“Let every individual and institution now think and act as a responsible trustee of Earth, seeking choices in ecology, economics and ethics that will provide a sustainable future, eliminate pollution, poverty and violence, awaken the wonder of life and foster peaceful progress in the human adventure.”

— John McConnell, founder of International Earth Day

In a small apartment on the outskirts of Beijing, 12 bespeckled young people crammed in a room, laptops overheating, food containers from the downstairs restaurant sagging with the saucy dregs of a spicy tofu dish, chopsticks balanced unwashed on ceramic bowls. This is the scene on a windy Thursday night in December at the offices of CYCAN, the China Youth Climate Action Network, where students were preparing for a meeting in Copenhagen. I found myself here just weeks before the conference.

The mood was apprehensive. Not only were young activists concerned about their national delegates’ ability to reach effective compromise in Denmark, but they were also cramming for classes and scratching out term papers, and discussing how they were going to represent China’s youth at the United Nation’s most highly-anticipated environmental meeting to date.

These concerns are fairly representative of what I saw during my nine months of research on Chinese NGOs. While in China studying on a scholarship from the Fulbright-Hays Foundation, I volunteered weekly at Green Earth Volunteers, China’s second-oldest environmental NGO (founded in 1994). I translated Chinese environmental news articles for the English language section of GEV’s China Green News website, http://eng.greensos.cn/default.aspx. I also interviewed a wide variety of Chinese and foreign environmental journalists, lawyers, government officials, students and rural citizens about China’s nascent environmental movement.

Two themes that I noticed about Chinese environmental NGOs are:

• In China, environmental NGOs work much more closely with university students than do many organizations in the U.S. In fact, Chinese young people (ages 20-25) are actually running NGOs, not just serving as interns. NGOs often have branches on college campuses. For example: in Santa Monica, Santa Monica College’s environmental clubs might collaborate with Heal the Bay on a given project, but in China, Heal the Bay might have an office on SMC’s campus and hire much of its staff from the student population. Many organizations (such as CYCAN and the China Green Student Forum) were borne out of or in conjunction with environmental clubs on university campuses.

But why are many Chinese youth so passionate about environmental organizing?

One reason is that students and other NGO staff (often right out of college themselves) are building organizations from scratch in a country where environmental problems loom and beg to be solved.

Another reason for young people’s carpe diem stance on the environment is perhaps unique to China: many students feel that this is the best time in their lives to do environmental activism, since the one-child-policy creates pressure on youth to succeed, move back home, or “make a life for one’s self” almost immediately after graduation. Therefore, going to college (usually in big cities, away from home) is many Chinese students’ best (and often only) opportunity to involve themselves in activist work. Thus, Chinese college students are publishing books, starting blogs, and supporting almost every aspect of the local Chinese environmental movement.

• Retired people are very active in the environmental movement. This is in part true because of China’s mandatory retirement age (age 60 for men, 55 for women, according to an official governmental site www.china.org.cn/english/government/193535.htm). But more than that, there is a strong culture of volunteerism and collective action among the older generations in China. The people who are now retired came of age in the 1950s and ‘60s, during the height of China’s communist collective work projects. While there exists a wide range of opinion about these historical periods such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution among Chinese citizens, many people whom I spoke with cited this time in their lives as the time when their ideas about contributing to society and making the world a better place were solidified in their minds.

With all of this localized action, what about all of the international environmental NGOs working in China? Environmental NGOs that come from abroad and have branches in China are not subject to the same legal restrictions as the local NGOs. This presents both opportunities and pitfalls. On the one hand, international NGOs often hold more clout with China’s government because they are in effect an extension of the nation in which the organizations are based. Since they are considered “guests” in China, if relationships with the government go sour, their staff might be kicked out of China, but probably not jailed.

On the other hand, these international organizations often focus more on the policy side of environmental activism in China, and are less apt to do outreach, environmental education, and media coverage which are central to motivating ordinary Chinese citizens to affect change. Therefore, while they sometimes collaborate on projects, there often exists a substantial difference between the experiences of local NGOs and international NGOs in China.

In conclusion, while NGOs in China face pressures that are almost unimaginable to their U.S. counterparts and partners, the fact remains that local responses to large-scale issues open the way for solutions to even the most daunting environmental problems.

Ms. Fonda-Bonardi is a graduate from Santa Monica High School who will begin her senior year at Oberlin College this fall, where she is pursuing environmental studies and peace and resistance through the arts. She would like to thank the Fulbright-Hays Foundation for its generous support.