Tibet: Culture On the Rails

One thing that often isn’t thought about when you hear about sustainability is something that native cultures have been fighting for for hundreds of years: cultural sustainability. In today’s world, the word “sustainability” almost automatically means environmental sustainability: our ability to create new solutions in the spheres of energy and natural resources while preserving our surroundings. Perhaps more important to our way of life, however, is cultural sustainability: the preservation of native cultures and ideas, of stories and the history of peoples.

This month’s Wired covers the new “Train to the Roof of the World“, a rail connection between Mainland China and Tibet intended to strengthen China’s political control over this controversial region. This railway is hailed as an engineering feat, but what does it do for the environmental and cultural sustainability of Tibet?

Proponents of the new railway say it will bring desperately needed economic development – especially tourism – to the hinterlands. Historic Tibet and far-western China lag behind the rest of the country in health and education, and rail connectivity promises to be a crucial tool for closing that gap. Critics say the $3.2 billion line is essentially a political and military gambit, strategically stitching Tibet into the fabric of the motherland and, by facilitating the westward migration of ethnic Chinese, accelerating the marginalization of Tibetan culture, religion, and anti-Beijing sentiment. But there’s at least one thing about this project that everyone agrees on: The Qinghai-Tibet is an engineering marvel.

– David Wolman, “Train to the Roof of the World”, Wired Magazine, July 2006

As with any assertion like this, both sides are correct. As a third world country, China lags far, far behind much of the rest of the world in terms of education and economic development, and Tibet, were it independent, would likely suffer the same problem. But we must ask ourselves a single question: who are we to decide whether everyone should be held to our standards of education and intellect? It could be argued that, as one of the most isolated regions on Earth, Tibet stands a better chance of teaching us some lessons about sustainability. Whether this new railway generates a net export of ideas and culture or a net import of Chinese culture and control has yet to be seen.

However, one thing remains certain: such a project may have devastating effects on the surrounding environment. Much of the trickery involved in building the railway, such as utilizing liquid nitrogen to cool the permafrost surrounding the tracks, could very well have some very unfortunate and adverse consequences should any part of this line fail. Knowing very little about the Tibetan people to begin with, it is hard to know what we lose by creating this connection, and even harder to understand what we gain. Certainly, railways connect the world – but let’s not forget: with mobility comes responsibility to the land and the people who inhabit that land. Because you can move outward doesn’t mean you should move outward.

Some things may simply be better left alone.

  • http://www.energysoapbox.org/ Peter Ellis

    Richard Gere weighed in on this issue in the New York Times on July 15 in an op/ed entitled “Railroad to Perdition“.

  • http://www.energysoapbox.org Peter Ellis

    Richard Gere weighed in on this issue in the New York Times on July 15 in an op/ed entitled “Railroad to Perdition“.