Gallery: Earth Day, China, and the Trouble with Leading by Example


I have mixed feelings about Earth Day as a holiday. The various gestures and campaigns it incites often seem hastily cast towards a brief window of opportunity during which people care about the environment. Fortunately, it’s more obvious with every passing year that the window doesn’t close on April 23. In fact, since last Earth Day, we’ve become obsessed as a culture with quantifying and comparing our year-round ecological impacts, as well as those of our cities and countries, and the companies to whom we’re loyal. We salute the pursuit of a tiny footprint.

But now we face the paralyzing conundrum of how to do it. Many people argue that in the looming shadow of gargantuan crises, small individual actions are inconsequential. One year ago I co-authored a piece with Alex Steffen in which we called for the end of Earth Day and a widespread priority shift from trying to create change at the level of consumer-oriented minutiae, to rethinking systems, governments, and corporations. I still believe that massive change won’t be possible without a wholesale reconfiguration of policy and industrial production. But I don’t discount the importance of pursuing sustainability in your own life. In fact, if the gravity of the situation has really hit home, it’s hard to imagine not wanting to make lifestyle changes.

When we talk about the greening of business, we often cite the fundamental need for a company to clean up its own house and establish transparency before it can truly run a sustainable operation. The same holds true for individuals—if you advocate for sustainability in the world but leave your convictions on the doorstep when you come home, you undermine your own moral authority, whether or not the modest kilowatt sips of your CFL counteract your neighbor’s guzzling incandescent.

Michael Pollan addresses this issue in the most recent Sunday New York Times Magazine. “For us to wait for legislation or technology to solve the problem of how we’re living our lives suggests we’re not really serious about changing — something our politicians cannot fail to notice,” he attests. He goes on to suggest that the climate crisis is deeply tied to a crisis of character, citing Wendell Berry’s belief that once we’ve truly seen the connection between our behavior and the planet’s problems, we’d simply be deceiving ourselves to go on living as we have been.

Pollan argues that to make lifestyle changes is to lead by example — an old-fashioned prescription that has the potential to stimulate “viral social change.” I can get behind this idea. I believe in the power of grassroots change and I know from experience that some of these lifestyle changes — once you’ve tried them — turn out to be an improvement on the old ways.

What I can’t get behind is the presence in Pollan’s article — and throughout media — of an unspoken assumption that for every positive environmental action there is an equal and opposite Chinese reaction. “I could theoretically…turn my life upside-down,” Pollan says, “but what would be the point when I know full well that halfway around the world there lives my evil twin, some carbon-footprint doppelgänger in Shanghai or Chongqing who has just bought his first car, is eager to swallow every bite of meat I forswear and who’s positively itching to replace every last pound of CO2 I’m struggling no longer to emit. So what exactly would I have to show for all my trouble?”

There’s no doubt that China is on a wildly destructive trajectory in terms of the pace and approach of their development, and that the sustainability initiatives they have put forth thus far wilt in the heat of the country’s growth. But there’s a tremendous undercurrent of intolerance around China’s impact on the global environment. While Pollan may simply be stating what many Western environmentalists think, to do so in the context of his article contradicts the basic argument that even in the face of futility, choosing to lead by example can incite an unlikely sea change.

So this Earth Day, as the Beijing Olympics approach and anti-China sentiment builds, perhaps we can ask ourselves how to merge the merits of individual action with the necessity of whole systems thinking. Pitting the US against China on an environmental score arms political administrations with ammunition to prevent the very progress we hope for, and sets up the next generation for a new kind of sanctioned prejudice. China and the US may have different problems and different needs, but we are entwined everywhere from the economy to the atmosphere. There is no such thing as sustainability that is not global.


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  1. herve leger contrast ba... May 15, 2011 at 5:44 pm

    Your personal commitment to passing the message around had been rather powerful and has truly empowered somebody just like me to attain their ambitions.

  2. tom April 25, 2008 at 10:50 pm

    Maybe America should sign the Kyoto Protocol before talking crap about china. Per person, the chinese can’t even close to overweight American.

  3. Elizabeth Madrigal April 23, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    This is a very thoughtful article and a compelling argument for personal responsibility and global solutions. Living in a rural area it has been inconvenient to recycle, and we did only the easy things. A month ago my husband and I cast aside our lazy ways and took the plunge. Not only are we recycling all our household trash, but we really committed to drive, buy, use, and consume less. Honestly? It feels great to be part of the solution and at least contributing less to the problem. It fascinates me how we all want to blame ‘somebody else’ and expect them to make the hard sacrifices so we don’t have to do so. Americans can demonize other countries all we want, but we certainly have no moral authority on this issue.

  4. greeentech April 23, 2008 at 10:49 am

    Some of you guys have it just right, but once again media has failed us. China is not the problem, Wal-mart and Microsoft and GM and Monsanto and Rupurt Murdock are the problem: we are the problem. We let U.S. companies grow so powerful in voice through our politics that the industries have more of a say they we the people do. Like most large ships, it takes a while to for the behemouths to turn. We will never be green with the power structure the way it is. We let the “American way” get corrupted, but never stopped pushing the “American way of life” onto the rest of the world. Countries that formally had no major enviormental pollution, nuclear arms, obesity or clear cutting of forest or fields of poppies as their primary cash crop, rampid political corruption, and santioned torture. . . are all over the place now. Looks like we succeeded. We need to wake up, change captains, and stop being a lazy and greedy society. If we want to know what other countries are doing and why, we just need to look in the mirror. The good sense and tech systems needed to solve todays problems have been around for years and they don’t require an earth day. The sence of urgency is nowhere in the news. Facts on how bad the problem is are posotioned on page 2 or shown as a one sided footnote before the commercial for a new SUV. Everyday is earthday!

  5. Scott April 23, 2008 at 6:55 am

    @ zyde
    well said.

  6. zyde April 22, 2008 at 9:33 pm

    the thing about China is that they are behind. It was a somewhat an undeveloped country, and their goal was to create a country as close to the USA they see on TV as possible. I personally think that if any undeveloped country wants to be development at this moment, their effect on Earth will be the same as China now. We shouldn’t just criticise them, instead, we should let them know the alternate way, and set a example, because China will be watching us on TV, and know what we do.

  7. rosscap April 22, 2008 at 9:27 pm

    This view of China as the West\’s \”evil twin\” is a direct example of the fact the we in the West are not seriously ready to face up to reality. It is our consumption-heavy, externally driven character that laid the tracks for the course that China is now on. Until we actually accept this as a community, stop pointing the finger elsewhere, we are as much (or more) of the global problem than China is.

  8. AJ April 22, 2008 at 5:28 pm

    Pollan’s argument reminded me of a TV ad by the World Wildlife Fund (I think) from a long time ago- in which a person is shown leaving his tap running while brushing teeth (which strikes you at first as inconsequential). The camera then zooms out to show two people doing the same. Then Ten. And so on. The ad really struck me as how positive (or negative) a minor action could be, when it gets scaled through a group behavior. That said, we as individuals are entrenched within a larger system that is inherently resistant to change. Take the example of a recent post on Inhabitat about a LEED certified parking structure, which elicited a (understandably) lively discussion. The bottom line? LEED works to make the system better, but doesnt do much to push the boundaries of what is really possible- or eliciting radical changes.

    While Pollan is right in citing China, the fact is that there are many evil twins right here in the US itself. There is an emerging ‘green’ movement all right, but it will be a while before it truly becomes ‘mainstream’. The issue of China (and also India) is a vexing one- as sovereign countries they have all the right to argue for development and modern facilities- and it is the same path as the US and other Western countries followed. While the SUV, and not the Prius is the dominant mode of personal transport here, it is difficult to preach to others about going green.

    One factor is that the Chinese growth is largely being driven by Western demands- and this is where the US consumers can coax a change in their practices. But while the dollar value of the product remains the bottom line, the consequences are largely hidden and transferred in invisible ways, in the form of environmental changes. The US consumer shopping at WalMart may be happy (I confess to being one of them at times) for the low prices, the repurcussions are right now being felt by the factory workers in China, and people who live around those areas. Thousands of those factories are being built, and will become the key drivers of environmental change, whose ramifications will only be known in the coming decades. Which brings me back to the WWF ad. The point here is that bottom up change is truly possible, as Pollan shows, but it might be too little, and too slow. A thousand LEED certfied parking structures may not be helpful if we are almost crossing the tipping point.

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