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The Importance of Perspective

Canada-China Field Course in Aquatic Biodiversity and Environmental Assessment

[Boat on the Yangtze River at dusk]
Dusk on the Yangtze River

In the same way that for an artist trying to sketch an object, it’s best if you look at it from more than one angle – maybe by closing each eye in turn – Dr. Brian Cumming, the former director of the Queen’s School of Environmental Studies, believes that we can learn more about sustainability and environmental problems when we look at them from different perspectives.

This fall, the first students from Shanghai’s Tongji University arrived at Queen’s as part of what is being called a “two-plus-two” university program. After two years of study in their school’s College of Environmental Science and Engineering, the students, seven in number this year, will enter third year at Queen’s working towards a bachelor’s degree in environmental science. Ultimately, the goal is to bring about fifteen students each year to Queen’s. Perhaps it’s their locations on, or near, culturally and historically important rivers – the St. Lawrence for Queen’s and the Yangtze for Tongji – that have led these schools to have complementary academic strengths in the study of aquatic ecosystems, their conservation, the remediation of badly-polluted lakes and rivers, and the connection between water systems and human health.

The Tongji students will gain an understanding of how we deal with these issues in North America, and in particular at Queen’s. But as Cumming is quick to point out, it won’t be a one-way exchange.

[students and instructors in China]“By having the Tongji students here,” he says, “we’re going to open their eyes to what’s going on in North America. But they are going to bring very different perspectives to their classes reflecting their own country and the provinces where they grew up.”

By having the Tongji students here, we’re going to open their eyes to what’s going on in North America. But they are going to bring very different perspectives to their classes reflecting their own country and the provinces where they grew up.

The new program is the culmination of a decade-long cooperation between Queen’s and various Chinese universities, notably Tongji, but also Fudan (also in Shanghai), Beijing Normal, Southwest (Chongqing), and Zhejiang University (Hangzhou). The groundwork was laid, says Cumming, by Queen’s biology professors Yuxiang Wang and Stephen Lougheed, who established the Canada-China Field Course in Aquatic Biodiversity and Environmental Assessment with partner Chinese universities in 2005. Held each summer, the course alternates year by year between the Queen’s University Biological Station and locations along the Yangtze River.

“It’s pretty much a trip along the length of the Yangtze,” says Cumming of the Chinese portion of the course. “In 2014, for example, we started at 600 kilometres above the Three Gorges Dam at the city of Chongqing, then traveled down towards Shanghai. We look at issues of biodiversity, water pollution and water usage, as well as political and socioeconomic challenges. We try to look at successful conservation and sustainable initiatives, not just dire stories of environmental degradation. At the same time, we are trying to have a true exchange between the Ontario students (drawn from universities associated with the Ontario University Program in Field Biology consortium) and the Chinese students.”

[students and instructors in a marsh]“It’s all about getting another vantage,” he says. “Look at the Three Gorges Dam for instance. If you ask the Chinese, they might say – ‘Sure, we had to move some people, and there was some environmental fallout, but overall it was a good thing for the economy and employment.’”

“The Canadians on the other hand might go – ‘The age of big dams is over. You’ve caused the extinction of the river dolphin, profoundly degraded the habitat of the finless porpoise and caused ecological harm.’”

“Then they start to listen to each other, and realize that it’s not all one way or the other. That’s the key.”

Building on the success of this multi-institutional field program, Queen’s and Tongji signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2012, and signed another memorandum in 2013, creating the “Sino-Canada Network for the Environment and Sustainable Development.” The two schools hope the network will encourage cooperative research with a particular emphasis on informing governments and NGOs on the best ways to achieve economic success without damaging the environment. This is an ambitious undertaking, and Cumming is quick to share the credit with many other people at Queen’s and Tongji, including Zhiyao Zhang (Queen’s China Liaison Officer in Shanghai), Jianfu Zhao (Jiaxing-Tongji Institute for the Environment) and Wenwei Ren (Director of the Shanghai Conservation Program, WWF), in addition to those already mentioned.

[students and instructor on a boat]The network will also create transformative educational opportunities for students, including the two-plus-two program.

“Other universities have tried to do this, and we are drawing lessons from their experiences,” says Cumming about the program. “We’re making sure the students get the support they need to ensure their success. We’re trying to have very small groups coming over. We’re working with the School of English here at Queen’s and with the Great Panda Society, a group on campus dedicated to intercultural exchange. Queen’s is trying to get this right.”

In November 2015, Queen’s entered into a new phase of its collaboration with Tongji University that will see Queen’s researchers participate in the International Research Laboratory of Yangtze River Ecology and the Environment, or InteLab-Yangtze for short. This international initiative aims to create the world’s foremost research centre on the ecology of the Yangtze River basin. Other partners include the Helmholtz-Forschungszentrum Juelich, based in Germany, and Stockholm University in Sweden.

Ian Coutts
(e)Affect Issue 8 Fall/Winter 2015