Bryan Tilt: China's Path to Sustainable Development

April 22 was Earth Day, and in honor of the occasion, we will be running a series of posts over the course of this week by authors of our environmental studies titles. These articles will cover a wide range of topics relevant to the study of the earth and the environment, from global climate change to the effects of economic development on the environment in China.

The Struggle for Sustainability in Rural China

Bryan Tilt is an anthropology professor at Oregon State University and the author of The Struggle for Sustainability in Rural China: Environmental Values and Civil Society. Currently a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar in Beijing, Tilt is working on a book about water resources in contemporary China.

China’s Path to Sustainable Development
Bryan Tilt

“Sustainability” is both an interesting analytical concept and a current buzzword whose precise meaning is difficult to pin down. Without getting too bogged down in the particulars of defining sustainability, it seems clear that the concept hinges on balancing economic and social growth with the limits of the biophysical environment. Nowhere is the need for sustainable thinking and action more acute than in contemporary China, where a population of more than 1.3 billion grapples with rapid industrial growth, urbanization, species extirpation, serious pollution, and a growing middle class of energy-hungry consumers.

There are many reasons why a sensible person might be skeptical about China’s intention and ability to pursue environmentally sustainable growth. My book, The Struggle for Sustainability in Rural China, describes many of the problems that are endemic in China’s current system: a policy structure that emphasizes economic growth over environmental protection; lax enforcement of environmental law and policy; poor environmental mitigation technologies, and many others.

However, there are also reasons for optimism, and, in the spirit of Earth Day, I would like to focus my blog comments on these. In particular, I’d like to focus on three areas of the sustainability movement currently underway in China: new technologies, new policies and social programs, and rapidly changing societal values.


Technological innovation can be both an asset and a liability when it comes to sustainable development. China’s insatiable appetite for energy has created a high demand for alternative energy sources, including hydropower. The World Commission on Dams points out that, of the 50,000 large dams that exist in the world today, nearly half are China, with more being constructed every year. China’s central government has called for massive investment in alternative energy sources, including hydropower, in its most recent Five-Year Plan for Economic Development. Of course, hydropower dams hardly represent an unmitigated good; they help to meet the escalating energy demand, but they also result in displaced communities, fragmented river habitats, and, in some cases, geopolitical instability. The question facing scientists and policy makers right now is how to approach alternative energy development with more transparency, public participation, and environmental responsibility. The Three Gorges Project is the largest and highest-profile example of controversy over the costs and benefits of hydropower, but there are many others, particularly in the southwest region on rivers such as the Upper Mekong, the Salween, and the Irrawaddy.


From a policy standpoint, there are certain cases in which the power of a strong central state can be wielded for beneficial purposes. In China, the sustainability movement may constitute just such a case. While the U.S. remains mired in political bantering about what role the government should play in promoting “green” technologies and jobs, China is moving forward with major initiatives to develop energy from solar, wind and other renewable sources. One brief example comes to mind. At a sustainability fair in Oregon, where I teach, a group of engineers from a small start-up company showed off their “new” invention: a passive solar water heater, which warms water in a series of vertical tubes without the need for a photovoltaic panel, stores the water in a container, and releases it on demand for hot showers, etc. The irony is that this “invention” has been in use on tens of millions of homes and businesses in urban and rural China for the last decade. Their ubiquity is evidence of sound policy promotion: the National Development and Reform Commission has sponsored a campaign to promote such devices, and the central government has provided subsidies for poorer regions and communities.


We know surprisingly little about the shifting societal values that underpin the sustainability movement in China today. My own research, based primarily on case studies in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, suggests that people care a great deal about the natural environment, particularly where it intersects with their health and livelihoods. Key contributions on these topics, which are sometimes fraught with political sensitivity, are now being made by Chinese scholars. For example, last year I participated in a conference in Beijing called the Forum on Health, Environment and Development (FORHEAD), jointly sponsored by the U.S. Social Science Research Council and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Participants came from academic institutions across the country, government agencies, and the NGO sector, and presented on a huge array of topics from e-waste recycling, to “cancer villages,” to environmental activism. It was particularly encouraging to see the many scholars from Chinese state-sponsored institutions conducting research and speaking openly about social and environmental problems that would have been taboo only a few years ago.

In a similar vein, Chinese citizens now have more information about environmental hazards than ever before. In some cases, such information disclosure has not been entirely voluntary. For example, for the past several years the U.S. Embassy has been releasing its own data on Beijing’s notoriously bad air pollution, which officials have collected from monitoring equipment within the embassy compound. These figures have often been at odds with those released by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, and the controversy has received considerable coverage in the press. This has prompted a great deal of public discussion about air pollution, as well as regular updates on levels of particulate matter in daily weather reports. (Not that most Beijing residents need detailed data to tell them when the air quality is bad. Hint: when buildings just a few hundred meters away are obscured in haze; when any amount of physical exertion causes wheezing; or when the contents of your handkerchief come out black, the air quality is bad.)

Given the scale of China’s environmental problems, it’s easy to be pessimistic, even cynical. But, amid these serious challenges, there are reasons for optimism. Many energetic people—scientists, policy makers, NGO representatives, journalists, and activists—are making important contributions to sustainable development in China.

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