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China dreamin’ in transition

The four ENS (elite universities) from France and their Chinese sister ECNU (East China Normal University) had their summit meeting in Shanghai this week to renew the collaboration agreement. This crowns a 12 year cooperation coined JoRISS [1], the cooperation instrument.

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The five presidents, Chen Qun, Marc Mézard, Jean-François Pinton, Patrice Quinton, Pierre-Paul Zalio signed the new agreement during a very pleasant ceremony and reception. A science conference on the achievements took place under the heading The social dimension of science.

The sessions were dedicated to “Science in and for society”, “Towards a Sino-French / European approach to science and society”, “Sustainable innovation”, “Sustaining public trust in science : the debate on adverse events following immunization”, “The social impact of the neuro revolution : neuroethics », and “Environmental protection : the air pollution crisis”.

The Michel Serres Institute contributed to the latter session. The main sources of air pollution in Shanghai, according to Shu Jiong (Key Laboratory of Geographic Information Science, ECNU) are : Shanghai transportation (25%), regional transportation (20%), energy producers and users (20%), and various industrial activities (15%).

At the same time, the APEC summit in Beijing was on, the air pollution priority for president Xi Jinping making the headlines of the Shanghai Daily, Nov 11. The Chinese President declared that substantial antipollution efforts are “a very important part of the Chinese dream”. Namely, his hope that “everyday we will see a blue sky, green mountains, and clear rivers (...) so that our children will live in an enjoyable environment”.

No doubt, China has the political toolkit to live up to the expectations of the dream. Is the toolkit going to be deployed ? Let us survey the questions that have guided the Shanghai JoRISS session.

  1. Do we have sufficient knowledge of the air pollution phenomena itself : its causes, nature, multifarious consequences on society in terms of health, wealth...?
  2. If not, in which areas is progress most needed ?
  3. Are the dangers of air pollution adequately appreciated and publicized today ?
  4. Do we already have the scientific and technical means (clean energy...) to curb significantly the air pollution level, making it essentially a question of political will and regulation enforcement ?
  5. If it is not so, what are the main scientific and technological bottlenecks, and how to overcome them in a near future ?
  6. How should this research effort be shared between scientific institutions and industry, as well as articulated with anti-pollution governmental policies ?
  7. What conclusions should be drawn in terms of general environmental preservation strategy from the so predictable present day air pollution crisis ?

The answers I provided are summarized below.
Air is a very powerful indicator of society and developmental issues and contexts.
Air is one element in the cosmological series, water-air-fire-earth. Michel Serres added LIFE, that makes WAFEL. The fossil fuel (F) age has broken the symmetry of the elements in particular through energy use. With the impacts we know on people and environment.

Question 1. Yes, there is ample knowledge and evidence, together with top-notch monitoring tools, to understand the air pollution syndromes and consequences.

Question 2. The limiting condition is to question politically and society-wise the very purpose of the economic activities leading to the syndrome – what development do we want and for whom, and whether dreaming the “APEC blue society” considers the limits of the finite biosphere in what comes first. In other words, air pollution and sustainable development tackle the double issue of curative versus preventive thinking and acting, thus including what science is supposed to be in this frame (questions, tools, strategies, means).

Question 3. Dangers of air pollution are known and are obvious in pointing the role governance plays in public health issues [2]. But also the real social and ecological price of Business as Usual developmental strategies. In fine, corporate cannot be blamed but for not playing the rules of the game. The trouble is that we are far from having our political establishment work to the benefit of the public good. The irony here for China’s President is that he has been empowered to lead the country provided he lives in Beijing. Presidential and public health turn out to be, merely by default, the driving force of the presidential dream.

Questions 4-6. Curbing pollution through regulation is not big deal because it is clear what needs to be done. Namely, this implies that decision makers are willing to consider the WAFEL inclusive approach, i.e. telling the social-ecological truth by recognizing that the so called free market economy is in reality deeply subsidized [3] through systemic dumping. Consider the slogan of BaU to have the fool picture : “your dream, my (portofolio) action”.
The bottom line in the ecological transition is making societies become resilient (socially, economically, financially, ecologically). The objective is “not negociable”, to paraphrase ex-president GW Bush father. It is not, because resilience means healthy people, societies, and environments, all in one.

Question 7. Science and academia have a great role to play through ethics and philosophical conversations. How ? By joining disciplinary forces to avoid the adagio “science without philosophy is mechanics”. China can naturally impulse his “super-power with philosophy” historical heritage in the right direction. Because we want neither BaU, nor a sustainable camp. We are dreaming of an ecological civilization.

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Ioan Negrutiu November 12, 2014.

Publié ou mis à jour le 13 novembre 2014


[2The political origins of health inequity : prospects for change. The Lancet 15, 383 : 630-67. doi : 10.1016/S0140-6736(14)60676-0. PubMed PMID : 24759243.

[3Dasgupta, P. “The Place of Nature in Economic Development” In : Rodrik, D. & Rosenzweig, M. (eds.) : Handbook of Development Economics 5 (2010), 4039-5061