Living with pollution and citizen science in rural China - Anna Lora-Wainwright

Environmental health is an urgent global issue. Building on her long-term work on experiences of illness, since 2007 Anna began to research the extent to which Chinese villagers regard pollution as a cause of illness and with what consequences. Citizen activism against pollution has attracted the attention of the media and the government alike. Although most environmental suffering takes place far from the purview of journalists, courts and NGOs, the daily grind of “living with pollution” has received scant attention. If we are to truly understand citizens’ potential for aiding environmental protection, more attention is required to grasp how they evaluate the costs and benefits of the development often coupled with pollution.  Anna’s work fills this gap and explores their hugely diverse everyday struggles (see special collection Dying for Development, 2013) through unprecedented access to severely polluted sites and fruitful collaborations with other disciplines and with local governments. Anna looks beyond high-profile cases of successful resistance and focuses on the much more common scenarios in which pollution victims suffer in silence, are unsuccessful at ending pollution, or are co-opted by polluting enterprises into seeing it as inevitable.

Studies of environmental consciousness have tended to focus on urban middle classes, giving the false impression that rural populations are either unaffected, do not know or do not care. Anna’s research overturns this bias to show that rural Chinese do not accept pollution in their vicinity out of ignorance but often out of economic benefits and dependency on the polluting firms or out of desperation and inability to obtain redress. This project explores the growth of ‘citizen science’ in rural China, mapping villagers' efforts to gather scientific evidence of pollution and to articulate knowledge of pollution in alternative ways. In doing so, it develops a more nuanced perspective on citizens' agency and revisits concepts drawn from collective contention and comparative environmental justice. This work illuminates people’s deep ambivalence about development and modernisation and some of the new fault lines of inequality and social conflict which they generate. Against purely economistic analyses, Anna shows that the extent of resistance against pollution is not only an economic decision but also a deeply social and moral one. Describing a likely widespread scenario across much of industrialised rural China, this work provides a window onto the staggering human costs of development and the deeply uneven distribution of costs and benefits. It showcases the value of in-depth anthropological research within larger interdisciplinary and intervention-oriented projects. As a whole, it contributes to comparative environmental justice studies and complements their current Western and urban bias.

The British Inter-University China Centre (BICC) phase 1, the Environmental Cultures Network (BICC phase two), the Social Science Research Council, the British Academy, the Leverhulme Trust, the Contemporary China Studies Programme (Oxford, supported by the Leverhulme Trust), and the John Fell OUP Fund supported extensive fieldwork in three seriously polluted sites and interdisciplinary collaborations with Chinese colleagues at Yunnan University, Shantou University, Hohai University, China’s Agricultural University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Anna has been involved since 2007 with the SSRC's China Environment and Health Initiative (CEHI), which is designed to bring together social scientists working on these issues. As part of this initiative, she led a project on 'citizens' perceptions of rural industrial pollution and its effects on health', which included scholars from legal and political science, anthropology, sociology and public health as well as a Chinese NGO, the Yunnan Health and Development Research Association (YHDRA).  She is also part of an interdisciplinary research project supported by CEHI (with colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and China’s Agricultural University) involving close collaboration with the local government in a lead mining town. This project provides unique insights into knowledge production and exchange between academia, government and citizens and into the challenges of intervention-oriented research. Anna is collaborating with Ajiang Chen (Hohai University) to research how evidence of high cancer rates in “cancer villages” is mobilized and contested by various stakeholders and document the development of lay-expert collaborations and citizen science in rural China. Two related projects (on e-waste and on resistance to waste incineration) also feed into the wider theme of living with pollution and citizen science.

This collaboration between disciplines and with members of China's civil society fosters a deep understanding of the mechanisms by which environmental health governance works and why it may fail to do so. This research is of vital importance to policy makers, NGOs and the broader community, and Anna is strongly committed to disseminating such work beyond academia through widening participation initiatives, public talks and research collaborations. This project also feeds directly into Anna’s teaching for the graduate option on environmental movements in China.

Publications related to this project appeared in The China Quarterly, The China Journal, PACE Environmental Law Review , Evidence and Policy and several more are under way. The William and Victor Fung Foundation provided funds for assistance with data analysis. A Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship and a residency at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio in 2014 support work on a monograph (in preparation) titled Living with pollution in rural China – an ethnographic perspective. This work explores how villagers experience environmental health risks, whether they accept them and why. It presents a nuanced understanding of citizens’ agency, its motivations, its changing parameters and its limited effectiveness.

This work was presented at: University of Northumbria, University of Plymouth, Westminster University, University of Sussex, University of Bristol, University of Oxford, Forum on Health, Environment and Development (Beijing), SSRC Summer School (Xiamen and Kunming), Eco-Health Biennial Conference (Kunming), Shantou University, Hohai University, Association of Asian Studies Annual Meeting (San Diego), American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting (Seattle),  American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting (Chicago), Rachel Carson Center (Munich), McGill University and Halle (Max Planck Institute).

Anna welcomes inquiries from potential doctoral candidates and post-doctoral researchers interested in collaborating on various aspects of environmentalism in China.

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