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Pulse of the Planet

Ecological Crisis and Eco-Villages in China


While China’s leadership is faced with the political need to provide the majority of its residents with the fruits of capital development—the goods, services and opportunities that citizens of OECD countries have taken for granted for three to five generations—they must do so at a time when a carbon-fearing world is focusing on how the waste of China’s growth pollutes far beyond its political borders. The United States carries the largest natural debt to the rest of the world for its cumulative carbon emissions since the start of the industrial revolution, but it is the rise of China and its rapid urbanization and increased per capita consumption that has been portrayed by some as the greatest threat pushing humanity toward mutually assured destruction.

Such doomsday scenarios often invoke a Malthusian response to the anticipated effects of global climate change.  The specter of the overly fertile poor pushing the earth toward ecological collapse has now shifted to the hobgoblin of the poor clamoring for the “American Dream.”  If each person in China were to consume the same amount of energy as the average person in America, China would metabolize more than 80 million barrels of oil per day—or the entire world’s current daily supply. 

This way of problematizing ecological crisis does more than highlight contradictions between supply and demand, however. It preserves present hierarchies of privilege and power as the norm.  In this logic the rise of China becomes an idiom not only for the increasing consumption of Chinese residents, but also for the 5 billion people in the developing world. By positioning the desire of eighty percent of the world’s population to consume like Americans as the problem, not the fact that twenty percent of the world’s population consumes at a rate that makes equitable sharing of the Earth’s resources impossible, such reasoning justifies the deprivation of some in the name of maintaining the fat of others.

If equity is to return to the forefront of sustainability debates, the urban-rural divide must no longer be seen as a natural barrier that preserves the harmony of the Earth’s present ecosystem. The ethical and political quandary posed by the juggernaut of energy and consumption is how humanity can move to greater equality of resource distribution, without deprivation—for Americans, Chinese, and the rest of the world alike. What if rural urbanization could be done in such a way to both increase quality of life and economic opportunity for rural Chinese, while also positively affecting the globes’ carbon calculus? Eco-cities in the countryside may prove to be the bridges that cross the socio-economic chasm between rural and urban populations without the hazard of ecological collapse.

Rather than addressing environmental degradation in a piecemeal fashion, identifying a source of pollution and seeking to scrub it or stop it, eco-cities are the embodiment of a way of envisioning the world in which there is no pollution.  In the words that made Bill McDonough famous, it is a place where “waste equals food.” In an eco-city, human habitat is designed with the recognition that the city, as the earth, is a closed system. When a thing ends its life cycle in a place in which it is treated as waste, it is polluting a closed system that will eventually become too full of detritus to support life. In this vision, by not recognizing the false premise of “waste” in a closed system, the economy of the industrial revolution and the cities it bore have replicated this cradle-to-grave mentality at the planetary scale. With metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents now taken as the unit of measurement through which to approximate ecological hazard, eco-cities strive for a carbon-neutral footprint. 

Achieving the promise of carbon-neutrality requires integrated systems planning and construction—systems that are not present in most existing rural Chinese villages. While modifying existing systems of public infrastructure, waste management, and building practices within existing cities can create carbon-neutral buildings and blocks for urban residents, eco-cities in the countryside hold the promise of sustainably increasing quality of life while bridging the last structural (if not legal) divide between the urban and rural populations through the extension of public infrastructure.

Housing and public infrastructure act as the life-giving veins that form the city’s backbone and circulatory system, supplying the basic necessities of life (water and fuel) so that the population is no longer required to be entirely self-sufficient, but is integrated into what the sociologist Emile Durkheim called “organic solidarity” through division of labor. Through the solidarity created through trade of products and exchange of services, the population is freed from the burdens of subsistence.

Still responsible for the provision of their own basic needs—fuel for cooking and heating, and water—during harsh weather and environmental conditions, the days of many rural Chinese households are consumed with struggling to survive. For the two coldest month of winter in eastern mountain villages of Liaoning Province, households must allocate five labor hours per day to build and manage the fires necessary to warm the room up from the frigid -30°C temperatures outside, and another six labor hours preparing chopping and hauling wood fuel in preparation for next year’s winter.

Since Reform and Opening, rural residents have witnessed the income of their urban comrades outpace their own by 3:1. When urban in-kind subsidies are included the income gap jumps to 6:1, making this the largest such income disparity in the world.  Yet the inclusion of in-kind urban subsidies such as housing allowances and healthcare, still does not fully price in the economic opportunity cost of being born in rural China.  Those eleven household labor hours a day in the dead of winter necessary not to freeze to death are eleven labor hours that cannot be spent earning income that can be spent on education and healthcare and education for one’s family.

The integrated waste and energy systems of eco-cities have the promise of relieving rural households of these subsistence burdens while decreasing overall carbon emissions. Rather than burning carbon-based fuels for energy procured individually by each household, biogas systems can take human, animal, or agricultural wastes from the household and return converted gas for heating and cooking.

Such plans, in addition to a grey water infrastructure and solar-powered electricity, were at the core of the master plan to rebuild Huangbaiyu village as an example of the solutions that an eco-city could bring to rural China. Rather than cutting down the mountain woods, agricultural waste would fuel a biogas plant sustaining the community with energy; electricity would come from the sun; running water would enter houses for the first time; and houses would be built only with materials that could be safely returned to earth or recycled. Architect and designer William McDonough took on the challenge of designing a sustainable housing development in this rural valley, turning to the perspective of a bird to guide him to decide the overall design of the habitat, and following the drainage of the watershed to indicate where the new, consolidated sustainable development should be constructed in the valley.

Leading the way in establishing best practices in the field of sustainable design, McDonough inadvertently designed an ecologically sound plan—from the perspectives of both birds and the green movement—that would devastate the local economy and bankrupt the households whose lives were to be improved. From the perspective of lessening both the burden of the Earth in processing carbon and the burden of rural residents to simply remain alive, shifting the local fuel source from wood to agricultural waste seemed a brilliant solution. The mistake was having government leaders and designers assume what was waste in an agricultural economy in which they did not participate.

The corn stalks and cobs that were (mis)taken for waste by the development team are the critical winter food supply for one of the leading cash crops in the area: cashmere goats. Already being recycled, so to speak, in a circular economy, to the 30% of the local population whose household income depends upon selling cashmere fiber each spring, the corn stalk “waste” already equals food, and without it their herds would have no fuel, and the family no income. The soil near a stream within the watershed that was deemed inefficient for cash crops was incorporated into the housing plan, and in the middle of the new eco-city development a lake was created as a community gathering point and scenic spot. While these lands are poor agriculturally, they are rich for aquaculture, for which they are presently used. With no consideration for fish as a cash crop within the ecosystem, these pools had no place in the master plan, and the 10% of households who depend on this income would fall victim to a so-called improved quality of life.

At the heart of the promise of eco-cities in the countryside is the provision of public infrastructure to liberate families from the burden of survival, and freeing up their time for more productive pursuits. While the biogas plant taking agricultural waste devastates the families that require that fuel as feed, it takes precious cash from the limited purses of each household in the valley. Along with the benefits of centrally-provided public service come regular cash payments. In the case of the Huangbaiyu biogas plant, between 15-20% of the median households annual income would now have to be paid to the utility. This cost directly competes against a families’ choice of paying for a spouse’s healthcare, a child’s education or saving for an adult son’s wedding.

While a biogas plant may free up hundreds of labor hours per year per household, there is no employment to be had in this valley in the dead of winter. Chopping down wood and burning fuel is the most economical use of one’s time, as it saves the family the expense of paying for services with cash that is dear. With family mountain forest lands sustainably managed over 8-10 year cycles for household use, in Huangbaiyu the implementation of a biogas plant would impoverish the the local community while at the same time still meeting the goals of global sustainability: lowered carbon emissions.

There’s the rub of sustainable development: who does it sustain? Designing from the perspective of a bird, the soil, the water, the current best practices of sustainability erase the people from Huangbaiyu from the ecosystem, leaving only nature—and gaze of the designers. Seeing the promise of eco-cities from the perspective of those living the “American Dream,” the mission of the development became ensuring that any increased energy use in the countryside would not contribute to collapsing the foundations of their own livelihoods. The livelihoods of the impoverished had become invisible.

This does not have to be the case. Huangbaiyu could have lived up to the promise of eco-cities in the countryside—bridging the urban-rural divide while not contributing to ecological hazard. But for that to have been possible, sustainability would have had to begun from the premise that the lives and livelihoods of these rural residents were worth more than just their equivalence in carbon.

As fears of a “planet in peril” lead environmentalists and politicians to understand carbon no longer only as an organic compound, but now as a commodity that must be controlled, with its value rising in direct proportion to our anxieties about a risky and unknown future climate, subsistence economies may be thrown into turmoil.  We must recognize that there is no environmental policy that is not at the same time an economic policy. Any environmental policy that does not admit this, imperils populations even as it seeks to secure the earth. If subsistence use of natural resources is to be altered, than other means for families to not only subsist, but to thrive must be designed at the same time. Otherwise, programs to save the planet from the peril of industrialization will do so on the broken backs of the world’s rural poor.

SHANNON MAY is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. She has conducted fieldwork throughout China and in Sub-Saharan Africa. Her work engages anthropological problems of governance, development, citizenship and community as constituted in everyday practice. She is currently writing her dissertation on the convergence of ecological and market rationalities in a project to modernize rural China, titled Green Dreams and Schemes: Knowledge, the Market, and Development in, of, and for a Chinese Village. This project focuses on the case study of Huangbaiyu, a much lauded sustainable development “eco-city” project led by William McDonough and the China-US Center for Sustainable Development.

This essay orginally appeared in Far Eastern Economic Review.