Misconstruing environmental protest movements in authoritarian regimes

John Upton has a new post at Grist today about the rising number of protests in China over environmental issues, particularly air and water pollution. In the post, Upton writes:

The people of China are pissed. On the long list of injustices they endure, from internet censorship to having their homelands flooded by reservoirs, nothing is inspiring more uprisings than the abuse of their environment.

In general, he’s exactly right. There have been a significant number of protests and demonstrations over environmental issues in China in recent years. Serious environmental crises have continually nagged the Communist Party. The 2005 Songua River Spill and the government’s subsequent cover-up, for instance, created significant backlash. Several Chinese newspapers even criticized the government heavily for attempting to hide the severity of the benzene spill. Additionally, there are more official Chinese NGOs & civil society organizations focused on the environment than any other issue.

CCTV Towers Side by Side

Side-by-side images of the CCTV Towers in downtown Beijing. The image on the left is from January 12, when air quality index values exceeded 750. The image on the right is from August 2008 (photos courtesy of Marketplace).

However, these outcomes don’t stem from an overwhelming environmental ethic among Chinese citizens, per se. Rather, they are based on the fact that, in many authoritarian states, the environment is a relatively safe, depoliticized issue to organize around. Dr. Judy Shapiro, an expert in Chinese environmental issues (and professor at AU), has made this argument quite persuasively in her book China’s Environmental Challenges. As she points out in the book:

[T]here is a rich relationship between environmental activism and the development of civil society in general. Given that in China civic groups that focus on human rights and democracy are quickly suppressed, some activists have found the “space” for organizing around environmental issues to be greater. As a result some creative people who wish to engage in public participation have turned to that area.

This is not unique to China, however. Erika Weinthal, a scholar of environmental policy at Duke, has shown that a similar effect occurred during the latter days of the former Soviet Union. After Gorbachev’s glasnost policy opened space for dissidents to speak more freely about the many problems facing the USSR, a number of activists began organizing around environmental issues in Central Asia. On pages 107-108 of State Making and Environmental Cooperation: Linking Domestic and International Politics in Central Asia, Weinthal writes:

The topic of the environment enabled many Central Asian writers and intellectuals to promote national issues that had been festering for some time. [Uzbek writer Pirmat] Shermukhamedov and other Central Asian intellectuals rallied around the Aral Sea as a proxy for long-suppressed questions of cultural survival and regional self-determination…

These nationalist movements considered the cotton monoculture to be the manifestation of Soviet exploitation and the lack of control Central Asians had over their own destiny.

Clearly, much of the laudable and courageous environmental activism occurring in the developing world is not based purely in an environmental ethic. Activists in these states have drawn the connection between environmental exploitation and the denial of their basic human and political rights. But instead of pursuing the latter issues, they have, smartly and strategically, pushed for environmental causes because they perceived there to be more space in this field.

I don’t mean to  make this argument to suggest that people in developing countries are not concerned about the environment. I am just trying to help clarify the reality of environmental activism in the developing world. I think that the connection between environmentalism and social justice in much of the Global South demonstrates that the siloing of the environment as some singular sector or constituency, as has occurred too often in the US (see Candy Crowley’s embarrassing statement about “all you climate people”) is completely arbitrary and inappropriate. But, at the same time, we need to be precise with our arguments and not proscribe our own values and sensibilities on other people.

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