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china must talk to its religious leaders to create a culture of ecological sustainability

By: James Miller

Over the past sixty years China has achieved something close to a miracle when compared with other developing nations. It by and large manages to feed, educate, house and employ its own people. It is not involved in futile and costly military conflicts. It is a creditor nation, not a debtor. Its social and political system provides sufficient stability for the vast majority of its people to pursue their own livelihoods in a rational and predictable way.Yet all this will be lost if the world does not help China to embrace an ecologically sustainable culture.

The reason for this is simple. With a population of 1.4 billion, China simply cannot afford to expand its per capita ecological footprint to the level of Europe, let alone America or Canada. Already the stresses on its environment are beginning to take a toll on the social fabric. The Gobi desert is at Beijing’s doorstep and the capital must divert water hundreds of kilometres north from resentful provinces who have to do more with less. The pollution from factories in rural areas prevents farmers from earning a living by growing healthy crops. River life for China’s southern neighbours is threatened by massive hydro-electric projects upstream.

Any form of economic development that entails a corresponding increase in per capita ecological footprint can only lead to increased social unrest and geopolitical tension, the consequences of which will extend far across the world. The current arrangement in which the world’s economically wealthy regions export their ecological problems onto poorer regions is plainly unsustainable in the long run, never mind morally bankrupt.

The three instruments traditionally advocated to deal with this crisis are technological development, policy changes and legislation. Technological development can help China generate energy more efficiently and with less impact on the environment. Government policies can favour green industries. Legislation can be enacted to make polluters pay.

But as Pan Yue, China’s vice minister of environmental protection made clear to me in an interview last year, legislation is only effective when there is universal consent as to its validity. Strict environmental laws are useless if all they do is give polluters an incentive to move to another jurisdiction.

To back up technological, policy and legal reform, it is necessary to create a culture of ecological sustainability. Such a culture denotes the patterns of belief, the system of values, the habits of practice, and the existential orientation that together provide the social, cultural and psychological justification for ecologically responsible decisions. Without such a cultural justification, sustainability is simply an empty word, a concept that is easy to discuss but impossible to implement.

With the right cultural framework, the right set of beliefs, values, habits and orientation, sustainability moves from the arena of discourse to the arena of practice. When sustainability is embedded culturally, it unconsciously shapes the habits of thinking and the patterns of behaviour in the way that people barely notice. In short it comes to define our way of life, our civic values, and our sense of identity.

In order to foster an ecologically sustainable culture, policymakers and environmentalists will have to learn to talk to the most significant cultural actors on the planet, that is to say, religious leaders. Like it or not, the majority of the world’s cultures are steeped in centuries of religious beliefs and values that pay little or no regard to the environment as a topic of moral concern. So long as religious leaders ignore the question of the environment as a deep religious concern, the majority of people will behave likewise. But once religious leaders are convinced that the environment is a religious issue, then sustainability will more easily be embedded in the fabric of culture.

Fortunately, in this area China is a leader, rather than a laggard. China’s indigenous religion, Taoism, is founded on principles which are easily amenable to today’s ecological concerns, and its leaders are eager to promote Taoism as China’s green religion. The West would do well to encourage Beijing to think of religion less as a problem to be managed and more as a potential ally in its quest for an ecologically sustainable future.

Categories: Blog, Opinion


  1. As an American Taoist, ecologist, and climate activist, I would welcome dialogue with the Chinese people at this level. In fact, I would welcome dialogue at this level with the American people, too.

    It’s not that there is an absence of ecological consideration among religious leaders, but it is submerged among the minutiae and ritual that more often than not constitute religious practice.

    When all religions get to their root, sanctity for life on earth, then we can really get to work in this mode. For now, consultations can prepare the way. How many religious organizations will be represented at COP15, the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. A few, but not enough. There should be more. Religious organizations have to step up and be counted, just as do nations.

  2. Hi Robert, and thanks for your comment.

    I agree that religious organizations have a duty to step up to the plate on ecological issues, but of course when it comes to China there is a major difficulty, which is that religion is often viewed as a problem or a threat to be contained rather than as a source of something positive. This is not just a modern Chinese view, it is part of a general outlook on religion that emerged with the modern secular state.

    While I’m generally in favour of the modern secular state rather than, say, Islamic or Buddhist theocracies, I don’t think it’s necessary to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is an important case to be made for modest religion having a modest role in progressive politics.

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