by Lewis Linker
December 15, 2009
China is a country of mixed messages. I noticed on my first night in Beijing that in the sink of my hotel bathroom was a large red sign with an international red circle and slash over a picture of a drinking water glass. Clearly, an indication not to drink the water. Next to it were two drinking water glasses that were set out ready for use.
The theme of mixed messages seems to sum up the dichotomy in China between increasing prosperity on one hand, and huge environmental problems on the other. Sure, there’s a growth, but increasingly voices are being raised about the air that can’t be breathed, and the water that can’t be drunk. One hears, “Where’s the fish? They were here in my father’s day.” With the growing prosperity in China, one also hears, “This is my air clean it up!” or, “This is my river – fix it!
For us in the Chesapeake region, this sounds all too familiar. In fact, there are parallels to where we were in this region in the 1970s and 1980s, when the environment all around us seemed to be heading irretrievably downhill. It was about then that citizens here said “Enough!” and started restoring the Chesapeake Bay, just about one decade after the citizens of the entire country said “Enough!” on the first Earth Day in 1970, and we began the long process of cleaning up our air and waters. China now seems to be on the cusp of that same decision.
This, then, was the backdrop for the Chesapeake Bay Program’s visit to Beijing this April, when we spoke with Chinese scientists and managers from three different agencies about setting up China’s first watershed program. In this workshop, there were three federal-level Chinese agencies, roughly equivalent to our EPA, Department of Agriculture, and U.S. Geological Survey, as well as provincial and local government representatives. People from these different agencies were meeting together for the first time and taking about the first watershed program ever in China.
They were totally wowed with the Bay Program's work as we relayed the different tools of research, monitoring and modeling we used in the Chesapeake. At the close of a week of intense discussion and technology transfer, we left them charged up, and convinced that they're on the right track with this new watershed approach. They were going to first apply it to the Bo-Hai basin, a watershed of 123,000 square miles that contains the mega cities of Beijing, Tianjin, and the adjacent coastal bay. With what they learned in the Bo-Hai basin, they’ll expand to other watersheds in China.
This is an example of an environmental jump-start, similar to the economic leapfrogging the Chinese have mastered. We can hope that their watershed programs avoid our mistakes, and profit from our successes. For example, we shared with our Chinese colleagues our knowledge of atmospheric deposition, the highest nutrient input load to the Chesapeake watershed. Higher than fertilizer loads. Higher than manure loads. And about a third of the nitrogen load delivered to the Chesapeake.
Our Chinese hosts were incredulous and suggested that this could not be a feature of Chinese watersheds. We suggested, in the face of evidence of rapidly expanding industrialization with little or no controls of nitrogen oxide emissions, that the nitrogen deposition in China may be on the order of about 20 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare. The older, more experienced Chinese professionals were most skeptical. Point sources, manure and fertilizer loads, they knew, and they planned to track these loads in their nascent watershed program. They even had work underway to track “village loads,” a euphemism for human wastes used as fertilizer in agricultural fields, still a feature of Chinese small plot village agriculture. But atmospheric deposition loads of nitrogen? They just couldn’t believe it.
The very next day one of the bright Chinese managers found a reference for an atmospheric deposition study in China. The verdict? Serendipity and happenstance put that referenced Chinese atmospheric deposition load right at 20 kilograms per hectare, the load we has suggested just the previous day as what may be found in China. The Bay Program’s reputation was secured!
That bright young manager was one of what we’ll call the “young innovators”: up-and-coming men and women from junior management with a whole career ahead of them and ready to move up. My impression was that the young innovators were the key to China’s environmental future. These mid-level managers seemed to be the most eager to learn about the Bay Program’s long-established triad of monitoring, modeling and research that develops the plans that drive implementation of restoration efforts in the Chesapeake. We shared with them the importance of open-source, public-domain data, information, models and analysis.
Most importantly, we shared with them the idea that information wants to be free. That is, the power of information is magnified and more fully applied when it’s available to all, and we have “every brain in the game.” The status quo in China today is that Chinese agencies use information as a zero sum game. They think, “If I have the information, then I know something that you don’t, and if you want that information you’re going to have to pay for it.” This is no way to run a watershed program! Imagine what would happen to our Chesapeake partnership if USGS, NOAA, EPA, and every state agency wanted to be paid for the data that they collected as part of their publicly funded mission?
China clearly needs to innovate, throw out their old-think that “power comes from tightly held information” business model, and become more “Google-like.” China needs to ask, “What would Google do?” Google’s business model is to develop useful information and then give it away. Hence, these Google products: Google Search, Google Earth, Google Maps, Google Images, Gmail, You Tube, and Google just about everything.
This develops a huge customer base that Google uses for subtle targeted ad placement.
Public agencies, especially in China, need to think of how to best apply a form of this business model. Public agencies like ours don’t advertise, of course, but we do need to reach people with information, make it downloadable, web-browsable, relevant and useful. And so we also want to build a large customer base just the same as Google.
For China, and for us at the Bay Program, the “What Would Google Do?” questions take the form of:
- How can information best move down to the smallest units of decision-makers (i.e., citizens/local governments)?
- How do we move innovation better, faster, and into more hands, at the same time learning from the interaction of having “every brain in the game”? And how do we best harness the power of many eyes and minds?
- What can we learn from others and how can we build an effective two-way street so that our customers can help shape the product?
There’s reason for hope in China’s new watershed program and other environmental programs. They’re learning from us and they’re anxious to begin the hard work. I was questioned by a Chinese Department of Agriculture colleague who works at the local level to encourage rural villages to install biogas digesters for human and animal manure. He asked me, “Why aren’t these beneficial biogas digesters more widely adopted in American villages?” He had little understanding of how North American large-scale agriculture works and how it’s different from the small-scale village plot farming in China, but the man’s drive and passion to implement good environmental management practices in Chinese villages was clear.
Change and environmental restoration won’t come easy in China. It’ll be one village biogas digester at a time, along with a hundred different types of best management practices. But it can come. Like with the Chesapeake Bay, the Chinese will need to gird themselves for a long, hard struggle. But given time, a lot of hard work, and a chance for the young innovators to apply their skills and passion, change will come.
Read part two of this blog series.