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The Silver Lining to China’s Cloud of Smog

Urban dwellers in China report greener behavior.

Chinese apartment building

Chinese urbanization has occurred at an unprecedented rate. “If current trends hold,” says a 2009 McKinsey report, “nearly one billion people will live in [Chinese] urban centers by 2025,” bringing challenges related to land, energy, water, and the environment. But a new study from Michigan State University suggests there’s a silver lining to the clouds of urban smog in China: City life appears to make Chinese residents better environmentalists. The study is published in the latest edition of the British journal Environmental Conservation.

The study examines whether people in the last year engaged in certain pro-environmental behavior: sorting recyclables, recycling plastic bags, discussing the environment with friends and family, volunteering at environmental organizations, or taking part in environmental litigation. It turned out that dwellers of China’s largest cities–Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin, for instance–were more likely on average to engage in behaviors like these than people in smaller cities or rural dwellers.

Moreover, the study found that it wasn’t just the urban rich who concerned themselves with such hoity-toity behaviors as recycling milk cartons. “”You don’t have to be rich to consider environmental issues,” said Xiaodong Chen, one of the researchers, in a press release. “Even if people are poor and their material needs are not as well met, they still consider the environmental quality because those people may be threatened more by environmental problems.”

What, fundamentally, is driving the pro-environmental behavior? Education, and the good models set by others. Urban dwellers have more access to educational initiatives encouraging green behavior and are more likely to be exposed to journalistic reports or PSAs on the topic. According to the study, the Chinese workplace appears to also hold considerable influence–the study notes that workplace leaders tend to report the greenest behavior of all.

Jianguo Liu, the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability at MSU and a co-author on the paper, says that the behaviors described in the paper aren’t enough to counterbalance the effects of massive urbanization on the environment. “However, they are important and badly needed,” he tells Fast Company. “Even baby steps are
necessary and helpful. They can generate cumulative and cascading
effects.”

[Image: Sue Nichols, Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability at Michigan State University]

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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