Ma Jun believes transparency is key to solving China's pollution problem

by University Communications,

Lakes dyed green by invasive algae, rivers teeming with industrial waste and rural residents forced to drink untreated, unsafe water.

When he worked as a journalist in China, Ma Jun regularly witnessed such environmental destruction wrought by pollution. Instead of feeling defeated by what he saw, Ma Jun vowed to act. Today, more than a decade later, he’s considered one of China’s most successful environmental activists.

On April 20, Ma Jun discussed his work as part of Willamette University’s Dempsey Lecture Series. The free event brings global environmentalists to the university each year to present their ideas to the Willamette and Salem communities.

For Ma Jun, the key to environmental reform is transparency.

“We still haven’t seen the turning point in China,” he told a crowd of 100-plus people. “We are facing a tremendous environmental challenge that threatens future generations. We have a duty to protect them.”

Throughout his talk, Ma Jun discussed the achievements of the not-for-profit Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, which he founded in China in 2006.

So far, the organization has exposed more than 97,000 air and water violations by local and multinational companies. It’s convinced more than 600 companies to publicly disclose their plans and cleanup efforts, and it’s launched a new app to provide public, real-time data on air and water quality throughout the country.

Much of the institute’s success, Ma Jun said, relies on the help of the Internet and social media.

“We came to realize we can’t save our environment without extensive public participation,” he said, referring to the tweets and photos posted by his team of volunteer “micro reporters.” “Enforcement remains weak.”

For professor Joe Bowersox, who teaches environmental and earth sciences, Ma Jun’s presentation epitomized the ideal of the Dempsey Lecture Series. As well as delivering a public lecture, Ma Jun spent three days meeting with students to discuss environmental challenges in China.

“His efforts on behalf of his home country are nothing short of heroic, and in fact quite daring in the present political climate,” Bowersox says. “What struck me most was Ma Jun’s passion and humanity. He cares deeply about the environment, and he experiences its destruction as a personal loss. For him, it’s about creating a better future for everyone.”

Ma Jun’s visit to Willamette marked his first, and only, talk in the United States this year. The Dempsey Foundation, Luce Scholars Program and Willamette University’s Department of Environmental and Earth Sciences funded his lecture.