Article: Iain Orr

China and the Centrality of Ecology

If you cut down all the trees, you have only the bark to eat;
if you destroy the forests, you destroy your road to the future.
folk song of Xishuangbanna

‘How the UK engages China on environmental and resource questions goes to the heart of one of the key foreign policy issues facing the world.’ So said John Ashton, giving evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs inquiry into East Asia in 2006. Observing that its foreign policy reflected the fact that China was keeping open both the hard-power route and the soft-power route, he pointed out that it is crucial that China adopts a ‘soft power route for the next stage of its emergence, regionally and globally’. The world needs ‘a China that is achieving a transition to a much more efficient use of energy and other resources, thereby accelerating the same transition for everybody else.’ Ashton’s analysis is that China’s economic development pattern is undermining its own stability. With a dawning appreciation of the inherent dangers of this hurtle into modernity, the Chinese leadership have at least started to talk about addressing both the environmental and social equity aspects of development – in other words, the quality as well as the quantity of growth.

The global impact of Chinese economic growth and policies registers at many levels. The scramble for oil and other primary resources has reached an unprecedented pitch and is undoubtedly a causative element in the price of commodities in world markets. Ashton also provides an example of one its less headline-grabbing socio-political implications: that ‘China’s need for timber was the main source of finance for the warlords in Liberia’, and he warns, ‘The biggest question of all is that we will not succeed in stabilising the climate unless China finds a low-emission pathway towards meeting its own needs for energy.’

Given China’s pivotal role in global ecological destiny, it is pertinent to note that ‘Zhong Guo’ (China) means ‘Central country’. The archaism of ‘Middle Kingdom’ – the traditional translation – gives China only the exotic significance of the Terracotta Army. Its soldiers were buried beside the body of Jin Shi Huang Di, the First Emperor, and are a wonder of the world of which everyone has now heard. However, no one knew of the army when I first went to Beijing in 1971, not even in China (the excavations started in 1974). Apart from ardent Maoists, China was not seen then as shaping the future of the world. Trade with China was a limited niche market (0.6 per cent of world trade in 1977, but now 7 per cent and projected to be almost 10 per cent by 2020). Only a generation ago, China was still, in Napoleon’s phrase, a ‘sleeping giant’. Not so today. The giant has awoken and China is seen as central to the health of the global economy and environment.

The burden of this essay is that China’s centrality lies far deeper than its being the provider of cheap consumer goods, the miner of global minerals and the emitter of more CO2 (nationally, but not, of course, per capita) than the USA. History, geography, politics and philosophy make China central to human survival because that is where a new vision of the good life has to emerge.

Is the earth’s future going to be determined by the outcome of a titanic struggle: in the blue corner, God’s chosen country, the land of the free; and the red corner, the atheist state whose ruling Communist Party, though not Marxist, is totalitarian? The beacon of Liberty – taken physically as a gift from revolutionary France to the infant United States of America – was unsuccessfully imported in a papier mâché model by the unarmed army of Chinese students whose longing for democracy was snuffed out by tanks on the streets of Beijing in June 1989. The Olympic flame on its troubled journey to Beijing illuminated its destination as being a long way from either ‘peaceful democracy’ or the alternative Chinese political vision of a ‘harmonious society’.

For the values that shape the relationship of humankind with the rest of the planet – other forms of life, mineral resources and ecosystems based on the traditional fundamental elements of soil, water and air – we need to look into the history of every culture. However, concentrating just on the Christian West and China, there are contrasts and similarities. In Western culture, drawing on both monotheistic Judaism and the many gods and goddesses of the classical world, the dominant tradition is of mankind as the measure of all things. That includes God, for after the Old Testament of ‘God created man in his own image’, in the New Testament, God becomes man.

In that tradition, moreover, the world was created for the benefit of Adam and Eve and their children: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.’ (Genesis 1:28) There is, admittedly, a variant of this tradition, in which ‘stewardship’ appears to introduce an ethical dimension to the subjugation of nature – one that can be seen as far back as Noah and the animals rescued in the Ark, although the concept is still heavily anthropocentric and hubristic. Apart from the difficulty of reconciling this with the Darwinian view of life on earth – who exercised stewardship in the Jurassic Age? – the record of human stewardship must look more like that of the ‘unjust steward’ (Luke 16:8) to most species with which humans ‘share’ the earth (Rattus norvegicus might be an exception). From a non-human perspective, the revolutionary values of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ don’t seem to have any application to the way in which ‘stewardship’ is exercised: the liberty of zoos, the equality of sharing land and water resources, the fraternity of the treatment of the great apes.

Move to the other end of the Eurasian landmass, and there are obvious similarities. In his magisterial The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China (Yale University Press 2004), Mark Elvin shows that in the agricultural heartland of China, wild nature has fared no better than it has done in Western Europe or the USA:

… the space dominated by elephants in China was the complement of the space dominated by humans. It also symbolises the transition, slow at first but then accelerating, from an environmental richness counterbalanced by perpetual dangers from wildlife, to a sedentarised human dominance accompanied by a relative security from wild animals [and concomitantly] an impoverished life of the senses, and a scarcity or disappearance of many of the natural resources on which humankind has previously existed.

The values behind this relationship with nature were succinctly expressed by the 3rd Century BC philosopher Xunzi: ‘You glorify Nature and meditate on her; why not domesticate and regulate her? You follow nature and sing her praise; why not control her course and use it?’ Xunxi belongs to the Legalist tradition (much admired by Mao). Thisis often contrasted with the Confucian tradition – which itself recalls the ethical stewardship associated with Noah and his lineage, right down to the modern conservation ethic with its reliance on the deeply oxymoronic concept of ‘sustainable development’. A typical Confucian injunction concerning man and nature is: ‘The Master fished with a line but not with a net; when fowling he did not aim at a roosting bird.’ (The Analects).

However, China has another tradition that contrasts sharply with the urge to dominate nature that led to the agricultural revolutions of early settled communities and to the industrial revolution. This is the Daoist (Taoist) tradition. Its leading philosopher, Laozi, tackles head on the urge to control of the Legalists (and, let it be said, the world of market forces unmediated by ethical considerations), with a rueful smile: ‘Do you want to rule the world and control it? I don’t think it can ever be done.’ (Dao De Jing). This tradition runs through Chinese culture like an underground stream. Water is, moreover at the heart China’s dependence on ecological processes that she has sought for thousands of years to control, from the earliest irrigation systems to the unfolding Yangtze Three Gorges project.

The world has three environmental crises – over-population, loss of biodiversity and scarcity of water resources – which would still be there if a technological fix to global warming were found tomorrow. In China, the quality and availability of water for people, agriculture, industry, power generation and transport is the crisis that obtrudes most sharply. (For a non-human perspective on water, the forthcoming Mysteries of the Gobi by John Hare shows how one of China’s rarest animals, the wild Bactrian camel, has survived against the odds in one of the earth’s driest places.) For most of the year the Yellow River no longer reaches the sea; and more and more cities are critically short of water – the water table in Beijing has dropped by a metre for each of the thirty-seven years I have known the city. But this is a crisis that engages some of the best and most creative minds in China. For anyone who wishes to follow the intense debate on water (and other environmental challenges) an invaluable resource is the bilingual website Put [Professor] ‘Ma Jun’ in the search box and you will be led straight to such honest grappling with the water crisis that it is also a source of hope for the future. That hope is that China can draw on the strength of her own traditions of thought and social organisation to help the world find the solutions it needs. These traditions are, moreover, not just those of the Han Chinese. Writing about the Dai people of Xishuangbanna in Yunnan Province, Pei Shengji notes:

The Dai perception of the interrelationship of human beings with their physical environment is that it consists of five major elements: forest, water, land, food and humanity. They believe that the forest is a human cradle. Water comes from the forests, the water feeds land, and food comes from the land that is fed by the water and the rivers. Human life is supported by the forests, and the forests were one with the supernatural realm. One of the Dai folk songs states, ‘Elephants walk with the forests, the climate with bamboo.’

Author Note

Iain Orr retired from the Diplomatic Service in 2002 after a career with a strong China focus (Consul-General Shanghai 1987–90). As well as China, his BioDiplomacy consultancy work includes the UK’s overseas territories. He is working on a dictionary of environmental quotations.

The stories of China in recent weeks have been of levels of air pollution during the Olympics and of how far that sporting (and product placement) bonanza has advanced human rights in China. These matter, but should not obscure the enduring strength of Chinese civilisation over millennia. The aspiration expressed by today’s Chinese leaders for a ‘harmonious society’ could be expressed through the ‘hard-power’ route of asserting dominance, both over nature and over competing political systems.

However, the ‘soft-power’ route of living in harmony with other countries and with natural ecosystems is one that can draw on a tradition that is stronger in China than in the West. New wisdom from China may come through exercising soft power creatively. As a Scot, I take no pride in reading in the diary of an opium-trading Scottish captain sailing the China coast on a Victorian Sunday: ‘Employed delivering briskly. No time to read my Bible.’ A good response from twentieth-first century China would be to repay the opium (and the Bibles) by helping find solutions to the world’s shared environmental crises, drawing inspiration from the activist side of the Daoist tradition:’Prevent problems before they arise. Take action before things get out of hand. The tallest tree begins as a tiny sprout. The tallest building starts with one shovel of dirt. A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single footstep.’

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