For Elizabeth Brunner, China is like a second home– albeit a very expensive one. Brunner, an assistant professor in the Department of Communications, Media and Persuasion, has been researching different aspects of the country’s culture for years, funded in part by her department, but often at personal cost. However, she was recently awarded a $3,500 grant from the Idaho Humanities Council to return to China to conduct research for her new book, “Ziran: China’s Changing Concept of Nature and Its Environmental Impacts”.
“I’ve gotten funding in the past for different language studies programs,” Brunner said, “but it’s rarely enough to be able to do research and stay there, so this is super exciting to me.”
Brunner said she decided to write this book while studying activism in China. Through her research, she noticed other changes going on in regards to the way the Chinese people interact with and discuss nature.
When doing language studies at universities in China, Brunner said she was often taught with phrases such as “people from the countryside are backwards.”
“That was evidence to a certain attitude toward nature,” she said.
According to Brunner, over the last few decades, problematic practices and attitudes toward nature have led to desertification, flooding and pollution in China.
“They’re doing more ecotourism, they’re building railways to go to the national parks, and there’s just this movement back toward nature,” Brunner said. “So this book looks at where has China come from in looking at nature and where are they now, and how are these new ways of looking at [nature] going to influence sustainability efforts and environmental efforts.”
In addition to discussing the actual efforts and movements being made to improve China’s environment, the book will explore greenwashing, the practice of intentionally spreading disinformation to present an environmentally conscious public image.
But Brunner said it will focus primarily on China’s changing relationship with nature and their possible return to older beliefs.
“The other thing that’s super different from America is that in really old China, in their concept of nature, humans are never separate from it,” Brunner said. “So one of the questions I want to ask is ‘can they go back to that old way of thinking?’”
Brunner will approach answering that question with a variety of different research methods, tailored to the topics she explores in her novel. For example, one chapter examines the way China’s national parks curate visitors’ interactions with nature. To do this, Brunner will visit national parks, look at the signage and interview visitors and tour guides.
Another chapter discusses NGOs, or non-governmental organizations, the research for which will be heavily focused on interviews. Still, other chapters will include topics such as sustainability efforts and advertising, where Brunner will study the changes in discourse over the years.
Brunner said outside of her work as a research, studies such as this play a huge role in her career as a professor.
“Doing research to me is super important to teaching because it forces me to change my lectures, incorporate new data, and if I have a lecture I’m always adding to it and tweaking it,” she said. “The other thing I think is super important, especially in places like Pocatello where we don’t have a lot of access to the outside world, is that I can bring in cross-cultural perspectives.”
Brunner said being able to discuss different cultures with students can allow them to experience different lifestyles as well as examine the way their own way of living compares to that of other cultures around the world.
“The other thing that’s really important is understanding how what they do influences us and vice versa,” Brunner said. “We may have a really clean environment, but part of the reason why is because we export all our pollution to them.”