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«1 Discovering nature The notes from my first period of fieldwork in Taiwan, in the late 1970s, reveal no sign of nature beyond the immediate ...»

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Cambridge University Press

0521548411 - Discovering Nature: Globalization and Environmental Culture in China and


Robert P. Weller


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1 Discovering nature

The notes from my first period of fieldwork in Taiwan, in the late 1970s,

reveal no sign of nature beyond the immediate demands of farming.

Almost two years in a village just outside the small town of Sanxia produced no reference to complaints about pollution, for example, even

though two decades of rapid economic growth had caused serious environmental deterioration.1 One study found that thirteen of sixteen major Taiwanese rivers and streams (including Sanxia’s largest river) were seriously polluted in their lower reaches; the others were moderately polluted.

Only 1 percent of sewage water received even primary waste treatment.2 With the exception of a large noise meter that appeared in the busiest part of Taipei during that time, there was also little visible environmental activity from the government. Nor did anyone seem very interested in the appreciation of nature for its own sake. One friend raised orchids, and his adult children sometimes accompanied me on walks in the hills. We rarely saw anyone else on those walks though, with the exception of a very few of the more exciting mountain paths that attracted Sunday groups of college students from Taipei, a bumpy hour and a half away by bus or motorcycle.

In part, the absence of nature in my notes reflects my own interests, which were in religion at the time. Yet it also reflects local priorities and conceptions. Most people in Sanxia were either farmers or farmers’ children who had newly entered Taiwan’s rapidly developing industrial economy. They were just too close to their daily toil with the environment to feel much affection or nostalgia for it. Those years of the late 1970s had not been easy for farming. Families typically no longer had enough labor to harvest their crops, and soldiers had to come help out. This period also marked the beginning of the end for the tangerine farmers who occupied some of the higher hills in Sanxia. A terrible glut of tangerines in 1978 drove the price down beyond what most farmers could bear. Like everyone else in town, I ate dirt-cheap tangerines until I could not stand to look at another one. Country roads stank with piles of rotting fruit that farmers had just abandoned. The industry never recovered. As a sign of the © Cambridge University Press www.cambridge.org Cambridge University Press 0521548411 - Discovering Nature: Globalization and Environmental Culture in China and Taiwan Robert P. Weller Excerpt More information

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gradual decline of this old rural way of life, the last of the working water buffaloes disappeared from the local area at roughly this same period.

I would never have attended to the absence of nature in my data if I had not returned to find a complete contrast in Taiwan a decade later. Taiwan had discovered “nature” sometime in the mid-1980s. I could hardly pick up a newspaper without seeing reports of environmental demonstrations, although I had never heard about one in the 1970s. Some cities had enormous, ongoing movements against factory construction. In the most famous case, the multinational giant Dupont had been forced to cancel plans for a titanium dioxide plant in Lugang in 1986.3 Smaller skirmishes popped up all over the island, and fights over landfills were so numerous that the newspapers dubbed them the “garbage wars.” These even affected Sanxia, as I discovered when I visited only to find the streets smelling awful again – this time because a blockade of the town dump meant that trash had gone uncollected for weeks in Taiwan’s tropical summer heat.4 The government also gingerly began to face its environmental problems at this time. Several important environmental laws were passed in 1987, and the government created a separate Environmental Protection Administration that year.

Just as astonishing to me, the island suddenly boasted four national parks, having had none before. They were impressive, too, rivaling anything in the United States. They had excellent roads and facilities, and state-of-the-art exhibits and interpretations. These parks had a broad appeal as well; all four were among the top ten domestic tourism destinations in 1988 and 1990, and they accounted for three of the top five.5 As further evidence of this strong new domestic market for nature tourism, hundreds of private sites had opened up, and were booming. In some cases, rural farmers had bought their old water buffaloes back to feed a new market in farm tourism. Even some of the old tangerine farms got new life from pick-your-own arrangements. Others let the hills grow wild, built a pagoda near a waterfall, and charged admission. Still other mountain backwaters received heavy investment to develop into full-scale resorts.

Magazine racks in bookstores confirmed this new consciousness of nature with a wealth of new offerings. The most spectacular was probably Nature (Da Ziran), with its large format and gorgeous color photography, but there were many others focusing on gardening, fishing, environmental protection, exotic travel destinations, and much more.6 Just a decade after my initial experience there, many Taiwanese had apparently rethought their ideas about their relationships to the environment.

Notions of nature itself were transformed.

© Cambridge University Press www.cambridge.org Cambridge University Press 0521548411 - Discovering Nature: Globalization and Environmental Culture in China and Taiwan Robert P. Weller Excerpt More information

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Related changes are happening in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) right now, although not entirely in the same way. Local environmental protest has become common when people feel that some nearby factory has directly damaged their health or economy, although it is politically impossible for them to organize on the scale of Taiwan’s demonstrations. The environmental protection bureaucracy also receives massive numbers of letters of complaint, and acts on at least some of them.7 This is a remarkable change in a country that had dedicated itself to utter environmental transformation in the cause of socialist revolution, denying any possible negative consequences.8 Vaclav Smil has documented the results of this in depressing detail, from unsustainable agriculture to undrinkable water.9 An airplane ride over even sparsely settled rural areas of north China on a cloudless day provides enough casual proof in the coating of smog that obscures the ground everywhere.

As in Taiwan a decade earlier, environmental protection has been upgraded within the national bureaucracy, with the State Environmental Protection Administration receiving ministerial status in 1998. Many new environmental laws have been passed, and there have been extensive propaganda campaigns about the environment. Actually implementing these laws is a more serious problem (as I will discuss in chapter 6), but the effort has had a dramatic effect in a few cases. Major cities, for example, have stopped selling leaded gasoline. They have also successfully converted large numbers of urban residents to using gas instead of coal for heating and cooking.

The domestic market for nature tourism remains smaller in the People’s Republic than in Taiwan. Nevertheless there is strong evidence for the beginnings of new attitudes, especially among urban people. City residents typically rank the environment high on their list of important problems, and show some significant knowledge of issues like global warming or the ozone layer.10 Many imperial-era scenic sites remain popular and some areas are now developing new tourist sites as an economic strategy.

These changes have been more government-led in the PRC than in Taiwan, where popular protest was a stronger driving force. Still, they do translate into behaviors that go beyond any government campaigns.

Tianjin and some other very large cities, for example, had a fad for “oxygen bars” (yangqi ba) in the mid-1990s. These were small businesses where people could pay to breathe pure oxygen from tanks for a few minutes. The primary clients were mothers bringing their children in for relief from the pollution. A shift in both government and popular (or at least urban) attitudes is under way, comparable in part to what happened in Taiwan a decade earlier.

© Cambridge University Press www.cambridge.org Cambridge University Press 0521548411 - Discovering Nature: Globalization and Environmental Culture in China and Taiwan Robert P. Weller Excerpt More information

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This book explores the causes and consequences of these changes in the ways people understand the environment and in the concept of nature itself. Both “nature” and “environment” entered the Chinese vocabulary in their modern forms only early in the twentieth century, but both terms also resonated broadly with earlier ways of thinking about how humanity relates to the physical world around it. My focus is the interplay between the older and newer concepts, and in what the results mean for actual environmental behavior.

In particular, I will concentrate on two broad and intertwined mechanisms. The first is the influence of globalization, both directly through influential carriers of new ideas about the environment, and indirectly through reactions to the vastly increased industrialization and commercialization that occurred over the twentieth century. The second is the influence of different forms of state power, which the contrasting political histories of Taiwan and China allow us to explore in some detail.

The globalization of nature Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China are not, of course, the first places to show these signs of a new consciousness of nature. In modern times, nature tourism initially took off in western Europe and North America over the course of the nineteenth century, beginning as the Alps became a defining Romantic experience of elite Grand Tours, and ending with John Muir’s quasi-religious paeans to wilderness that ultimately helped to create the first national parks. This was a stunning change from an older view of wilderness as chaos to be made bountiful through human intervention. Colonial North America, for example, had lived much closer to God’s words to Noah after the flood: “The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.”11 This was the general view of nature, common throughout Western civilization at the time, that Keith Thomas characterized as “breathtakingly anthropocentric.”12 Environmental policy changes in the West began most strongly early in the twentieth century, especially with the sanitation and conservation movements. This was already several decades later than the first popularization of new forms of nature tourism. Environmental protest and a broader environmental politics became regularized even later, especially in the decades after important crises like the Love Canal protests or the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. By the end of the twentieth century © Cambridge University Press www.cambridge.org Cambridge University Press 0521548411 - Discovering Nature: Globalization and Environmental Culture in China and Taiwan Robert P. Weller Excerpt More information

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environmental politics loomed as large in eastern Europe as in western Europe or North America, and was one of the important factors in the political transformations of 1989. At this point environmental politics is important around the world, and nature tourism (at least for an international market) is equally widespread.

The rapid changes in Taiwan and the People’s Republic thus appear to be facets of changes that have swept the entire world. We can understand some aspects of the global spread of environmental concern as responses to the prior spread of modernity, and to the exploitative environmental thinking that went with early industrialization. Some of the new concern grew directly out of reactions against the environmental degradation that has accompanied industrialization. More broadly, though, new ways of thinking about nature – both environmentalist and exploitative – simultaneously responded to and resulted from the general cultural and moral experiences of modernity, including the drive to ever more efficient and rationalized production, increased bureaucracy, and the transformation of many social relationships to market ones.

I will expand on the significance of those processes in chapter 3, but for now let me simply note that many explanations for the rise of environmental consciousness in North America and western Europe are versions of this approach. They focus on how some of the core experiences of modernity encouraged new ways of thinking about nature that became increasingly important beginning in the nineteenth century. This was the period when the proportion of the population in agriculture began its historic decline, as the industrial revolution and its related infrastructure attracted people to the cities.

Nature began to take on a new meaning for these urban people in several rather different ways. Some embraced the power and progress that modernity promised. Both socialist and capitalist states reveled in their new control over nature, trumpeting every new and more technologically sophisticated dam, canal, and railroad line as another victory for humanity. Genres ranging from oil painting to children’s books celebrated the power of steam shovels, locomotives, and airplanes. While this attitude faded to an extent toward the end of the twentieth century, we continue to see it clearly in projects like China’s colossal Three Gorges dam.

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