Saturday, July 15, 2017

Driving My Dad, Part 2

Last week I wrote of my dad's civil engineering view of nature and the growing belief over his lifetime that nature should be put in service of humans. I was thinking a great deal about his perspective during my recent month-long stay in Beijing, China, and its environs.

Over the last ten years, China has embarked on the world's largest reforestation program, spending as much as $100 billion planting trees. In case that passed by you, let me repeat it: ONE HUNDRED BILLION DOLLARS.

China has done this in response to some pretty dire environmental (and economic) concerns: desertification, soil erosion, air pollution, and runoff into waterways. But recent data shows that this effort has been useless at best and disastrous at worst. Non-native, genetically engineered, and ecologically inappropriate trees have been planted where trees previously did not exist. Monocultures of poplar and other tree species have been planted, inviting disease and insect infestation. Mixed-growth forests have been felled and plantations of "economically useful" (such as rubber) trees planted in their place.
A tree-planting program in Hebei Province, glimpsed from a bus.
What was immediately apparent to me in Beijing was the fact that tree-planting programs had been conducted in defiance of basic ecological and biodiversity approaches. I saw rows and rows and rows of one species of tree, each individual exactly the same age and size, planted exactly the same width apart, with no weeds or undergrowth allowed. One recent study showed that biodiversity actually declined when agricultural land was reforested with monoculture plantings in China: bird species took a modest hit and bee species a drastic one.

At the Temple of Heaven, imperial building styles show symmetry and clean lines.
Always thinking like a cultural anthropologist, I immediately wondered if there must be some cultural preference for this kind of planting. Vague notions of “feng shui” came to mind, something about harmony and order. I had noted the perfect symmetry and clean lines of many of the imperial buildings we visited in Beijing, such as the Temple of Heaven. They were surrounded by parks and gardens characterized by these same too-perfect plantings. I remembered feeling oppressed in such places, even as I admired their beauty, because of that carefully constructed perfection. I was also creeped out by the lack of wildlife and insects, other than magpies and a couple of other bird species that I saw again and again.

The symmetry and clean lines continue into the plantings of the Temple of Heaven park.
A bit of research suggests that my assumptions about culture were both right and wrong. Traditional Chinese gardens were, yes, very composed, but in such a way as to fill the human eye with a mixed portrait of trees, flowers, water, rocks, and buildings. Each vista was intended to provide a diverse offering of human-nature interactions brought into harmony and accord. Interaction with the West in the 19th century and beyond brought a new fashion: green grass, neat plantings of trees and flowers, and long views of lawn. It turns out those oppressive parks I saw represent a Western aesthetic taken to a Chinese extreme.
The Purple Bamboo park in Beijing, showing the traditional Chinese garden style.
I think the monoculture tree plantings represent a syncretism: the ancient Chinese love for composing nature for human pleasure, combined with a Western love for taming nature for human control, combined with a contemporary Chinese belief in planning nature through science and technology for human benefit. The scale of Chinese planning is breathtaking. The cities in North China are running out of water, so the Chinese government is rerouting some of the Southern rivers and piping water up to the North. The desert is growing, so the Chinese government is planting acres and acres of eucalyptus trees in hopes of containing it. Beijing has a lot of smog in part because there isn't enough wind to blow it out, so the Chinese government is building tall forests that will reroute the wind to and through Beijing.

I see a lot of Dad's point of view in the way that China is managing nature today. I hear echoes of my father saying, "All the big problems in the world today are engineering problems." But there is something deep within me that rejects the idea that nature can limitlessly serve humans and be addressed primarily through engineering, and I can't help but feel that China's failing reforestation efforts prove me right.

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