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Study Abroad: Sustainability in China

May 8 to June 24, 2018

Since antiquity, China has faced sustainability crises. In pre-modern times, emperors could lose the mandate of heaven (the right to rule) if natural disasters or unsustainable land use practices endangered its growing population. Today, China’s compromised environmental quality threatens to destabilize the current Communist Party regime and interrupt its unprecedented record of poverty alleviation.

Parts of China experience sufficient, even excessive rainfall and flooding, while other regions confront exacerbating desertification. And everywhere, as rapid growth increases the demand for water, metals, minerals and energy—for consumption, agriculture, industry, transportation—China’s development agenda is undermined by its abuse of the environment as a source of resources and a sink for wastes. Reduced air quality now threatens to reverse the upward trend in life expectancy made possible by rapid growth.

There is a growing literature arguing that the planet’s poorest persons are the least adaptive, the most vulnerable to environmental degradation and climate change. But no nation is immune from the consequences of environmental degradation in China: The negative externalities of rapid export-led growth endanger the climate of the entire planet. At the same time, China’s creative and prodigious responses to its environmental crisis also promise positive spillover. In the words of the Asian correspondent Jonathan Watts, “When a billion Chinese jump,” the planet cannot but change its trajectory: “China will either save mankind or destroy it.”

Download our flier (pdf) >



Students may choose two or three of the courses below:

  • HST 342: Environmental History satisfies CAP Advanced History, CAP Integrative and SEE minor requirements
  • GEO 208: Environmental Geology satisfies CAP natural science, CAP inquiry and SEE minor requirements
  • ECO 435: Environmental Economics satisfies the upper economics elective requirement for all SBA students and SEE minor requirements
Download China Institute Summer 2018 Course List (pdf) >


This unique study abroad opportunity—offered in partnership with the China Institute--considers the tectonics involved when human economic and environmental priorities collide. Students will travel throughout China in order to better appreciate the diversity of its economy and environment.

Students will fly into Shanghai, where the Yangtze River flows into the East China Sea. After a brief stint in Suzhou in Jiangsu province (to permit the group to visit one of China’s oldest waterways, the Grand Canal), the group will move southwest to Guilin in Guangxi province--home of caves, bamboo boats, Dragon Rice terraces, and stunning karst limestone formations. After a week of classes on site in Guilin, the group will cruise the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang) from Chongqing to Yichang past the controversial Three Gorges Dam.

The group will hold another week of classes in Chengdu in Sichuan province, near China’s oldest extant irrigation project—the UNESCO site in Dujiangyan (constructed around 256 BC by the State of Qin as an irrigation and flood control project)—and of course visit the pandas.

After appraising the competing claims on water of consumption, industry (agriculture and manufacturing), transport, and energy generation and the geological risk entailed in large dam construction, the group will relocate to Xi’an (Chang-an) in Shaanxi province. Home to the famed Terra Cotta warriors and eastern departure point of the Silk Road, this diverse city now suffers more from drought than from flooding by the Yellow River (Huang He) (the River of Sorrow).

Nearby, China’s efforts to deliver the loess plateau from desertification, even as the Yellow River carries its fertile silt to the sea, are meeting with some success. After visiting Hukou Falls, the perimeter of the loess plateau, and Ya’nan (the legendary caves where Mao and other Communist leaders settled after the Long Walk), the group will trek westward into Gansu Province, where the desertification process is more unrelenting.

We will float on goat skin rafts in the Yellow River near Lanzhou and view the expanses of desert through which the Yellow River traverses, now home to massive solar and wind installations. We will hike among the Rainbow Rocks in the Geopark in Zhangye, explore the Great Wall fortress in Jiayuguan, and spend a night camping in the desert (and riding on camels) in Dunhuang, the western gateway to the Central Asian steppes. It is in Gansu that the impact of China’s disappearing glaciers becomes apparent, an impending water scarcity that cannot be solaced by the huge south-north channels being erected to reallocate water from south to north in the eastern part of the country.

The group will then fly out by way of Beijing, where compromised air quality and water shortages provide a constant reminder to policy makers that sustainable development is a necessity not a luxury.

Contact us

For more information, please contact:


Sustainability Studies Program

Fitz Hall
300 College Park
Dayton, Ohio 45469 - 2964