Sustainability in China

All Grades, Environment/Nature, Economics, Government, Society, Resource Collection
  • Chart of United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, ending poverty, protecting the planet, and ensuring prosperity for all.

Featured Resources Related to Study Tours Summer 2010, “History, Culture, and Sustainable Development” & Spring 2011, “Yunnan – Continuous Change, Enduring Traditions”

An inescapable remark in press coverage of China is that the country has undergone an unprecedented economic transformation into the 21st century that has effectively vaulted it into a world economic juggernaut and lifted millions of Chinese citizens out of poverty in the process. While this is a remarkable story that Chinese can rightly be proud of, the country is also grappling with balancing this considerable achievement (and continued need) for rapid economic growth while also preserving the natural and cultural resources that have sustained China for generations upon generations. Accordingly, the Teach China program has focused on issues of sustainable development in two recent K-12 educator study tours.

From July 19 – August 9, 2010, fifteen educators from New York, New Jersey, and Maryland joined China Institute’s professional development program for K-12 educators, Teach China, on a three-week study tour structured around exploring issues related to “history, culture, and sustainable development.” The tour began with the unique opportunity to attend the Shanghai 2010 World Expo, the largest World’s Fair ever held. The Expo (and Shanghai in general) served as a launching point to investigate how China is addressing the issue of sustainable development. The group used as a common reference point the definition of “sustainable development” from Our Common Future (also known as “the Brundtland Report”) which was released in 1987:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

  • the concept of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.”

After exploring Shanghai, the group proceeded from the Yangzi River delta (aka Chang Jiang) to the middle region of the river and finally to the area of the river’s source, the Three Parallel Rivers region in northwest Yunnan province. The group made stops in Suzhou, Changsha, Kunming, Dali, Lijiang, and Shangrila, visiting important cultural and natural sites to gain a more complete picture of how issues of sustainable development are being played out in the areas the group traveled to. We visited temples associated with Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist, and indigenous religious belief systems, as well as visiting a high school, a university, and a community-based educational NGO to witness the various traditions that contribute to China’s own understanding of man’s interaction with the natural world.

In spring 2011, nine teachers from New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey joined the Teach China program to explore one of the most ethnically and geographically diverse provinces in China, Yunnan. Vital to the ancient tea and horse trade route, Yunnan has served as an important crossroads for trade and exchange of ideas and material goods between Tibet, Central and Southeast Asia, and China. The Spring Study Tour 2011 explored Yunnan’s rich cultural heritage and examined first-hand the changes taking place in light of China’s unprecedented development in places such as Kunming, Lijiang, and Shangri-la.

The resources you will find in this grouping of featured resource webpages were developed through the contributions of all the dedicated teachers who participated on these study tours. The resources are designed to help contextualize issues and approaches for teaching about sustainable development in China through five different perspectives: a geographical perspective, a historical perspective, a human cultural perspective, a material cultural perspective, and an appreciative perspective. We invite all viewers (teachers, students, and the general public) to leave comments and resources that will further the important discussion about how to promote a sustainable development for China, for the U.S., and for the world. It’s a big challenge that begins with small efforts every student, teacher, and school must contribute to – either in the U.S. or in China.

It seems self-evident that the massive internal migration of China’s population in the last thirty years brings with it both immense challenges and remarkable opportunities for restructuring Chinese society. The speed at which China’s population is moving from rural to urban areas creates a series of interesting and seemingly insurmountable issues for Chinese urban planners. According to some estimates, another two hundred and fifty million people will move to China’s cities from its rural areas by 2025, creating an urban population of approximately one billion people. China’s schools, hospitals, sanitation systems, housing, and transportation systems will all obviously be affected by this population shift. Creating an urban infrastructure that is ecologically sustainable is a major challenge to China’s future, and is currently one of the most interesting and exciting areas of study for the intersection of sociology and sustainable development. Increased urbanization has put added strain on limited water resources, especially considering that river-driven hydropower is eyed as a ripe potential in addressing China’s voraciously expanding energy needs.

How water as a resource is used and shared equitable has sparked increased public education in the area of water and ecological preservation. There has been a massive push by the Chinese government, NGOs and schools to empower students to address and find solutions related to development issues, especially those focusing on preserving water resources, such as wetlands and rivers. We were privileged to visit two commendable examples of this effort, the Water School for the Living Yangtze at the Shangri-La Institute and the Wetlands Project at Suzhou High School. The Water School Project (www.shangrilainstitute.org) is a collection of multidisciplinary water-related hands-on activities for grades K-12. Localized components and practical investigations are included so that students can use their own environment as a basis for learning. Suzhou High School-SIP is a 1000-year-old academic institution with a brand new campus built on wetlands in 2006. A small part of this wetland was reclaimed and in collaboration with students, teachers and administrators have produced a Wetlands multidisciplinary curriculum.

Minority cultures in China are intimately tied to their land and resources and they are being challenged daily to enter the modern world while preserving tradition and culture. Technological advances such as hydropower development along China’s rivers can potentially destroy culturally and biologically diverse regions. These dams can destroy land and resources that many minority groups revere as sacred and rely on for survival. At the same time, these dams provide flood control and power to remote areas. While some traditions are being lost, others are being created, such as the Naxi holy site at Black Dragon Pond.

It seems self-evident that the massive internal migration of China’s population in the last thirty years brings with it both immense challenges and remarkable opportunities for restructuring Chinese society. The speed at which China’s population is moving from rural to urban areas creates a series of interesting and seemingly insurmountable issues for Chinese urban planners. According to some estimates, another two hundred and fifty million people will move to China’s cities from its rural areas by 2025, creating an urban population of approximately one billion people. China’s schools, hospitals, sanitation systems, housing, and transportation systems will all obviously be affected by this population shift. Creating an urban infrastructure that is ecologically sustainable is a major challenge to China’s future, and is currently one of the most interesting and exciting areas of study for the intersection of sociology and sustainable development. IN creased urbanization puts added strain on limited water resources especially as rivers and hydro power are eyed as a crucial element in addressing China’s voracious energy needs.

China has a long and dynamic history of economic development that has often been obscured in the West by outmoded notions of China as a static, “Asiatic” empire built upon agricultural production that prevented it from entering the capitalist world economic system on par with Europe and North America during the early modern era. While this reading of history has been aggressively challenged by a growing group of China historians centered in the California University system (for a fuller explanation of this issue, see Columbia University’s Asia for Educators excellent teaching module “China and Europe 1500-2000 and Beyond: What is ‘Modern’” at afe.easia.columbia.edu/chinawh/), it is widely recognized today that China is fully integrated into a global economic system, as was fully evident on our 2010 and 2011 study tours. What has resulted in this phase of China’s integration into a global system has been a spectacular rise in living standards but also unprecedented pressures on the ecosystems that China’s populace lives in. A brief overview of the past thirty years elucidates both the growing challenges and the growing awareness of sustainable development as a historical process.

The 2010 tour began with a visit to the Shanghai 2010 World Expo, the largest World’s Fair ever held and one that prided itself on showcasing cutting edge visions for a rapidly urbanizing world with China leading the way. The China Pavilion in the Expo very significantly introduced the audience to China with a mural of everyday life in China in 1979, a year when Deng Xiaoping firmly started to introduce economic and social reforms that would launch China into its unprecedented period of economic growth. The 80s were a period of heady reforms that began in the countryside but also started to promote small-scale manufacturing as a key to economic growth. It was during this period that the whole concept of “sustainable development” started to gain currency in the international community, and a common reference point for defining “sustainable development” derives from an international framework publication, Our Common Future (also known as “the Brundtland Report”), which was released in 1987:The 2010 tour began with a visit to the Shanghai 2010 World Expo, the largest World’s Fair ever held and one that prided itself on showcasing cutting edge visions for a rapidly urbanizing world with China leading the way. The China Pavilion in the Expo very significantly introduced the audience to China with a mural of everyday life in China in 1979, a year when Deng Xiaoping firmly started to introduce economic and social reforms that would launch China into its unprecedented period of economic growth. The 80s were a period of heady reforms that began in the countryside but also started to promote small-scale manufacturing as a key to economic growth. It was during this period that the whole concept of “sustainable development” started to gain currency in the international community, and a common reference point for defining “sustainable development” derives from an international framework publication, Our Common Future (also known as “the Brundtland Report”), which was released in 1987:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

  • the concept of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.”

During that time period, China was fully in the grips of addressing present economic needs but it could be questioned whether the needs of future generations were adequately being addressed.

In the 1990s, economic reforms and expansion continue unabated although environmental awareness was also a growing trend. This can be observed in the formation of non-governmental organizations being officially formed such as the Friends of Nature, which was formed in 1994 and had a successful campaign to raise awareness of the plight of the Tibetan Antelope which faced extinction because of overhunting and habitat loss. The formation of such NGOs is quite significant since China was emerging from the shadows of the June 4th, 1989 movement.

1994 was also the start-up year of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, a focal point for many of the complex issues around understanding competing interests when looking at the issue of sustainable development. On the one hand, the dam became a lightening rod for critics who saw the radical alterations of ecosystems in the name of hydropower and the dislocation of many river communities; on the other hand, the growing energy needs of China’s megacities such as Shanghai make a renewable energy resource project such as the Three Gorges Dam a much more appealing alternative than building more coal power plants. Indeed, China’s air quality has suffered greatly over the course of its economic transformation and this became a contentious issue in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics.

The 2000s has, in many ways, witnessed the full flowering of China’s integration into the global economic system and this was particularly showcased in the aforementioned Beijing Olympics and 2010 World Expo. China’s carbon emissions have surpassed the United States’ to become the leading carbon emitter in the world, although Chinese officials are quick to point out that on a per capita basis, China still ranks lower and should be viewed as a still developing country. But the Chinese government is quite aware of how the issue of China being able to achieve sustainable development plays effectively with the international community as well (and perhaps more importantly) with its own citizens. A major theme throughout China’s 12th Five Year Plan was the development of green technology and being able to achieve sustainable development, widely perceived as an acknowledgement that economic policies pursued during the last 30 years have caused too much undue environmental stress and needed to be urgently addressed in the coming decade.

One theme for our 2010 and 2011 study tours to China was sustainability. The traditional Chinese way of living presents an effective model for reducing one’s carbon footprint. The structure of extended families living together reduces the use of both manmade and natural resources. The family planning policy aims to control population growth as a whole. The family unit in China is alive and very strong. If families live together they will use less electricity, water, transportation, etc. Instead of two separate families cooking dinners at their own separate houses using their own separate stoves, they prepare one meal that will be enjoyed by all.

The next important aspect of Chinese family structure is passing along family traditions, customs, and history from one generation to the next. Multigenerational living can offer many valuable lessons. When a child is being raised by his/her own parents and grandparents, that child knows what it means to be part of a family unit. There is no need to use daycares or babysitters. The child is always surrounded by family members who love and care about him/her.

The agricultural setup in China has sustained this tremendous country for thousands of years. As you look at the terraces and plains, you will see the manicured and organized fields. Land that is used for farming is both large and small. The layout is impeccable, just like the pictures in a book. You will see a farm laborer tending to the crops. No grand scale machines on the small plots of land, just old-fashioned hard work. Insecticides are sprayed by hand, and fertilizer from manure and night soil is infused. There is very little waste in the food cycle in China. The Chinese eat all parts of vegetation and animals, and they make everything very tasty. Are you adventurous? In the countryside, you can try fresh produce from the farm to the consumer. Vendors sell their treats at strategic points along the roadside. Many foods are exported, but for an authentic multi-sensory experience you must go to China!

One challenge China faces is how to handle its sewage in a way that will limit negative effects on its land. Western-style flush toilet systems exist throughout urban cities and towns; however, Chinese have re-used manure and night soil in gardening for thousands of generations. This helped keep the country sustainable and less polluted and has kept the rivers in China cleaner for centuries. In some rural areas these traditional practices are being used again, but with the aid of modern technology. For example, the Shangri-La Institute uses a compost toilet system in which wood chips are combined with human waste to reduce odor and aid in decomposition. The mixture is eventually used to fertilize their gardens. China’s ways of handling sewage are not necessarily our ways, but we can learn from each other and explore better ways of dealing with our common challenges.

During our 2010 and 2011 study tours, participants grappled with the idea of sustainable material culture as well as sustainable environmental concerns. It was abundantly evident throughout our trip that an era of consumerism was reigning over China, and we explored ways that China’s integration into the world economy has simultaneously provided people with the means to improve their material life but also added tremendous pressures on ecosystems since so much waste byproducts were being produced in this new era of consumerism. As a result of this paradox, communities were trying to develop innovative ways to promote sustainable life styles that would be evident and reflected in their material cultural life. One such group we were able to interact with extensively was the Shangri-La Institute. Their Shangri-La Water Schools network (waterschool.cn/) and the ideas they promoted involved a unique local culture to contextualize and interconnect the community and its consumption habits with larger ecological preservation concerns. These Water Schools were heavily subsidized by Swarski Crystal, which provided an informative example of how consumerists culture was responding to pressing issues of heritage preservation.

Shangri-La Institute served as an example of how a given community can work closely with corporate involvement to promote sustainable development rather than exploitative practices. The key was a community-based learning process that addressed local social issues and involved local peoples contributing to preservation issues; but the entire network of schools ensured that an overall population along the Yangzi River of 60,000 people would benefit from the approach. Some iterations of sustainability might create a utopian vision of community isolation, grounded in the belief that a truly harmonious community that is truly green must shield itself from the world at large. The water schools promote a local solution that nonetheless acknowledges the interconnectedness of these communities into a larger national and world economy. They therefore promote ecotourism as well as maintain 2,000 natural reservoirs, and install solar panels in the community at large to promote renewable energy. These efforts are designed to address the energy needs and consumerist consumption patterns while also preserving the local ecology and its attendant cultural heritage, as was made evident in our stufy of the Dongba and Tibetan people in Lijiang and Shangri-la, Yunnan Province.

Material culture comprises a vast array of artifacts including architecture, clothing, arts and crafts, tools, and transportation. We examined material culture as it was experienced in our tours of China and related it to the history, culture and issue of sustainable development. Common threads were evident throughout our tour of China such as the use of cloth in clothing, sacred spaces, ritual areas, commercial industries. Examples included white scarves tied to stupas, Tibetan prayer flags tied to buildings or across roads, red scarves tied to chains surrounding memorial sites, flags at the Stone Forest, stores featuring ethnically dressed women weaving shawls on looms, and 40′ embroidered hangings in temples. To view these cloths as part of the question of sustainability in China, the daily accumulation of thousands of synthetic prayer shawls at religious sites poses a significant problem of their disposal. Burning the shawls creates air pollution and dumping the cloths fills the landfills quickly. As more and more Chinese become wealthier they are able to travel more and purchase more clothing, souvenirs and religious cloth offerings, the disposal of these cloths as well as other aspects of material culture becomes more problematic. Historic cloths, such as Lady Dai’s tomb flags also inform the viewer about cultural values.

Appreciation of Sustainable Development can be viewed through two lenses: appreciation of the sustainability of the environment and appreciation of the sustainability of ethnic identities. The Chinese collective reverence for the environment can be seen in their respect and appreciation for national parks, national monuments, natural habitats, and the growing awareness of the depletion of natural resources and the necessity of preserving what is left for future generations. The growing number of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) is testament to the power and will of local populations to effect change. The Chinese collective reverence for their ethnic identities can be observed in the proliferation and preservation of folk art and folk crafts; ancient dances, music, and theatre pieces; pride in and celebration of local festivals; and an awareness of the necessity of preserving the past for future generations.

China offers to its people and the world an enormous amount of natural wonder and beauty. We found that same beauty in China’s art, religious beliefs and its people, especially the minority groups we came in contact with. Our appreciation of these things was in evidence in each place we visited. The temples showed us art and insight to the philosophical mind of China. The efforts to sustain and maintain not only the temples, but the grounds, flora and water that are essentially part of the temple visit, suggests an appreciation and recognition of the importance of preserving and religious essences of China and its people.

Our appreciation of China’s people, particularly its minority groups, was first introduced with our visit to the museums, especially the Shanghai Museum. Our interest was piqued with the entire fourth floor wing devoted minority art and culture. This was enhanced 100 fold once we journeyed and actually met Bai, Yi, Tibetan, and Naxi peoples. Their presence and cultural influences that are being sustained and celebrated throughout China gave us a greater appreciation for the richness and diversity to be found in China’s population.

China’s appreciation of its natural wonders is evident in the efforts being made to preserve them. In Yunnan we saw these efforts in places like Tiger Leaping Gorge, Pudacuo National Park and the Shangri-la Institue’s Water School for the Living Yangtze program. In Suzhou, the preservation of the city’s famous canals, Lake Taihu and Souzhou High School’s wetlands curriculum were excellent examples of a commitment to a more sustainable China.

Our appreciation of China’s sustainable efforts began at the World Expo, which has sustainability as a main focus, but we also recognized that developing sustainable practices and then practical applications is a challenging, even daunting task for a country like China. The dearth of recycling bins everywhere and an as of yet unknown exit plan for the World Expo site sit as glaring reminders that sustainability is a tough job to carry out. However, the Expo’s motto, “Better cities, better life” and the omnipresent solar-powered water heaters remind us that the struggle is one China seems to be willing to take on.

Resource Type: Resource Collections
Caterogy: All Grades, Environment/Nature, Economics, Government, Society, Resource Collection

Author

Teach China Team

Teach China is a comprehensive professional development program offered by China Institute to provide a wealth of opportunities for K-12 educators to enhance their knowledge of China, past and present. We take an interdisciplinary approach consistent with national and state-mandated standards in order to help educators incorporate the teaching of China into all subjects and grade levels, including Mandarin language learning, the humanities, social studies, and the arts. Teach China promotes cross-cultural understanding through the use and creation of authentic materials, the presentation of balanced perspectives, and the fostering of enduring connections between educators around the world.