Friday, January 13, 2012


Last week I saw an interesting documentary about the burgeoning environmental movement in China, and to start with, let me say that I never thought the words "environmental movement" and "China" would go together, not in my lifetime, at least.

Gary Marcuse's Waking the Green Tiger film follows the efforts of activists, journalists, filmmakers, and former politicians as they strive to preserve China's natural wonders, educate their neighbours, and encourage public debate, made possible by the passing of a new environmental law. The documentary focuses on a grassroots campaign, led by environmental activists, farmers, and journalists, to stop a huge dam project on the Upper Yangtze river in the mountains of southwest China. What's so bad about dams? While the country needs the power that would be generated by the hydroelectric plants, equally important is the food grown in the rich soil on the river's shores. This prime agricultural land will be lost when the dams back up the water and flood the valley - and thousands of farmers and villagers will be forced to abandon their homes and livelihoods.

The film also explores Chairman Mao's infamous "war against nature" in the late 50s and early 60s. Mao was determined to conquer nature in the name of progress, mobilizing millions of citizens in campaigns that reshaped the Chinese landscape, destroyed ecosystems, and triggered a famine of epic proportions. That's what you get for wiping out sparrows because they eat grain! There was a sick sort of ingenuity to the process of eradicating the birds: citizens would bang pots and pans and beat on drums to force the sparrows to keep flying until they fell from the sky out of exhaustion. Where did they fall? On open patches of soil that had been strewn with poison, which the birds gorged themselves on, in the hopes of regaining their strength. Eventually the birds were driven to near-extinction, and that's when the locust population exploded and wreaked havoc on China's food supply. 30 million people died of starvation.

Back to the documentary. What struck me was how in a relatively short time span, thousands of farmers and villagers, just average members of the public, were educated on the dam projects and its repercussions. By and large, this was due to the efforts of a really small number of people. To be completely honest, the campaign would never have gotten off the ground without the hard work and dedication of one man and his vision. He was a well-respected community member who everyone knew and looked up to. He was intelligent, articulate, friendly, and engaging. He was a natural born leader! Which is great for those living in the Upper Yangtze river valleys, who managed to halt the construction of the dams (at least temporarily) despite having to move forward with the campaign after losing their great leader to a fatal heart attack. It's not so great for the rest of us: those of us living in cities that are too large for any one person to organize a movement that the majority will support; who do we turn to?

These days in the developed world, any one person's lifestyle is so different from the next that we don't necessarily feel a sense of community, of having shared needs, of wanting to join together to protect something we all value equally. Our modern lives are so complex, there are so many problems and causes fighting for our attention and support, and with every passing generation, our neighbours grow more and more to be strangers rather than friends. What kind of leadership is necessary in this context? What type of person does it take to bring together big city residents? How can we push important environmental campaigns while everyone already has so much on their plate?

Something to think about for 2012.

Waking the Green Tiger posters used under Creative Commons from Face to Face Media.


  1. Lately, it seems that even the Chinese government has been waking up to the reality of absurd levels of air pollution (how can they not when they're breathing it?) and environmental degradation by encouraging green(er) consumption. Small steps, and a bit of a late start, but still encouraging.

  2. Will - You gotta start somewhere, right? While there are more cars on the road every day in China, bike culture is still everywhere, so that's something. Still have to do something about those coal-fired power plants and furnaces.

  3. The 'war against nature' thing is such a good example of how hard it is to predict the results of messing with an ecosystem. Humans know enough to meddle, but not enough to know when it's very much better not to.

    Much as I favor individual consciousness, I think you're right -- we do need leadership that can unite the masses under the flag of, oh, not destroying the only habitable planet we know of. But there's such a deep and political divide in place about the environment that I do find myself wondering what that would look like.

  4. Jennifer - You're absolutely right. Mao and his advisors really thought they were on the right track, but they were so far off! That's what you get for ignoring science, or not even allowing for scientific study in the first place. But these days we have science, we promote science, we turn to science for answer, and it's still not enough!

    Either way, check out the trailer, and maybe the film will be screened in your neck of the woods this year.

  5. Wow, sounds like an interesting documentary. It's interesting how science can be manipulated, much as all technical expertise can be manipulated for your own use.

  6. Lynn - Quite true, scientists and experts tend to be trusted without scrutiny (at least by the public) even though they can be swayed one way or another by their funders. I guess it's easy to find corruption everywhere! All the more reason for us to be better educated so that we don't take things at face value and question the information presented to us.