China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2010/Sep

More than one kind of pollution blots horizon

Bad weather is back in the news. Last November, heavy snows fell early in China. A prolonged drought in Yunnan (雲南) lasted until the coming of summer floods, which hit many provinces. A landslide in Gansu (甘肅) claimed 1,700 dead or missing on August 8, while record floods, which hit Pakistan, claimed even more lives and washed away 20 per cent of the wheat crop. Meanwhile, Russian crops wilted in record heat.

Do these disasters have anything to do with pollution and global warming? There is no shortage of skeptics who link global warming to natural variations and not to human activity. If we are the cause, then economic growth might have to be slowed to reduce pollution. That would be immensely costly. In some circles, development is the highest value in life, a de facto god to be worshipped.

The limits of development

The television news in Mandarin often mentions Fazhan (發展), which means development or growth. Fa means issue forth or develop, and occurs in compounds for dough rising, seed sprouting and people bringing their talents into play. Zhan means unfurl or unfold, as in compound words for spreading wings, putting on exhibits and opening up. Fazhan sounds like natural growth, organic development, something quite positive. In earlier decades, the preferred term was jinbu (進步) – progress, with overtones of a strident march forward. Jinbu has been heard and seen in print less often in recent years.

In the west, a century ago, people wrote Progress with a capital P, as in the Progress of Civilisation. Then World War I began in 1914, followed by other horrors and popular confidence in Progress was shaken. People later began to worry about the side effects of progress, such as pollution. The first Earth Day was held in April 1970. With dire predictions for the future of Planet Earth, ecologists pointed to the limits to growth.

Limits to growth? Karl Marx had an insight: a capitalist economy simply has to continue growing. If growth ever stops, then there will be no place to put money where it will yield a good return on investment. Interest rates on bank deposits and bonds will fall towards zero and stocks will no longer pay dividends. Marx called this the Final Crisis of Capitalism and predicted that it would happen in the mid-19th century.

That never happened. Population growth was made possible by opening new land to cultivation and, later, by better yields per acre. Technological innovation repeatedly came to the rescue. A steady stream of inventions and improvements in productivity keep the global economy humming.

Most Chinese still have faith that “science is all-powerful (科學萬能).” In the face of challenges such as the rising amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, science had better be all-powerful. If science does not find a substitute for fossil fuels, then we are all headed for serious pain, in both socialist and free market economies.

Physical and spiritual pollution

Progress often brings pollution.

Wuran (污染) means pollution. The first character means not just filth, but also corrupt as in corrupt official. Ran means dye, as in soaking cloth in a dyeing vat. Polluted air soaks deep into the lungs and polluted water stains whatever it touches. The transition to metaphor is easy. It is easy to take something white and dye it black, but hard to dye black cloth white. It is likewise easy to fall into sin and hard to return to virtue.

It is easier to contain pollution (in either sense of the word) than to clean up a mess after it has widely dispersed. Someone defined the First Law of Ecology: “You can never throw anything away. It always goes somewhere.” The best course of action is not to generate any toxins in the first place.

Around 35 years ago, when pollution hit the headlines in the United States of America, a Catholic newspaper published a cartoon. A husband and wife were carrying their small children and stepping carefully over sewage discharge pipes labeled Pornography and Violence, while a smokestack in the background was spewing forth Foul Language. The cartoon was captioned, “The toxic waste dump in which we all live.”

The Catholic Church tried to reduce the spread of spiritual toxins with the Index of Forbidden Books, first published in 1559 and updated periodically until it was abolished in 1971. Rather than give people a long list of forbidden titles, the ideal now is for Catholics to internalise a sense of what is edifying and what is trash, so they will gravitate towards media which uplifts people instead debasing them.

As China began to reform and open itself to the outside world in the late 1970s, new ideas began to enter. Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) said, “When you open the door, some flies and mosquitoes will fly in,” meaning some bad influences would unavoidably find their way into China.

By October 1983, too many flies and mosquitoes were biting. Beijing launched the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign aimed at smuggling, prostitution, profiteering, pornography, democracy and freedom of speech. Post offices were reminded not to let people mail bibles and a certain kind of photo magazine. The campaign fizzled after several months. By mid-1984 the focus had shifted to economic reforms for faster growth.

Environmental pollution in China

In 300 BC, Mencius (孟子) pointed to a once-forested hill that had become bare and brown from the woodcutter’s axe as an analogy for someone born with an originally good nature who later became bad through poor upbringing and lack of schooling.  Dingxi and Longxi in Shaanxi (陝西定西,龍西), are the poorest districts in China. Yet 1,300 years ago, they were China’s best pasture lands boasting huge numbers of horses. The good news is that recent tree planting and terracing have undone some of the damage from prolonged overgrazing and soil erosion.

During the Cultural Revolution, the first doctors to diagnose patients with lung problems due to air pollution were told they were mistaken, since pollution is a vice of capitalism, while China was socialist. Today we all agree: it doesn’t matter if a smokestack is capitalist or socialist, Christian or atheist. A good smokestack must have air pollution control equipment that is periodically maintained and honestly monitored.

City residents notice smog replacing blue skies. In many parts of the world, including China, urban sprawl, litter, new roads and buildings have recently replaced forested hillsides and farms. China has industrialised rapidly and has recently overtaken Japan as the world’s number two economy, with a price to be paid in pollution.

The central government is worried. The problem will not go away by itself. Official pronouncements follow this format: There is a problem. The state has passed numerous laws and regulations to deal with it. Officials at all levels from top to bottom in the relevant departments are taking vigorous action. China has constantly strengthened and improved the administration of the laws. Wrongdoers are being caught and punished. No one can afford complacency, but there is no reason to panic. In conclusion, the state will strive vigorously, educate the people and improve the situation.

Other articles have recently praised Confucius for promoting harmony among people and also with nature. This is a new compliment to the Sage. It was the mystic Laozi and later Daoists who always spoke of being one with the natural world.

Today, China is striving to implement sustainable development, that is, growth that will not damage the next generation. The priority is no longer simply economic growth, but instead a balance of ecological, environmental and social goals. This is a welcome broadening of the definition of progress.

Religion and growth

Religion does not focus on economic growth. The Gospel of Wealth (have faith and God will reward you in this life) is a distortion of the Gospel of Jesus. In 1967, Pope Paul VI wrote Populorum Progressio (Progress of Peoples) in which he stated, “The way to peace lies in the area of development” (art. 83). Pope Paul called for justice among nations. Later, Pope John Paul II reminded people on numerous occasions that life is about being more, not having more.

In the Hebrew scriptures, the Lord’s promises to Israel would be fulfilled not only when “they will hammer their swords into plowshares” (Micah 4:3), but also when “each man will sit under his vine and his fig tree, with no one to trouble him” (Micah 4:4). It is hard to picture trees clapping their hands (Isaiah 55:13), but harmony among people cannot be complete without the natural world also achieving its potential.

In the New Testament, the emphasis seems to be overwhelmingly on the next life, not on this life, but rather on the new heaven and earth. Admittedly, a number of Christians fell into this dichotomy.

By contrast, Vatican II stated: “Far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on, for it is here that the body of a new human family grows, foreshadowing in some way the age which is to come” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 39).

In 1965, only a handful of people were aware of a pending environmental crisis. Increased concern with the health of our planet has led Catholics to take a second look at our tradition of caring for our earthly home. Christians of different denominations have been developing a set of teachings on justice, peace and the integrity of creation. These resources are worth having on our common journey.

Greed and the desire for quick profits have damaged the natural world and long-term solutions are needed. It will be difficult for us to save the environment, but we all have to try. If nothing else, readers of China Bridge can at least turn off unnecessary lights, and waste less food and water. Even small savings add up.