An Unsustainable Eco-City? An ethnographic film by Bohannan, Coursen, and Feng

Chai Lu Bohannan and Julie Coursen did fieldwork with Fudan University graduate student Feng Ran examining the social impact of a developing eco-city on nearby Chongming Island. Because Chongming, an island in the Yangtze River Delta, is a couple of hours away from Shanghai by bus, conducting this research was challenging.

Evaluating the Social Forces of Dongtan Eco-city from thefieldworker on Vimeo.

My Semi-Eco, Shanghainese Lifestyle

Trying to be environmentally mindful in a city like Shanghai takes a great deal of blind faith. It takes blind faith because almost every “recycling” or “sustainable” facility doesn’t look like that at all. In a country where I don’t speak the language or know much about local sustainability, I simply trust and hope that a few of my recyclables end up somewhere other than a landfill.

The air quality suffers in China, which means that my lungs suffer, too.

I lived in Davidson College’s Eco-House during my last academic year, so I had a relatively well-established routine in trying to be environmentally thoughtful. Of course, that routine was drastically changed when I arrived in Shanghai. In some ways, my carbon footprint has significantly increased, but in other ways, I have actually become more energy efficient while living in Shanghai.

Here’s an example of the advantages and disadvantages of an environmental lifestyle in Shanghai. In the United States, I carry around a CamelBak filled with tap water. In Shanghai, I carry around huge plastic bottles of mineralized water. The major downside is that I drink massive amounts of water, insane amounts of water according to my friends. I am always well-hydrated, so I amass piles of plastic bottles. I put them outside my apartment door with the rest of my trash, and I cross my fingers that the Tonghe employees throw them in with recycling. Or if walking on the street, I throw them into one of many old trash cans with two sections labeled “recycling” and “other waste.” I really do not know the ultimate outcome, though.

Fingers crossed that these get recycled.

Luckily, I am more energy efficient in other ways. For example, I hang-dry my clothes. The washing machines are not equipped to dry clothes, so like all the other nearby apartments, I dry my clothes on the porch or in my room. It saves energy, but I never actually started hang-drying my clothes until coming to Shanghai.

Hang-drying clothes is also a stylish way to decorate a dorm room.

Environmentalism is a complex topic for most developing countries, but especially for China. Shanghai had a global environmental spotlight for some time because Chongming Island was originally planned to be the world’s first purpose-built eco-city. As Chai Lu, Feng Ran, and I have researched throughout the semester, that eco-city has not come to fruition. Many of the environmental initiatives around Shanghai seem similar: they are great in theory but hardly executed in practice. Still, Chinese environmental efforts are definitely still active and on-going. My plastic water bottles might be plentiful, but I do believe that at least some of them are being recycled.

Heat! Praise the Lord!

Heating in China is a topic that most people would not consider unless they are staying during the winters in the northern parts. However, even in the southern part of China, the temperatures still go down to the low 40’s Fahrenheit or 4 degree Celsius. While most people from countries that have winter would call that type of temperature as normal in winter and say that it is not so bad, people from the southern parts of countries with no winter are freezing in their rooms.

In America, most dorms have heaters and the electricity bill is billed into a student’s tuition, so there is no worry about turning on the heater for prolonged amounts of time. In China, heating becomes an expensive energy usage issue. Electricity is still an expensive thing to use, and since Shanghai does not reach ridiculously cold temperatures as Beijing, most places do not have heating. Fortunately, Tonghe, the dorm that Davidson in Shanghai students are staying at, has air conditioning units that convert into heaters and help keep students warm at night. Still, the idea that most places do not have heating is a look on how modernity has not been completely achieved in China. Shanghai is one of the more advanced cities in China. Yet, if there are places here that do not have heating, one can only imagine how inner China faces the cold.

In comparison, Beijing seems to be fully prepared and used to the super cold winters. While in Beijing during the fall, the temperatures were already in the 30’s Fahrenheit or -1 degrees Celsius. Yet, the hotel Davidson students were lodging at, had heaters for all the room and even heated the hallways. Yes, the hotel is a fancy place and should not be considered a fair place to compare. So, I and fellow students, Nicky Coutinho and DJ Seabrooks randomly went to a hole in the wall restaurant at midnight for some food because they were hungry. The weather was sleeting at the time but as we entered the place, one could see how even those with no heaters were able to keep warm. There were plastic covers at the front door to keep the cold out and there were iron stoves in different parts of the room to keep the place warm. Although the place was not as warm as the hotel, we were comfortably protected from the cold and not chilly.

Therefore, I would like to say that heat is an expensive commodity that not everyone can afford and should be appreciated greatly. Many people in China still do not have heaters and still use old methods to keep warm. It is not bad for them, but as Thanksgiving draws near, I would like to say I am thankful for heat.

Breathing Shanghai

In a city of 23 million people, staying healthy takes militant self-protection. For me, staying healthy in China is a conscious daily struggle.

In a city of pollution and overcrowding, chances for illness are ubiquitous. Public health crises are growing all over China. As Elizabeth Economy discusses in her book The River Runs Black, people throughout China are facing water scarcity, higher rates of birth defects and cancer, and poor air quality because of environmental degradation. Respiratory problems are rampant because of the poor air quality. Tap water can cause days of diarrhea and stomach pain. Viruses transmit rapidly because of urbanization and overcrowding. An infamous example is the 2002-2003 outbreak of SARS in southern China. After failing to control the outbreak and failing to cooperate with the international community, China was criticized for its public health management. As the population grows and environmental destruction continues, the public health problems only increase.

From the beginning, I noticed a difference in Shanghai’s treatment of health. Near our apartment complex, there is a large hospital. Whenever I walk by the hospital, I see at least ten patients milling around, smoking cigarettes, or eating at local restaurants. Sometimes the patients are wearing facemasks, but sometimes they aren’t. They wear hospital pajamas, but they can easily walk around the block and do what they please. Even if I am not near the hospital, I usually see at least one person wearing a facemask each day. I often wonder what they are afraid of breathing in. Although it is socially acceptable to wear a facemask, other Chinese habits seem less conducive to public health. It is not uncommon to hear someone spit or blow their nose loudly onto the sidewalk. Parents hold their babies go to the bathroom on the road. Squat toilets are often dirty on and around the toilet. Trash piles up throughout the city. For the squeamish or germophobic, Shanghai would be a hard place to live.

Despite the differences in public hygiene, Chinese superstitions about personal health are often surprisingly similar to my own habits. I burn incense because it relaxes me, and every temple has countless incense offerings. Incense actually helps to reduce anxiety and depression, so it makes sense that religious temples have incense to ease their visitors. My Chinese teacher also says that air conditioners and travelling make her sick because her body has trouble adjusting to the changes in environment. I am not sure why, but both of these are true for me as well. Finally, my Chinese teacher always suggests cups and cups of hot tea to cure illness. I drink hot tea endlessly when I am sick. Like drinking chicken soup in the States, we know our at-home treatments are helpful, even if we can’t explain why.

Shanghai is an interesting place to think about public health because every person lives the public health problem. No one needs to tell me there is poor air quality; I can simply feel it in my lungs. I do not know how public health will continue in China, but it is obvious that there is real potential for a crisis.

Taipei: Blending the Urban and Rural

Taiwan is a truly remarkable place. After traveling there for a few days, I see it almost as a novelty in the Asian world, an effectively free country that appears to have done a lot of things right in terms of fostering a positive environmental and political discourse. So often I feel that scholars focus on the negative effects of the industrializing countries of Asia in terms of reckless pollution and political suppression, but in Taiwan these issues seem to be more muted. The city of Taipei, in which my peers and I spent the entirety of our stay, is almost seamlessly incorporated into the surrounding environment characterized by dense forest and rolling mountains. There are no skyscrapers besides the lone Taipei 101, which serves as almost a comical structure amidst the otherwise mid-ride urban building developments. As one of the local people said to me, “I think it is ugly. It makes no sense! We spent way too much money on that.” Nonetheless, the city of Taipei seems to dissolve into the mountains surrounding it, as one can see from any one of the gorgeous views seen at the top of one of the peaks surrounding the city, or the top of Taipei 101. These images made me think about American perceptions of what cities should be and how people are assumed to live in such environments.

I feel that in the United States urban areas are simply considered the opposite of rural ones. One can live in the city or the countryside. The compromise, which has become a popular American phenomenon, is the existence of suburbs that combine the conveniences of a city and the comforts of a less populated environment. But what I saw in Taipei was the mergence of the urban and rural, apartment buildings built right up to the tree line of huge mountains, for example. Or riding on a metro that suddenly went from traveling underground to a raised track overlooking a forest canopy. A local Taiwanese woman I spoke with said she lives 20 minutes outside of her downtown office, in a small, quiet apartment in the mountains. This account represented a unique harmony between what I previously assumed to be contesting lifestyles. I can certainly see how Taipei can be an exceptionally livable city, one in which people aren’t necessarily faced with the decision between inhabiting a peaceful environment and one that reaps the benefits of industrialization. Though there are various economic challenges faces the city and the country of Taiwan, from what I can see that Taipei has struck the balance between modernization and preservation of the ever-vital natural environment.

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