Rates of Change on a World Stage

I’ll have to admit that my ideas about change have been moved around a great deal, prompted by flying half-way around the world. What I saw in China created a dramatic contrast to my own backyard.

In China I traveled for two weeks in an area called “the Golden Triangle,” an aggregate of large industrial cities in the Yangtze Delta. In an area just barely bigger than South Carolina there are 80 million people, and one third of China’s mighty gross domestic product is produced there.

As I visited Shanghai, Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Yiwu I often considered my own small state with its 4.4 million people. I thought often about our environmental history and how we’ve already lived our nineteenth century here. The Industrial Revolution with its dramatic resource plundering and profound pollution has now mostly migrated elsewhere and left us to consider other ways to employ, empower, and bring prosperity to our people.

I’ve always felt we were moving too fast, hurtling into development willy nilly with little regard for water quality, air quality, and habitat destruction. I now have a very different world scenario to contrast to South Carolina.

I’m not willing to back off of my roots as an environmentalist. I believe that the United States has shaped the best legal system on the planet for assuring environmental protection and preservation. I believe in the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, and the Occupational Safety Health Administration.

What I saw first-hand in China is that on the world stage things don’t always move at our democratic pace. In a vast one-party system like China’s, capitalism can act like a virus. Cities can spring up overnight. Rivers can be dammed. Animal species can move quickly from abundance to extinction if the central government decides their habitat is needed to bring prosperity to the people.

When I returned from China one of the first things I did was walk on the Glendale Greenway Trail. I noticed right away that things I’d come to count on at Glendale Shoals had changed. There was a beach where there had not been one before. The surging current below the dam had actually moved boulders around.

While I was away the Lawson’s Fork flooded for the fourth time since November 15th. In mid-January two days of rain brought the river to its highest level in close to a decade. I was sad to have missed it. Wind is exciting, heat and cold are fun to talk about, but lots of rain-and how it changes local river levels-that’s my idea of weather.

There was one rock the size of a big dog house rolled out onto the rocky shoals. It had come to rest right there after traveling from some place upstream. Another boulder bigger yet had flipped in the current, offering a tall blade of rock for the water to carve around.

I’ve heard that when the rocks start moving during a flood it can sound like a bowling alley on the stream’s banks. I’ll bet Glendale sounded like that-the sound of a changing landscape.

I tend to think that change is (and should be) gradual, that the world naturally makes tiny adjustments over long periods to shape our landscape. The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould helped to change that perception. He talked abut “punctuated equilibrium,” that idea that things can be stable a long time and then one event can create lots of change almost overnight.

Big floods can be one of the agents of punctuation. One of my friends has christened that round boulder at the shoals “John’s Rock,” and every time I see it I’ll think about China, and about big changes in a short period of time.

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