Interview with Yue Meng

This interview is with Yue Meng, the author of “Unspeakable Ecology: Eco-science and Environmental Awareness through Thick Inquiries, 1910s–1980s,” which appears in the May 2022 issue of Twentieth-Century China. Yue Meng is an Associate Professor and Associate Graduate Chair in the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto. Read her article here

Before we start into the article and your research, could you tell us a bit about your academic background?

I am a cultural historian of twentieth-century China and a member of the faculty of the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Toronto. My research interests originally were women’s writings (Fuchu lishi dibiao [Breaking the surface of history], coauthored in Chinese), twentieth-century literature and culture, and the urban cultural history of Shanghai (Shanghai and the Edges of Empires). I have done some studies in the history of science. My current research focus is on environmental humanities.

Your article focuses on the history of ecological awareness in China by analyzing historical conceptual writings on ecology. How did you choose to focus on ecology and ecological awareness?

The climate change crisis first caught my attention in 2012, when I began reading works by environmentalists through the influence of some environmentally conscious friends. At this point, the environmental damage in China was becoming a notable issue, and I was teaching undergraduate courses about climate change and the environment in East Asia. Upon reading environmentalist works by European, American, and Indian authors, I couldn’t help wondering whether and in what form ecological awareness could have existed in Republican or socialist China. I was searching for possible modern and contemporary Chinese thinkers who thought about environmental issues. I didn’t imagine it would be easy to find theoretical counterparts of Aldo Leopold’s discussion of a land ethic in A Sand County Almanac or Arne Naess’s philosophy of deep ecology, for example, not to mention Silent Spring. But does this mean there has been no ecological awareness in China? Not necessarily. In a sense, I thought even if environmental awareness hadn’t existed, a cultural history of its absence might exist. That’s how I began to explore this topic, in a wild-goose-chase style. The research for this article started a couple of years ago.

Your article highlights the idea of the ecological subaltern. Could you please define and describe this term for our readers?

Yes. While ongoing efforts to theorize ecological thought have produced many new concepts, I feel that “ecological substratum” remains useful to reflect on our ethical relationship with ecology. As a key concept of postcolonial critique, the term “subaltern” comprises both social and cultural dimensions. It represents the lowest social stratum of the colonized and also refers to the cultural status of the ecological awareness that is being excluded beyond the dominant language, forms of knowledge, theorization, and systems of communication. Ecology, or our ethical and political relation to ecology, exists within this status throughout modern and contemporary histories: our dominant language, philosophy, theory, and culture have developed with derecognition and even denial of ecology and other species as intelligent and indispensable parts of our socioeconomic and political systems. This derecognition, variously termed “the great divide” or “disenchantment,” is not just a matter of the wrong mode of thinking; rather, it involves the colonial and other cultural/political regimes that have put our ethical connection to the nonhumans into systematic denial. By invoking the term “ecological subaltern,” therefore, I hope to secure a conceptual as well as historiographical space for the denied, suppressed, and therefore unthinkable ecological connections.

The ecological subaltern can have historical and ethical implications. Historically, our relations to the nonhuman world cultivated in premodern and “underdeveloped” times have been subjugated beneath the concepts of science, developmentalism, nation, and other colonial and modern systems. Many scholars have discussed the ecological subaltern in this sense, sometimes without using the term. In my paper, I expand on the less frequently discussed ethical dimension of the ecological subaltern. I use this concept to describe the suppression of ecological awareness in the name of justice and people. For example, in the early 1980s, an ecologically minded economic proposal for ecosystem farming was criticized as reinforcing underdevelopment and inequality. In this situation, ecological ethics was rendered unthinkable and unspeakable at the ethical level.

To look at the subject fundamentally, how are ecology and ecological awareness affected by China’s place as a postcolonial, socialist nation?

This position you describe has affected ecological thinking in China greatly. The postcolonial regime of knowledge and worldview altered the classical conceptual system of ecology in China in a radical way. In my article, I demonstrate how the type of ecological science introduced to China via Japan filtered affective and relational dimensions of life from the knowledge of the living world. In a larger context, the scientism that recurred in twentieth-century China (which reckoned the knowledge of the physical world as the ultimate truth and denied the moral and political aspects of human and nonhuman relations) served as an effective carrier of the suppression I discuss. One might recognize it in the New Culture movement, in the metaphysics and science debate, and even in a few recent trends. This approach constructed the foundation of the modern consciousness of the physical world in a general sense. Chinese socialism did not decolonize this area; rather, it further displaced the possible ethical status of the natural world.

In many cases, exploitative relations to the nonhuman world were even made ethical and politically right in the socialist era. The slogan promoting “catching up,” though characteristic of Mao’s political economic campaign, was in fact already a colonial product when civilizational discourse rendered native and indigenous cultures as “primitive,” for example. Arguably, “conquering nature” was also such a product. Then, a question worth asking is this: “What possible source was there to generate new ecological knowledge?” I try to show that, besides the incorporation of local, native knowledge and sciences acquired via the Soviet Union and other routes, the ecology itself (or the Chinese scientists’ encounter with ecology) became the foundation for new eco-knowledge as well as eco-ethics during the socialist era.

You focus on the overlap between ecology and Social Darwinism in China during the early twentieth century. What does your study of Social Darwinism unveil about the intellectual, political, and economic climate of the era from 1900 to 1920?

From a distinct perspective, my study once again sheds light on the role Japan played in China’s modern moment, as scholarship has demonstrated. The period from the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894 until the early Republican years marked a particular era of change due to China’s relationship to multiple discursive powers in and beyond Asia. It is notable that the particular type of Social Darwinism imported from Japan generated a backlash against the more progressive and ecologically meaningful evolutionary theory that arrived in China during this time via minor intellectual trends of Europe, such as that of anarchism.

In the article, you recount the theoretical and scientific engagements and exchanges between Chinese and Soviet scientists in the 1950s. How does your history contribute to or complicate our understanding of Sino-Soviet cooperation and socialist internationalism as a whole?

Serious endeavors took place in the early years of socialist China to further the understanding of ecology and its relation to society via Soviet science. At the same time, the blatant anthropocentrism and ethical deficiency with regard to the nonhuman and life itself also spread. My study observes that the Sino-Soviet eco-science enterprise helped to advance certain aspects of ecological knowledge in China, such as the idea of plant communities, geobotanical studies, and an idea similar to ecological corps, which Soviet theorists misconceptualized to be “genetic science.” But meanwhile this eco-science contributed little to revitalizing ecology and biodiversity, since its goal was to achieve the highest ever yields of economic crops. It reinforced Chinese Marxists’ discourse about productivity. I believe that socialist internationalism must have shared some characteristics of both the seriousness of science and its narrow use for productivity.

In the long history of ecological awareness, your research touches on three distinct eras of Chinese history, the Republican era (1911–1949), the Mao era (1949–1976), and the Reform era (1978–). How do these temporal frameworks with their various corresponding political, economic, and social settings affect your conceptual study?

Thank you for bringing up the question of temporalities. There are indeed multiple temporalities in my consideration, in the sense of different histories not only within the realm of the human collective but also within the nonhuman realm. We recognize different temporalities within the scope of distinct human societies (such as modernity, premodernity, late imperial China, and so on), but these changes do not punctuate the histories of the nonhuman. Recently, histories of the Earth and the nonhuman have come to mark human histories with their own unique temporalities, like the “retreat of the elephant” or the Great Acceleration, the melting of Greenland’s permafrost, or the Sixth Extinction. This was, of course, not merely a matter of periodization, but of politics and ethics. To borrow from Dipesh Chakrabarty, an intrahuman politics and justice are found between social classes or political economic systems; however, there is also a sense of justice within interspecies relations and multispecies history. A particular incident, such as Third World nations “catching up” with First World nations in material consumption, could have contested meanings across the border between intrahuman and interspecies histories. It could mean progress and equality in the intrahuman temporality, but destruction and injustice in the interspecies history.

In my paper, I try to elaborate on these changes and push toward a sense of justice in interspecies history. I had originally thought that breaking the paper into three would enable me to better historicize each moment, because obviously things vary greatly among the Republican era, Mao’s China, and the Reform era. But I’m happy I didn’t break it up. The paper in its current form shows an unfragmented timeline of ecological awareness in China over a longer span of the twentieth century that did not appear in correspondence with normal periodization of historical changes. In fact, because the emergence of ecological awareness did not correspond with any political turning point, it brought some changes to the system, as we saw in the case of the early 1970s.

By exploring the intersection of ecological practices and ethics, how does your article reveal more about each of these important concepts?

I think each ecological practice reflects an ethical and political relation to ecology. That relation needs to be double-checked, not only by the ethical claims of the human groups but also by the unclaimed ethics of the nonhuman. When a “green” product—say, organic milk—claims to contain zero chemicals and thus to be less harmful and more ethical, that in fact is of little concern to ecological ethics if we consider the large quantity of greenhouse gas emissions, the massive land and water use, and the severe animal cruelty that milk production involves. To call that product green would be suppressive to Ecology isn’t an object but a set of relations, and as such it includes ethics and politics that involve us. Many “pure” ecological happenings, such as mutually supportive, cothriving, ecological service to one another in a system, are ethical terms and should be incorporated into our thoughts about good life, equality and so forth. And, finally, we need to reconsider what exactly ethical behavior means to us from an ecological perspective. Are we ethical beings without treating the ecology and other species ethically? I believe it’s time to incorporate nonhuman others into our ethical awareness, not as objects or materials but as subjects and peoples, so that our green choices are less rhetorical.

Your article has very clear links to the global climate change crisis and current conversations on ecology and ethics. How do you hope to influence these conversations with your work?

Thank you for saying so, because I feel I haven’t addressed those links extensively enough. It is apparent that despite all the global environmental policies and climate agreements in the past four decades, we haven’t stopped climate change and environmental degradation. It’s quite the opposite: climate change has accelerated, and the disasters scientists predicted years ago have become a reality of our daily lives. This tells us something about these agreements and about our climate politics itself. Since the start, climate politics has been entangled with a series of denials, first of the existence of climate change and then of its major cause from animal agricultural emissions. This politics of climate change denial operates at the decision-making level, but it has roots deep in the contradiction of our collective conscience and consciousness. There is something in our relation to ecology and other species we do not want to change or to face, nor do we want others to see it, even though we know it has led to the climate change crisis. This calls for critical engagement. I incorporated this concern into the article and aspired to identify the denials and to find out what has been removed from sight, why our concepts of ecology do not take all living beings to be our ethical equals, and why our efforts to halt climate change and environmental degradation are kept at an abstract, managerial level. Though a small scholarly paper like mine won’t in any way influence these conversations, I hope it will at least remind us of the ethical dimension as we evaluate these conversations.

Can you give a bit of background on this work? Is it part of a wider research project?

Yes and no. This paper is indeed derived from a larger project I have been working on about eco-scientific perceptions of land in China during the twentieth century. But this paper started from a narrower entry point on the concept of ecology and then took on a life of its own.

In what ways would you like your research to change the field of Chinese history as a whole? Where do you see your research going in the future?

Well, I am not very ambitious in that way. I think that, like any field, Chinese history is built on scholarship accumulated over decades. I only hope my work will be in some way useful for environmental history and environmental humanities studies of China. I do not think environmental history and environmental humanities are separate fields from China studies. Meanwhile, I also think their approaches should not be totally subsumed under the framework of Chinese history, because some environmental crises aren’t occurring that way. In a sense, I hope to continue doing research in environmental humanities, history of science, and cultural historical studies. I think that’s something I can do.

What historiography shaped this project? For further reading, what historiography would you recommend?

A lot of historical works shaped this project. I think Bruno Latour’s Facing Gaia was an important push. Also indispensable but less direct are works by Anna Tsing and Donna Haraway, as well as the Anthropocene debate, works by eco-Marxist historians like Jason Moore, postcolonial thinkers such as Amitav Ghosh and Dipesh Chakrabarty, and ecofeminist works of Vandana Shiva. Chinese environmental and science history works are many, including those by Ken Pomeranz, Prasenjit Duara, David Pietz, Mark Elvin, Sigrid Schmalzer, Ruth Rogaski, and Elena Songster, as well as many works by scholars who study ecological thought and culture of China prior to the twentieth century. A wild goose chase, isn’t it?

I am equally indebted to global environmental activism. I’ve followed the global climate change crisis through documentaries like Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006), of course, but more from the ones that engaged with Gore, like Meat the Truth (2006) and especially Cowspiracy (2014). Almost a decade ago, the filmmakers of Cowspiracy were already asking the same question people ask today: “I did everything I could to protect the environment, like recycle, save electricity, save water, drive less, so why has the climate crisis worsened?” The film puts together the right climate science pieces I had read and questions the green activism effectively. The discussion about the animal economy, the largest emitter and our darkest and most cruel relationship to nonhuman species, was especially eye-opening to me. I recommend it to your readers.

Do you have any closing comments for our readers?

We live in a very turbulent time, and the first and last choice one can make is an ethical one. But our ethical status must be seriously reevaluated from an interspecies perspective. I thank the readers of Twentieth-Century China for caring about this matter. Thank you for your thought-provoking questions.