May 2014 Archways

On Course: China and the Environment

360° explores the consequences of  economic growth.

By Larry Keller

Photographs by James Wasserman

The China and the Environment 360° course cluster included a visit to the Beijing Cement Plant, one of the most energy-efficient and least-polluting plants in China.

The China and the Environment 360° course cluster included a visit to the Beijing Cement Plant, one of the most energy-efficient and least-polluting plants in China.

Imagine this: air pollution thick as London fog forcing flights to be grounded, highways to be closed, and residents to wear protective masks; thousands of pig carcasses clogging a river; millions of acres of land too contaminated to be farmed.

It sounds like the latest apocalyptic blockbuster from Hollywood, but this is no cinematic fantasy. It is life in today’s China and the subject of one of the newest courses in the College’s 360° program, an interdisciplinary initiative that delves into specific topics or themes from various perspectives. Called China and the Environment, the course cluster included Environmental Ethics, China’s Environment, and Environmental Economics, taught this past spring, respectively, by Rufus Jones Professor of Philosophy Robert Dostal, Associate Professor of East Asian Studies Yonglin Jiang, and Samuel and Etta Wexler Professor of Economic History Michael Rock.

Roughly one in five people on Earth live in China, which faces the enormous challenge of keeping up with economic growth while dealing with the environmental fallout of this growth. China is the world’s leading contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, and its pollution is causing illnesses and premature deaths. In fact Japanese electronics company Panasonic gives workers deployed there a wage premium to compensate for the health risks. The harm isn’t confined to the country’s borders either. Winds sometimes carry its air pollution over other countries, including the United States.

The China and the Environment 360° course  cluster included a visit to the Beijing Cement Plant, one of the most energy-efficient and least-polluting plants in China.

The China and the Environment 360° course cluster included a visit to the Beijing Cement Plant, one of the most energy-efficient and least-polluting plants in China.

China’s environmental morass isn’t due to indifference and is not unique. Rock explains that the country is following the same growth strategy once embraced by the United States.

“Grow first; clean up later,” he says. “It is the 20th-century equivalent of the 19th-century Industrial Revolution in the United States, and it’s on steroids.”

A significant amount of China’s pollution is generated by the manufacture of items such as machinery, electronics, and toys that are exported to the United States and other nations.

“You realize how interconnected everything is,” says history major Rosemary Spracklin ’14, who took the class. “You can’t contain it just in China. Pollution doesn’t know political boundaries.”

“The issues of China’s environment and the way it’s being treated and the way it affects the rest of the world are enormously complex,” says Sarah Theobald ’12, academic program administrator and 360° coordinator. “It lends itself to the 360° treatment.”

The 360° courses debuted in 2010, and they are frequently mentioned by prospective students when they are asked what attracts them to Bryn Mawr, Theobald adds. China and the Environment, the 15th course cluster to be offered, explores China’s environment from economic, geopolitical, historical, cultural, and scientific perspectives. Jiang’s seminars, for example, provided an overview of environmental attitudes in imperial times, Mao’s socialist experiments from 1949 to 1976, and the post-Mao reform era.

As part of the course, nine students and the three professors traveled through China for two weeks in March. “We met some really high-level people,” Dostal says. They included government officials, representatives from manufacturers of cement and iron and steel plants, researchers at an atmospheric research lab, and a U.S. consulting firm that advises China on city planning.

The group visited four cities and toured villages where small-scale businesses operate. These included a paper mill that uses only recycled paper as its material, and a manufacturer of badminton rackets where the work is done primarily by hand. Both factories showed how they are trying to minimize waste and pollution.

Faculty and students from the China and the Environment 360° course cluster at the Great Wall of China in March 2014.

Faculty and students from the China and the Environment 360° course cluster at the Great Wall of China in March 2014.

In addition, they met with the leader of a team of researchers at the Energy Research Institute in Beijing, which models China’s energy usage for policy makers in the central government. Similarly they met with the head of a provincial Energy Research Institute in Gansu Province in Lanzhou. About 20 percent of energy in Gansu comes from alternative sources, the highest percentage in China.

It’s also one thing to read about pervasive pollution and another to experience it, Rock says.  “Sometimes you didn’t get to see the sun,” he recalls. “It’s not fog. It’s not clouds. It’s pollution.”

Dostal believes the trip provided insights that students wouldn’t have gotten from classroom instruction alone.  “Conceptually, you could get it all right here,” he says. “But concepts lose their meaning without experience. The direct experience of it makes a huge difference.”

Students agree. “You really need to see things with your eyes,” says math major Brittney Li ’14. “What [China says] they’re doing is not always matching with what you see.” Still, after getting an opportunity to speak with government and other officials, she says, “I feel like they’re doing a lot more than we realize.”

“They’re working hard to deal with this problem,” Dostal says. “Much of their technology is cutting-edge.”

In the end, Jiang says he hopes the course helped students understand that China’s environmental issues are part of a global problem.

Rock adds, “You can’t solve global warming without solving China.”

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