Going green is quite trendy these days. Local and organic farmers are being glorified (most recently by me, as I spent a blissful Saturday on an off-the-grid dairy farm), solar panels seem to be popping up everywhere, and mainstream magazines are splashing “Green Living!” articles across their glossy non-recycled covers.
Sorry my fellow Western tree-huggers. Chinese people SO have us beat.
Yeah, I’m talking about that China: The polluted, industrial, skyscraper haven that’s pumping out fossil fuels faster than doctors can diagnose new cases of asthma. It may be the most polluted country on Earth, but its citizens are greener then NPR, Al Gore, and my Mom put together.
Let’s start with food. During a recent trip to Inner Mongolia all I was served was lamb, milk tea and celery. Why? Well, celery was in season and based on all the sheep and cows I saw roaming through the streets I’m guessing that they are always in season. Throughout the rest of China I had watermelon after every single breakfast, lunch and dinner. Why? It’s local. Chinese people don’t go to farmers markets for the “atmosphere” or because Martha Stewart does. That’s just where the food is.
And the Chinese get to those watermelon stalls on bikes. Although the car market is growing at an exponential rate, bikes are still a major form of transportation. The wealthy city of Hangzhou is embracing and encouraging this green method of transport by providing bikes practically for free. Fully stocked bike shelters are positioned at every corner so riders can pick up and drop off bikes all over the city. With a quick swipe of a card, you can unlock and use a bike for an hour before fees start accumulating. As long as you remember to switch bikes every 59 minutes you can ride all day for free. In addition to limiting drivers’ licenses, this is one method of the fast-growing city’s attempt to keep the traffic in check while the subway is being installed.
And subways! You Chinese and Europeans don’t know how good you have it. If you say “subway” to someone in America, they immediately start salivating for a sandwich. Then they drive their SUV to the nearest sub shop for a tasty meal. The subway (as in the transportation device, not the sandwich) was my best friend in Shanghai. It allowed me to stay in a nicer yet cheaper hotel and still explore every inch of this Paris-of-the-East without consuming any gas. I have lofty dreams of subway lines connecting all my favorite American cities, but my Republican countrymen seem to enjoy their Ford pickups a little too much for this to be a reality.
And while subways are green, convenient, and modern, much of China’s green living is due to their status as a not-quite-developed country. Hand washing clothes is a vestige of limited means, although many parents buy their only child an expensive phone and iPad without even considering buying a washer or dryer. Laundry is hung out to dry in every building in every city throughout China. My daily jog took me past a community of mansions that all featured clotheslines in their expansive yards. The lawn maintenance staff would step around their client’s sequined tops and lacy bras as they planted expensive flowerbeds around the house.
So here we are. The Communist Chinese government chugs on towards a capitalistic modernity as Michelle Obama plots out vegetable gardens for the White House. The Chinese masses pedal their way to the supermarket as urbanites drive to co-op farms. And into a climatically challenged world we all head.