Hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics is forcing China to clean up its act.

Sheri Xiaoyi Liao, the environmental ambassador to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Committee, discussed efforts to improve air quality in China’s capital city as part of her lecture on “China and the Environment: The Impact of NGOs, Culture and Growth,” given in Bowers Auditorium on Monday afternoon. Liao spoke about the recent birth of the Chinese environmentalist movement and the influence that nongovernmental organizations have had on shaping official environmental policy.

Lost amid reports of China’s roaring economy is the impact of such rapid development on the environment, Liao said. Industrialization and modernization in China have led to deteriorating air quality, the destruction of natural resources and an exponential rise in pollution. The biggest threat to the environment, Liao said, is the abandonment of traditional Chinese values and the emulation of foreign lifestyles.

“If many Chinese continue to follow the American style of overconsumption, we would need five planets,” she said. “If many Chinese follow the European style, we would need three … following modernization the American way means destroying biodiversity.”

Liao said NGOs have played a substantial role in shaping Chinese government policy with regard to sustainable development and “green” living. She said her organization, Global Village, initiated a campaign to save energy by raising thermostats in the summer and lowering them in the winter.

Liao said the campaign was partly prompted by her experiences in the United States.

“The Americans make summer feel like winter and winter feel like summer,” Liao said, criticizing the wastefulness of overheating and excessive air conditioning.

Based on Liao’s plan, China’s central government recently adopted a policy known as the “26 Degree Campaign,” mandating that thermostats in Chinese government buildings never be higher than 26 degrees Celsius in the summer and never be lower than 18 degrees in the winter.

“This is a very good example of how NGOs can work together to influence policymakers,” Liao said.

The environmentalist movement in China has strived to change people’s lifestyles in an effort to promote more “green” living, Liao said, instead of focusing entirely on sustainable development. Global Village has made extensive use of the media to promote environmental awareness, she said, creating TV programs and organizing events such as the Sustainable Energy Forum. It has also worked closely with corporations and individual communities, she said.

Liao’s vision of environmentalism incorporated millennia of Chinese philosophy in its emphasis on bringing together all members and institutions of a society to work toward a common goal.

“Every area of Chinese culture, from Confucianism to Taoism, has emphasized harmony,” she said. “If we want sustainable living, we cannot forget China.”

Some audience members said although they generally agreed with Liao, they disagreed with some aspects of the presentation.

Gareth Fisher, a post-doctoral associate in East Asian Studies, said Liao did not address enough specific concerns about China’s environmental condition.

“The presentation was maybe a bit too abstract,” he said. “There were less concrete examples. The question and answer session was much more concrete, however.”

Yi Luo FES ’08 said Liao’s ideas may have been too culturally specific and not applicable to American students’ concerns.

“The presentation inspires me a lot, but I don’t think American students will understand as much,” she said.