How volunteers can help freedom of information

Transparency regulations for business and government will help China’s ailing environment, writes Lu Dongting. But they will not go far enough, unless they incorporate the important work of environmental volunteers.

The new transparency regulations, recently released by China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA),have generated a lot of debate. But reading the document, I found myself asking: “If we only end up reading official information, what is the point in transparency?”

Successful public participation in environmental policy-making requires that relevant information is made freely available, and resulting public opinion is taken into account. 

Environmental protection is often restricted to the actions of business and government. Businesses are required to make environmental information public, and the government now discloses regional environmental information with greater detail than before. This lets the public know where pollution is coming from, and helps them understand the overall local situation 

This information will help the public learn about environmental protection. The more detailed it is, the better the public will be able to form their own opinions – and participate to a greater degree in environmental decision-making.

The public can acquire environmental information in various ways; waiting for the government or business to provide it is only one method. The public can also take the initiative: seeking out information; surveying the environment situation; and using its own potential to educate itself. It is like the difference between passive models of education: where children sit at desks, trying to absorb what the teacher tells them; and active methods where the students use their own initiative to learn. 

The public often complain that government fails to supply what they need, as if they cannot supply it themselves. Sometimes I think the public is indolent, almost proud of its lack of interest. What kind of society is this, where 1.3 billion people go no further than read official pronouncements and accept them, regardless of their accuracy or detail? Can the people only gain knowledge the government hands down to them?

We live in an age of democracy and individual initiative, with extremely successful NGOs at work, yet the government is still the largest “public interest organisation”. The people should not just rely on its announcements, they should create them. We should all work together to gain accurate knowledge of the society in which we live.  

Certain Chinese environmental organisations have been carrying out long-term public education projects. An important method is to bring the public closer to nature, appreciating its beauty through activities such as bird-watching, or understanding its problems by carrying out surveys of water pollution. We can gain an understanding and respect for nature, and its majesty and mystery. And learning about nature’s problems – which are mainly the consequences of human actions – can engender a sense of responsibility and consideration of how to improve the environment.

There has been a certain degree of success. Many people now understand their local environment, and are able to identify sources of pollution or consider environmental issues from a wider point of view. The number of volunteers is increasing annually, with some becoming experts. 

But problems remain. There is still no national network of environmental organisations. All Chinese cities of a certain size should have robust organisations that can teach locals about their environment, but even provincial capitals often lack such a group. Organisations such as science committees, university departments, forestry and water departments should be facilitating public learning and gathering environmental information, but they are not. There is also a lack of continuity: many groups launch a flurry of short-term projects, but fail to sustain them and do little to build up their reputation. Future society will require “public environmental service providers”, groups will need to gather and monitor information about the local environment to build public credibility. This must be done in a systematic, long-term manner. Activities should be held weekly, and each event should cover a different aspect of nature-watching. The organisation should mobilise and organise the public: they should find and work with local experts, participate in and draw attention to local debate. 

It is a Herculean task that SEPA and local environmental authorities are faced with. They need to help develop local environmental organisations so they can undertake this work. It is quite simple: let local people provide the funding, participate in the projects and share the results. Then produce a regular overview of the national environmental situation as revealed through volunteer efforts, which can complement information released by government and business. This is essential for effective public participation in environmental decision-making. 

The public do not lack intelligence, ability, or even funding – they just lack the organisation to actively participate. Environmental organisations can help the public and government do more for transparency of environmental information; all that is needed is to establish these local organisations as soon as possible. Those that exist should be re-invigorated; and where they do not exist, they should be brought into being.


Dongting Lu is a Beijing-based reporter.

Homepage photo by Shanghai Sky