Trip links climate to urban expansion

Over the past spring break, students and faculty visited China to study the environmental consequences of the country’s rapid industrial development and explore potential solutions. Photo courtesy of the Vassar College Office of Communications
Over the past spring break, students and faculty visited China to study the environmental consequences of the country’s rapid industrial development and explore potential solutions. Photo courtesy of the Vassar College Office of Communications

As the most populous country in the world, China’s rapid industrialization has had massive effects on both the global economy and the environment. This past spring break, a group of students and faculty embarked on a 12-day trip in China to study the environmental consequences of the rapid economic growth that has occurred there in recent years. The trip was part of Vassar’s International Study Travel class, which is offered yearly in conjunction with a trip to the area of study. This year, Professor of Geography Yu Zhou and Associate Professor of Political Science Fubing Su, organized the trip and the course together.

Zhou explained that this faculty collaboration is an inherent part of the Vassar International Study Travel course. “The international study trip has always been team taught because we understand the trip as multidisciplinary,” she stated. Since this trip had an environmental focus, six faculty members from the Environmental Studies and Biology Departments also attended, in addition to Dean of the Faculty Jon Chenette and Sustainability Coordinator Alistair Hall. Zhou noted, “They really brought in a lot of aspects of the environmental part of the trip.”

The interdisciplinary diversity of the faculty included was supported by the Luce Grant that Vassar received for the trip in 2015, which provided funding for the faculty members from the Environmental Studies discipline. The Henry Luce Foundation in general seeks to strengthen international understanding and collaboration, especially relations between East Asian countries and America. The foundation’s mission statement explains these goals more clearly. “The Henry Luce Foundation seeks to bring important ideas to the center of American life, strengthen international understanding, and foster innovation and leadership in academic, policy, religious and art communities” (Henry Luce Foundation, “Mission & History”).

The inclusion of the Environmental Studies faculty seems to fit strongly with this mission, but is also indicative of change within the foundation. Zhou noted, “The Luce Foundation historically has been working with China on humanities and social sciences, but what they discovered is that a lot of science students and faculty do not have access to more international experiments and collaboration, so they want to push for more science.”

This integration of environmental perspectives is part of what set this years trip apart from 2006, the most recent time in which Vassar students and faculty went to China. “Some context is that in 2006-7 is when China really emerged as a globalized economy, it was almost the peak of the growth time,” Zhou explained. “The major difference is this time, we’re not just talking about growth, we’re looking far deeper into the consequences of growth. For example, last time, we looked at a post-colonial city in Shanghai, but this time we also looked at how Shanghai is changing from industrial to post-industrial.”

In the course, Zhou wanted to make it clear to students that China’s rapid economic and infrastructural development did not suddenly materialize, but is actually the result of a complex history of global industrialization. “What we’re trying to do is trying to understand why China is going through this kind of growth by really unpacking China’s historical evolution of interacting with other regions of the world.” In conjunction with this historical perspective, Zhou also emphasized how these developments are ongoing, and thus need to be experienced in person. “It’s still happening, and you can see how the city expanded and the countryside being replaced just in front of your eyes. The students really see that quite up close.”

For the students, what they saw might have been different than what their expectations for what the environment in China were. The American media has built up an image of perennially smoggy Chinese cities, and Americans may think that the pollution in China is therefore not being dealt with.

James Gibson ’18 went on the trip and reflected in an emailed statement on the expectations he had before the trip. “I feel people, at least me certainly, are not as aware of how much effort China puts in towards remediating a lot of its pollution,” he mused. “A rapid period of industrialization and economic development has caused China to accumulate a lot of pollution, but it’s not like the country is completely ignoring the problem.”

Zhou further explained why China is taking action to combat environmental problems. “One thing [the students] learned when they traveled in China is that in fact, the Chinese people and government have suffered as a result of the environment. The pollution is affecting them, health-wise. We met a lot of people who are really trying to address environmental problems, and the other side is the government is spending enormous amounts of money.”

One of these projects is the “aeration boat” project in Shanghai, which is making boats that re-aerate water around the city, including the heavily-polluted Suzhou creek. In Beijing, where air pollution is a large concern, policies have been set up so that only cars with certain license plates can be driven on certain days. “You need a government who is willing to spend, you also need people participating,” Zhou emphasized.

According to Gibson, one of the primary goals of the trip and of the class was to emphasize learning and international cooperation and collaboration related to climate issues. He noted, “The trip also taught me something about America. The U.S.A. has so many environmental issues but we do a better job of hiding them. Instead of drawing awareness to our environmental issues, the U.S.A. through the media tells its citizens to look at other people’s environmental problems. The U.S. distracts us with China’s pollution problems, rather than bring up our own. Issues like Flint, MI’s water pollution took a year before the story was released to the public, yet we constantly hearing about China’s air pollution.”

For environmental issues with global consequences, collaboration, rather than competition, will be of the utmost importance. Grant Funds like the one offered by the Luce Foundation acknowledge the importance of international learning and research, especially between leading global powers like the United States and China.

With any luck, the trip to China this spring was a positive step toward global energy solutions and international cooperation. Zhou also hopes that the trip can be the start of a long Vassar legacy of research and study in China. “We’re applying for a more substantial grant from the Luce Foundation in the hope to develop more research and teaching opportunities with Chinese universities,” she explained. “I’m hoping to bring students and faculty there who are interested in doing more in-depth research.”

“We have a good start,” Zhou went on to say. “Also we have people who went who teach courses here, and they will impart their knowledge and what they learned.”

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