Scapegoating the Environment


I was in China 5 years ago researching a novel (which later became Revenge of the Scapegoat) and as part of the trip I travelled down the Yangtze River to view the gigantic Three Gorges Dam. The river excursion was gorgeous, a three day cruise which passed through scenery of a kind that I had admired in Chinese paintings and prints since childhood. Our boat was filled with Taiwanese tourists who kept to themselves, as did I. But at the celebration banquet marking the day we saw the dam, all the English speakers, including myself, were put at a dinner table together.


The dinner was uncomfortable because my fellow diners were to a person coughing and hawking greyish sputum. Most were on a two-week tour together and they had   been living closely. When I asked about their collective ill health, they answered that they had probably caught a cold from one another. “But what did I think?” they asked upon learning that I was a medical doctor. I said that my hands and face were black after just sitting outside on the deck for a couple of hours. Also that the sunsets were gorgeous but full of abnormal colors. I imagined that all those particles and chemicals were getting into our lungs and causing the symptoms.

The politics of China’s economic development are not my issue here. I’m interested in the politics of denial, particularly as it relates to the environment.”

“But,” they said, “our trip was so wonderful. We have seen almost no pollution anywhere in China. Anyone can get a cold.” I listened in amazement as the group around me all agreed and elaborated on that sentiment. I thought of continuing to argue with them—the evidence from the boat was striking enough—until I realized that these were people who had spent a great deal of their savings to go on this “trip of a lifetime.” They were not going to diminish their fantasies and homecoming stories by focusing, even briefly, on the negatives of their trip. Collective denial reigned supreme, although after the dinner several individuals confessed to prior health problems and asked me about their symptoms and potential dangers.

By the time I returned to Beijing I was also coughing and experiencing diffuse chest pain. Two days in Beijing made my symptoms worse and the air was clearly polluted; many people on the streets wore masks, soon including me. I went to a private medical clinic and saw an Australian physician soon to return to his native land. He took a chest X-ray, diagnosed pneumonitis, gave me some chest medicines, and suggested I cut my stay short, which I subsequently did. (I was vulnerable from a bout of pneumonia some years before).

As I was leaving he turned to me as a fellow physician and said. “Look I would be afraid to say this if I wasn’t leaving because I someone might hear and I’d lose my job. This city is dangerously polluted. It’s a serious public health problem for the elderly and the children. Over forty percent of the children have childhood asthma! My clientele is all well off and from the expat community. When I explain why their children have difficulty breathing they simply don’t want to hear it. Obviously if they did it would radically affect their lives, which are fun and lucrative in this boom town.  I’m only leaving here myself because my wife is pregnant. No one should raise a child here if they don’t have to.”

The politics of China’s economic development are not my issue here. I’m interested in the politics of denial, particularly as it relates to the environment. Any tourist on that boat who spoke out about the pollution would have become a scapegoat of the group. Ditto to a members of an ex-patriot family who spoke out about the Beijing air to their colleagues making their fortunes away from home at the expense of their children and themselves. Despite its obviousness, it’s taken almost five years for the extent of China’s pollution to become daily uncensored news.

For me the question of our relationship with the environment includes how we separate ourselves from our effects on the environment, in effect scapegoating ourselves. More on that in the next blog.

Dr. Scapegoat


  1. Dear Dr. Scapegoat,
    If the environment is a Scapegoat, and humans see it as disposable, then the only way to save the environment, and therefore in turn humans, and animals… earth… is to collectively unlearn the psychological behaviour of scapegoating? This seems rational to me, but when I mention this to others they seem to not comprehend, or perhaps not grasp the Scapegoat Concept, is it time for a simple book to basicly stop the human learned behaviour of Scapegoating to enable and save our own existence.

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