What China is doing right environmentally

James McDaniel

Phil McKenna, class of ’99, gave the final talk of the Spoerl Lecture series Wednesday, Feb. 11. Graduating with a degree in history and a minor in Chinese, McKenna went on to get his master’s degree in science writing at MIT.
He currently works as a freelance environmental journalist, working as a correspondent for New Scientist magazine, among others. While at Lawrence, McKenna actively participated in Greenfire and lived in the ORC house. McKenna explained, “Where I am today really all started at Lawrence.”
Wednesday’s talk focused on “What China is Doing Right Environmentally,” discussing three topics that McKenna has worked on in the past: solar water heaters, rescuing endangered monkeys and water conservation.
China’s growth since the 1980s raised demands for energy several fold. China builds two to three new coal power plants each week. At the same time, McKenna explained, China has 63 percent of global solar hot water heating capacity.
McKenna highlighted these figures with images of a town he visited near Beijing, where over 90 percent of their downtown area depends on solar water heaters for water heating. McKenna noted that several Chinese companies have made their water heaters cheap and affordable throughout the country.
In an entirely different situation, McKenna traveled to the steamy jungles of Guangxi province in the southwest, which borders Vietnam. There he worked under Pan Wenshi, the founding father of conservation biology in China. Wenshi’s work has recently revolved around white-headed langurs, small monkeys that live in the semi-tropical forests and limestone karsts of Guangxi.
Over the past few decades, these monkeys faced extinction, but due in part to Wenshi’s work on poverty alleviation and education in the area, the monkeys are beginning to bounce back from the brink.
Local farmers had encroached on the langurs’ habitat, cutting down the forest for firewood. Wenshi worked to install methane capture systems to provide gas-fuel, eliminating the need to encroach on the forest.
McKenna’s third highlight of China’s progress environmentally sent him to the dry arid climate of Gansu province, located in northwest China. This area used to be part of the Silk Road connecting China to Central Asia and Europe, but now the area faces intense desertification, receiving only 30 centimeters of rain per year.
On his visit there, McKenna discovered that in the late ’80s, the government began teaching people how to build home rainwater collectors to combat the lack of water during droughts and dry spells.
Today, the people of Gansu province have nearly perfected their water system and are implementing it on larger scales. Projects have moved from simple rain collection systems to large greenhouses, which extend to the growing season, and the use of solar ovens, which can be used to boil water for purification. Some African countries have even started to use this model of water collection for guidance.
What’s next for Phil McKenna? He plans to return to China Mar. 1 to catch up with Pan Wenshi, with whom he is writing a book. The book will focus on China and environmental ethics, looking at the connection between poverty and environmental degradation. For more information or to see what Phil McKenna is up to, visit his blog at http://philmckenna.blogspot.com/