A Historian’s Advice: Learn From Others’ Mistakes

China declared “war on pollution” in 2014 after public anger concerning the nation’s infamous and deadly urban smog boiled over. Last week, however, the National Energy Administration released a five-year-plan outlining authorities’ goals to increase coal power capacity while scaling back previously stated goals on alternative energy development.

On WeChat, “(@龅牙赵) urges those in the nation who see economic development as more important than environmental protection to reevaluate, using historical examples raised by others in recent years. Zhao, the online alias of a historian known for sober and short analyses of national issues drawing heavily on , takes aim at lingering lingering arguments that since Western countries were allowed to massively pollute their air while developing, China should feel free to do the same now. While Zhao focuses on pollution, his argument could be applied to other spheres, such as the official line that “human rights must be pursued in light of the specific conditions of countries.”

If Others Already Made a Mistake, Why Would You Want to Repeat It?

Buck-toothed Zhao (龅牙赵)

I

Let’s say—and I’m just saying here—that there was an open cesspit in some village somewhere. A big, smelly, dangerous one. The only people who’d want to go anywhere near it would be farmers looking for manure, right?

But then one day, one of the Zhang family kids, up to no good as usual, sneaks out to the cesspit where he falls in and drowns.

Heart-broken, the Zhang family makes a new rule: No playing near the cesspit. And after they hear what happened, everybody in the village decides the same thing: This place is off limits now, so go there at your own risk.

Everyone that is, except the Li family, who think the idea that some places are unlucky is a bunch of hogwash. But then one day their own child falls into the cesspit and drowns.

So the other people in the village say: “We told you to stay away from there, but you didn’t listen and now look what’s happened.”

Mr. and Mrs. Li aren’t having any of it though. They say, “There’s just no way to keep kids from falling in that cesspit. What’s so shocking about it? Didn’t that Zhang kid fall in just a while back?”

II

You’re probably thinking, Oh, what a ridiculous story! But this is actually pretty close to how a lot of us are dealing with the world nowadays.

Take “,” as an example. When it gets really bad we all go around complaining about the health effects. Eventually, researchers are sent to find out what’s causing it so that this or that obscure government organization can be tasked with taking care of it at the source.

But, at the same time, without fail we get a chorus of Mr. and Mrs. Lis saying: “If we want to develop the economy, there’s no way to stop the smog. If you don’t believe me just look at history! There was the Great Smog of 1952 in London, and the same thing happened in New York in ‘53 and Japan in the ’60s. What’s so shocking about the fact that we’ve got smog now?”

So now there’s a bunch of people who think that smog is this totally normal thing, just one more of the unavoidable costs of . Besides, it’s not a big deal. People are just using this to scare us because they don’t want us to develop our industry.

It’s even more amusing when someone inevitably says, “It took England, America, Japan fifty years to get things under control the way they are now. Why shouldn’t we be given the same amount of time to deal with our smog?”

When you put it that way it all sounds pretty reasonable, right?

III

Whenever someone learns that I’m a historian, they always give me this knowing smile and say, “But really, what’s the point of studying something like that?”

It’s true that studying history probably won’t make you rich or famous. But it will help you avoid making some of the same blunders that other people have made before. History is the best screenwriter, after all: everything from the grandest tales of opulence and splendor, to the worst tragedies. That’s the point of studying history — to prevent past tragedies from repeating themselves. We have to keep people from making the same mistakes over and over again.

For example, Zhu Yuanzhang (the founder of the Ming dynasty, aka the Hongwu Emperor) was adamant that eunuchs shouldn’t get involved in politics. But when his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson Zhu Youxiao took the throne as Emperor Tianqi some two hundred years later, he totally ignored the Hongwu Emperor’s warnings. Right away he kowtowed to his eunuch caretaker Wei Zhongxian, wishing him nine-thousand years of health and prosperity. Everything was in such a mess after he died a couple of years later that when his younger brother took the throne there wasn’t hardly anything left to take over.

Or to give another example, Zhao Ji (aka Emperor Huizong), eighth of his line during the Song dynasty, was convinced that forming an alliance with one border tribe to attack another border tribe would reveal how weak the empire really was. And then when his great-great-great grandson Emperor Lizong (Zhao Yun) ignored him, the Mongolians invaded and took everything north of the Yangtze.

I think you get the idea.

IV

While I don’t deny the fact that smog was once widespread in England, the US, and Japan, you can’t say that they haven’t come up with lots of ways in dealing with the problem.

From a historical perspective, I think these three countries could be said to be giving away their prosperity to China.

When they told us how smog is produced, what methods work best for dealing with it once it’s already here, and what steps can be taken to prevent it from appearing again in the future, they drew on personal experience.

But back when they first faced their own smog problems, or course, they had to go it alone, because it was this totally new thing. It was all trial by error, you know, try something for a year or two and then decide if it’s working or not. So it took decades for them to really get things under control.

So the good news is that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel here. There are all kinds of digital reports, laws and regulations, operating standards, quantitative norms, all just waiting for us to use them.

All we have to do is copy what they did!

V

If I said we’re a closed-off country, which makes it hard for us to go out in the world get first-hand experience, well, most people would probably agree with me.

But we’re not a closed-off country at all. We’ve got friends and allies all over the world. We’ve got trading partners on every continent, and our shipping lines stretch across the seven seas. If the family planning bureau can do overseas research, then why can’t the environmental protection agency go off on an official trip to do the same?

Even if imperialism is alive and well, keeping them from sharing their secret strategies with us in our time of need, there are so many exchange students living overseas right now it seems like we could ask them to steal the information for us. It’d be even harder for them to say no if we invoked patriotism and the cause of beautifying the motherland.

The real problem is that it seems like all we can do in the meantime is accept the existence of the smog, ever-present and all-encompassing.

As a historian and a sports buff I am often reminded of a famous saying by Coach Bora Milutinović—the only coach to lead the Chinese soccer team to the World Cup: Attitude is Everything. [Chinese]

Translation by Nick.