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|Written by Adam J. Smith|
|Friday, 12 March 2010 00:00|
I love those moments when you remember you're alive. They should come at the right time, at graduation ceremonies and weddings, but instead they appear unexpectedly. They usually came when I was young and had time to play and experiment with building tree houses and campfires. Now they are less frequent. I recall a time while walking through the deserted downtown of Troy, a small rust belt town in upstate New York, the derelict office buildings and factories radiated a warm brown, the names of the companies that once operated within them painted in sturdy American typographies onto the brick, all of the foliage in full bloom and the sky a wonderful blue dispersed with hundreds of tiny little white clouds. I felt connected to the world and hoped I would always feel this way from then on. Of course, the feeling faded.
My most recent experience of this feeling came while exploring the mammoth apartment block I live on. I took the elevator up to the top floor and then climbed a flight of stairs onto a terrace. I sat down surrounded by leftovvers from Chinese housewives and elderly couples: a pile of rusty coat hangers, a malnourished mandarin tree in a cracked white pot, stools covered in flaky red paint and a web of clotheslines, no longer used due to the popularity of combination washer/dryers. The sound of air conditioning, j-pop and electricity blended into the milieu, and the light of a neon sign adjacent from my building spelling BaiHua (meaning White Flower) radiated a peach-coloured light. I sat on the terrace while the stars shone through a purple sky animated with the lights of the city below. I contemplated the evolving, ever-changing universe. There is something humbling about this, the idea that things will always change.
Evolution is the law of the universe. The ability to change and the necessity to adapt is as essential to our human condition as love. This is why being in China is fascinating and somewhat frightening. The evolution of the project of civilization is visible and rapid here. Change has been made tangible. Just like one of those documentaries on plant life that speed up the opening of a flower bud or a 1950s horror movie of a monster made from Jell-o that grows before everyone's eyes devouring everything in sight. Adaptation to a landscape in flux is essential, not only for success but for survival. The rapid evolution of human society in China is not pausing for breath and is scrambling towards a precipice under threat of destroying itself.
The project of civilization is a beautiful thing, but it is also fragile. Sometimes I will travel through a city in China, then visit it again a month or so later and barely recognise it. Once a week I take a bus from Foshan to the first subway stop on line 1 of the Guangzhou Metro system. Next to the Metro station there used to be a field blockaded in by a 6-lane highway, apartment blocks and a bus/rail station. Up until about a week ago there were farmers tending their little plots of land, cultivating everything from grapes to radishes. Then earlier this week, as I sped past on a bus, I noticed the whole field of allotments had been cleared, leaving a gaping brown patch scattered with rubble and the remnants of its previous inhabitants: little plastic toys, cups, watering cans and uprooted vegetables. I imagine the land has been cleared for some impressive building project, maybe an office park or go-cart arena.
The project of civilization in China is threatened by its own development. The very people that the foundations of society are based upon, specifically farmers, have been financially shamed out of their work into the cities to seek factory work, cleaning jobs, or trades. China's population is expanding at an alarming rate (everyone is under pressure to have a child), yet food production is down and is set to decrease as more farmers move to China's booming cities. More and more arable land is devoured by sub-divisions and Burger King Drive-Thru's.
An epic example of this occurred along the Yangtze River in which the Three Gorges Dam, the largest of its kind, is being constructed. In the area where the dam's flood plain is, thousands of intricate communities, farms and many towns and cities were demolished by the very people who were living in them. The project was unprecedented in the history of the world, and at the same time, it was barely reported on. Hundreds of thousands of people were relocated to new towns and cities that are being developed up-stream.
Development in China is entropy made visible. The connectedness of the world is being severed. The diminishing returns of the globalized economy are manifest on every level, from broken communities to air pollution, to trashed cities, migraine-inducing architecture and immersive ugliness. China's citizens are experiencing a so-called "solastalgia"; a kind of home-sickness felt at home when ones surroundings are being destroyed, replaced, or degraded. The term was originally coined by the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2003, upon visiting an area of New South Wales that was witnessing large-scale open-cut coal mining, in which the residents of the region were experiencing a kind of indescribable distress caused by the negative way in which their region was changing.
We are at a point in which we are being compelled to evolve the project of civilization in a different way, in order for it to continue. While this may be a great burden, it also presents many amazing opportunities. We essentially get to rethink society and reinvent everything that we do. What could be more exciting! We have a tendency to underestimate our own abilities in the face of such a challenge. But I think we will surprise ourselves by just how adaptable, creative and accommodating we can be by this.
Adam J. Smith is a British ex-pat, living, teaching and writing in China, while exploring the changes taking shape in this nation.
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