Feb 21, 2017

In 2007, soon after I founded an organization called “Nature University,” I ran a program for those with an interest in conservation — both experts and amateurs alike. I took them walking along Beijing’s waterways every Saturday, and each time, we saw foul water pouring directly into the streams and rivers. “We are environmental activists,” some of our shocked volunteers said. “We shouldn’t just look on and do nothing.”

Nature University is a Beijing-based virtual community school for sharing information about environmental protection. We mainly target volunteers and nongovernmental organizations in our campaigns. Back in 2007, our big idea was to launch a photo event encouraging people to send in pictures of Beijing’s sewage outlets, which we would then forward on to the authorities to create a dialogue with them about water pollution.

Hardly anybody responded to our call for submissions. When the time for action arrived, I was left wondering where all the once-vocal critics had gone. In my opinion, they failed to overcome the deep-seated fear of speaking out — a fear passed down from generation to generation. People were afraid that if they reported severe pollution in the area, their families or friends might become targets for retribution by those responsible, such as factory bosses or owners.

Fear of playing a role in public affairs is rooted in many people’s upbringings. From a young age, Chinese parents constantly warn their children that only grave misfortune will come of stepping into the public domain and challenging the powers that be, citing examples from ancient history in which those who made enemies of such people were executed, their accomplices exiled, and their family and friends mistreated. This mindset leads many environmental activists to gag themselves. Activities like crowdfunding, agenda-sharing, photographing contamination sites, lodging official complaints, and speaking out on social media all suffer under this mentality.

China’s dilemma is this: Very few people are happy about pollution, but even fewer are willing to act decisively against it.

Sometimes, activists treat all stakeholders in a pollution event — from coal mine owners to managers, from local officials to the most menial workers — as enemies to be held in the utmost contempt. As their fear turns to anger, they make themselves more foes than friends, and therefore find more problems than solutions. Everyone involved in the disaster becomes a symbol of the fear they feel, and thus everyone becomes an antagonist in the fight for real change. It is hardly surprising that many of the projects organized by environmental activists are stymied by infighting before they truly get off the ground.

Environmental activists are at war with pollution, but fear of the transgressors keeps us too daunted to act. Ingrained self-denial makes us reluctant to pursue meaningful endeavors and keeps us locked in constant equivocation. Therein lies China’s dilemma: Very few people are happy about pollution, but even fewer are willing to act decisively against it. The only way to publicly escalate the issue is to stay mentally strong and argue based on the facts we have. Blots on China’s environmental landscape cast shadows over a large portion of the population. It is in the public interest to fight pollution, but we are too worried about ramifications for individuals when we should be worried about the collective good.

We must exorcise our collective malaise if we are to save our environment. If you suspect that a factory is acting irresponsibly in limiting pollution, do something about it. Find out about what it produces, the technical details of its product, and the national laws requiring it to protect its surroundings. If you find inconsistencies in any of these areas, report them.
Make your voice heard through social media and crowdfunding. Be encouraged by small but meaningful signs of progress. Day by day, week by week, a concerted public effort can and will reshape the environment around us, provided we can muster a groundswell of support. With these tools, we can overcome fear. The only real thing we should fear is our own apathy and lack of ambition when it comes to social and environmental justice.

A workshop I attended at the prestigious Peking University last December convinced me of this. At the end of the event, a student asked, “What is the greatest challenge facing China’s environmentalist groups today?” I expected the answer to be something rather banal, like a shortage of funding, labor, or knowhow. Instead, the speaker — the secretary general of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, Zhou Jinfeng — gave a much more refreshing response: “Now is the best time for environmental groups to make their mark in China, because no other country in the world has more environmental disasters going unchecked. Environmental groups, activists, and volunteers will have an impact in China so long as they put their words into actions. So why are so many of you sitting around watching?”

Perpetrators of ecological disasters are far more vulnerable than most people think. From the moment when a pollution event occurs, those responsible for it live in fear of the judgment — both official and unofficial — against them. Yet to capitalize on this weakness in those who ravage the land, sea, and air, environmental crusaders must be brave. Even just a few soldiers fighting valiantly on the front lines can turn the tide of battle and inspire the public to put aside its fear of jumping into the fray.

(Header image: An environmental volunteer gazes down at a drainage outlet in Chenzhou, Hunan province, Nov. 24, 2014. Yifei/VCG)