Concluding Reflections: Environmental Conservation, Health, & Social Work

I love reading literature and although its not my favorite genre, I had read my fair share of futuristic dystopias.  Brave New World, 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale.  In these stories, some things are the same, while other are completely different and many things are familiar but somehow off.  None of these stories have been as jarring and informative, however, as my month and half in China.  The closest analogy I can muster is a resemblance to Marty McFly’s experiences in Back to the Future, Part II: an action creates an alternate, parallel future for Marty and his family where he must alter the present to correct the future course of events.

In many ways traveling to China was like traveling to the future.  Technology is developing more rapidly, buildings are constructed faster, cities are larger, and the environmental crises are more significant.  After lagging behind the west for most of the 20th century, China has surpassed the US, Britain, and other western nations in terms of development and production.  Even Chengdu, a “moderately-sized” industrial center in a relatively rural province, has 14 million residents.  This degree of growth is unprecedented but it comes with figurative stretch marks associated with lightning fast expansion.  This growth (as is true with any country) incorporates population expansion, high consumption, development, and environmental degradation.  It is these consequences that may drive the planet into global crisis because humanity has never experienced this scale of growth.  But after my time in China, I could not imagine any other country of individuals to have the drive and determination to solve these crises.  Certainly America is falling short.  To paraphrase Jonathan Watts in When A Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind—Or Destroy It, Britain has taught us how to produce, the United States has taught us how to consume, and China must teach us how to conserve if it is to take a leadership role on the global stage.

The aforementioned “stretch marks” of growth incorporate and challenge ethics, morality, opportunities, and justice.  I encountered one example while staying in a rural village where we held our first conservation education summer camp, Ha Qu (see post Conservation Education in Rural Sichuan).  Ha Qu is a relatively small village that recently received 4 million yuan in western development funds to modernize.   Two-dozen houses were rebuilt with new balconies and multiple indoor bathrooms and the town received a restaurant, plaza, general store, and community center.  These new facilities were in sharp contrast to other sections of the village and nearby properties and I found myself questioning whether this was “good” or “right.”  Understand that I don’t think new houses are wrong; I would not have wanted to live in the old houses with dirt floors or outhouses.  But the development funds were to fuel the tourism industry in the region—which includes opportunities for tourists to don regional clothing for photo opportunities and increases in waste, litter, water usage, cars driving in the region, and consumption of local resources (which includes endangered species and their habitats).  The tourists also bring income, resources, and technology to a poor region.  This poses whether development for the sake of further development is beneficial or productive—and exposes the underlying values of urbanization and modern conveniences.  There are clearly good and bad consequences and I’m not sure if I have a right to an opinion on this—let alone what it might be.

A view of the concrete bridge where the trash collector unloaded his wagon

After Ha Qu we visited another village remotely located about 4 hours to the south.  On a walk during our first evening we stopped atop a ridge and studied the valley below.  The Mabian River flowed forcefully through the river valley while corn and bean fields rose up from cliff-side farmland.  A concrete walkway across the river was submerged underneath the flooded river and led to several houses; residents were fording the river in order to go between the houses and the road.  We saw one resident with a full trash collector’s wagon and bamboo tongs—occupational markers of a common service job in China.  We all paused for a second each thinking “Is what’s going to happen what I think will happen…” and watched as the man dumped an entire cartload of plastics, wrappers, bottles, papers, and other refuse into the river.  We watched in shock as the river rapidly carried the items downstream, to other villages and environments.  Our host quickly explained, after viewing our reactions, that there was simply nowhere else to dispose of the trash.

As a communist country, the People’s Republic of China must provide jobs for all who ask for an income source, even to those with limited skills.  As a result, jobs like “highway sweeper” and “trash collector” exist even in rural areas.  While it is environmentally responsible to pick up trash, the country lacks certain civil and social services such as trash collection to dispose of trash once it is collected—especially in rural areas.  (I’ve also had to explain certain concepts like a minimum wage and public housing to Chinese students.)  While there is a need for jobs and a need for trash removal, only these first steps in this sequence have been planned out and the follow through on proper disposal is lacking.  It is interesting to note that another common solution of trash disposal is through burning in large trash kilns, including the burning of plastics and metals.  These kilns are located nearby homes and have no chimneys or filters and consequently people breathe the smoke and smell the odor.  While disposing of trash in rivers jeopardizes people, animals, and nature downstream one can understand why this is the favored option to smells and air particles ridden with burning toxins.  Other occupations I saw around Chengdu included “fence washer” and “leaf collector.”  While these positions were created to beautify and clean space, they are dangerous because they deprive the natural environment of resources which are already limited.  Sweeping up loose soil, literally shaking trees to loosen deaden leaves, and disposing of this “trash” in lined landfills removes natural sources of compost and nutrition for an environment already stressed by cement, development, human overpopulation, deforestation, smog, and air pollution.

These episodes also expose what has been termed as “Mao’s war on nature.”  Mao espoused a form of Confucianism that viewed nature as containing a rich wealth of plant, animal, mineral, and natural resources—that should be tamed, controlled, and consumed.  Additional evidence of this governmental philosophy can be seen in the hundreds of dams China has constructed, most notable of which is the Three Gorges Dam in Sichuan province.  It’s important to note that the United States and other Western nations have held/hold similar beliefs, we’ve merely been destroying nature for longer at a slower pace.  As Watts commented, western nations have already been engaging in significant production and consumption for years.  While China’s growth and technological leaps have outpaced ours, so have certain conservation measures.  One such measure of population control is the infamous One Child Policy.  This states that members of the Han Chinese majority may only have one child if they reside in an urban area.  Rural Han may have two children and ethnic minorities do not have a limit placed on family size.  In order to accomplish this, contraceptives are made readily available and affordable.  So are heavy taxes and forced abortions, as discussed in a recent CNN article.  I can’t imagine any comparable policy on population control ever being successfully introduced here in the United States.  In a surprising way, the One Child Policy demonstrates China’s willingness to take a drastic approach to mediating growth and attempting to achieve a sustainable population level (albeit in a drastic fashion which I do not condone).

The confluence of two rivers that ran through a rural village, both of which lacked a natural color

The most rewarding aspect of this internship was the opportunity to explore my own unsustainable lifestyle.  In an effort to reach a better level of sustainability, I’ve developed some goals for myself.  In hopes that I’ll become more accountable if they’re public—or that I’ll inspire someone—I’ve included them here.

–       Drive significantly less: only one day during the week (with room for special exceptions)

–       Either walk to the grocery store or only drive when it is part of another trip, so I will not drive only to purchase groceries

–       Find a way to throw out my trash daily (without using a plastic bag each time) so that I can see how much I consume and throw away everyday

–       Don’t purchase new Tupperware but use old plastic and glass containers

–       Try to find a better solution to paper tissues.  *I decided this after I had a cold in China and saw how many tissues I was disposing of daily.

–       Attempt to live fully vegetarian with limited dairy and egg intake.  If I find my body craving meat or dairy I will only eat organic animal products.  *This decision came after being fed many parts of animals that one does not commonly consume in the US.  I deeply respect Chinese culture for valuing all parts of the animal and not allowing portions to go to waste.  I found it hypocritical that I was only interested in eating certain parts of animals.  Since I am not willing to eat animal feet, skin, and organs I do not think I should eat muscles.

–       Really think hard before I make a purchase to see if it is a need or a want.  This is especially true for clothes and conveniences.

–       Compost and garden again (possible after I move in September)

–       Make better use of whole plants.  I have a bad habit of wasting beet greens, citrus peels, etc.

–       Make purchases with a little packaging and bagging as possible.  If given options, always choose the product in a recyclable container

–       Keep a consumption diary for the month of August, including food, non-food, trash, etc.

–       Share what I’ve learned

In conclusion, my summer Social Work experience has been extremely meaningful and thought provoking.  While I’d been interested in the connection between the natural environment and human wellbeing, I’ve been able to see the direct connections of environmental degradation like acid rain, deforestation, and the loss of biodiversity to human health conditions such as urban poverty, chemical pesticides in food, cancer and asthma, and illness and disease.  I am interested in exploring these connections more, especially more locally in my new home city of Denver.


Watts, J. (2010). When A Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind—Or Destroy It. New York, NY: Scribner.

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