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Not All Good News Is Good

Published on 14th February 2018

How Progressive Environmental Laws are Making

Life Tough for Some Traditional Artisans

                                                                        -Michael Morgan


Between mining the raw materials, shipping them to the production facility and firing the final product, most people will be surprised to learn the high ecological impact that such a beautiful and peaceful artistic discipline as pottery can take on the environment. But this, like many other traditions created far before the notion of ecological conservation became mainstream, can be a massively harmful activity. Unfettered mass production techniques have stripped entire regions of their delicate ecological balances and filled the air with countless tons of harmful gas emissions.

While no country looks forward to stifling its artistic heritage, each is dealing with its own unique ecological disaster in the making. Governments are beginning to take drastic action to reduce the amount of pollutants outdated factories contribute to the environment. But such regulation has been a double-edged sword. At the same time that they’re ensuring a cleaner, more sustainable future, certain progressive environmental laws are also having the unintended consequence of extinguishing some of the finest heritage factories in the world.

As one of the most heavily industrialized countries, China is also one of the most polluted. While a strengthening of its Environmental Protection Law in 2017 has garnered huge results, its effort to limit the amount of pollution factories create has also eliminated many businesses altogether. The traditional Chinese pottery industry is no exception.

Smog in Shanghai

Su Yongjun is the patriarch of one of the oldest families producing pottery in Shanxi province, the traditional hotbed of Chinese ceramics and glazing factories. But over the course of his career, nearly all of his competitors have been shut down by the Chinese government for failing to meet evolving emissions standards. This is not just a local issue; Forbes reports that over 80,000 factories of various types across China have been sanctioned, fined or closed for emissions infractions in the past few years alone.

Important cultural institutions, like Su Yongjun’s proprietary, nearly seven-century-old glazing technique, hang in the balance. But those businesses threatened by increasingly stringent emission standards can take a lesson from the Su family. Rather than closing his doors and forgetting his ancestral livelihood, Su Yongjun has adapted. By eschewing the highly pollutive coal and wood fire kilns of his forefathers and investing in moderns gas and electric technology, he has minimized his ecological footprint and escaped reproach by the Chinese government.

Su Yongjun in his workshop

Today, only three families still create traditional glazed earthenware in Shanxi province, and the Su family of Taiyuan city is one of them. So few genuine traditional workshops remain that Su-style glazed works have been granted “intangible cultural heritage” status by the Chinese Ministry of Culture.

But while the Su story rings of success, it’s hard to ignore the fact that so many traditional artisans are no longer contributing to their national heritage.

There is a growing fear that as emissions laws become more restrictive, many other important cultural treasures will be destined to follow in the path of Su Yongjun’s failed competitors. Steps are being taken, however, to ensure this never happens.

The original system for collecting “pollutant discharge fees” from Chinese companies was created in 1979, but this piece of legislation was famous for being too lax and having too many loopholes. Despite the law, many of the most egregious polluters were able to easily sidestep their responsibly to pay any significant fee.

However, many smaller companies, like traditional artisan workshops that lacked the benefit of high-powered legal teams, were unable to exploit those same loopholes. Compelled to pay unequal fees with their larger and more modern competitors, they faced a financial disadvantage.

But a recent change to how the Chinese government charges its businesses for emissions seeks to solve this problem. By eliminating many of the old loopholes, companies will each be responsible to pay a more egalitarian tax. The long-term strategy of this policy is not only to drive down pollution, but to drive down the cost of complying with the new pollution laws. After all, the more companies compelled to invest in energy efficient technology, the cheaper that technology is destined to become.

It’s hard to argue against legislation that aims to keep manageable pollution levels for the benefit of future generations, especially in the face of decades of research that suggests tangible links between environmental health, happiness and productivity. But perhaps more can be done to ensure that traditional workshops like Su Yongjun’s glazing operation remain open.  

International organizations like UNESCO have long invested in safeguarding traditional fabrication techniques all over the world, but even they concede that efforts to compete with modern mass production can result in negative environmental consequences. Although it might be possible to alter the process of manufacturing artwork like Su-style glazing to produce less waste, how much can the process be changed before it looses the essence of its ancient technique?

Su Yungjun's modern gas kiln

Although he has indeed switched from wood and coal to gas and electric kilns, Su Yongjun claims that he will never replace his traditional mineral-based glazes with modern synthetics, despite the fact that they can be found more cheaply and have the potential to be less resource-intensive to produce. Besides being honor-bound to carry on his family’s legacy, Su-style glazing produces artwork that lasts centuries without fading, while cheaper modern techniques might last only a few decades.

Rather than altering the process to compete with more efficient modern business models, many are finding it best not to focus on competition at all. The obvious problem with that, though, is the long-term economic solvency of these small companies.

UNESCO’s answer is for government institutions to lend a helping hand. By “offer[ing] financial incentives to students and teachers” of traditional workshops, governments can ensure that their cultural heritage remains a living part of their country, rather than crumbing under the pressure of modern financial bourdons like so many of Su Yongjun’s former competitors.