Tuesday, Sep. 22, 2009

Sheri Liao

For Sheri Liao, the solution to the problems caused by China's breakneck modernization can be found in centuries-old wisdom. Before launching Global Village of Beijing (GVB) — one of China's earliest environmental-advocacy groups — in 1996, Liao taught philosophy. As a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, she first came across the idea of "adaptation to nature" in a philosophical research paper. "I was absolutely shocked," she recalls. "For decades we were told [by Chairman Mao] that our role is to conquer nature. Who'd have thought we could live with it in peace?" Deeply intrigued, Liao began to read environmentalist works like Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring. She also shot documentaries on China's ecological plight that appeared on national television. Later, while a visiting scholar at the University of North Carolina, she was struck by the role played by civil society in the U.S. in protecting the environment. She decided to return home to launch similar initiatives in China.

Liao was helped by the fact that the birth of GVB coincided with China's economic takeoff in the mid-'90s. The group became active in Beijing neighborhoods, raising environmental awareness on the local level. But in recent years it has expanded its work across the country, and it is now involved in everything from promoting plastic-recycling to encouraging building managers to reduce electricity consumption.

In the past year, Liao and GVB staff have spread their environmental messages to Daping, a village in southwestern China's Sichuan province that was devastated in the May 2008 earthquake. They initially went to help with rescue efforts, but ended up converting the villagers to eco-friendly practices that also help fuel the bottom line. Now organic farms churn out high-end produce for affluent consumers, and many residents live in houses that have been rebuilt using materials like locally harvested bamboo. The idea, as Liao puts it, is to promote "a life of harmony" — an approach that preaches balance between the body and the mind, the individual and society, and people and the planet.

Liao, 55, believes the 2008 earthquake represented a turning point for Chinese NGOs. The death toll — nearly 90,000 people were killed — and widespread destruction prompted an outpouring of support. Since then, citizens and semiofficial organizations like the Chinese Red Cross have been more willing to back NGO efforts, she says. Environmental groups continue to run afoul of the Chinese government, which is wary of any power not concentrated in the hands of the Communist Party. But Liao is well connected — she served as an environmental adviser on the Beijing Organizing Committee for the 2008 Olympic Games — and in China's tricky political landscape, those who walk a prudent line often travel furthest.

'Let nature run its natural course by setting air-conditioning at no lower than 26 degrees C [79 degrees F] in the summer and not higher than 20 degrees C [68 degrees F] in the winter.' — Sheri Liao