Building an eco-friendly city to better protect humans against viruses

Wang Yong
"Big cities or city clusters make up the economic-social-geographical unit most vulnerable to conflicts between man and nature," he noted. 
Wang Yong

Ask anyone about the most impressive image of Shanghai, the answer is likely to be the Bund, or Lujiazui. No wonder. These are two hallmarks of Shanghai’s dynamic urban life.

But in the eyes of a renowned Chinese ecologist, one needs to look farther for what Shanghai is or should be as a city seated at the mouth of the Yangtze River.

“Shanghai is more than just the Bund or Lujiazui,” said Chen Jiakuan, an expert of ecology and professor emeritus of Fudan University, in a recent interview with Shanghai Observer. He suggested people further understand Shanghai from what it has done and needs to do to deliver a better ecological environment.

Different people might have different views of Shanghai, but Chen’s remarks about the city’s ecological potential merit particular attention, as the fight against the novel coronavirus has been chiefly waged in the world’s crowded urban areas.

“In China, the coronavirus first broke out in Wuhan, a major city along the Yangtze River Economic Belt,” Chen said. “Outside China, prosperous and populous mega-cities were also hard hit by the epidemic.” He gave New York, Moscow and a few other big cities as examples.

“Big cities or city clusters make up the economic-social-geographical unit most vulnerable to conflicts between man and nature,” he noted. “Shanghai has to do its best to become an eco-friendly city conducive to sustainable growth.”

Unlike many previous environmental problems that were regional by nature, such as air and water pollution, the coronavirus has spread across the globe without distinct regional characters. The pandemic, Chen said, resulted from a deeper conflict between human beings and nature’s biological viruses.

“The coming of the coronavirus with a vengeance shows that conflicts between man and nature have developed from what concerns ecology and environment on the surface to what involves biosecurity at a deeper level,” he said.

In retrospect, the history of human progress was for a long time one of man “battling” nature, he said.

Human-nature conflicts

Man and nature did achieve a relatively harmonious relationship in an agricultural civilization, but everything changed in an ever-consolidating industrial civilization that saw more and more people and production moving to cities, causing unprecedented human-nature conflicts, such as those that happened in London and Los Angeles in the 1950s.

In some ways, human plundering of the planet has continued into the 21st century. In his book “The Future of Life” (2002), award-winning American biologist Edward Wilson wrote: “The natural world in the year 2001 is everywhere disappearing before our eyes — cut to pieces, mowed down, plowed under, gobbled up, replaced by human artifacts.”

As if writing a letter to Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), Wilson further said in his book: “No one in your time could imagine a disaster of this magnitude. Little more than a billion people were alive in the 1840s. They were overwhelmingly agricultural, and few families needed more than two or three acres to survive. The American frontier was still wide open. And far away on continents to the south, up great rivers, beyond unclimbed mountain ranges, stretched unspoiled equatorial forests brimming with the maximum diversity of life.”

Switching to a melancholier tone, Wilson then noted: “These wildernesses seemed as unattainable and timeless as the planets and stars. That could not last, because the mood of Western civilization is Abrahamic. The explorers and colonists were guided by a biblical prayer: May we take possession of this land that God has provided and let it drip milk and honey into our mouths, forever.” Here Wilson might have gone a bit too far in singling out what he called the Abrahamic mood. In fact, industrial civilization, especially that featuring unchecked urban sprawls at the expense of wilderness, has been a common practice in many parts of the world. It requires humankind’s collective reflection upon what it has done to biological diversity.

In an article published in the People’s Daily in March, a senior researcher in Shanghai pointed out that, as a city’s space for biological diversity shrinks due to urban construction, its risk of public health rises. In contrast, biosecurity that comes along with biodiversity translates into a better environment for human health.

Diversity helps pandemic fight

“Biosecurity helps reduce the chance of an outbreak of infectious diseases,” wrote Cheng Jin, an associate researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. “Studies have found that infectious diseases are less likely to break out in biologically diverse areas.”

Both Cheng and Chen agreed that Shanghai had made progress in promoting biodiversity, though there’s room for improvement.

For example, as Cheng noted, afforested areas have greatly expanded in the city since 2000. Chen from Fudan said Shanghai is rich in wetland resources and ranks top among the world’s mega-cities in terms of bird diversity.

In 2005, Chen translated Wilson’s book “The Future of Life” into Chinese. Like Wilson, Chen has been thinking of the future of life, said Shanghai Observer. Both believe there’s a hope.

Wilson wrote: “The situation is desperate — but there are encouraging signs that the race can be won ... The living world is dying; the natural economy is crumbling beneath our busy feet. We have been too self-absorbed to foresee the long-term consequences of our actions, and we will suffer a terrible loss unless we shake off our delusions and move quickly to a solution.”

He pinned his hope on humankind’s collective moral stewardship in applying science and technology for the benefit of coexistence of all living beings.

For us all to act on the right path, we first need to understand why we are not only physically healthier but also spiritually happier in an eco-friendly environment. We need to see how biosecurity sustains our soul as well as our body.

Here it is helpful to read a few passages from Thoreau’s “Walden,” which explained why he went to the woods to front what he called the most essential of life. “A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts …” he wrote. “We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it … In a pleasant spring morning all men’s sins are forgiven. Such a day is a truce to vice.”

It’s the capacity for tolerance Thoreau learned from the woods that empowers all kinds of our noble pursuits. There in the woods he learned to respond to nature with the “innocence of infancy.”

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