As China’s economy grows, the environmental problems faced by the country keep pace. Between coal mining, water scarcity, and air pollution, public awareness of environmental issues and desire for a cleaner, healthier world have become more and more amplified. However, the growing middle class is dependent on an expanding economy, one which requires energy to keep the machine running. China has met its energy demand by consuming more fossil fuels, further increasing carbon emissions.
When environmentalists talk about carbon, they are usually referring to how fossil fuel consumption causes climate change. The problem with using “energy” when discussing environmental issues is illustrated by the latest favorite catchphrase for politicians: “energy independence.” It is becoming clear that in an economy-centered world, a truly reliable source of energy is just as good as “independence,” as it strengthens trade relations and effectively binds economic prosperity with energy security.
The trans-Siberian train is a dream trip for some, an escape across continents for others, and just a normal passenger train for the majority of people who make a living working abroad, as migrant workers, or by trade between China, Mongolia, and Russia. My motives fell somewhere between the first and second as I took the train the non-traditional route, westwards out of Beijing.
Now, coming from the west there are a few different routes: two from Vladostok on the Russian pacific, one that traverses all of Siberia north of Lake Baikal called BAM that cuts the transit time, the other south of the lake; and then two from Beijing, one via Mongolia and the other through Manchuria.
I was leaving Beijing and opted for Mongolian landscapes out my window. My destination: Irkutsk, Russia. Some say, as my mom told me, that Irkutsk is the Paris of Siberia. But when I got there the locals didn’t really care for this comparison. They were also much kinder to me than Parisians, and I speak French! I didn’t feel the similarities with Paris, though Irkutsk is beautiful and especially on a grey night with a light mist. Anyway, I digress.
Originally published for Dispatches International
With so much economic growth in such a short amount of time, China is in constant cultural flux. In prior generations, people were impoverished; now, obesity is a problem. The effect of adding a middle class to Chinese society has shifted China’s stance to being not only the leading manufacturer of goods, but also the largest consumer in the world.
With the smog surrounding large Chinese cities due to coal burning, the environmental impact of this production and consumption becomes unfortunately clear. There are, however, forces to combat this impending environmental risk that are becoming trends for positive social change in China. These include participation in environmentalism and artistic design. A combination of these is called “upcycling.”
85-year-old Mrs. Lang crafts baby shoes from clothing that would otherwise go to waste. She has not heard of the term ‘upcycling’ but practices its tenets daily.
Suvi Rautio, who runs Upcycle Beijing, elaborates. “Upcycling moves materials back up the supply chain to be reused and re-purposed with higher value and without degradation to their latent value. By upcycling materials, people rethink the concept of waste and a product’s life cycle.”
The concept is simple. Upcycling goes beyond recycling: while recycling a wine bottle requires energy to be spent in collection, transportation, and transformation, upcycling a wine bottle requires less energy and will make that specific bottle something worth more than it was for its original purpose. An example of upcycling would be turning the wine bottle into a lantern or candle holder.