配合: how do we change the world?

Yesterday, I participated in a day-long conference to promote environmentalism. I think I was invited for some combination of two reasons: I’m a recognized foreign friend of the city and anthropologists tell better stories than scientists do. Although technically, I’m a scientist, too! (Social science for the win–hee!) Anyway, the other guests have been diligently working alongside and via the government apparatus to create green spaces throughout the city. Event host, Nan Zhaoxu 南兆旭, for example, wrote The Shenzhen Natural History Encyclopedia 深圳自然博物百科 and event organizer, Meng Xiangwei 孟祥伟 has been director of the OCT Wetlands Field School since its establishment seven years ago. Their efforts have been instrumental in elevating district-level events to municipal, provincial and even national levels, not only contributing to Shenzhen’s status as China’s greenest first-tier city, but also to getting environmental sustainability on the city’s urban planning laundry list.

So, now you’re wondering: what was my takeaway from the event? Just how sustainable is Shenzhen’s environment? And what can environmentally conscious people do via an apparatus that is structured to sustain a political environment, rather than an economic let alone non-human environment? Unfortunately my thoughts are not so grand. Instead, I ended up thinking about the cultural forms of environmentalism:

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shenzhen wetlands

You may not be aware that there is a wetlands conservation area in downtown Shenzhen. Tucked away between Window of the World, Baishizhou, and the Binhai Expressway, the wetlands boasts the last bit of original coastline of Shenzhen Bay. Indeed, once upon a time, it was a guarded border. The city uses this small piece of land as a living classroom, inviting limited numbers of people in to learn about conservation and local ecology.

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on the shenzhen farm…

As in the United States, the environmental movement in Shenzhen is a call to a different way of living. Big Tree Farm supports this call to integrate vanguard science and Chinese ideas about food and identity. Come along with Shenzhen Book of Changes for a visit to the Big Tree farm:

children covered in garbage

Yesterday I participated in the 蓝海生态艺术巡游 (Make Our Seas Come BLUE) parade, which was organized by CULTaMAP‘s indomitable Tracy Lee. We marched from Statue Square to the Hong Kong Maritime Museum via Victoria Harbor. The march culminated a cross-border Hong Kong-Shenzhen pedagogical collaboration to draw attention to garbage in the oceans, children’s ability to speak to issues that will shape their future possibilities, and the responsibilities of their adults to facilitate uncomfortable conversations in safe environments. Continue reading

politicized face masks


On May 4 this year (more here), Kunming residents wore surgical face masks to protest the construction of a p-xylene factory. In response, the government issued a gentle reminder that clinics, pharmacies, and printers should use the “real name system (实名制)” to complete surgical mask sales and immediately report the transaction to the police.


Gentle Reminder to all pharmacies, clinics and printing shops in Bianbanjie Village, Jitou Township: From this day forward, if anyone comes to you to purchase large quatitities of surgical masks or to print any of the phrases “human health, petrochemical project, Pengzhou [proposed factory location], or PX”, please take down their telephone number and identity card number, and then report the transaction to either the Jitou Precint or neighborhood police station. Thank you for your cooperation. Jitou Precint telephone number: 85369511 and neighborhood police officer cell phone number: 15828585968.  

Paraxylene is an isomer of xylene, one of the most produced petrochemicals in the United States. In the toxic daisy chain of polymers, xylene is a raw material used to produce terephthalic acid, which is used to manufacture polymers, which are used to make products ranging from pantyhose to take-out containers to baking tins. Paraxylene (or PX as it is being called in Chinese) is the most commonly used isomer in the production of terephthalic acid. The major producers of p-xylene tend to locate factories in poorer regions. One of the world’s largest producers, Chevron Phillips, for example, produces p-xylene at their Pascagoula, Mississippi plant. BP owns the world’s largest single factory in Texas City.

P-xylene is highly toxic:

In humans, overexposure to xylene can cause headache, fatigue, dizziness, listlessness, confusion, irritability, gastrointestinal disturbances (nausea and loss of appetite), flushing of the face, and a feeling of increased body heat. Exposure to xylene vapors above recommended exposure limits (100 ppm – TWA) can cause irritation of the eyes, nose and throat as well as tightening of the chest and staggering gait. Severe overexposure to xylene has been reported to cause irregular heartbeat or rapid incoordinate contractions of the heart, tremors, central nervous system depression, and unconsciousness. Lethality has resulted upon exposure to 10,000 ppm. The odor threshold for xylene is reported to be 1 ppm…Aspiration of this product into the lungs can cause chemical pneumonia and can be fatal. Aspiration into the lung can occur while vomiting after ingestion of this product.

Six years ago, protests against a PX plant in Xiamen caused local authorities to cancel plans to build a processing factory. Similar protests took place in Dalian (2011) and Ningbo (2012) also resulted in authorities withdrawing plans to build PC processing plants.

The levels of pollution in many Chinese cities have resulted in many residents wearing face masks. There are also reports of face-kinis to protect skin on the beach. To date, however, the Kunming protests and government response have been the most explicit politicization of face masks.

more on smog

Previously, sections of the Municipality had reported dangerous levels of carbon diaoxide, but on April 15, 2013 and for the first time in its history, Shenzhen recorded dangerous levels of air pollution in every part of the city.

Shenzhen is not alone in its unhealthy rush to a narrowly defined standard of wealth. Indeed, concern in Shenzhen follows upon the outrageous levels of pollution that were reported in Beijing. But as David Roberts reminds us, this level of pollution is just one example of a worldwide trend:

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) program sponsored by United Nations Environmental Program asked environmental consultancy, Trucost to tally up the total “unpriced natural capital” consumed by the world’s top industrial sectors. (“Natural capital” refers to ecological materials and services like, say, clean water or a stable atmosphere; “unpriced” means that businesses don’t pay to consume them.) …The biggest single environmental cost? Greenhouse gases from coal burning in China. The fifth biggest? Greenhouse gases from coal burning in North America.

Moreover, our respective industrial sectors thrive on coal:


I feel like I parrot myself at every opportunity: the United States and China are the same country. Really. The similarities are of kind, while our differences are merely of scale. And so the question remains: how do we fix shared problems, rather than getting settling for the politics of blame?

In the Name of Shenzhen Bay

The Shenzhen Bay Fringe Festival begins on Saturday, December 4 at 3 pm with a three-hour parade. The parade route spans from the Poly Theatre in the east to the Wenxin Park Plaza in the west (behind the Nanshan Book City). Should be fun. Also, please note that during workdays, most performances and screenings will take place from 7:30 on.

For Fat Birders, there will be two outdoor performances. The short playAnimals in Motion: Flashing Animals (动物在行动之”快闪动物”) shows on Sunday, December 5 at 4 p.m. on the Shenzhen Bay walk. The second is an ongoing performance piece (5-11 Dec) – Animals in Motion: One Cat, Six Days (动物在行动之”一猫六日”) that takes place throughout Coastal City.

In the meantime, in the spirit of the hopeful creativity, I’m posting a translation of Yang Qian’s thoughts on the Fringe; the Chinese original follows.

In the name of Shenzhen Bay
Yang Qian

During the Pliocene Epoch, over 5,300,000 years ago, black-faced spoonbills already took refuge in the mangrove forrest that grew in the deep and tranquil swamps of Shenzhen Bay. Over the past few decades, the ongoing reduction of the wetlands necessary to their survival, the increasing smog of their skies, the beautiful neighborhoods incesently clammering on their coast, towering glass skyscrapers and the shocking honks of traffic have made it nearly impossible for them to nest and breed here. Nevertheless, spoonbills continue – now as before – to take wing at sunrise and return to their nests at dusk. Like a group of society-forsaking hermits, their hidden but unhurried observation bears witness to and records each and every human action.

The nine days from December 4 to 12, 2010 may bring a sense of prosperity to the human residents of Shenzhen Bay because this is where the first Shenzhen Bay International Fringe Festival is being held. These days, it is more and more difficult to find situations which might be described as prosperous, nevertheless I feel that for this arts festival, we can boast a little.

The first Fringe Festival was held in Edinburg in 1947. It’s purpose was to celebrate and generate conversations about alternative theatre. Today, the Edinburg Fringe remains the world’s most famous and largest Fringe Festival. The word “fringe” refers to the decorative edge of a garment, consisting of hanging threads or cords. In the context of the arts it refers to art that is non-official, alternative, and non-commercial. Throughout the world, many countries and regions have their own Fringe, when residents get crazy happy and artists flaunt their brilliance and creativity.

During the first Shenzhen Bay International Fringe Festival, several tens of thousands of people will participate in the arts parade, independent films will be shown, cutting edge music and theatre will be performed, and performance artists and animal protection supporters will protest animal cruelty. The organizing principals of all this celebratory play are collective participation and individual creativity, equal dialogue and free expression.

In addition, I hope that people will be pleasently surprised to discover that the arts may change one’s habitual understanding of “ecological geography”. The first Shenzhen Bay International Fringe Festival takes place at Coastal City and the surrounding area. For the past three years, this luxury shopping mall has been the destination of upscale consumors. However, during the Fringe, the focus is not anxiously desired namebrand goods, even as the conversation is not about getting a good deal. In an era of ascending consumerism, securing a free space is a battle of life and death. In contrast, during the Fringe business defers to the people, and if even for a few days, this breathing space is the kind of prosperity worth lauding.

Finally, I cannot but comment that in practice the themes of this year’s Fringe – environmental conservation, low carbon life styles, and ecological safety – are but impotent and empty talk.

To understand the scale of Shenzhen’s environmental transformation, the most direct method is to visit the NASA website and download satelite photos of the Nantou Peninsula. From 1997 to 2002, in the short span of five years, the area of the peninsula doubled in size. What was the corresponding increase in population? How much arable land was eliminated? How many wild animals and plants were lost? Who knows the answers to these questions? More to the point, who can tell us what the short and long term cumulative effects of industrialization are and will be?

Presently, the phrases “environmental protection,” “low carbon lifestyle,” and “ecological safety” are on everyone’s lips. However, when we say one thing and do another, even putting the rights, safety, and protection of consumers above those of our world, then of course we become even more hypocritical and destructive.

A sense of prosperty flourishes when we face the world with dreams and hope and live with respect and freedom. It does not grow ignoring and fearing painful and lingering death – of ourselves or of the natural world. The most valuable aspect of the Shenzhen Bay Fringe is that it provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the true meaning of prosperity. Whether or not a fringe festival celebrated in the name of Shenzhen Bay will maintain its honor and sence of well-being is not simply dependent on Shenzhen’s GDP, but more importantly depends on the future condition of the Bay itself. If human beings act in the name of place and are to do so without shame, it must be done in such a way that also benefits black-faced spoonbills and painted snipes, spoiled and abandoned pets. May all that consitute the Shenzhen Bay prosper!

以深圳湾之名 杨阡



世界上首次“艺穗节”(Fringe Festival)是1947年在英国的爱丁堡举办的,主要是边缘戏剧表演和交流的艺术节。至今爱丁堡戏剧节仍是世界上最享有盛誉的也是规模最大的“艺穗节”。艺穗的“穗”(Fringe)原意是指我们穿的衣服,戴的围巾周围作为装饰的穗子。引申到艺术活动就有了非官方、非主流、非商业的含义。如今世界上已经有许多国家和地区拥有自己的艺穗节。这是个民众狂欢和艺术家自由展示才华与创造的节日。


除此之外,我希望人们能惊喜地发现,艺术活动其实可以改变自己习惯的“生存地理学”概念。首届“深圳湾国际艺穗节”的主场地是深圳海岸城及其周边地区。这座奢华的shopping mall建成三年来一直用高档消费主导着大众周末和平日的消遣。但是由于艺术节,那些让人望而生畏的品牌将不再是焦点,压抑的标价也不再是谈话的核心。在消费主义盛行的时代,夺回自由空间是一场生死攸关的战斗。欢呼生意向民意低头,哪怕只有短短的几天时间,这也是值得夸耀的幸福。