The Miracle of Blue Skies
People are happiest when they feel connected to nature, claims Chee Yoke Ling. China has become increasingly aware that human well-being has been disturbed by enormous economic growth. Yoke Ling, has been on the international barricades for twenty years promoting sustainable development, which include her dreams of clean skies over Beijing and of revitalised rural communities. “Don’t think it’s just some distant ideal. China has exploited nature over many decades, often neglecting the environment, but it is still able to engage in revolutions: nowhere else can things change so drastically in so little time once the will is there.”
Chee Yoke Ling, points out that people who, like her, live in a city like Beijing, with its twenty million inhabitants, have a lot to complain about: the blanket of smog that is always hanging over the city, fuelled by traffic emissions. The bicyclists who once filled the streets of Chinese cities have had to make way for the massive streams of cars purchased by the growing middle class. Meanwhile, old neighbourhoods fall prey to relentless demolition and bulldozers, making place for even more of the same apartment and office buildings.
Yoke Ling was born in Malaysia and is not the complaining type. She prefers to look at what remains and what may come. “The city still has authentic neighbourhoods and communities. In three minutes’ time, you can walk from a six-lane highway to the old city, with its small streets and houses arranged around a courtyard. There, it is quiet and you can still hear the birds.”
Not all is lost, is what she means. And because ancient China still exists, it could become part of a new, more sustainable China. “I hope that bicycles will once again dominate the streets of Beijing, combined with an efficient and sustainable public transport system, with buses and metros that operate on green electricity. And, of course, I long for the great miracle of finally seeing clear, blue skies again, day after day.”
Yoke Ling’s dream does not stop at Beijing’s gates. The human dimension, she observes, demands much more attention in China. The restless migration of millions of Chinese in search of employment and higher wages has caused an explosion of urban sprawl, while the countryside is becoming less sparsely populated. The elderly have stayed behind and often take care of the grandchildren while the parents work in the cities. This has to change, Yoke Ling insists. With well-targeted policies it must be possible to breathe new life into rural communities so that future generations can once again grow up being raised by both parents and that the youth no longer has to flee the countryside to find a job in the city.
Nowhere in the world is the contrast between city and countryside greater than in China. The country has made an enormous effort to produce sufficient amounts of food to feed the rapidly growing population. The famines of the past have been practically forgotten. But while agrarian production has expanded immensely, rural incomes have remained far below those of the urban Chinese. Large parts of the country remain impoverished. Social cohesion has come under increased pressure, not only in the peasant villages but also in the metropolises. Meanwhile, the sprawling cities and factories take up increasingly more valuable farmland.
“Restoring the balance between what is urban and non-urban”, says Yoke Ling, “is essential for the future well-being of the Chinese.” This means that the sharp distinctions between the city and the countryside need to be minimised. The two should be complementary and not in an adversarial relationship. There is a need for smaller cities and a revitalised countryside. “Today, every small peasant dreams of sending his or her children to the city to study. But if there were sufficient facilities and local services, this would no longer be necessary. I hope I’ll have a chance to see a migration reversal out of the cities with people returning to the countryside and once again getting in touch with nature and the land.”
Rural impoverishment is partly due to the deficient agrarian knowledge of the average Chinese farmer and the tiny plots of land millions of farmers rely on to feed their families. There is a lack of modern agricultural educational opportunities. Meanwhile, the larger producers have become addicted to intensive agricultural practices, which increase water and soil contamination. As usual, the planners have turned to a technological approach, which means giving an important role to genetically modified crops.
Yoke Ling has, both at home and abroad, always actively resisted unbridled technological interventions such as genetic manipulation, which she believes seriously threatens China’s biological safety. She believes that Chinese planners should be seeking a new, more ecological strategy. The first signs of change are already visible. “I work with Chinese partners who regularly visit the countryside and the indigenous communities, where there are the early signs of a revitalisation of local life. There is more hope that the young will eventually return, armed with the knowledge they acquired in the city, which they can combine with traditional knowledge. They can thus benefit from the combination of the best of both worlds and continue to stay in touch with the land.”
Ling believes that some of the key elements of the new approach are respect for nature, a revaluation of traditional knowledge, the use of local materials, appropriate modern technology and people-centred management. “Many solutions are already available. We know what ecologically intelligent agriculture on the community level looks like, what a sensible diet looks like, how we can increase the farmers’ productivity without polluting the ground and the water supply. The important thing now is to convert this into policies. The knowledge is there. What we need to do is apply it.”
Yoke Ling sees parallels with movements in other parts of the world, from the Occupy movement in the West that started in New York to the revaluation of indigenous knowledge and ways of life in Latin America. “People eventually get tired of a lifestyle that merely focuses on more consumption. Things are brewing. People are thinking actively about ‘urban reorienting’. And the core element that traverses all these initiatives is that people have to regain control of their own surroundings. Because this makes them happier: spending more time in their community, participating in a joint venture such as a city garden, and feeling part of social and cultural life. Millions of people have lost the feeling of belonging somewhere. This has to change.” She denies that behind many alternatives there’s a desire to return to the good old times, when life was still clear and simple. “It is precisely about the combination, the clever use of what is old and what is new.”
Constraining the Metropolises
The official development model is increasingly a subject of discussion in China, says Yoke Ling. For a long time, the starting point has been that people should better move to the city where, simply put, one finds the best services but this idea has come under increased criticism. Increasingly, there are arguments for decentralisation, for rural development and for limiting the sprawl of the metropolises. Yoke Ling: “Urban traffic and pollution make life increasingly miserable in many cities. People live in apartments that are just too small. On weekends and holidays everyone flees the city, which in turn leads to huge traffic flows. This is not the kind of life we want to lead. That is why we need people who have the political courage, with support from the public, to say: ‘We’re going to do this differently’.”
In the countryside, social protests against pollution and impoverishment are not unusual, and these signs can no longer be ignored. The Chinese government has announced various measures to improve the living standard in rural areas. Modernising agriculture is a core element of these plans and the provision of social services in rural areas are priorities on the agenda. A positive development, says Yoke Ling: “The current 5-year development plan signals a conscious attempt to seek a better balance among the environment, social and economic dimensions.”
Changes often occur rapidly in China; take, for example, the explosive rise of organic agriculture. Until some years ago, there was no demand for organic food products at all. But after a number of large-scale food scandals, things began to change. The urban nouveau riche began demanding more reliable foods, followed by the increasingly aware young people. Yoke Ling: “People are increasingly willing to pay slightly more for sustainably produced food. And this goes hand in hand with the revaluation of farming.” Meanwhile, China has climbed among the world’s top countries in area of farmland devoted to organic farming. At the same time, however, China uses more fertilisers and pesticides than any other country. A similar contradiction can be observed in the energy sector: China is not only the world’s largest coal consumer, but for some years now it has also been the main investor in wind and solar energy. China is full of these kinds of contradictions, observes Yoke Ling. But she, being the eternal optimist, believes the glass is half full with rapid changes exemplifying the tremendous dynamic quality of contemporary Chinese society.
Yoke Ling has been concerned with living in harmony with nature ever since her student days. “As students in a developing country – in my case Malaysia – at the time we were very interested in the debate surrounding the Club of Rome’s limits to growth. We wanted to learn from the West and avoid the mistakes made there.” It was a time of optimism, she recalls. “We believed that – with the aid of the United Nations, NGOs and campaigns, and by relying on our own strengths – we could change the world, make it more sustainable.” But the next twenty years saw that ideal pretty much disappear. Instead of cooperating, profit-driven competition increased. But with a view to the Rio+20 conference, Yoke Ling once again sees some hopeful developments. “I still dream of social equality, justice, and living in harmony with nature, and of a lifestyle that fits this vision. To see that more and more young people are struggling for sustainability and for a different way of life is an enormous source of inspiration to me.”
Chee Yoke Ling
Malaysia’s Chee Yoke Ling (1959) is an international heavyweight, one of the veterans in the long and ongoing debate on sustainable development. She was closely involved in the preparations for the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and, as an NGO representative from the Third World and an official member of the Malaysian delegation, she played an important role in the conference. Today, twenty years later, she is still a prominent figure in the debate, for example at the UN Commission on Sustainable Development and the Convention on Biological Diversity. She is a popular guest at international conferences, where she speaks as easily about the dangers of genetic manipulation as about international trade or how climate change affects developing countries.
Yoke Ling studied international law at the universities of Malaya (Malaysia) and Cambridge (UK). She is the director of programmes of the Third World Network, an international network that advocates for the rights of people in developing countries and for a fair distribution of public goods such as clean air and water, and also encourages a type of development that is ecologically sustainable and satisfies human needs.
Other interviews from this series:
Green rooftops in Cairo (Imagining Sustainability - 1)
Wanted: Brave People (Imagining Sustainability - 2)
Seeds are the very source of life (Imagining Sustainability - 3)
Experiencing the Sanctity of Life (Imagining Sustainability - 4)
Buen Vivir, The Good Life (Imagining Sustainability - 6)