In a recent study on students' attitude to economic growth versus environmental protection, students from China's Green Schools chose growth before protection. The students on the picture have nothing to do with the study. Photo: Commons.Wikipedia

Dilemma? What dilemma?

Students in China rates economic growth ahead of environmental protection.

When it comes to global conflicts of interests, few things trump the tension between economic growth and environmental protection. For China, its a case of being stuck right in the middle of it. China's economy is steadily growing, but international pressure is building up to curb their carbon emissions.

The car factory and the village
In a new article published by centre researcher Cecilia Lundholm and LI Sternäng from Stockholm university, students from Chinas' environmentally focused Green Schools were interviewed about their perspectives on economic growth versus environmental protection.

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The findings were clear: the students favoured economic growth and social welfare over protecting the environment.

Using interviews and role play observations, the students, all between the age of 15 and 16, were asked to decide whether a car factory should be set up near a village with a coal mine. The students were presented with a range of pros and cons, ranging from economic benefits to negative impacts for climate change.

The environment can be fixed
To make the students consider the issue from different perspectives, they were asked to do a role play where they acted as governmental leaders, ecologists, UN representatives and representatives of the village. The interviews were conducted before and after the role plays.

The interviews before the role plays revealed an overall preference to setting up the car factory. The students did not consider there to be a dilemma between setting up the factory and worsening the environment.

As one student puts it:

"Personally, I approve of setting up a car factory. Though a car factory may pollute the environment, I think the benefit is greater. There would be a lot of economic benefits, and many people would find jobs instead of planting crops. Most important is that money earned through the factory could be used to manage the environment, which means that the environment would be even better..."

The interviews revealed that the students believed the environment is manageable and repairable by advancements in science and technology.

"I think that even if there would really come a day when environmental pollution is serious, science and technology would be so (...) advanced that it can withhold the environmental problems," another student said.

Time to face reality?
There were also little concern about implications for future generations:

Student 1: "The demand for cars is very big now. If we don´t set up a car factory, how could we keep up ...?"

Student 2: "We would lag behind"

Student 3: "But at the same time do you know...demand for cars is bigger but the pollutionof the environment is also bigger. Setting up a car factory will produce more cars, and people need more cars. But why don't we use the time to do research...?"

Student 4: "We need to face reality. We don´t want any research that is remote and unrealistic. How long time will be needed to research for a pollution-free car?"

Student 3: "I didn't say that we should not produce cars at all. I said we should support research for environmentally friendly cars."

Student 2: "That's unrealistic!"

Student 1: "That's too remote. By that time we ourselves would..."

Student 3: "You are selfish. You don't think about future generations!"

Student 4: "We need to satisfy the present generation first. We can't satisfy future generations at the expense of the present generation."

Don't treat economy and nature separately
In the interviews after the role plays, the students changed their mind and preferred not to set up a factory. Not because of the negative environmental consequences, but because alternative businesses like selling coal, tourism and handcrafts were more realistic business endeavours. Put differently, they changed their decision on the basis of economic arguments, not environmental.

Despite the limited number of participants, the study, which follows up from earlier research on moral dilemmas and climate change, highlights the importance of including economic content in environmental education, not just in China, but globally.

"What is also interesting from this study is how the students favour economic development ahead of environmental protection. This says something about their perspectives. If we want to change or at least influence these, environmental education needs to take a bigger picture, not just explain how nature works, but also why we need it," Cecilia Lundholm says.

Source: Li Sternäng & Cecilia Lundholm (2011): Climate change and costs: investigating
students´ reasoning on nature and economic development, Environmental Education Research.

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Related info


Li Sternäng & Cecilia Lundholm (2011): Climate change and costs: investigating students' reasoning on nature and economic development, Environmental Education Research.

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About the centre author

Cecilia Lundholm's research interest concerns communication and learning about environmental and sustainability issues. In particular, the interest focuses on people's conceptions and learning about nature, society and the individual and the relationship between these.


Stockholm Resilience Centre is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

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