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Sheryl WuDunn envisions China's environmental future

Sheryl WuDunn
Robert Barker/University Photography
Sheryl WuDunn '81 delivers the Jill and Ken Iscol Distinguished Environmental Lecture.

China’s environmental problems range from water quantity and quality issues to air pollution and desertification. Schoolchildren in Beijing have had to skip classes due to smog emergencies, and according to recent estimates, hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens have died from pollution-related deaths. Areas suffering from exceptional rates of environmental degradation have experienced health-risk crises of such magnitude that some have even been referred to as “cancer villages.”

Writer and executive Sheryl WuDunn ’81 delivered this year’s Jill and Ken Iscol Distinguished Environmental Lecture at Klarman Hall’s Groos Family Atrium April 20. In his introduction, Frank DiSalvo, director of Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, said WuDunn’s “life work is the embodiment of the Atkinson Center’s triple-E approach” to energy, the environment and economic development from a multidisciplinary perspective.

WuDunn encouraged the audience to think beyond what meets the eye. Neither the causes nor the solutions to the Chinese environmental catastrophe are as straightforward as they might seem, she said. The key to understanding modern-day China is to realize it is “never what you expect it to be,” she said, and predicting how China will act in a given situation is a nearly impossible task.

She argued that a big part of ecological degradation has come as the “flip side of economic development” China has achieved in the past few decades. Jaw-dropping rates of Chinese economic growth have lifted more than 500 million people out of poverty and have turned a developing nation into a global superpower, WuDunn said. Between 2010 and 2013 alone, the Chinese cement industry used more cement than the United States used for the duration of the entire 20th century.

But industrial and infrastructural leaps of such scale have come at a price. China, WuDunn said, has faced very tough, multifaceted trade-offs that all developing nations encounter on their way to economic prosperity.

What’s even more important than the past and present of modern China, WuDunn argued, are the prospects China’s environment and its economy will face in the future. If current rates of growth continue into the 21st, China will exert tremendous pressure on the global demand for grain, paper and other products. If the Chinese achieve a per-capita standard of living comparable to that of U.S. citizens, they will need more resources than may be available.

But not all of China’s prospects are dire. WuDunn reminded the audience, “It is possible to deploy environmentally friendly technology even when you are developing economically.” She also presented results of a consumer-habit analysis that found increasing concern for the environment and sustainability among Chinese buyers. Finally, the authoritarian government might turn out to be unexpectedly helpful in confronting environmental degradation by imposing swift and strict regulations on pollution, Wu Dunn said.

WuDunn began writing for The New York Times in 1989. She was dispatched to Beijing, where she covered the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest, for which she and her husband, fellow Times reporter Nicholas Kristof, received the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1990. She became the first Asian-American to win the award. Since then, WuDunn has raised capital for renewable energy, worked at a boutique investment banking firm and written several best-sellers.

Giorgi Tsintsadze ‘17 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle. 

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Melissa Osgood