Sunday, December 21, 2008

Chinese biodiversity


I've got in trouble before commenting on Chinese attitudes to nature and non-human life but, to return to a theme, many Chinese attitudes are, from a Western perspective, appallingly destructive despite official Chinese ideological claims about the need to live in 'balance with nature'.  Historically many of the forests of China were cleared in the 'great deforestation' and animal and plant species are often seen in Chinese culture purely in instrumental terms as things that can 'serve' people in the narrow sense of providing food or material products or caged amusements.  This has had dramatic consequences for the environmental history of China. China has also long been intensively cropped rather than ranched - an activity particularly inimical to biodiversity.

Marine and aquatic environments have been subject to particular damage. The probable extinction of the Yangtze River Dolphin was a notable loss. Historically Chairman Mao's policy of wiping out bird species because they ate grain was a supreme example of short-sightedness since a disasterous locust plague immediately followed as well as an errie bird-free silence in many Chinese cities.

China has high intrinsic biodiversity - for example 1329 bird species out of a global total of about 9000 - but a biodiversity which is under severe threat from rapid Chinese economic development, harvesting and pollution.  This affects non-Chinese because existence values on biodiversity are global. Non-Chinese experience discomfit when biodiversity is wiped out in China. In a more immediate  sense the conversion of mudflats and wetlands into commercial sites is endangering bird species that migrate between the northern and southern hemispheres along the East Asian-Australian Flyway.

A colleague working on conservation issues in the Flyway told me how angry he got when fellow Chinese 'conservationists' immediately discarded into the environment any litter they had generated - this view of the environment as an inexhaustible sink is clearly inappropriate in a Chinese setting.  I winced when he told me that the migratory waders the Chinese collect as food are attracted into nets by posting captured birds in wetlands with their eyes stitched together so they do not make alarm calls. OK these practises do reflect different values but, for sure, Chinese attitudes towards nature, create external costs for many non-Chinese.

This article on the critically-endangered Chinese crested tern (pictured above) sets out the issues well in terms of issues surrounding the conservation of an individual species. It is a good general read.

Things are improving in China due to official government policies but I question whether the improvements will offset the pace of so-called 'progress'.  It is pointless for the Chinese people to seek to become rich by living in a barren rubbish dump.

1 comment:

conrad said...

The reason the waterways are screwed is not because people want them too be like that -- I'm sure even the average person is aware of the problem -- it's just there isn't enough water, and things like proper water treatment like we have in Melbourne are expensive -- just compare that to what Sydney has -- a big pipe that takes sewerage further out. Now imagine what happens if you don't even have a big pipe. Since they need to spend lots of money to stop a recession, hopefully things like this will get attention -- it and other issues are always in the paper (including the Chinese ones), so it's clearly on their mind. Obviously they have many other trade-offs to think about that rich countries don't, so it's not exactly simple.

Also, whilst the littering is annoying, it's not exactly a Chinese specific habit. You should see where I work in France sometimes. It is so bad there that when the Swiss came to investigate it as an America's Cup site, rumour has it they simply turned around and went back home (it had previously been the favorite). They then ruled it out as a site be because it was too dirty and even said so!

The other thing about some of the bad habits is that people seem far more amenable to change than places like France. When I was in HK and SARS turned up, the government (and some mainland cities I believe), decided that it was a good idea to start fining people for littering and spitting -- and at least in HK people stopped and almost no-one complained. If I compare that to Marseille, where they had a similar campaign due to embarassment after the Swiss told them they were dirty, the effect was approximately zero. There is still litter and dog-shit everywhere, and people still simply do things like dump their empty ashtrays at the traffic lights.