, and why I was doing this kind of research. The second time using Chinese I tried to argue that my research was already paying off.

One of the things I have learned is that many days as a tone-deaf individual I would rather try to study the tonal language Chinese (Mandarin) than try to get Americans to adopt more efficient habits I’ve seen in China. For the Chinese I speak to, they are not over eager to discuss these problems, and I’m already looking forward to the days when I might shift towards education questions. I can spend five minutes talking about environmental problems, and half a day talking about education problems.

The five minutes I do spend talking about environmentalism is a testing ground to try out questions and ideas that get explored further in the online survey and in-person interviews I have been using to get a better sense of what Chinese youth think should be done about water and air pollution and climate change. I’m not the only one doing research about Chinese daily habits and their relationship to the environment.

I was at the public release of a report about Chinese habits and views towards the environment published by the marketing firm Ogilvy Earth.  I enjoyed being at the Singapore Embassy to learn about the Chinese report (first time at an embassy in Beijing), but it’s the sister report on American habits and views I find most interesting. According to their report on the US, Chinese are more environmentally conscious than Americans. The US report highlights that Americans care more about cancer than environmental problems, and Chinese are the opposite.

The report writers suggest that the marketers in the United States have done a good job making cancer three p's: personal; plausible; and positive. I would suggest that cancer is not a fourth p, political. I don't hear American politicians running on a platform of cutting funding for cancer research.

Environmental protection, particularly climate change, unlike in China, seems to be a wedge issue between the political parties. Recent research shows that in the US increasingly Democrats believe climate change is happening and Republicans do not. I listened to the author of this report last summer in Sweden, sociologist Riley Dunlap attributes the divide in part to a series of publications by conservative think tanks.

Back in China, it is not so much a matter of whether or not climate change exists, but rather who should do what to fix the problem. Asked about the degree to which responsibility should be split between the government and the common people, the general consensus is that most of the responsibility rests on the government. The government should set the legal framework and do the heavy lifting of regulating polluters, and the common people should ride their bike and not waste electricity. Among the people I talk to their lives are often already quite simple, using public transport or walking, saving electricity and water, and trying to re-use items instead of throwing objects away. In a country where economic reforms were opened up thirty years ago with the saying “to be rich is glorious” there is some ambivalence about whether the rich should do more or less, with some saying that it is the lifestyle of the rich that causes the most pollution. Surprisingly less than I expected, the blame of climate change is placed on the lives of more affluent countries like the United States.

While books like When a Billion Chinese Jump give me pause, reading reports like that of Ogilvy, talking to my informants and listening to experts say that China is doing more than any other country to address climate change, I continue to be more concerned about the United States than China.

Robin Chase, the co-founder of Zipcar, the ride-share company, articulated one alternative path for the United States. Chase began a presentation in 2009 by arguing the world faces serious environmental problems including climate change and that emissions are cut in half whenever two people decide to ride one car instead of two. Granted I’ve been out of the US for a little while now, but what struck me about Zipcar’s advertising is that it doesn’t try to sell itself as being green, just as American Apparel doesn’t try to sell itself based on its non-sweatshop creds. Zipcar has taken the political out of caring for the environment, and sells its product based on price and convenience.

There are days when I would like to have the United States run by engineers like China, and to have NGOs forbidden from asking for donations. I think it might allow for problems to be seen as problems that are solved and not problems that serve as wedge issues to help get oneself elected or as lobbying points to justify having a job in this or that NGO. In the meantime I’ll keep studying Chinese, interviewing, and look to see if more creativity like that of Chase can be exhibited.

Chris Eberhardt, originally from Tacoma, Washington, holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from The New School for Social Research. He was a 2008 India China Institute Student Fellow. Chris also helped found the organization imagining global asia in 2006, and has since played an integral role in developing public events and contributing bi-lingual blogs.