Mao Zedong was born in these parts. Otherwise, there is little of note here in Xiangtan, in the middle of China’s Hunan province. It is typical modern China, as far as China ever gets typical: Apartment blocks and industrial parks, small fields and wide roads. One side of the road, a vegetable market and street food. The other side, fast food joints, a supermarket, and computer shops.

I love it. The challenge of sustainable development lies with normal life – how our desires and practices could contribute to sustainability, and how change towards sustainability would contribute to our–ordinary people’s–well-being.

One noticeable feature of the Chinese landscape are the small vegetable patches. Where there would be a small lawn in the West, nestled alongside apartment blocks, where bushes would be planted on low walls, let alone in the large pit left in the middle of housing development: in China, one often
finds such land used to cultivate a variety of vegetables.

These greens tell a story.

In part, this landscape is a result of China’s position as a developing country. Families are given some land to plant so there is something to fall back on. We tend to overlook how wilderness, too, functions as a potential back-up, as a source of “emergency foods.” This small-scale agriculture also provides some income, or at the very least contributes to variety on the family table. Thinking of “victory gardens” and other urban agriculture, of the present trouble and the good that some fresh, self-grown herbs and vegetables can do for improving nutrition (and decreasing cost), there is something to learn here.

China shows that there is high efficacy – nutrient recycling, food production, and jobs – in small-scale food cultivation, and that it could fit in with urbanization. Local food systems are normal here. On the downside, the effect of environmental pollution is apparent when you can see that it affects the places your food comes from.

Moreover, agricultural activities may be good honest work, but are not good jobs. So, it is predominantly old people who tend such fields. Development progresses the “normal” way: the young study at university and then look for urban jobs and consumerist lifestyles, the government aims for industrialization, pollution decreases environmental health, but lives get better over all.

Returning to the fields, thinking towards the future, there is another lesson in them: These vegetable patches create “cultured nature” with essential functions for humans out of modern marginal lands. They use space and resources effectively, as we will all have to. It is not, however, a behavior borne of a sense of responsibility to the world, or undertaken as a sacrifice for future generations. It is just life. Life based on the fact that we live in this world, as part of it. So, there is little sense in trying to divide it into “culture” here and “nature” there – especially if that meant that we would try to protect unspoiled wilderness far away while forgetting about the impact our “normal” ways of life are having.

China makes this abundantly clear: sustainable development, if it is to be meaningful to us, has to be about making lives better while protecting – better yet, even utilizing – the ecological processes that sustain them. It sounds very commonplace, but not so much has yet been achieved when it comes to integrating ourselves into Earth’s workings. In this regard, the “developed” countries are, at best, at the same level as the “underdeveloped” ones. There is a lot of work to be done – which is just what this time of economic crisis needs.