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Yifei Li- Podcast Highlights

Updated: Sep 20, 2020

What is coercive environmentalism?

Around the world there has been increasing concern that democracy in general has failed the environment. It is just too slow to react, too driven by economic incentives to enforce the level of environmental protections our planet currently needs. This has led to speculation that the only truly effective way to protect the environment is not through democratic institutions, but through authoritarian ones. China presents an example of how authoritarian environmentalism could look, through their use of coercive environmentalism. Coercive environmentalism is when a state uses authoritarian means to enact and enforce environmental protections often against the will of the people. Professor Yifei Li recently coauthored a book titled “China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet” with Judith Shapiro, who is a leading expert on Chinese environmental politics. In our podcast, we asked him what were the main arguments and ideas that this book put forward? 

The question the book asks is about coercive environmentalism in China, in other words, can we use the environment to justify the use of non-democratic means of government? In answer, the authors of the book say yes, coercive environmentalism seems to be working in China in some cases, but there are also cases in which it fails. Professor Li argues that “in fact, the success of state led environmentalism does not depend on a strong state. It depends on a weaker, more open state. A state that listens to the scientists of the country, listens to the general public, listens to activists, and listens to NGOs.” 

What water-related challenges does China currently face?

Some of the main challenges facing China are pollution, water scarcity and hydropower generation. But above all, water pollution seems to be the most pressing problem of the current day. In the past, China has attempted to address water quality through fining polluters, and building more wastewater treatment facilities, but these efforts have met only limited success. Now they are trying more creative methods of crowdsourced environmental governance such as an app that allows citizens to take a picture when they see polluted water, upload it to authorities and then the Chinese government can follow up with a team of inspectors to find and fine the polluters. This is an example of coercive environmentalism that works. 

What is the role of water in Chinese culture?

Professor Li teaches a course called Nature in Social Thought at NYU Shanghai, where students discuss the idea of nature across time and cultures. In China specifically, water has deep roots in ancient texts across disciplines, from ancient Chinese philosophy, to art, and painting. Throughout all of these works, Professor Li teaches his students about the constant presence of water, and symbolism relating to water. China also has a rich linguistic tradition around water. For example in English we have one word for flooding, but in Chinese there is one for rain induced flooding. There is another for water logging, a third for tide induced flooding and one more for rain induced puddle. Another for stagnant water and something else for flooding that submerges human settlements. These very specific words relating to water point to what an important role water has played in Chinese culture throughout history. Ancient Chinese communities and settlements were surrounded by a network of waterways, and navigating those waterways was central to the delivery of goods and to intercommunity trade and prosperity. Naturally, water was central to the lives of these ancient communities, and became central to Chinese culture. 

COVID has grabbed the world’s attention this year, and made it difficult to focus on much else. How can we redirect attention towards the pressing environmental issues such as water scarcity even at a time like this?

The pandemic has given us the opportunity to de-center our lives away from the here and now, to be able to think out the longer trajectory of things. Environmental issues naturally occur on longer timescales than we normally consider in our day to day lives. This pandemic brings an opportunity for us as a global society to reconsider what’s important when the distractions of commuting to work and going out with friends are put on pause, and this pause can be an opportunity for change. The pandemic has also given us all a direct and personal experience of exponential growth as we’ve watched the case numbers skyrocket over the past months. The pandemic showed us that if you don't take it seriously during the first week, it will quickly grow out of control. This intimate understanding of exponential growth is actually really useful from an environmental perspective because environmental issues, from pollution to seal level rise, to climate change, to biodiversity loss all happen on exponential scales. The ecosystem responds to our actions initially very slowly, making environmental issues easy to ignore, but the longer we ignore them the quicker they will grow. At first, the effects are far away. It's just those coastal communities suffering in Bangladesh. It's only wildfires in Australia and California. But without drastic action at the beginning, it's everywhere. Climate change will be an overwhelming, unignorable experience for the whole globe. So if people have already experienced the coronavirus in such a viscerally shocking way, especially during the initial outbreak, we need to remember how exponential growth could bring these devastating consequences to human lives, and adjust our response to environmental crises before it’s too late.


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