I was in Beijing and Tianjin recently for a week of conferences related to “ecological civilization” (shengtai wenming 生态文明) an important new buzzword, the precise meaning of which thought leaders and government officials are vying to define.
The first conference I attended was one on “Traditional Culture and Ecological Civilization”, held in conjunction with the Beijing branch of the Chinese society for the study of the Yijing. The conference was a curious mix of academics, Daoists, fengshui practitioners and Yijing enthusiasts. From an intellectual point of view, one of the most interesting and radical presentations came from Lu Feng 卢风, a Tsinghua University philosophy professor. His talk began with the bold claim that the era of industrial civilization was at an end, and that to usher in a new era of ecological civilization demanded nothing short of a “civilization revolution 文明革命” (in Chinese, just one character different from “cultural revolution 文化革命”). In his view, it is necessary to overhaul the intellectual foundations on which our present industrial civilization, and our model of industrial development, are based. In his analysis, ecological civilization represents not just a development of the modern industrial paradigm, but a radical transformation.
This view was not universally held, however. The next day I had the opportunity to meet Chen Zhishang, a senior philosophy professor at Peking University, who had organized a large conference on ecological civilization on Hainan Island. Trained in orthodox Marxist philosophy, and well connected within the Party, he views ecological civilization more as a continuation of the materialist/humanist paradigm, but one that is reformed and extended to take the natural environment into account.
At the Bureau of Compilation and Translation, a Marxist think-tank attached to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, I pressed the issue of where ecological civilization could fit within a standard reading of Marxist theory. I was intrigued to learn that Marx could be interpreted in China using a wide range of theoretical lenses, similar to the way that feminists or ecologists generate readings of sacred texts in Western religions. In this sense, Marx’s writings function as a kind of common reference work, to be re-interpreted, commented upon, and extended according to the perspective of the interpreter.
Another exciting new development that I witnessed in China is the rapid spread of process philosophy throughout the Chinese philosophy community. With the tireless enthusiasm of Wang Zhihe, from the China project of the Claremont Center for Process Studies process philosophy centers and conferences have been established throughout China, and indeed I attended one of their conferences on Process Philosophy and Spiritual Ecology. On the face of it, process philosophy challenges the very foundations of the Western humanistic tradition, including Marxist theory, and yet it is a subject of a lively debate in China. At the moment it seems as though a wide range of intellectual options are on the table as the government struggles to work out a new form of civilization, that is to say, a mode of social and economic relations that recognizes that human prosperity is inextricably bound up with ecological prosperity. It is quite clear to me that China is going to work out for all of us what this means simply because it has to.
But for now, what exactly does ecological civilization mean in practical terms? In Tianjin after a seminar on ecological civilization at the Tianijn Administrative Institute, where the high level party leaders are trained, I had the opportunity to tour some ecological agriculture projects in the vicinity. At the Demonstration Base of Tianjin Agri-Tourism 天津乡村旅游特色点 I observed new horticultural methods to grow vegetables with a minimum of soil, a minimum of land area (including vegetables stacked high in columns), and to grow fruits from southern China in the north. I’ve no doubt that this is at least one of the meanings of ecological civilization in China, that is, a scientifically advanced and technologically efficient form of resource extraction designed to provide as much food as possible with the minimum expenditure of space and energy. This form of “ecological civilization” addresses one of the most pressing challenges that China faces: how to feed its 1.3 billion people as efficiently and safely as possible. Although it is far less glamorous than the so-called “eco-cities” whose development is fuelled in part by China’s seemingly unchecked property speculators, this will clearly be an important element of China’s new relationship with nature.
What is intriguing to me is how the term “ecological civilization” has opened up an enormous cultural space that is being claimed by philosophers, fengshui practitioners, scientists, city planners and tourism developers. On the one hand it seems as though these various groups may simply be using this term to justify their own work by claiming it is somehow “ecological,” but on the other hand the fact that widely different sectors of society are attempting to do so indicates something about the power of and the attractiveness of “ecology” as a concept. Underlying these various aspirations to claim “ecological civilization,” is the deep-seated recognition that the present mode of industrial civilization simply cannot work any longer, and that it is up to China to change the paradigm.