Jane Goodall in Chengdu, plus: thoughts on sustainability messaging in China

There were a couple of moments at the Jane Goodall lecture at Number 7 Middle School in Chengdu last week which served to remind me that it took place in China. This was, I assume, her stock speech, given at any of the other hundred or so countries Ms. Goodall speaks at during her 300 days of travel per year. Number 7 Middle School, whose rather average-sounding name belies its widespread fame as the best prep school in Sichuan (and one of the best in the country), is so highly regarded that both of the schools at which I teach have borrowed its name.

Dr. Goodall, the British anthropologist-turned-conservationist who revolutionized primatology through her decades of study with Gombe chimpanzees in Tanzania, greeted the filled auditorium in chimp language. Her speech was part of a week of events in Chengdu organized by the Jane Goodall Institute, the conservation non-profit to which she now dedicates much of her time.

The speech, ably translated by a young Chinese woman, has probably been told so many times at this point that millions of people around the world have heard the story of “Old Man.” This story, of an abused chimp who forgives, is how Ms. Goodall capped the evening’s biographically-framed call to action. Old Man was a chimpanzee whose mother was shot by hunters, and the grief of her loss had taken such a toll on the chimp, emotionally and physically, that his transporters christened him with the name, even though he was only an infant at the time. Taken to North America, he was subjected to cruel research for 15 years, kept on a man-made island (chimps cannot swim) with other chimps. Over time his feeder, a worker named Mark who had been warned that the animals were dangerous killers, realized their disposition to be actually peaceful and became friendly with the chimps. One day, when playing with an infant chimp, he fell down, causing a large noise. The infant’s mother and other female chimps, thinking Mark had attacked the infant, rushed over in panic and begun to bite him. Old Man came bounding over, and, as chimps are eight times stronger than men, Mark prepared to die. But Old Man, rather than attacking Mark, fended off the female chimps, allowing the man to paddle to safety.

The moral of the story is clear. If Old Man, despite horrible mistreatment by humans for many years, had the capacity to forgive and act to save the life of a man, shouldn’t we, with our supposedly superior capacity for empathy, be able to do the same for other animals, and the environment at large? It’s a poignant message, one that has been reiterated in various incarnations by conservationists for many decades now. Old Man’s story pulls at our heart like a David Attenborough voiceover during the baby scenes of a BBC documentary, stirs our outrage like PETA shock footage and inspires action like Al Gore’s fuzzier moments during “An Inconvenient Truth.”

And yet, after so many years, our grim environmental reality has only earned widespread concern in the past few years in the West. In China, whose booming cities and legioning moneyed class is busily consuming with a “live now” mindset that brings to mind Westerners in more care-free decades of abundance, the message, it would seem, isn’t sinking in for most. Without doubt, the government’s environmental mandates are a step forward, and sustainability endeavors are certainly establishing a place within the country’s planning, if still only a blip compared to traditional economic matters. But for millions of consumers in China, it seems that sustainability won’t factor for some time, whilst they revel in the seemingly non-stop prosperity of this country’s burgeoning wealth.

Following her speech, Dr. Goodall presented awards to students from eight different school chapters of the Roots and Shoots program, which educates and mobilizes youth on conservation issues in close to 100 countries. Such programs certainly help. But, judging (admittedly on limited experience) by the way many everyday Chinese litter and pollute, one has to wonder how far the country’s consciousness must travel before it can get to the level of individual-level morality of, say, an Australia. And it’s not difficult to understand why, given how quickly China has moved from a country of general poverty (still far from eradicated) to new-found consumer wealth. According to a Chengdoo article, the country consumes 45 billion disposable chopsticks, the equivalent of 69,000 felled trees each day, and two to five million tons of plastic yearly, largely due to what is referred to as “white garbage”: plastic bags, most of which “[piles] up in the open air in the countryside without immediate or proper disposal.”

During her speech, Dr. Goodall spoke of once being charged by an adult male gorilla. In Western countries, one might expect such a reference to draw some manner of shock or awe from the audience. Here in Chengdu, they were practically silent. What drew the longest ovation, however, was when Jane mentioned acquiring her doctorate at Cambridge, something that I doubt that the polite Englishwoman was looking for when she mentioned it. It felt like people were in attendance because of the doctor’s prestigious academic background, and to see their schoolchildren receive accolades, rather than out of personal interest in the cause to which she was attempting to inspire them.

This feeling grew stronger during the Question and Answer session. Having grown up with Chinese parents, I am familiar with the heavy focus on education here, given its traditional role as one of the only tools of upward mobility. Despite this, I was still taken aback by one young boy’s question:

“After you received your doctorate, did you feel any sort of confusion about what to pursue in your academic career and in your life direction?” asked the chubby boy, surely no older than eight or nine. The crowd laughed and applauded thunderously. At his age, I would have probably asked a question about whether chimps can do somersaults in trees, not taking notes regarding one’s post-doctorate degree life direction.

The issue is not that students shouldn’t be aspiring to be doctors or prosperous. When aspiring Chinese Ivy league applicants enter America’s most hallowed campuses, I doubt that intellectual inquiry is the end goal for most of them. The focus of many of the students I’ve met here is squared firmly on a good job, a higher position in society and making money (not unlike those from other developing countries). So when they attend a Jane Goodall speech telling them to help save the environment, are they coming away from it ready to replace a coal plant or with a new introductory paragraph in mind for their college application? The two are not mutually exclusive, but by and large, it seems environmental activism will only earn its place amongst the personal priorities of Chinese when its couched within far more powerful existing social institutions.

What, then, to do? How might those concerned about China’s environmental footprint, present and future, shift the discussion forward quicker than it’s current pace? Here are three personal thoughts:

1.China will go truly green on the will of Chinese people, and nobody else’s.

This is a point which outsiders, if they haven’t already, must fully accept. Surely, without question, it needs to come from within. There’s little which China detests more than condescending know-it-alls from the West telling them how to do things, especially given our own role in bringing the Earth to its current state. Roots and Shoots is, in this way, successfully putting the power of knowledge in the mouths of the China’s own youth.

2. Quit using fighting words; up the partnership discourse.

In addition, outdated, “Us versus the Bad Guys” fighting words from the 60s school of hippie conservation will not work. I fear that Dr. Goodall, as admirable and committed an individual as she is, strays a little too often towards this worldview, which often cancels out its effectiveness by alienating as much as it calls to task. She finished the evening, it would seem on deaf ears, raging against the evils of pesticides, and her talk alluded to standard environmentalist bad guys: poachers, industrialists, energy war profiteers, without any mention of more conciliatory efforts to increase cross-sector cooperation, such as corporate social responsibility or carbon emissions targets. This may not have been the audience, but I would have liked to see some reference to such developments in lay terms. To leave them entirely absent from the discussion was unfortunate.

Though I didn’t attend a more intimate roundtable breakfast discussion with her earlier in the week, a friend who did said that while Ms. Goodall focused similarly on the wrongful actions of corporate antagonists. Her colleague Bill Valentino however, in far more productive terms, discussed corporate social responsibility and the importance of private sector engagement to future conservation. More of this, in emerging markets such as China, will prove vital.

3. Develop and utilize culturally-compelling messaging.

One of the strongest links Ms. Goodall’s presentation made was, not surprisingly, one of the most universal. In explaining how she succeeded in becoming a primatologist, despite growing up in a poor family, she returned numerous times to the conviction of her beloved mother. The mother in China, as a metaphor for the country and for filial love, hits home just as hard as it does elsewhere. Taken further, perhaps it can articulate, powerfully and convincingly, that to protect Mother China, as well as Mother Earth, is as “glorious” as it is to “get rich,” (as Deng Xiaoping famously uttered years ago). The Chinese certainly took those words to heart, and there’s no reason why, if thought out creatively and effectively, they wouldn’t do the same regarding matters of similar universal impact. Finding this, and other messages which powerfully articulate the intimate link between our actions, our planet, and the world we choose to pass on to our grandchildren, in a way that the average Chinese citizen finds compelling, may be most critical of all.

Call it “Sustainability with Chinese Characteristics” if you like. Or, call it practical, culturally suitable messaging.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Jane Goodall in Chengdu, plus: thoughts on sustainability messaging in China

  1. I agree with your three suggestions, but I’m not sure #1 is as simple as all that. It’s true that China won’t get any cleaner until Chinese people want it cleaner… but if you’re trying to get 1.3 billion people to want something real bad, you need lots of CCTV specials and propaganda ads on the bus.

    That’s to say, if the environment here depends on the will of the people, then the will of the people depends on government encouragement. And government encouragement depends on some amount of bullying from other governments.

    So if we (Western developed nations) had any credibility in the matter (which we don’t), I think it would appropriate to actively prod China towards scientifically green development and a harmoniously sustainable society.

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