"Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals. Food chains are the living channels which conduct energy upward; death and decay return it to the soil."
(A Sand County Almanac)
By Dale Olen
The last century population expansion has loomed as a major problem on planet Earth. I pay attention to it when we cross from five to six billion people and a few years later from six to seven billion. I also think about the impact of this giant population on the natural resources of the planet. But it has a special effect on the people of the planet. As there are more of us, we are forced to adapt and change our behavior and attitudes toward this force that is consuming more of the goods that we think are necessary for survival.
I recently returned from three weeks in China, and experienced a striking tourist feature of that area. Sure I saw the Great Wall, and the Terra Cotta Warriors, and the beautiful karst mountain formations on the River Lieu, but I also saw the cities where more and more rural people are moving or being relocated. So I was in Shanghai, a city of 18 million, then Beijing 22 million, then Guilin a small city of only 8 million, and finally to Chongqing the biggest city of China 33 million people.
Just to give a little perspective:
The USA and China have about the same amount of land, but China has over one billion more people than we do. And many of these people live in urban settings (91 million in just the four major cities I spent time in).
They live vertically. In Shanghai, there are over 40,000 buildings that stand at least 25 stories high. High residential condos/apartments line the streets of the other towns as well. People are stacked on top of each other, mostly in 400 square foot condos that house a young family with one or two children and the parents of the male. From the morning moment they leave their condo, people begin the challenge of getting onto a crowded, small elevator with all the other residents heading to work. They navigate to the bus stop, wait for a bus with a crowd of others, and then they all try to get on the small, crowded bus. Jostled, they ride down town, depart the bus, go to the crossing intersection and wait for the pedestrian walk light. When it starts blinking they push out into the street, but have to watch for cars, buses, and motor scooters that do not stop for them. Again, they are resisting the crowds, in order to get their own space. Basically they are in competition with the rest of the public for space to move to.
In a way, they are fighting the crowds to get important personal space and other needs they have. Along with space and quiet, they need limited amounts of food, limited water, air quality, adequate sewerage, clothing, higher paying jobs, and so on. All difficult to get when you are competing with 1.3 billion other people.
Many of the Chinese people have learned over the years how to manage the growing crowds. They have gotten aggressive and pushy. They don’t seem to be concerned about the other person, but only about getting what they and their family need for their own satisfaction and survival.
Like Americans, the Chinese now, go touring around their own country. They knew the Terra Cotta Warriors existed around Guilin, but never had the resources to get themselves there. Now they do.
Well, here they come to Terra Cotta to see the warriors who are still being excavated in long deep trenches in the ground. To view the warriors you have to climb to the edge of a dug out pit inside a large building and view over a railing. So, when we arrived, we were warned it would be crowded. We couldn’t even see to the diggings below. Ahead of us natives were pushing and maneuvering into position to see. Forearms and elbows were used to push toward the front. Everyone was trying to take a picture with an i-phone or i-pad. If they got jostled while taking the picture, they just held their ground and took another.
As much as I wanted to see the Terra Cotta Warriors, I was as fascinated by the aggressive nature of individuals dealing with a crowd. Yes, I got my own share of forearms and elbows, but if I didn’t want to get into an abrasive argument with a Chinese woman, which I’d never win anyway, it was smarter for me to only enjoy and observe this unique form of coping with over-population. Too many people in a small locale are bound to lead to some form of violence. How else can you deal with all that people power except to bring power against it?
It’s not just over-population forcing other people to become aggressive. It’s also the material resources available to that great number of people that seems so infinitesimally small. You see it, for example, on the trains and buses. Waiting for the train, it seems like everyone is in line, but as soon as the train approaches the station, everyone leaves the back and jams up toward the front, all trying to get onto this small train car. Too many people for a small car. If they don’t get on right away they could miss the train and have to wait even longer. I don't think they like that.
The same with seeing the sights of China, some of them truly magnificent. If they don’t push themselves up to capture the sight, they may miss it.
We saw the same thing at the public eating spots, especially if there was a buffet. No matter when I went up to the buffet table, the food was almost always gone. Only a small amount of food fit a tray, and with the throng of hungry folks in the restaurant, as soon as they saw the food coming, they were up and swarming the buffet. I felt like the youngest kid at a family table of ten who got the leftovers. I learned to be aggressive about getting to the buffet earlier so there was still something to eat.
We have the same experience here on Black Friday, when everyone lines up at Walmart and when the doors open there is a mad rush for the small amount of great sales in the store. The only way to get to those sales is to push through the crowds and get what you want. In China everyday is like Black Friday, where to get the limited resources people need, they learn how to navigate through the crowd to get for themselves and extended family.
In Peter Hessler’s memoir, River Town, he writes about the lack of interest for other people in the same city. When the people of Fuling were given the news that the Three Gorges Dam would result in flooding their town out of existence, most people there seemed to passively accept this reality. Much of their town would be destroyed or moved to higher ground. And many of the citizens would have to be relocated to a bigger city. But according to Hessler, if it didn’t affect citizens or their extended family personally, they let it go.
It appears that the Chinese people cannot care about all the other people and families out there. They can’t be sensitive about others’ needs. They cannot step back and make sure others get a chance for that limited material or service. If they need it for their family, they better go get it. That focus on their own extended family, makes them insensitive to just how intrusive they can be toward others. Certainly, we experienced that with space. Often, they were in our space, like cutting in front of us in the queue. Or sound, they talk, often times, quite loudly, whether in small spaces or large. They are taking care of themselves in a pressing, heavily populated world trying to get and protect the small stuff they never had and now can get.
If you have been like me here in the States, you have experienced the aggressive and pushy Chinese behavior and probably tried to avoid it or be critical of them. It’s not a pleasant experience. But when you see them trying to navigate their own overpopulated urban settings, you realize they have adapted to crowds – the way they successfully gain for themselves what they need is to compete against the crowds in their country or ours by acting with aggression and inconsiderately. I still don’t like that way of being, but now I understand the power of big populations of people. Maybe that’s why many Chinese are in the parks on Sunday, doing tai chi. It’s either that or the more aggressive kung-fu.