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December 23, 2009

Alum Stephen Barnes Reflects on Teaching Environmental Law and English: Learning About Simplicity and Harmony

A scholar once suggested that if a foreigner lived in China for one week, then the foreigner would have enough material to write a book. Stay several weeks, the scholar said, the foreigner could write an article. Live in China for one year, and the foreigner would be unable to write anything: the richness and nuances of China’s culture and history become even more overwhelming. I agree. That’s why I limit myself here to share snapshots and personal impressions of working and living in China.

As a kid growing up in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, I explored hills, mountains, and deserts, and skied through aspen glades at Sundance on Mount Timpanogos. Trees, rivers, streams, and all sorts of wildlife were part of my upbringing and were imprinted on my work as a lawyer and environmental advocate in Oregon. When I accepted a faculty position to teach law and legal English at the Harbin Institute of Technology School of Law in 2005, I was intrigued by Manchuria’s rich history, but I was especially drawn to the natural environment: the magnetic pull of the Songhua River’s poplars, pines, ginkgoes, willows, and birds, that shared the river with fishermen and farmers, as well as strollers on the urban promenades.

In November of 2005, a petrochemical plant exploded in Jilin City, discharging 50 tons of benzene into the Songhua River, threatening not only the natural habitat but also the health of Harbin’s 8 million residents. This toxin spill inspired many Chinese and me, as well, to become more active in environmental education, policy, and public participation forums. China has the laws to protect the environment. It is up to citizens’ lawyers, government officials, and NGO advocates to promote and enforce the laws to avoid a similar Songhua River incident and to protect clean water, air, ecosystems, and the climate.

I have the world’s best job. I teach administrative law, constitutional law, and international law at the China University of Political Science and Law. Most of my students are first in their family to attend university, representing two generations of educational investment. They are curious, have huge work capacity, are committed to China’s rule of law development, and are willing to challenge themselves with teaching methods previously unfamiliar to them: case analysis and group presentations. My students inspire me. I incorporate environmental themes in my courses, using the international language of English. To take advantage of law-related job opportunities as well as employment related to energy, sustainability, and environmental policy students must master legal English. That’s why I also emphasize practical writing, conversation, presentation, and job application skills in the classroom, and also in a website (“Barnes Green Book”) for China’s 400,000 law students and 130,000 lawyers.

While teaching law and legal English to students in a green context, I am also learning about the environmental values of simplicity and harmony from ordinary Chinese citizens. China has more than a 20-century head start on the principles advanced by Lao Zi and Confucius (and I suggest, they are among the world’s earliest and most prominent environmentalists), that are practiced everyday by millions of Chinese. Although China recently passed the United States in net emission of greenhouse gases, on a per capita basis, Americans discharge more than five times as much as their Chinese counterparts. While the Chinese Government develops policies and sets targets to curb carbon emissions, I believe that Americans can significantly mitigate climate change by embracing the lifestyle choices adopted by a majority of Chinese.

For a year and one half, I lived in a modest two-bedroom apartment in Beijing, located in Haidian District near the Jishuitan subway station. This living space was much smaller than my former, detached home in Oregon, yet yielded tremendous benefits: utility costs were a fraction of what I paid in the United States and maintenance expense was minimal to none. Because of a shared entry, closer unit proximities, and common areas, I was able to get acquainted with my Chinese neighbors, who became my Chinese family. My living arrangement benefitted the environment, and I thrived in a social setting. Without a car, my carbon emission was nil, as I gained 60 minutes of daily exercise on my commuter bike. Our community shared recycling bins in the compound’s courtyard. A majority of Chinese people adopt this lifestyle, enjoy these benefits, and protect the environment. A minority of Americans lives this way, and as a result, most Americans forgo the advantages and exert a disproportionate impact on the environment.

I’m aiming to do better, to simplify more.

Inspired by my Chinese contemporaries, and also the example of a 19th Century American environmentalist and writer, this summer I moved into a smaller, 20-square meter space. However, instead of retreating to the woods like the American environmentalist, I chose to dive into the city in the heart of one of Beijing’s hutongs.

On July 4, 1845, author Henry David Thoreau moved into a 15-square meter cabin that he built by himself on the wooded shores of Walden Pond, located about 25 kilometers from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he attended Harvard College. His goal: “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” and to focus on “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” Over a two-year period, Thoreau kept a journal, chronicling his return-to-nature experiment and his observations about life, reduced to its lowest terms. His notes include several references to China, including Confucius (“To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.”) Thoreau’s journal was published in book form titled Walden, which is now read by American environmentalists and is on the reading list of most high school and college literature courses.

I am also embracing simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! My “new” (Qing Dynasty) living space, located near the urban shores of Hohai, includes a bedroom, a small storage room, a sink, and shower nozzle. The entry has a gas burner for cooking. Like Thoreau, I have limited furnishings: a bed, a table, four chairs, and a closet. I share the toilet facilities with my hutongren neighbors. Because I don’t have a refrigerator, I buy produce every day, which means I eat healthily and support local farmers and sellers. I wash my clothes by hand, and hang them to dry. Though somewhat inconvenienced by the absence of modern appliances, I’m leaving little trace of my living. I control and monitor my utilities, which allow me to analyze my carbon footprint. What’s more, this tighter but more than adequate living space in the hutong< community has developed new friendships and another extended family: to-and-from work greetings, conversations, and dinner invitations. I am keeping a daily journal, and I intend to share my living details and observations in a book for Chinese and American readers.

My current living arrangement is consistent, I think, with Lao Zi’s reminders to remove distractions and to simplify. A home, the sage explains in the 11th Chapter of Tao de Ching, comprises a space with doors and windows, but it’s the emptiness (space) that makes a house function as a house. Lao Zi was on to something some 2,400 years ago and it’s time that the earth’s inhabitants, including Chinese, but especially Americans, take pause to think about how we are living and its impact on the planet.

Thousands of foreigners are issued a “Foreign Experts Certificate” by the Chinese Government, and I carry a similar crimson-colored booklet today as a law professor. My parents were also so-called “foreign experts” when they taught at Shandong University in 1984-85. However, I can’t really say we are “foreign experts,” because the term suggests there is a one-way delivery of knowledge. Rather, we “foreign experts” are both teachers and students, learning no
t only from colleagues and students but also from our everyday encounters on the streets, on buses, and in the markets and parks in the communities we live. In this re-started exchange process of 30 years, Americans and Chinese not only share knowledge with one another, but build personal friendships that promote harmony between our countries and with the planet we share.

*Stephen G. Barnes lives in Beijing and teaches law and legal English at the China University of Political Science and Law. He also participates in environmental and rule of law development projects with Chinese lawyers, judges, and educators. Stephen recently launched the Barnes Green Book (www.bgbenglish.com), an on-line resource to help students and practitioners master legal English.

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