Environment or Livelihood? – The Story of a Student from the “Pear Mountain” in Taiwan

Professor and Director, Workshop of Environmental History at NCTU / Hua-pi Tseng

I am a researcher of environmental history and a professor in the Center for General Education at National Chiao Tung University, Taiwan. One semester, in my ‘Environmentalism and Ecological Aesthetics' class, students were required to write a report on the environmental history of their individual hometowns, while incorporating relevant theories from environmentalists discussed in my class.

One day in 2003, while I was writing comments for my students' assignments, I came across a report:

A student from the Mechanical Engineering Department, Li, wrote in a lucid style in his report about his hometown, Lishan (literally means the Pear Mountain ). With photos taken by himself, he depicted his hometown from various angles; his family orchard, his father cultivating the crops and toiling in the orchard. His report impressed me as being “very well structured and extremely informative”. At the end of his report, he summarized in the following paragraphs:

A few months ago, I returned to my hometown, the Pear Mountain . 60% of the street shops have already closed. The natural environment hasn't changed much, but the rest has. My favourite corner shop since childhood was gone; the gentle and loving auntie in the pharmacy has also left. Perhaps the Pear Mountain has become more beautiful (*with less human disturbance), but the Pear Mountain in my memory has already disappeared with the 9/21 earthquake in Taiwan .

Lots of families in the Pear Mountain , including mine, have suddenly lost their source of income due to changes taken place in this area. (*The 9/21 earthquake has destroyed the Central Cross-Island Highway , the only highway connected the Pear Mountain to the outside world. The mountainside plantations were blamed for the catastrophic consequences following the earthquake. It led to the government decision to abandon the highway and the previous policies of developing high-altitude agriculture in the region.) What people don't realize is: My parents did not have much education. When they were young, they found means to support our family (*by raising fruits crops on the Pear Mountain ). This is their livelihood for the past 20 or 30 years. It is very difficult for them to adapt to another way of life in their late 50s and 60s. In a place like my hometown, parents take great pride in having their children attending college. The children, whom they are so proud of, are still relying on their financial support (*yet they have lost their means to support their children.) A good government serves its country, just like a father is responsible for his family. When interests of the majority are in conflict with those of the individual families, the priority goes to the majority. However, individual families may find the decision unbearable. There seems never to be a perfect solution for both parties concerned.

I have learned a great deal about ecological history in this class. I am very aware of the division between the theory of anthropocentrism, which assesses the reality primarily through a human perspective, and the theory of ecocentrism in the theoretical system of environmentalism. On the other hand, if I were an ecologist or government official, I would definitely agree to seal off the Central Cross-Island Highway for the sake of ecological preservation. However, I am neither of these two kinds. I am confused; not even I know which position I should side with.

All of a sudden, I was shaken to the core by his words.

I take great pride in having received excellent education and teaching in a top-notch university with many outstanding students. This gives me the great opportunity and pleasure to grow with my students. I am eager to teach my students various environmentalist classics and theories, with the hope that these would broaden their knowledge, cultivate independent and critical thinking, and eventually enable them to formulate their own arguments, and propose substantial viewpoints. While examining environmental issues, I taught my students:

•  the principles of putting into perspective ‘the long-term impact, the subject matter as a whole, and its multi-layered constituents.'

•  with empathy, carefully observing the core of the problem; taking into consideration the spatial and temporal context in which a specific case takes place.

•  speaking with evidence and independent judgement; do not simply follow the conventional wisdom, or clone other people's statements.

These were the basic principles I emphasized in my” environmental history” core curriculum. I hoped these texts would be able to help my students comprehend their learning, and broaden their horizons. They seemed to be in line with the general educational standards and followed my own ideas of classroom management.

While teaching the course of environmental history, it was inevitable to discuss Anthropocentrism , which serves the needs of humanity, and Ecocentrism , which promotes overturning the traditional social value (of human superiority). I often taught my students, “Current schools of environmentalist theories range across a wide spectrum, from the moderate to the radical. It doesn't matter which school you side with, as long as you are able to provide a reasonable theoretical ground for your own argument. Please keep in mind: This is a matter of choice. There is no standard answer to it.”

However, I have never imagined, when a real life experience collides with academic theories, it could prompt such feeling of helplessness and confusion, as it did to this student from the Pear Mountain . These possibilities and consequences have never occurred to my mind before. Initially, I thought that experiences extracted from real life, such as a person's affection toward his hometown, would be the best testimony for academic theories and it would also help bring depth to the learning process. However, this report, on the contrary, exposed the insufficiency in my intellectual capacity. There are blind spots in my so-called ‘multi-layered' perception and ‘empathetic' approach. This realization humbled me and, thus, I wrote down on his report the following comment:

You are absolutely right! I was also deeply saddened. This is indeed a dilemma, especially when you and your family are main characters in the story. I appreciate that you share with me the predicament of academic theories through your personal story.

In my research on environmental history, I have focused on the roles played by the government and elite intellectuals. I believe that a government should make the right policy with the welfare of its people and future generations in mind, For example, a policy that raises the rate of water bills would encourage water conservation and have a positive impact on environmental protection. On the other hand, inaction or incorrect government policies would result in a negative impact on future generations. Therefore, as citizens, it is our duty to be the watchdog of our government. My role, as a researcher, is to highlight issues regarding the policy-making processes through analytical research of history.

The discrepancy between intent and outcome of government policies has always been a core problem in policy-making. I also had personal experience in this regard. I grew up in Hualien, a coastal region in eastern Taiwan , where beautiful mountains and ocean have always been part of the landscape. To me, they are gifts from God. In 1997, however, road works took place in this area to widen the No. 11 Provincial Highway of Taiwan . Jersey barriers were set up along the road, and the natural green vegetation on the roadside was replaced with concrete cover. As a result, they obstructed the ocean view, severely damaged ecological environment and the landscape. To bring this issue to the attention of the officials in the Council for Economic Planning and Development in Taiwan , Mr Yung-hsi Huang and Ms Hui-chin Liao, members of the Hualien Branch of the Society of Wilderness, showed them photos taken before and after the road works. Thanks to their efforts, otherwise, the officials would never have come to the realization that the implementation of a policy has damaged the ecological environment, despite its good intention.

By sharing his life experience, the student from the Pear Mountain received enthusiastic responses from fellow students in his class. Some are attached in the following. These comments from my students reflect the serious nature of the dilemma, ‘human vs. nature'.

1.Chiu, Dept. of Management Science, 3 rd year

My fellow classmate's report on his hometown, the Pear Mountain , resonates deeply in my heart, especially since I have also written a report about my hometown, Chieding. From the very beginning, I decided to focus on my hometown, Chieding. After all, I have spent my first twenty years there. By projecting its lovely scenery and positive side, I hoped to bring this beautiful land to the attention of people in Taiwan . Nevertheless, it was a pity that I hid away the dark side of helplessness in Chieding.

Like my fellow classmate from the Pear Moutain, during my research, I read worrisome reports and statistics concerning the local economy. The population in Chieding is declining. Its economic prospect is worsening day after day. It is understandable, since this place has limited opportunities. The main source of our family income is from fishing, but my parents want us to enter some other practical professions instead.

My brother studies medicine and I am majoring in business management. Both of my parents insist that there is not any career prospect in fishing-related fields. My parents have spent the most part of their lives in Chiehding, but they somehow have ambivalent feeling about letting us stay….because there is no future in this place! Over-exploiration (of the fishing resource) has made Chieding unable to compete with other fishing towns in developing deep-sea fishing. This is truly sad.

2. Chang, Dept. of Electrical and Control Engineering, 4 th Year.

My understanding about environmental protection was mostly coming from actual interaction with the nature. Otherwise, the idea of environmental protection would have remained to be empty words from text books and TV campaigns.

After attending many sessions of your class, I still could barely understand, let alone accept, so many” theories.” To a person like me, who actually has intense contact with the nature in real life, these theories appeared to be more like propagandas.

The Pear Mountain is part of the Snow Mountain Range (in Taiwan ). While observing from a higher latitude on the Snow Mountain Range, man-made plantations along the Pear Mountain reminded me of broken wounds weeping in the wind.

Concerns for retaliation of the nature (*from damage caused by the lack of environment protection) and the demand for modernization are coming two totally different positions. Therefore, I am confused whether there is any actual balance point between these two.

3. Liao, Dept. of Mechanical Engineering, 3 rd Year

This resembles the dilemma a hunter faces, while deciding whether or not to kill the last surviving animal for his soaring hunger pangs. The decision determines who is going to survive. However, the reason this happened was because human development had gone out of control to a point exceeding the capacity of the environment. In my opinion, in human development, we should let the cities be more like the cities, and the countryside be more like the countryside. Nevertheless, many people wish to have their countryside urbanized into a town or a city. I think this would bring damage to the environment. Maybe my view appears to be unsympathetic; from the standpoint of the mountains, after the 9/21 earthquake, the mountains returned to be the mountains, although the rights of the people, who had attached their livelihood on the maintains, were affected. After all, human beings are part of the nature.

4. Liao, Dept. of Civil Engineering, 3 rd Year

As Professor Tseng has mentioned in the class, when we comment on an issue, we should not superficially come to a conclusion. We need to probe into the core, find the root cause of the problem, and figure out a way to resolve the problem. In fact, Policy makers need to take major responsibilities for many environmental problems in Taiwan . If they really care about the environment, the plans for Taiwan 's sanitary sewer system would have already been implemented long time ago. As a student of civil engineering, we need to have greater awareness toward the environmental issues. Maybe, someday, with our professional training in civil engineering, we will be able to improve the environment in Taiwan . Then, in the eyes of the beholders, civil engineering will no longer be a force of destruction, but contribution.

5. Lai, Dept. of Biological Science and Technology, 4 th Year

Transforming environmentalism to suite the specific needs in Taiwan is the greatest challenge we encounter, while dealing with local environmental issues.

After listening to the report cited by Professor Tseng, I once again contemplated on the content of my own report. What could I do when I face the environmental issues of my own? Delivering comments in discussion forum is not the way to deal with the problems.

Do more, talk less.

Care for the needs of the local citizens with the love from a local citizen.

6. Tsai, Dept. of Applied Mathematics, 3 rd Year

When I was in elementary school, our social science teacher taught us about the Central Cross-Island Highway , Techi Reservoir, and the related environmental problems. For a long time I zealously supported the policies of driving farming out of the mountain regions along the Central Corss-Island Highway. I even tried to stop my parents from buying vegetables grown in high altitudes, since high-altitude farming brought further eutrophication in Techi Reservoir.

However, after reading the report by Li, I have come to a new realization. In the past, I always thought that farming along the Central Cross-Island Highway areas was a selfish act. For the sake of a small profit, they caused great damage to a reservoir built with the taxpayers' money. But today the son of a ‘selfish farmer” had written a report that dissolved my anger, and even earned my sympathy. His writing is excellent, and he wrote about lots of issues which have never come across my mind before. I don't hate them anymore. On the contrary, I felt I have been cold-blooded; I failed to put myself in their shoes and acknowledged their plight. Perhaps, from now on, I should think about environmental issues from a more anthropocentric point of view. With the premise of ecological conservation in mind, we should also look after the needs of those who ‘exploit' the environment to make a living, such as farmers, American Indians, and the minorities at disadvantage.

7. Wei, Dept. of Foreign Languages and Literature, 4 th Year

After listening to a number of the reports by Professor Tseng, I was surprised… no, more like ‘amazed'.

Having studied in Chiao Tung University for four years, I realized for the first time the creativity of these engineering and science students. Their affection and concerns for this land are no less than those of us who study humanities.

This was a pretty special, yet tricky, experience getting to know them from the reports they presented in the Ecological Aesthetics class. Why have I spent four years in Chiao Tung University but, not until now, touched upon a different side of these ‘passionate-inside but techie-outside' people? (They are truly ‘computerized' human beings. They appear to be cold, sharp and aggressive. But in fact, fans on the computers are turning and the hard drives are running; only when I come in contact with these people, do I feel the warmth of them.)

I suddenly feel that Taiwan is full of hope, because a growing number of people with good conscience are truly concerned about our society. These people are young, energetic, and are ready to move full steam ahead.

8. Liang, Dept. of Foreign Languages and Literatures, 4 th Year

It was a beautiful experience to have shared the reports of my fellow students in this class. After learning environmentalism and arguments of various schools, the subjective perception of the ‘end-receivers' will play a key role in dealing with Taiwan's environmental issues in the future. (*Many of the NCTU alumni became prominent policy makers in Taiwan . The same is expected of the future graduates.) Before attending this class, due to my lack of knowledge, I often thought environmental protection was the business of the government; even in the case our environment was seriously damaged, we could only play the role of passive victims. However, after learning the rise of environmental awareness worldwide, I realize that showing no concerns for our land is damage to the environment by itself.

The various environmentalist theories have inspired me to envision from different perspectives, while integrating my life experiences into developing my own environmentalism.

For seven years, I have kept the report of the student from the Pear Mountain , along with his fellow classmates' comments. Without adding or deleting a word, I presented them in their original forms as the above (although for international readers, I provided background information in the form of parenthesis with * mark.) At the time, this student from the Pear Mountain was truly a ‘little Buddha' in my mind. He reminded all of us in this class ‘the importance of being open-minded, examining the environmental issues from various aspects, as well as taking into consideration of the whole picture.' He enlightened me: as a teacher I need to be aware of the limit of academic theories, while real life experience would present environmental problems in ways better reflect our thoughts and concerns. Furthermore, we were reminded to be vigilant about watching the government policy-making, since it would affect average citizens' lives and properties in every aspect.

I never intended to promote propaganda through environmental education. Nevertheless, I held this story in my mind for years. This real life experience of ‘livelihood vs. environment' taught us the importance of discretion and consideration in policy-making: We often need to make a difficult choice between ‘the right to the environment' and ‘the right to make a living'. It is precisely because of such a dilemma, in facing up ‘mankind and nature,' we need to be more humble and compassionate in order to avoid being overtaken by brutality.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks go to Ms. Yi-Jing Chen and Ms. Annie Chang who are volunteer workers of the UN/NGO Association of World Citizens Taiwan Branch. Their invitation has given me the opportunity to share this precious memory so dearly preserved in my heart.