People in different countries have varying perspectives on climate change. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to APU professor Dr. Mary Ellen Cooper about her experience living in China and the startling questions she got from students asking if stars were real because the pollution was so bad, they had never seen a clear night sky. Learn more about geographical and generational differences related to climate change and environmental issues.
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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. Today, we’re talking to Dr. Mary Ellen Cooper, full-time faculty in the School of Arts, Humanities, and Education. Today, we’re talking about climate change and the government. Welcome, Mary Ellen.
Dr. Mary Ellen Cooper: Hi. How are you doing?
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Good. I’m glad to have you here. To start it off from a previous conversation we had, you talked about how you were introduced to different perspectives about climate change around the world. Can you share some of those perspectives?
Dr. Mary Ellen Cooper: Oh, I’d be glad to. I can share some stories. If anything, I’m a storyteller, so I can definitely share some stories from different perspectives.
I actually taught in China, so I was able to stay there for an entire semester and get to know students and guides and translators. We actually visited one place that really was an eye-opener for me about climate change in other countries and different perspectives.
We had a guide and a translator in Xi’an. We were picked up at the hotel, and the driver could not speak any English, but the translator and the guide could. About 30 minutes into our ride—because we were going out to see the terracotta soldiers, she became very friendly—the translator. She said, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?” I said, “No, not at all.” I was thinking it was going to be maybe something about an American perspective or an opinion on a topic.
She said, “Are there stars?” And I said, “Like in the sky? Are there stars in the sky?” She said, “Yes.” I was kind of taken back by this, like, “Why would someone ask me if there were stars? Why wouldn’t she know? Why couldn’t she look up and see the stars?”
I said, “Yes, there are stars. Why are you asking me?” She said, “I’ve never seen stars. I’ve never seen a star.” She said, “I’ve read about them, but we are told that there are no stars.” She said, “My grandfather on my mother’s side declares that there are stars, and he saw stars when he was a little boy growing up. And over time, he said the pollution and climate change had made things very foggy, had clouded the atmosphere, so that where they lived, they could not see stars.”
She said, “Do you see the day that we’re having today?” If you can imagine a day that’s cloudy and the forecast was maybe it was going to rain, and you looked outside and it was really gray and dreary looking. She said, “This is what it’s like to be in Xi’an all the time.” She said, “We don’t see the sun. We don’t see the stars at night.” That night, I remember walking out and looking up, and it just looked very cloudy. It looked like the Milky Way.
We spent a week with her, and she talked a lot about climate change and she talked a lot about the stars. She said, “I always ask people from other countries about stars because we are just told that there aren’t any stars, that that’s just a myth.” She said, “But my mother and my grandfather firmly believe that when he was a little boy, he did see the stars.”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That is a—I don’t know how to describe it—bizarre story, not in the sense that she’s not telling the truth, but it’s hard to imagine not seeing the stars. But at the same time, Chinese cities are huge. When we think of our cities, even here in Phoenix, a few million, Chinese cities are even bigger, and their government regulations over pollution isn’t as good as ours. That’s not to say that it’s good or bad, but the amount of pollution that would be in those cities would be much greater. Just the ability to have a clear night, I guess, is impossible over there, or in certain areas of the country.
Dr. Mary Ellen Cooper: Yes. I also remember I was teaching on campus in Wenzhou University. At Wenzhou University, there’s like four campuses there plus a medical college that’s there. It’s huge. It’s, if you can imagine, several university campuses and buildings there together. So the campus was almost like a little city of its own. We had, actually, a building that was like a mall where you could go to and shop.
There was an English professor that was in our building, the building that we stayed in, our apartments, in what they called the Foreign Professors Building. I remember after this particular conversation that there was an English professor from Canada who was there.
He started a conversation, after I’d been to Xi’an, saying, “Do you notice there’s something here that you don’t see that you would see in the states?” I thought about the conversation I had with translator in Shihan, and I said, “The stars?” He said, “That’s right.” He said, “Go out any night here in Wenzhou or your travels throughout China, and,” he said, “try to find the stars.”
At night, it would look like the Milky Way, and it would look very cloudy. But from that point on, I’d always make it a point to go outside and see if I could see the stars. The English professor also said that if you ask your students, “Are their stars?” he said, “A lot of them will say ‘No,’ because they’ve never seen them.” He said, “They may say, ‘I’ve read about them’ or ‘I’ve heard about them from my grandparents.’ But as far as them actually seeing the stars,” he said, “there’s too much pollution.”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That, again, is amazing, but it also makes sense if you live in a very large city with millions and millions and millions of people, and there’s a lot of pollution. Even something from a technological point of view is, how are the streetlights designed? If the streetlights aren’t designed to focus their light down, and it’s dispersed around and up, that means that there’s a lot of light pollution. Besides just light pollution, there’s going to be regular pollution, and so it’ll be very difficult. I even think of, I live in the suburbs of Phoenix, and the amount of light pollution that we get from the larger cities around us inhibits seeing certain stars. But, for the most part, you can see a lot of stars here in Phoenix.
But that’s really interesting, especially because China just landed on the moon, and so they have a space program. It’s interesting that there would be people over there that had never seen the stars.
Dr. Mary Ellen Cooper: It’s hard to believe. You made an interesting point, too, about our cities. I’ve done some traveling. Going to cities like New York or going to Miami or going to Atlanta, which from my accent you can tell is not very far from me, but going to Los Angeles, going to some of our, what we consider in the United States big cities, and if you travel, especially throughout Asia, they’re very small compared to a city like Beijing or Wenzhou or Hong Kong. You see lots of buildings, lots of automobiles, lots of activity, and it almost dwarfs when you go back to New York City.
People would ask me in different countries, “Oh, I want to go to New York City. I want to go to Los Angeles,” because they see Hollywood, they see movies, and they’ll ask me, “What’s it like to be in the United States? What’s it like to go to different places in the U.S.?” Those cities now, actually, after you do some traveling, become dwarfed. They become much smaller, like you said, even in Phoenix, become smaller.
When I would even mention to other people, other students in China, in Wenzhou, there are more millionaires than there are in the rest of China combined. So when you see the government’s children, or managers or owners of factories, any kind of manufacturing, that’s the place to send your child to go to school.
On Fridays, you could look out and see the stretch of Audis as far as you could see coming to pick the children up with their drivers. There would be government tags on the front, or you could tell that was somebody who owned a manufacturer or whatever.
So these were very wealthy students that I had. They were very well-spoken. A lot of them spoke English very well. I even asked the classes, because I had over 300 students, when I would ask them about the stars or anything that was pertaining to my classes, what they thought of that, they would come back and they would say, “I haven’t seen those. I’ve heard that those don’t really exist. I don’t believe that.”
So it was interesting to see, where does that come from? I can’t say that the government told them there were no stars, but I think it also goes back from a psychological standpoint, “If I see it, I believe it,” kind of a Doubting Thomas attitude, rather. Therefore, it only exists if I see it. If I don’t see it, kind of like that climate change attitude. You’ve probably heard some people say, “Oh, there’s no climate change. I still have snow in my front yard,” depending on what part of the country or what part of the world you’re in. So from their perspective, it may not be valid.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. I really like how you said the Doubting Thomas perspective, because recently here in the West, there was a huge drought in the western United States, very, very little water, but then here in the desert Southwest, we had more rain that we’ve had in years.
So, at the same time, if you’re just believing the perspective you see in front of you, if you’re living here in Phoenix, you’d be like, “Well, it’s rained here more than ever,” and so I’m going to doubt what’s going on. But then if you go to any other part of the West, it was a severe drought.
In China, that’s really interesting because, so I remember when I was growing up, and I would look at lists of the largest cities or metropolitan areas in the world, and a lot of times the largest areas were in the U.S., in Europe, or Mexico City or Tokyo.
Just looking right now, four of the top 20 areas in the world are in China, and they’re huge. New York is number 11. Even when I was a younger child per se, New York was in the top five maybe. Tokyo and Mexico City have always been huge. A lot of the “largeness” of the U.S. cities is now being dwarfed by a lot of Asian cities, including in India. I can only imagine what pollution and the light pollution would be like in large Indian cities also.
Dr. Mary Ellen Cooper: Well, in China now, too, there are a lot of first-generation drivers. When I was there, there was only, out of 300 students, there was one young man who had a car. The other students would say, “Oh, he’s the guy with the car. Oh, he’s over there.” Sometimes, he would offer to drive me back to the apartment where the teachers lived, which wasn’t that far, and I would always say no, I was going to walk.
But over time, going back and listening to some of the students I’ve kept in contact with, and translators and other teachers, a lot of cars now, the prices have been reduced and more affordable for the Chinese students, and more and more of them are driving. But you’ve got, of course, more pollution that’s on the roads. But you’ve got first-generation drivers, where they haven’t been in the backseat to see from… There again, talking from my psychological standpoint, we probably most of us grew up, that our drivers, saw our parents or caregivers in the front seat driving. But they didn’t have that experience, so they’re driving and taking their parents and grandparents different places, but also at the same time, as other students would tell me, “We don’t know how to drive, so we’re often afraid to try to do that. There’s a lot of accidents on the road because there’s a lot of new experiences.”
Another thing that you mentioned, too, I can remember being in Hong Kong, and it’s very, very crowded there. When you’re going downtown or you’re in a heavily populated area, people are just… You’re touching each other. There is no social distancing because there’s just people everywhere. So when you think about, like you said, our cities compared to some of the Asian cities, it’s very different.
Another thing I was going to mention to you, when I was living on campus, it’s a very different attitude. It’s more of a, I guess, a worldview attitude. It’s more of a progressive attitude of, yes, there is climate change, and why don’t we see the stars, and what can we do about pollution, and what can we do about things to keep them clean? Well, the entire campus was very clean. There were always people walking around picking up the trash, and very clean.
Right outside of our campus on one of the… You could walk right outside the gates because the gates would close and lock at night at like 10:00. There was a little city called Chashan right outside of the Wenzhou University, and it was almost like… One of the other professors described it kind of like, he said, “It’s a very different class of people there.” There was a lot of street food, a lot of street vendors.
During the day, you could go there and you wouldn’t see trash on the street, but if you went out there for dinner or if you just wanted to walk around and eat street food, there was trash everywhere. There would be people walking down… I wouldn’t really call them street cleaners. They were really like street sweepers, sweeping it back into the road and up against the buildings, so that you’d have a path to walk down. Now, in the morning, if you went back down there, it would be spotless again. But every day, as the day went on, and later and later you got there, there was more and more pollution.
So I asked some of the folks that I knew, that I taught with, as well as some of the other students, about Chashan, and they said there were a lot of older people, and older people had different attitudes about climate change and about pollution than the younger generations did.
One of the examples was… After the student told me this, said, “Think about when you take the bus. If you take the bus into town, if you see an older gentleman, they may stand up on the bus and eat a sandwich or drink something, and then when they’re through with it, they just throw it down on the bus. Or if they want to spit, it’s okay to spit in public, or if you have a tobacco product and you want to spit on the sidewalk or in public.” She said, “But the younger generation looks at that as pollution, and we look at that as, ‘Oh, that’s an old man. That’s old China. We’re new China. We don’t spit. We don’t pollute. We don’t throw things on the ground, expecting someone else to pick it up.'”
But to the same regard, in my classroom, when we would take a break or a class would be over, there would be trash on the floor. There would be someone standing in the hall waiting to come in to pick the trash up and put it in the trash can. I would always ask the translator, “Please announce, ‘The trash can is over here. If you need to throw something away, please come over here and throw it away.'”
One day, one of my translators said, “Dr. Cooper, I want to tell you something.” I said, “Yes?” She said, “This is a younger generation of students, and they would not do this on the street, but they look at the classroom almost like their home. And these are very wealthy students, so they don’t expect to clean up after themselves in here when the maid is standing at the door to come in and clean up. They’re expecting her to clean up.” So I thought that, too, was a different perspective on “we’re not going to go out on the street and throw out trash, but it’s okay to do it here in the classroom because we would do it at home, because someone else would clean that up.”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That is fascinating because China, which is still technically a communist country, has such extremes in people who are rich and people who are poor, which is so interesting because it does a disservice to the origins of communism. That sounds funny, I’m not defending communism. But where everybody is supposed to be equal, and everybody is in it together. Then here you have the rich Chinese, who do care about climate change, which is great, but then still view themselves as above, say, the poorer class, and then, “They’re going to clean up after me.” Really, really interesting.
That’s also interesting how you said that they all are concerned about climate change. When you were there, did you see any government messages about climate change? The Chinese government usually has a very unified message, and that is the only message that goes out.
Oh, yes. Now, I can say, as far as a unified message on our TV in our apartment, there was only one station that we could listen to that spoke Chinese. The other stations were, like you said, they had a unified message, and we could see the words in English. But the one station that we were able to get in Chinese, they did a lot of debates in English.
The debates that they would have would mainly be national debates between students that spoke excellent English, and they would debate things like smoking in public, or if there was climate change, what can we do about pollution? There would be two students on, and this channel would go on like 24 hours a day, where one student would say, “There is no pollution, and we’re doing a great job. Everything is fine,” and another student would say, “We have pollution everywhere.”
As far as talking about money, if you went to certain areas, you would see more pollution, more trash than you would in other areas, such as in Beijing. You wouldn’t see that on the street. But if you went to a smaller city, it wasn’t unusual for us, at least that was our experience, to see that, or the waters too. The waters would be polluted. You would see that. And you would see trash, or you would see things floating in the water. In the bigger cities, you wouldn’t see that, but smaller ones, you would.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. Absolutely wonderful perspectives. Now, one of the things you said really stood out to me, where more and more Chinese are getting cars. From my perspective, which is not universal, of course, I look forward to the day when I don’t have to have a car, or there’s an automated car that just picks me up and takes me around, which here in the U.S. would reduce the carbon footprint, would hopefully make things cleaner, free up congestion, et cetera, all these different things. But in China, as you said, more and more people are getting cars, and it’s new for them. Can you comment about the “newness” of cars, more and more people getting cars, and how exciting that is?
Dr. Mary Ellen Cooper: The students and the folks that I know, they’re very excited about that, but there’s also a lot of apprehension and fear too, as in anything you’ve never done that before. So as you can imagine… Here again I’ll talk about a psychological perspective. Imagine a generation, your grandparents and your parents, not doing that particular skill, and then, all of a sudden you are able to do that skill.
Well, when you’re able to introduce something like driving to a new generation, the older generations are a lot of times are going to be very negative towards that, “I haven’t done it; therefore, you can’t do it” or “I don’t know about that.” It’s kind of the fear of the unknown, what’s going to happen to you, and that whole thing of we’re used to public transportation or we’re used to walking, which brings on a whole different other perspective as well, too, about your health. If you’re not walking or taking the bicycle, and you’re driving, then, of course, there’s going to be health concerns that would come in with that. But I think that it will also show a generation of people who are brave to try new things.
If you can remember back during the Olympics, Beijing, I believe that was in 2008, there were a lot of commercials that were on in China. They had different actors that were famous in China talking about, “Open up to the world. Talk to others. Don’t be afraid.” Because previously they had been very closed off and were actually, from my understanding, told not to talk to strangers or anyone who had come in that looked different and all. But actually, I had people stop me on the street, stop my family on the street, want to take pictures, want to talk to us as best they can. If they do speak English, they want to come over and talk with us because we look different.
I think we are seeing new generations of people who are embracing change, and they are seeing, “Hey, you know I can drive a car. I can get out. I can travel. I can do other things that my grandparents or my parents were not able to do.” But on the other side of that, when you do look at climate change, of course, that’s going to contribute to pollution, because not that I’ve looked at any manufacturing statistics and all, but most of the cars that they’re purchasing there, because of the lower cost, are coming from India. I can’t really say how they’re approaching safety or manufacturing for pollution or how that goes, but naturally, if you’re putting more cars out on the street, then you, of course, are producing more pollution.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. With everything that the U.S. is trying to do when it comes to pollution and reducing pollution, which is all wonderful and should be done, the number one and number two countries population-wise in the world, India and China, their economies are booming. China’s economy is booming. India’s is booming. It’ll take a generation or two just to get, say, the Indian population to “a middle class,” where China has done that over the last generation. In that time, those countries will be producing a lot of pollution.
From the perspective of climate change in the government, have you observed anybody, say, in the U.S., how do they view those other countries? Well, if we do everything, those other countries are still going to be producing a lot of pollution, so why bother? Does that create cognitive dissonance?
Dr. Mary Ellen Cooper: Absolutely. I think it’s also self-defeating in the sense of it’s like the old story goes of the little boy who’s on the beach, and he’s helping to save the sand dollars and throw them back into the ocean because they’re stranded. The older gentleman comes up and says, “Why are you doing this? You’re wasting your time. Nobody cares. The sand dollars are going to die. You can’t save all of them.” But the little boy says, “You’re right. I can’t save all of them, but it matters to this one. It matters to this one. It matters to this one,” so the ones that he could save.
So I always tell students, “We can only do what we can do.” If we all did a share or our part, it’s better than nothing. We can’t control all the other sand dollars, but the sand dollars that we do have control over, we do make a difference in those. And so one by one, as we gather, we do make a difference. What we do makes a difference.
Like you said, with cognitive dissonance, a lot of times it’s kind of like, I always use the illustration of smoking with cognitive dissonance, because people say, “Well, it brings me pleasure, but it does hurt my health. But I’m going to die of something anyway.” Your brain says it’s bad, but your brain also says it’s pleasurable. So with pollution, I think we have to say, “I’ve got to do my part.” Even though it’s a small part, if we all did that, it would be better than nothing.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I completely agree. I do find the political discussion in the U.S., of course, is very unfortunate because it seems like the two sides have chosen their positions, and they’re very inflexible for some reason. But I’m sure if you asked the vast majority of people, and when I say vast majority of people, above 50%, above 60%, “Do you care about climate change?” most people would say, “Yes.” Or if you talk to the older generation, “Do you want your grandkids to live in a clean world?” of course they’d say “Yes.”
The thing that really occurs is we can all do little things, just like you said. The sand dollar story is wonderful. Even in our own family, my wife is a backyard gardener, and so we planted an additional 12 trees in our backyard. They’re small trees, but just think of how each additional tree helps out just a little. Then we planted a bunch of trees, because we try to have a food forest and we have backyard garden. We do all these things to try to help and we compost. All of this by ourselves isn’t going to really help much, but imagine if a million Americans all did the same thing. You would see some results, besides the fact that you could start growing your own vegetables, and then our kids see directly vegetables growing, which is absolutely wonderful. Absolutely wonderful conversation. Any final words, Mary Ellen?
Dr. Mary Ellen Cooper: I really appreciate being here. I can’t say what a government does as a whole to tell people about climate change. I do know, even here in the U.S., we have political figure that make negative comments about climate change. But we have to stay true to what we believe and what we know to be true, and just go from there. We can only change our own sand dollar.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. I love that. We can change only our sand dollar. Even those government officials that might discount climate change, if you ask them, do you want the climate and the environment to be good for their grandkids? They would say yes.
Today, we are speaking with Dr. Mary Ellen Cooper about climate change and government. My name, of course, is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. Thank you for listening.