Global Environmental Winds: The Chinese Legacies of an Ostensibly North American Creation

By Michael J. Hathaway §

In 2002 Greenpeace opened a Beijing office, surprising many who imagined that the Chinese state, in its zeal for absolute rule , would not allow Greenpeace on their soil. Many people regard environmentalism as a Western export and China as a country especially antagonistic to the environment. Greenpeace’s confrontational style was seen as untenable in a nation known for its intolerance of dissent. I, however, saw the development as somehow fitting; an ironic recirculation, albeit in different form, of Greenpeace’s radical sixties origins, deeply inspired by China’s own Cultural Revolution.

Greenpeace Coal
Greenpeace-China protesting at a Chinese power plant. Recent Greenpeace campaigns point out that vast amounts of energy are consumed in running, heating and cooling the data centers that make up “cloud computing.” In the year 2012, NRDC estimated that in the U.S. alone, 75 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity were consumed, some of it by coal power. ( Image from:

This connection between China and Greenpeace suggests that we might understand “the global” and “globalization” somewhat differently. In environmental anthropology, we often view the global conservation as largely Western, from the Yellowstone-style imposition of wilderness to neoliberal conservation. Although true in many ways, environmental organizations and social movements owe far more to transnational events and engagements than we tend to realize. I explored this topic in my recent book, Environmental Winds: Making the Global in Southwest China (University of California Press). My ongoing research with Chinese experts, officials, and villagers as well as expatriate conservationists examines how environmentalism China emerged as a social force since the mid-1980s. Many accounts of international conservation projects cast these as an imposition, resisted by local people. In China, I found less resistance and more engagement with environmentalism, which was more diffuse than a few projects, but part of a larger social change often described as a “wind.” This wind was metaphorical, not one that happened regardless of human presence, but a force created and shaped by human actions. Winds travel, and they can grow strong, transform and dissipate. The wind metaphor was applied to domestic events, such as the Cultural Revolution or other social events that swept people up and shaped their lives.

Auto repair class at Breakaway: A Women’s Liberation School in Emeryville, California, 1973. The teacher is still an auto mechanic in San Francisco. Photograph by Cathy Cade/Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

Only when I returned to the U.S., however, did I understand how winds offered a way to understand transnational social change. One day in Michigan, a 55 year old Euro-American radical feminist told me that the idea of China was absolutely critical for her work. Some of her friends chimed in, talking of Chinese female tractor drivers and scientists. One said, “China created a divorce law in 1950, but we were in New York and you couldn’t even get legally divorced until after 1966, unless you could prove your spouse cheated on you.” Another added, “We borrowed the term “liberation” from the Chinese, who were always talking about it, even naming their army the People’s Liberation Army.” Many of the activities that feminists employed, such as study circles, consciousness-raising groups, and “speaking bitterness” (speaking about one’s difficulties) were borrowed from China. Women sought to grasp the difficulties of being women, the “problem that has no name.” Many feminists sought to understand this problem as patriarchy, and move from individual experience to theorizing it as a social institution, which would then be capable of being named and transformed.

Cultural Revolution woodcuts of a female scientist and a tractor driver on stationery used by Redstockings, a socialist feminist organization based in New York. Courtesy of Redstockings.

Carol Hanisch, who coined the expression, “the personal is political,” told me that she was strongly influenced by Maoism. She and her peers read Mao’s Little Red Book, and used many references to China in their pamphlets and posters. Hanisch’s expression catalyzed new forms of political protest. Although a massive corpus of writing now exists on this movement, I only found several articles analyzing China’s indirect yet powerful role. Ironically, many contemporary Chinese feminists also see feminism as a Western invention: these transnational histories are little known even in China itself. This phenomena is broadly true of this time period. Alice Echols writes that American scholars tend to produce “histories of … ‘the sixties’… [as] a primarily American phenomenon” (2009:487). Her observation instantiates a tendency to view nations as sealed containers—where important events happen domestically and not through international affairs—and to focus on the West, or in particular America as the origin of international dynamics, not only for feminism, but also civil rights and environmentalism.

In terms of civil rights, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s contributions are better known than the Black Power movement. Each was inspired by “Third World Revolutionaries:” King more by Mahatma Gandhi and Black Power groups more by Mao Zedong. King employed Gandhi’s civil disobedience and non-violence whereas others drew on Mao’s confrontational style. Before Nixon traveled to China, several Black Panthers had already returned from China, buoyed by support and inspiration. Robert Williams promoted the Black Panthers’ dramatic use of guns to gain media attention and perform black masculinity. Williams left the U.S. for Cuba and later China. He died in Michigan the year I arrived, working at the Center for Chinese Studies. A documentary film about his life, Negroes with Guns, is available.

We also need to question stories about the origins and spread of environmentalism. Richard Grove has argued against seeing global environmentalism as an American invention stretching from Henry David Thoreau and John Muir (1992). We can see different genealogies, distinguishing conventional groups like the Sierra Club from Greenpeace with origins in grassroots activist environmentalism, which emerged from a Chinese-influenced counter-culture movement. Before working to “save the whales,” Greenpeace focused on stopping nuclear tests. They used confrontational tactics and staged dramatic events, drawing from techniques used by feminists and civil rights activists. They were influenced by new winds of change from China and elsewhere, which continue to shape how Greenpeace-China carries out its work today. This brief story, I suggest, hints what we know as conservation today is both transnational and diverse in form as well as influence.

Works Cited:
Bier, Laura. “Feminism, Solidarity, and Identity in the Age of Bandung.” In Making a World After Empire: The Bandung Moment and Its Political Afterlives, edited by Christopher Lee. Pp. 143–72 Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2010.
Echols, Alice. “Across the Universe: Rethinking Narratives of Second-Wave Feminism.” In New World Coming: The Sixties and the Shaping of Global Consciousness, edited by Karen Dubinsky, Catherine Krull, Susan Lord, Sean Mills, and Scott Rutherford, 406–10. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2009.
Grove, Richard H. “Origins of Western Environmentalism.” Scientific American 267, no. 1 (1992): 42–47.

Michael J. Hathaway is associate professor of anthropology at Simon Fraser University.