Too True

The New York Times has a lengthy and scary article (the first in a series) on the environmental effects of China’s booming economy. Though freedom of information was not a theme of the article, it kept cropping up. First, basic public health data is being suppressed by the government because . . . well, it’s bad news.

This spring, a World Bank study done with SEPA, the national environmental agency, concluded that outdoor air pollution was already causing 350,000 to 400,000 premature deaths a year. Indoor pollution contributed to the deaths of an additional 300,000 people, while 60,000 died from diarrhea, bladder and stomach cancer and other diseases that can be caused by water-borne pollution.

China’s environmental agency insisted that the health statistics be removed from the published version of the report, citing the possible impact on “social stability,” World Bank officials said.

Another part of the article discusses a government-supported research program that developed a means of calculating “Green GDP” to inform the rewards system for various public officials whose success is measured in increased productivity. When the group issued their first report, it turned out that these officials aren’t doing so well; if you factor in the cost to the environment, in many cases gains are zeroed out. The government withdrew its support for the project. The second report, scheduled for March, was never published.

And finally, the article concludes on this chilling note:

China does have an army of amateur regulators. Environmentalists expose pollution and press local government officials to enforce environmental laws. But private individuals and nongovernment organizations cannot cross the line between advocacy and political agitation without risking arrest.

At least two leading environmental organizers have been prosecuted in recent weeks, and several others have received sharp warnings to tone down their criticism of local officials. One reason the authorities have cited: the need for social stability before the 2008 Olympics, once viewed as an opportunity for China to improve the environment.

Reading this article reminded me that we have a couple of things going for us that we may take for granted.

One is the amount of publicly-available government information. Sure, it’s been constrained of late, and the current administration has been criticized for it. But we have a valuable tradition of providing government-generated data for citizens and scholars to interpret for themselves. We need to preserve that availability. Reading this article, it’s hard not to think about the healthy debate over the closure of the EPA libraries. We need this information. Let’s keep it available.

Second, we have a valuable tradition of academic freedom. As a society, we need to create conditions where the facts are not only available, but can tell us what we need to hear, even if it might be unpopular. This article shows just how high the stakes really are.

See No Evil

[photo by Keith Kris]

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

One thought on “Too True”

  1. Responding to Barbara Fister of ACRLog

    I think it is unreasonable to vilify China for hiding environmental data when the American government is doing the same.

    American government officials have engaged in a years-long campaign to deny global warming, a campaign that involved misleading and false research reports, funding for lobby groups posing as scientific agencies, and much more.

    The United States has still not signed onto a global environmental treaty, preferring instead to preserve its polluting industries, the very ones it now criticizes China for running. Had the U.S. signed onto Kyoto, it might have had grounds to argue. However it did not, and in fact was its most vocal opponent.

    The U.S. media has been engaged in a systematic campaign to discredit China for the last couple of years, and this article is another episode in this course of propaganda.

    We’ve been subjected to a whole series of articles asserting that China has poison in its products and that Chinese exports are unsafe. Why now? Nothing in China has changed, and if anything its products are better than ever.

    Although the New York Times apologized after the onset of the Iraq War for shamefully passing along government propaganda as news, it seems evident from articles such as this that nothing has changed.

    As for the tradition of access to data and academic freedom in the United States, I would suggest that it’s time for a good examination of what is actually happening.

    To a large degree, academic output in the United States is driven by funding, and this funding frequently has an overt commercial agenda. There is no shortage of reports of research data being altered or suppressed in order to satisfy the demands of corporate sponsors.

    There has also been a series of incidents where professors are harassed and even fired because of their political views. I read about the latest of these, the firing of Norman Finkelstein, just this morning.

    In corporate offices and classrooms, access to a great deal of online content is blocked, only some of which is even arguably offensive. Criticism is stifled through the threat of lawsuits and copyright actions.

    Access to the media in the United States is limited through an effective stranglehold over the industry by a small number of conglomerates. These agencies limit the perspectives offered and offer Americans a distorted view of the world. While corporate and political advertising is effectively unlimited, attempts by agencies such as Adbusters to buy commercial time have been blocked.

    It is very evident from my perspective that Americans live in an environment where the news is tightly managed, where scientific data is manipulated, where academic freedom is abridged, and where an ongoing stream of propaganda manipulates the citizenry in a manufactured climate of fear.

    Incredibly, Americans throughout all this continue to trumpet the virtues of their free press, and even more incredibly, their environmental record.

    The world’s major polluter always has ben, and continues to be, the United States. The statistics are available but you can be sure they are barely accessible to, much less known by, the average American.

    Update: as of 12:00 this comment no longer appears on the ACRLog website. Presumably it has been deleted. Update Aug. 28 – barbara Fister comments (see below): “I checked with others at the blog – none of us saw your comment and we can’t see any record of it. Please feel free to add your comment, since we welcome them.”

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