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environmental law or environmental ethics?

By: James Miller

By James Miller

The image of China in the Western media is often that of a monolithic totalitarian state, run by a cabal of shady figures in Beijing whose decisions affect the lives of downtrodden millions. When I bring visitors to experience the incredibly vibrant new China, the most common reaction I get is “I did not expect it to be like this!” This tells me that many people in the West have a strong idea of what China is like. It’s just the wrong idea.

One of the most important thing that anyone who has spent time in China realizes, is that China is a very diverse, almost chaotic, country. Although the rhetoric of nationalism is very strong both from Beijing and from the people,  this points to the fact that China is still in the process of constructing a national identity for itself our of the fluid mix of languages, nationalities and cultures that occupy its borders. Chinese national unity is an ideal, rather than a reality, something aspired towards rather than concretely realized. (This also helps explain why China is so anxious about Tibet and Taiwan.)

Even though we are always told that Han Chinese make up 93% of the China’s racial mix, it’s important to remember that racial categorizations are cultural constructs as much as anything else. Shanghai, for instance, has a distinct culture, language, and food. It’s as different from Sichuan culture, language and food, as Italy is from Sweden. Yes they both belong to the same overall cultural family and there are some important and obvious cultural similarities, but to the locals it’s the differences that count most. Sichuanese cannot understand a word that their Shanghainese compatriots are saying to each other, and they find their food impossibly bland. 

This point is important when it comes to thinking of how to foster an ecologically sustainable consciousness in China. How does one bring about massive cultural change amongst 1.3 billion people? One obvious answer is to make laws that apply across the nation and strictly enforce them. But although Beijing may have the legislative power to do this, it doesn’t always command the moral authority that it would like when it comes to the implementation of laws throughout the provinces, and especially at the local level

Xie Xialing, a professor at Fudan University, wrote an essay in which he argued that China was still an “ethical” rather than a “rational” society. What he meant by this was that people’s behaviour is still guided by the network of interpersonal relationships more than formal adherence to abstract laws. His favourite example of this is that Chinese drivers do not stop at red lights when there are no other cars in the vicinity. From the perspective of relational ethics, the purpose of a red light is to help regulate behaviour among the competing interests of drivers. When there are no other drivers, the red light is redundant. But from the perspective of absolute legislative ethics, you have to stop at a red light because you have to stop at a red light. 

If Xie Xialing is even half right, this leads to an important role for environmental ethics in China, because laws alone will not change people’s behaviour. People need to see that green living and green business positively enhance the network of social relationships within which they operate. If they simply regard environmentalism as a series of laws to be complied with, they will do their best to bend the laws as much as possible, and get away with whatever they can. 

A recent example of this can be seen in the recent melamine food scandal in China, in which babies were killed by eating baby formula to which high concentrations of melamine had been added. Unscrupulous manufacturers added the melamine in order to fool the food testing regime which set minimum standards for protein content. These food standards were implemented in the wake of an earlier scandal where manufacturers had watered down the nutritional content of their baby formula so much that babies had become severely malnourished. The response of the government to this was to introduce universal protein level regulations. The response of the industry was to devise a way of appearing to comply with the regulations by adding melamine to fool the inspection regime. Did regulation in fact improve the situation? No. In this case it made it worse. 

The melamine scandal is an important cautionary tale for those who are fond of solving the ecological crisis through regulation alone. Yes we need regulations, but they are not enough to motivate people to comply with the spirit of the law. As Confucian philosophers are fond of pointing out, an inevitable consequence of regulation is to create opportunities for people to get round the regulations. 

In order to succeed, the environmental movement has to speak about the spirit of ecology, not just the law. For Westerners, this requires a new ethical vocabulary.  The language of equality, rights and dignity is perfect for solving racial and gender questions, but it is hopeless for solving ecological questions. For this we need a Daoist ethical language based in ideas of balance, naturalness, flourishing and harmony. This ethical vocabulary is not based in universal abstract categories but is suited to organic systems and relationships. It means that something that works in Shanghai may not be appropriate for Sichuan. It means fostering an ecological consciousness based not in blind obedience to moral absolutes (“thou shalt recycle always and everywhere”), but in negotiating an optimal compromise that facilitates the flourishing of a wide diversity of life.

Categories: Blog, Questions


  1. Hello James

    Good stuff. I’m presently in Jinan, Shandong teaching English at the ???????? The issues outlined in this article are right on the mark. I’ve been observing the situation here and trying to explain it to my friends and colleagues back home (Toronto). I’ve also been advocating that my students draw from their daoist cultural heritage as it exemplifies a healthy and sustainable approach to ecology. Keep up the good work!

  2. Hi Dave

    Sorry the Chinese characters don’t work on this system, but thanks for your comments. I agree that Daoism is particularly important because of its emphasis on the health of the body and the way that is integrated into a bigger metaphysical picture.

  3. Hi James,

    I was considerably intrigued by the suggestion that Chinese society remains an ethical, rather than rational society. Drawing parallels with the latest protests in Wukan over illegal land seizures and corruption, it might be suggested that the implemented solution (that of greater democratic rights) would actually miss the point of the problem. Instead, an ethical framework needs to be worked into Chinese society, one that is able to command normative force over public officials.

    In any case, I would love to get my hands on that article by Xie Xialing which you cited. I’m currently doing some research on this area but I cannot seem to locate that article anywhere. Could you point me in the right direction?

  4. Hi Christopher,
    The essay can be found in the journal Shehuixue (Studies in sociology), issue 6, 1996.

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