Books: a piercing cry

In his “call to arms” for environmental NGOs, Feng Yongfeng criticises the government and examines green groups’ inadequacies. But Wang Shengnan perceives a strongly held ideology and love of nature behind the author’s words.

A Call to Arms for Non-Governmental Environmental Forces
Feng Yongfeng
Intellectual Property Publishing House, 2010

I never thought that reading Feng Yongfeng’s A Call to Arms for Non-Governmental Environmental Forces would keep me awake at night.

The Beijing environmental journalist’s book contains praise for the environmental undertaking as a whole, and examines the failings of environmental groups. It sharply criticises government, but offers constructive suggestions on how to resolve problems. Behind an angry, urgent and penetrating cry lies Feng’s strongly held ideology and love of nature.

There aren’t many books published in China about the environment, and those that exist can be classified by who writes them. One type is compiled by government and tends towards an overall strategic view, with an optimistic attitude and a praising tone. There may be a few mentions of “areas where there is still room for improvement”, but these are nowhere near adequate. 

A second type is written by academics from research institutes. Mostly highbrow, they read like academic papers, both specialised and cautious – but too remote from the public, who are excluded from those ivory towers.

Third are those produced by green NGOs, popular-science books or accounts of projects undertaken. These are more readable and understandable. Some describe an environmental issue at length, while others provide slogans and tips to encourage the adoption of a green lifestyle. But why should we do that? What is the link between the environmental crisis in the south and us in the north? Why is it so hard to push the environmental agenda forward?

If you want to find the answer to these questions, you need to read the fourth type of book, those by nature-loving independent observers of the environment. They go beyond the borders between government, organisations, sectors and projects to observe and consider nature, and provoke the reader to think. Without a doubt, Feng’s book is of this type.

Feng has always issued these cries for damaged forest and plains, for polluted waterways and grasslands, for all the “weakest points of the environment”. They come in Saving Yunnan; Environmentalism in China: Declaring War on the Development Extremists; A Nation Without Tall Trees and other reports. Here he again stands, to talk of the weak but widespread non-governmental environmental forces.

Feng does not merely shake his fists – he takes action. The NGO that he founded, Green Beagle, is already influential. So the ideas in the first section of A Call to Arms – on civil society, NGOs and action – are rooted in real practice. When one expert asserts that radical environmentalism is not an option, Feng asks: “Are there more radical environmentalists in our world, or radical developmentalists? How many radical environmentalists would be necessary to achieve their aims?”

He is also scathing in his criticism of the ideals and methods of some environmental NGOs that are “good at promises, but not fulfilling them”, and that allow themselves to lose their way or to be led by the powerful.

Criticism of the government is similarly direct. He acts as the truth-speaking child in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. When the Chinese authorities announce that the environment will be included in evaluation of officials, Feng says that “officials alone cannot protect the environment”. When a local government covers up pollution, he again points the finger: “Don’t treat the public like environmental fools.” But behind this fault-finding Feng wants the government to realise that “this era is one of public-led environmental protection”. He wants to align the interests of both government and the public.

Feng has constantly stressed the importance of non-governmental environmental forces and advocated public participation. He expresses concern about public enthusiasm for participation: if environmental information is not fully available, public opinion cannot play its role, and will be for appearances only. Feng warns that “in the past we have taken too much advantage of those channels of communication that have been open – and in consequence they have been closed. Now we have a few small cracks through which we can express ourselves – but if we do not look after them, these may also be closed.”

According to his book, genuine public participation is “locals solving local problems”, which can be achieved by developing local environmental-interest NGOs. The first step is to bring the public back in touch with nature – increasing knowledge about nature and our love for it. This is what Green Beagle and many other groups are now working towards.

The final section of Feng’s book can be seen as his sharing of his own private library. How can we read about nature? What literature will make us green? Feng recommends a number of classics, but says “the best classic is nature itself”.

In this noisy world, we hear many shouts and cries, but the one from this book strikes a deep chord. On first reading you may find Feng harsh, but his discontent and criticism are like blows to the chest. “Our heads are clear, our hearts in pain”, he writes – because of our love for this land.

Wang Shengnan is a reporter in Beijing.