What Does China’s “Ecological Civilization” Mean for Humanity’s Future?

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, affirms an ecological vision that is in line with progressive environmental thought. Is it mere rhetoric or does it have a deeper resonance within Chinese culture? The answer may ultimately have a profound effect on humanity’s future.

Imagine a newly elected President of the United States calling in his inaugural speech for an “ecological civilization” that ensures “harmony between human and nature.”  Now imagine he goes on to declare that “we, as human beings, must respect nature, follow its ways, and protect it” and that his administration will “encourage simple, moderate, green, and low-carbon ways of life, and oppose extravagance and excessive consumption.” Dream on, you might say. Even in the more progressive Western European nations, it’s hard to find a political leader who would make such a stand.

And yet, the leader of the world’s second largest economy, Xi Jinping of China, made these statements and more in his address to the National Congress of the Communist Party in Beijing last October. He went on to specify in more detail his plans to “step up efforts to establish a legal and policy framework… that facilitates green, low-carbon, and circular development,” to “promote afforestation,” “strengthen wetland conservation and restoration,” and “take tough steps to stop and punish all activities that damage the environment.” Closing his theme with a flourish, he proclaimed that “what we are doing today” is “to build an ecological civilization that will benefit generations to come.” Transcending parochial boundaries, he declared that his Party’s abiding mission was to “make new and greater contributions to mankind… for both the wellbeing of the Chinese people and human progress.”

Xi Jinping addressing the Chinese Communist Party Congress
China’s President Xi Jinping addressing China’s Communist Party National Congress

It’s easy to dismiss it all as mere political rhetoric, but consider how the current President of the United States came to power on the basis of a different form of rhetoric, appealing to the destructive nationalism of “America First.” In both cases, it’s reasonable to assume that the rhetoric doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Just as Trump’s xenophobic vision spells potential danger for the world, so could it be that Xi’s ecological vision could offer a glimpse to a hopeful future?

A transformative vision

In fact, this is just the type of fresh, regenerative thinking about transforming the current global economic system that many in the environmental movement have been calling for. And this hasn’t been lost on some leading thinkers. David Korten, a world-renowned author and activist, has proposed expanding the vision of Ecological Civilization to a global context, which would involve—among other things—granting legal rights to nature, shifting ownership of productive assets from transnational corporations to nation-states and self-governing communities, and prioritizing life-affirming, rather than wealth-affirming, values.

Within a larger historical context, it’s not too surprising that this vision of “harmony between human and nature” should emerge from China. As I’ve traced in my book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, traditional Chinese culture was founded on a worldview that perceived an intrinsic web of connection between humanity and nature, in contrast to the European worldview that saw humans as essentially separate from nature. Early Chinese philosophers believed the overriding purpose of life was to seek harmony in society and the universe, while Europeans pursued a path based on a different set of values—which have since become global in scope—driven by “conquering nature” and viewing nature as a machine to be engineered.

Furthermore, Xi’s rhetoric does seem to be grounded in at least some reality. Two months before Xi’s speech, China announced they were more than doubling their previous solar power target for 2020, after installing more than twice as much solar capacity as any other country in 2016. This new target—five times larger than current capacity in the U.S.—would entail covering an area of land equivalent to Greater London with solar panels. They are similarly exceeding their wind power targets, already boasting more capacity than all of Europe.

China solar panels
The world’s largest floating solar power plant in Huainan, China

As a result, China has recently halted previous plans for building more than 150 coal-fired power plants. In electric cars, China is leading the world, selling more each month than Europe and the U.S. combined, with more aggressive quotas on gas-guzzlers than anywhere else in the world, including California. Additionally, China has the world’s most extensive network of high-speed trains, and has already passed laws to promote a circular economy where waste products from industrial processes are recycled into inputs for other processes.

China’s industrial avalanche

Some observers, however, are far from convinced that China is on its way to an ecological civilization. Economist Richard Smith has written a detailed critique of China’s quandary in the Real-World Economics Review, where he argues that China’s political-economic system is based on the need to maximize economic growth, employment, and consumerism to an even greater extent than in the West. These forces, he claims, run diametrically counter to the vision of an ecological civilization.

There are compelling arguments for why this makes sense. Beginning in the 19th century, China suffered more than a century of humiliation and brutal exploitation from Western nations as a result of its relative military and industrial weakness. After Mao Zedong’s death in 1978, Deng Xiaoping transformed China’s economy into a hybrid of consumer capitalism and central planning that catapulted China to its current prominence on the world stage. Astonishingly, China’s GDP is more than fifty times greater than at the time of Mao’s death, the result of a growth rate approaching 10% per year for four decades.

This achievement, perhaps the most dramatic economic and social transformation of all time, is bringing China back to the dominant role in global affairs that it held for most of history. Within a decade, China’s GDP is expected to surpass that of the US, making it the world’s largest economy. It is just in the early stages of a profusion of record-breaking industrial megaprojects of a scale that boggles the mind. It plans to extend its influence further through its Belt and Road Initiative, a vast infrastructure and trading project encompassing sixty countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa, envisaged as a 21st century version of the famed Silk Road.

Beijing Daxing airport
The proposed Beijing Daxing international airport: just one of China’s mind-boggling array of planned infrastructure megaprojects

This industrial avalanche comes, however, at great cost to China’s—and the world’s—environmental wellbeing. China is by far the world’s largest consumer of energy, using over half the world’s coal, a third of the world’s oil, and 60% of the world’s cement. Astonishingly, China poured more cement in three years from 2011 to 2013 than the US used during the entire twentieth century! China is also the world’s largest consumer of lumber, as Smith describes, “levelling forests from Siberia to Southeast Asia, New Guinea, Congo, and Madagascar.” These are just some of the forces that draw Smith to the conclusion that Xi Jinping’s vision of an ecological civilization is untenable. “The hyper industrialization required,” he writes, “to realize this China Dream of great power status compels him… to let the polluters pollute, pump China’s CO2 emissions off the chart, and thereby bring on the ecological collapse not just of China but the whole planet… Xi Jinping can create an ecological civilization or he can build a rich superpower. He can’t do both.”

Intimately placed between heaven and earth

Or can he? That is a crucial question with ramifications for all of humanity. While it is clear that future economic growth at anything close to China’s historic rate is untenable, there is a more nuanced question that poses the possibility of a sustainable way forward for both China and the world. Once China has regained its status as a leading world power, can it achieve yet another transformation and redirect its impressive vitality into growing a life of quality for its people, rather than continued consumerism? Is it possible that Xi Jinping is sowing the seeds of this future metamorphosis with his vision of an ecological civilization?

There is urgent awareness among thought leaders around the world that continued growth in global GDP is leading civilization to the point of collapse. Movements are emerging that call for “degrowth” and other approaches to a steady-state economy that could allow a sustainable future for humanity. But how can we break the death-grip of a global system built on continually feeding the growth frenzy of gigantic transnational corporations voraciously seeking a never-ending increase in profits to satisfy their shareholders? Along with the grassroots citizen movements emerging around the world, is it possible that China could pioneer a new path of sustainability, steering its citizens back to the traditional values that characterized its culture over millennia?

Even if China could achieve this redirection, the continuous human-rights abuses of its authoritarian government raise further questions. An ecological civilization—as envisaged by Korten and many others in the environmental movement—seems inconsistent with a centralized bureaucracy forcing its rules on citizens through coercion and repression. For China to genuinely move in this direction, Xi would need to be prepared to devolve decision-making authority and freedoms back to the Chinese people. It’s a tall order, but not necessarily inconceivable.

For those living in the West, it would take a tremendous dose of cultural humility to accept philosophical leadership from China on the path to a flourishing future for humanity. But, if we are to get to that future, we must recognize the structural underpinnings of Western thought that brought us to this imbalance in the first place. A thousand years ago, Chinese philosopher Zhang Zai expressed a realization of connectedness with the universe in an essay called the Western Inscription, which begins with these words:

Heaven is my father and earth is my mother, and I, a small child, find myself placed intimately between them.

What fills the universe I regard as my body; what directs the universe I regard as my nature.

All people are my brothers and sisters; all things are my companions.

Is it possible that this deep recognition of human interconnectedness, rooted in traditional Chinese culture, could form the philosophical basis for a future ecological civilization? The answer to this question may ultimately affect the future wellbeing, not just of China, but of the entire human family.

Jeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history. He is founder of the nonprofit Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering a sustainable worldview. More info: jeremylent.com.


False Solutions? 3 Ways To Evaluate Grand Climate Proposals

The climate news gets scarier by the day. February obliterated all records as the warmest seasonally-adjusted month since measurements began. At this rate, we’re on a path to blow through the 1.5º C temperature rise the nations of the world set as a goal at COP21, not in decades but in a few short years.

February temperature was a terrifying 1.35 degrees above the 1950-1980 global average for the month. (Blue line: monthly; Red line: 12 month moving average.)

We’re going to be hearing a lot about grand solutions to our climate emergency in the coming years. Even if we were to bring net global carbon emissions to zero by mid-century, experts say, we’d need to suck a massive amount of carbon from the atmosphere to keep temperatures within a range of 1.5º-2.0º C this century.

There’s no shortage of proposals for how to do this. People are talking about changing how we do agriculture; capturing carbon from power plants; painting roofs white; fertilizing the ocean; and even spraying gold dust into the atmosphere.

How should we evaluate the proposals we’ll be hearing about to determine which ones to support and which ones will only lead to worse disasters? We need a way to distinguish authentic pathways to a sustainable civilization from false solutions. I suggest three ways to consider any proposal you might come across.

1. Does it push political power up or down the pyramid?

Political power is like a pyramid. At the top are the political leaders and  the billionaires. In the middle are the minority fortunate enough to enjoy privilege. Most of the world’s population exists towards the bottom.

New technologies have a way of pushing political power either up or down that pyramid. Nuclear power, for example, requiring massive centralized investment along with  extreme security, is notorious for pushing power to the top.

Political pyramid
New technologies can push political power either up or down the pyramid. © Jeremy Lent, 2016.

Geoengineering proposals are perhaps the most extreme form of pushing power up the pyramid. Developed by small, elite groups of technical experts, usually funded by corporate interests, they frequently envisage forcing a global experiment on the entire world, regardless of whether there is a consensus supporting such an approach. Often, these approaches are designed to improve the climate in one region (usually the wealthy north) at the expense of even worse drought in other regions (usually the global south).

Solar panels, on the other hand, are a great example of pushing power down the pyramid. As prices have fallen by more than 80% in the past few years, solar kits with maintenance-free batteries are now affordable even for families living on less than $2/day. The benefits are enormous, literally empowering millions who have previously lived without electricity.

Solar power can transform the lives of those at the bottom of the political pyramid. Image by © Michael Runkel/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis

 2. How does it treat the earth?

One reason we’re facing a worldwide crisis of sustainability is that our culture encourages destructive ways of viewing the earth and humanity’s relationship to it. Our science-based civilization is founded on root cultural metaphors of nature as a machine, an enemy to be conquered, or a commodity to be traded. Traditional cultures, by contrast, have usually viewed the natural world as an extended family, with the heavens as Father, the earth as Mother, and plants and animals as brothers and sisters.

If a proposed climate solution treats nature in the same way that has brought our civilization to the precipice we’re now facing, there’s a good chance it will lead to further environmental devastation. In contrast, proposals that encourage a participatory, engaged relationship between humans and the natural world promise a more sustainable future for all.

Cap-and-trade systems, which cap the amount of carbon a company can freely use, allowing them to buy credits in a market if they want to use more, have been touted widely as a climate solution,  with major systems set up in Europe and California. A related UN program called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD) is frequently discussed as a positive step for the environment. These systems, however, are all built on the idea of nature as a commodity to be bought and sold, with deforestation reduction plans frequently forced on indigenous populations through fraudulent schemes with devastating results. It is questionable whether they’ve had any significant effect in truly reducing carbon from the atmosphere, even while they replace forest ecosystems with plantations and allow polluters to keep polluting.

Geoengineering proposals are based on the notion of the earth as a massive piece of machinery to be engineered for human benefit. Not only are these approaches morally repugnant for anyone who sees Nature as having intrinsic worth, they are also fraught with massive risk, since the earth’s systems are in fact not machine-like, but the result of complex, nonlinear relationships that are inherently unpredictable.

Earth as geoengineering object
Geoengineering treats the earth as a piece of machinery to be engineered. Image: ETC Group

At the other extreme, Agroecology,  an approach to agriculture based on principles of ecology, views the earth as a deeply interconnected system, recognizing that the health of humans and nature are interdependent. Agroecology designs and manages food systems to be sustainable, enhancing soil fertility, recycling nutrients, and increasing energy and water efficiency. Already widely practiced in Latin America, it is rapidly gaining acceptance in the US and Europe, and has the capacity to replace the agricultural-industrial complex, which is responsible for as much as half of global greenhouse gas emissions. Agroecology could even help sequester much of the excess carbon in the atmosphere. The Rodale Institute has calculated that regenerative organic practices of agroecology – such as composting, no-tillage, and use of cover crops – could sequester more than 100% of current annual COemissions if practiced worldwide.

3. What are its cascading effects?

Like all living organisms, the earth system is a highly complex, nonlinear system, replete with feedback loops and emergent behavior. This means that any attempts to change the system on a large scale are likely to have unanticipated consequences.

Dead zones
Dead zones arise from uncontrolled algae blooms that de-oxygenate the water. © PBWorks.com

A grim example of cascading effects are the uncontrolled algae blooms from nitrogen fertilizer runoff that have caused four hundred “dead zones” in coastal waters around the world, some extending in size to over twenty thousand square miles.

A crucial question, then, to ask about any grand proposal is: What are the cascading effects that might emerge? Are they positive or negative?

Some proposals are limited to a particular domain and can therefore be safely applied. Putting a high price on carbon, for example, as it is dug out of the ground, and distributing the proceeds to the population, would change people’s behavior while staying within the domain of economics. Its cascading effect would be to encourage people everywhere to choose non-carbon alternatives, and encourage businesses to invest in a non-carbon future. It would be safe and effective.

A more ambiguous proposal is the massive use of seaweed farms, which could efficiently absorb COon a very large scale. Proponents argue that the cascading benefits are positive: the seaweed could be harvested to produce methane which could replace natural gas for electricity production; it can also be used as food for sustainable fish farming, while reducing ocean acidification. One analysis shows that if seaweed farms covered 9% of the ocean, they could replace all of today’s fossil fuel needs, while sequestering 100% of current CO2 emissions. Sounds good? Yes, but what about unintended consequences of such a drastic change in ocean usage? In contrast to agroecology, this approach envisages a huge shift in the ocean’s ecological balance. Would it lead to new imbalances that we would only begin to understand too late?

We can expect to hear about many other proposals like this in the coming years: ideas that sound virtually miraculous, but require significant alterations of the earth system. Because we’re in a climate emergency, we must consider each idea carefully, but we need to be extremely cautious in how we approach them.

One group actively analyzing climate solutions is Project Drawdown, a broad coalition of researchers, policymakers and community leaders dedicated to finding the best ways to reduce atmospheric carbon to a safe level. Rather than argue for a few magic bullets, their team is rigorously modeling the complex, interconnected effects of over 100 solutions that are already working. They are building a publicly available, ongoing resource of knowledge and ideas that can be leveraged for ever-increasing benefits.

The founders of Project Drawdown, Amanda Ravenhill and Paul Hawken, emphasize the importance of what Ravenhill calls “cascading benefits” arising from “no-regret solutions.” The most effective responses to global warming,  they point out, are ones that benefit society regardless of the climate crisis, because they protect natural resources and enhance the wellbeing of all people.

Image: © Joel Pett/USA Today

When we’re faced with the magnitude of our climate emergency, it’s natural to be open to the promise of grand solutions. There is reason for hope if we choose solutions with cascading benefits, ones that empower people while treating the earth sustainably and safely.

But there is also much to fear from the wrong solutions. We should be wary of those who want to push power even further up the pyramid, treat nature as a commodity to be traded, and view the earth as a gigantic piece of machinery to tinker with through engineering wizardry. The future of humanity and much of our natural world is at stake.