Sunday, December 21, 2008
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.