In his talk ‘Public perceptions of air pollution in China’, Bryan Tilt asks: how do people see the air pollution problem in China? This huge question is Tilt’s part of the CAS project Airborne: Pollution, Climate Change, and New Visions of Sustainability in China.

Tilt starts his talk reminding the audience of China’s incredible growth the past decades: the country’s GDP has grown at a rate around ten percent per year since the early 1980s. The economy has slowed down to about six to seven percent growth in the last year or two, but this is still much higher than most developed countries (e.g., Western Europe, United States), he explains.

– So, it is important to think environmental changes, like pollution, in the context of rapid economic growth.

Tilt’s research method is mainly interviews and surveys. When asking Chinese people about quality of life, they unequivocally answer that life is much better than before.

– On the other side, they meet environmental challenges never seen in human history.

Bryan Tilt held a seminar during lunch for all the scholars at CAS Oslo.

Too poor to be green?

The Mandarin speaking anthropologist says that one of the great advantages of being part of the CAS project is that he gets to go outside of his field, emphasizing that the project is multidisciplinary and multinational.  

Read also: Air pollution in China: Poor people likely to be worst off

Tilt explains that the dominant paradigms in current literature on environmental perceptions suggest that a person must have reached a certain level of economical comfort in order to deal with environmental issues: ‘Too poor to be green’, as Juan Martinez-Alier puts it.

– There is little research on whether this applies to China, Tilt says, and wants to explore just that.

Tilt presents two case studies where he has been researching the perceptions of air pollution: southwestern Chinese rural province Sichuan (see map at the bottom of the article) and the urban city Tangshan in northern China. His method is mainly interviews, but ten years ago he also decided to monitor the air quality in Sichuan with a pump that would filter out PM 2, 10 (small particles that go straight to the lungs).

– The pump stopped working after a day! It was overloaded with particles.

In rural and poorer areas people want to protect the environment because they rely on it for their food and their income, Bryan Tilt says. Here from Sichuan, a southwest Chinese rural province.

He also does standardized surveys, where people are asked to range what risk they see themselves being exposed to.

– People in rural areas, especially areas that are quite poor, tend to be concerned about the effects of pollution on their livelihoods, Tilt says.

‘Eating from the mountain’ is a phrase he often heard during his research:

– This phrase is a fairly common way of talking about the environment from a utilitarian perspective. In other words, people want to protect the environment because they rely on it for their food and their income.

Environmental quality ranked above jobs and income

Tangshan is a city of many millions, and it has a rising middle class. During the 2008 Bejing Olympics, factories were sent to this city. Tilt worked together with his student, Xiaoyue Li, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology from Oregon State University, USA.

Interviews and surveys allowed them to understand Tangshan residents’ perceptions of pollution, and to compare them with those from rural Sichuan.

Li, who is originally from Tangshan, administered the interviews and surveys, and the two of them are publishing their findings in an issue of The China Quarterly, along with other Airborne project members.

Tilt asked inhabitants what quality of life means for them:

– In the research in Tangshan, we found that perceptions of pollution were connected to other aspects of quality of life, including health, children, family, etc., he explains.

Among middle class urban citizens, environmental quality was ranked as more important than jobs and income.

– Most of our study participants belonged to the middle class, and many of them felt that economic development, such as having a good job and making a good salary, was important, but that environmental quality needed to be a higher priority.

He quotes one of his informants saying ‘I haven’t seen stars for years– the sky is all grey’.

Tilt lists up what needs to be understood by scholars working on air pollution in China: perception and knowledge of pollution; strategies and actions to combat pollution; legal and regulatory structures.

Karoline Kvellestad Isaksen