It’s no secret that I’m a man who loves to get outside. I love to hear the breeze in the leaves overhead and let the sun beat the sweat out of me as I lose myself on a trail. I appreciate it in a way that even most hippies think goes too far. It is a welcome reprieve from everyday life, which can get lost in the winding streets and drowned out in the horns and engines of the city. I belong there in the quietude, the sublime (impressing the mind with a sense of grandeur or power) reminding me that I am not as big and important as I think I am.
Walking down the street in China, one witnesses people going about their daily lives. Young women walk by in pretty, if sometimes slightly ridiculous, dresses and fashionable high heels, twenty somethings listen to MP3 players as they walk from one point to another, elderly men may have a radio playing as they chat with their friends and toss small wrappers to the ground.
Though blatant littering makes me cringe, I tolerate this behavior in the city. This is normal, everyday behavior here and is simply how people have been brought up. What really gets me is when this behavior spills over to their adventures into nature.
Rules in China are in place to be followed or not depending on how much trouble will follow them. Society has overrun nature because people see no distinction between the two. The government hires people to clean, pave, tile sidewalks, and provide cement stairs in the city, so this should be expected everywhere. Nature is nothing special because there a worker will be coming by in a few minutes to clean up the plastic bottle or wrapper dropped on the ground. It’s a place to take a picture and to breathe hard for a few minutes as you climb the stone stairways.
In the West, more people still cling to old beliefs that outside of our door, out of the light of our figurative fire, there is the potential for danger. We are responsible for our actions. In China, I feel there is less personal responsibility since the government has taken that burdensome yoke from the people’s shoulders. It has made them self-centered and self-important while simultaneously removing the need for stewardship.
On a trip to Yellow Mountain, one of the five famous mountains of China, chairlifts operate constantly, ferrying tourists to the top in thirty minutes. The mountainside paths have been completely covered in stone, concrete, and stairs. Hotels pitch tents on the concrete slabs outside their front door for visitors at the summit of the mountain and call it “camping.” Loudspeakers from trees blare bird calls and traditional Chinese string music constantly to remind us we are in a place of beauty. People crowd the highest peak to glimpse a sunset and sunrise we joked they had never seen due to air pollution in the cities. I would normally turn off my cell phone to avoid draining the battery if there was no signal, but I never saw the phone go below three of four bars in the whole two days I was there. Even in the midst of the great outdoors, there’s a sense of perversion to it all. These places are still incredibly beautiful, but the urge to modernize has detracted rather than impressed.
Every time I hear a recording of a flute blaring from the pocket of an old man walking with several friends, see a girl dressed as though she’s about to go party at a club, smell human waste on a trail nowhere near a toilet, or pause from my climb of hundreds of concrete stairs in the middle of the forest to see some guy who thinks he’s Indiana Jones emerge from his own private bushwhack, I have to take a second to calm myself. I have to tell myself that none of these people were raised by someone who taught them to respect the land, water, and air. This is just the way progress makes a country think when so much has been made accessible so rapidly.
This desire for continued rapid progress and unenforced laws is what holds China back when it comes to environmental regulation. If the common man treats a place he’s visiting to get closer to nature like a dump, there’s no way to make large companies just after profit, and a government hell-bent on letting them, do differently.
I’d be a fool to say the West has always followed this dream of mine, but it’s much more apparent that we’ve at least considered it. I take a pessimistic view of conservation efforts in China. I do this mostly because I see tons of people every time I go to a major landmark but can’t help but notice the complete lack of respect people show for the land. Everything seems to be someone else’s problem, from the litter to the noise to the unofficial trails eroded by countless explorers to the fact that the very forests themselves are recently planted after having been clear-cut.
Let it never be said that I do not appreciate that these places exist. I love that they do. There are people here who feel as I do, too; it’s just hard to find them amidst the crowd.