The plane arrived in one of the world’s most polluted cities, Zhengzhou, in western China. My husband, John Grim, and I were here for the Songshan Forum focused broadly on “Ecological Civilization
” held in mid-September in Dengfeng. This is in Henan, a province of some 94 million people. If Henan were a nation-state it would be the world’s 12th-largest economy. China’s rapid modernization in a few short decades — on a scale unfathomable to most Americans — has resulted in staggering environmental problems, which are evident here.
Henan is in the midst of a severe drought, as are many parts of China. We saw the burnt-out crops of corn and wheat. The local river, now channeled into concrete basins, has dried up from a lack of runoff from the surrounding mountains. We feel the air thick with smog and particulate matter. At times it is hard to breathe. It is now obvious that the price to pay for modernization is indeed high in China.
The air, water, and soil are polluted. Food is tainted with pesticides. Water for drinking or irrigation is diminishing. Infant formula has been contaminated and children have died. Families are trying to buy safe formula from abroad. The health of the Chinese people is being severely compromised. Everything about contemporary China invites rethinking “economic progress” and reimagining appropriate limits to growth.
What happens when more than a billion people seek the fruits of modernity — electricity, cars, refrigerators, television, cell phones? Sustainability and equity, along with food and water, are challenged on a vast, indeed planetary scale. China’s resource demands are depleting forests and fisheries, along with oil and coal, around the world. China is drawing on sources across North America, including the tar sands in Canada. Even more will be extracted there if the proposed Keystone pipeline is built through the U.S.
The environmental and social problems seem intractable. How can the life-support systems, which give us food and water, be preserved? Where can we find traction for sustainability? Clearly we need science, policy, law, technology, and economics to solve these issues. But spiritual and ethical perspectives of the world’s religions must also be brought to bear. And so it is, against great odds that some Chinese are trying to reconfigure their assumptions of endless growth and extraction and find a path toward a sustainable future. This is why we have flown 8,000 miles in 24 hours from New York to Shanghai and on to the heartland of the ancient Yellow River valley civilization of China.