A different culture such as the Chinese is often described as even more different than the casual outside observer may assume – and not: Just imagine, you get people hoarding salt out of a rather irrational hope that it could protect from radiation, not using cellphones because they don’t want to harm their developing child (see my earlier post) – and all that, in a country with some of the worst environmental pollution.

PSA for separating trash, in Beijing

PSA for separating trash, in Beijing

It may all seem unrelated, but it is intimately related.

It may also appear quite irrational, but it does have its logic, as I’ve tried to show with the background to the salt buying-sprees because of radiation fears.

The issue is that we – whether ‘Western’ environmentalists who reduce, reuse, recycle, and then fly across continents to experience the last unspoilt wilderness, or Chinese regular folk who avoid cellphone “radiation” and panic-buy salt – follow the logic of human nature. And that beast is rational in its own way, so as to satisfy our emotional needs.

Foremost among those needs is a sense of agency – having a grip on the situation [I’ll get there shortly on www.beyond-eco.org – “the ecology of happiness”]. Thus, in the areas where we feel that we can have an influence, we do something: donate money, separate trash for recycling … avoid cellphones and buy salt.

Consider food and health, at least as much of a topic in Chinese culture as an American obsession: Many Chinese buy from local markets not only because it’s convenient, but also because you know where that food comes from. Better still, and very fittingly, you grow it yourself. If they can afford it, and have reason to trust the labels and health claims, people will also consider organic (though Chinese luxury lifestyles become a very strange beast when it comes to sustainability).

Here, it is about your health, and you can individually do something. With problems like air, water and soil pollution, you can protest, but it will bring you no good, whereas these small, immediate actions at least feel like they are relevant, and themselves are in one’s personal power.

It may not be the best you could hope for if you see the worldwide need for a change towards ways of life that actually fit in with the environment, to keep both ecosystems functioning and human lives flourishing, but it does have its logic. In China as much as everywhere else.