religion and ecological sustainability in china

Religion and Ecological Sustainability in China front CoverNew research on the relevance of culture and religion for understanding China’s environmental crisis and its transition towards sustainability has just been published in a collection of essays entitled Religion and Ecological Sustainability in China (Routledge 2014). The work, by leading scholars in the humanities and social sciences from China, Europe and North America, marks a milestone in the attempt to understand the cultural roots of the Chinese social imagination of nature, and to analyze the continuing relevance of those cultural traditions in China’s contemporary engagement with local environmental degradation and the global ecological crisis.

Edited by James Miller (Queen’s University, Canada) and Dan Smyer Yu and Peter van der Veer (Max Planck Institute for Religious and Ethnic Diversity) the book simultaneously presents new data, new analysis, and new theoretical insights on Chinese understandings of nature, environment and ecology.

“Many of the very best scholars from China and the West working in anthropology, history, philosophy, religion, and sociology are featured in this book,” says James Miller.

Put together, the essays in this work makes a vital argument about how we should understand Chinese thinking about sustainability today. They demonstrate that thinking about the place of human beings in the world is deeply informed by cultural values. When we frame ecological sustainability as chiefly a technical or scientific problem, we overlook the way that people’s basic values and attitudes towards nature are the product of millennia of cultural habits and narratives. Sustainability can never be achieved without critically understanding and constructively engaging the way those cultural habits function in modernity.

The arrangement of the book presents a narrative arc that begins with China’s dominant cultural traditions and excavates the deep and complex history of Chinese attitudes towards nature and environment. Scholars of elite traditions and popular cultural practice trace the dominant cultural forms that have come to underpin Chinese thinking about nature and environment. The pivotal moment in this narrative comes with Rebecca Nedostup’s essay on how modern Chinese ideas of culture, religion, evolution and ecology were co-constituted in dynamic flux of China’s engagement with the West at the turn of the 20th century. The second half of the book comprises anthropological studies of Chinese and Tibetan practice regarding nature and environment that demonstrate how this modern nexus of ideas regarding culture, religion, nature and environment works itself out in contemporary China. Altogether the book demonstrates that Chinese ideas of nature, ecology, and environment are richly informed by a deep background of values and habits of thinking that are historically and culturally complex.

Failure to properly understand this complexity can result in serious social and environmental problems. This is especially true in a contemporary, rapidly urbanizing China that produces a cultural deficit regarding the most sensitive ecological areas that increasingly lie outside mainstream experience. This problem is also compounded by the fact that many such areas are populated not by Chinese people but by ethnic minorities such as Tibetans and Uighurs who have different languages, cultures and claims to nationality.

A case in point can be seen in Chinese author Qi Junyu’s essay on the forced migration of Tibetan herdsmen away from ecological protection areas. In his analysis the application of a scientific desire to protect sensitive areas of China’s environment exacerbated cultural misunderstandings between Chinese and Tibetans because it failed to take into account the way that local ecology functioned in traditional Tibetan culture. At the same time, however, Emily T. Yeh, demonstrates how the view of Tibetans as “ecological natives” also produces serious cultural misunderstandings for environmentalists working to protect these sensitive areas.

Altogether, the book paints a rich and complex picture of the state of the environment in contemporary China. It is a picture that is ethnically complex, inflected by historical values and habits, and dynamically engaging with modern scientific theory. The urgent need to understand how China’s diverse cultures interact with modernity to constitute China’s present quest for ecological sustainability is a vital enterprise that has repercussions for the whole world.  China’s environmental problems, its struggle to find the proper place for historical traditions in modernity, and its complex and problematic engagement with ethnic minorities are key issues of the 21st century. As this book demonstrates, they are all facets of a complex and dynamic cultural process that is only just beginning to be understood.

why china will solve the world’s environmental problems

Quick! Picture China’s biggest environmental problem.

China_Pollution-00b0aI bet you saw in your mind the polluted skies of Beijing and its citizens wearing face masks as they go to work. The western news media have been filled with alarming stories of China’s poor air quality, especially in the north, where China relies more heavily on coal-fired power stations.

But a recent Toronto Star story entitled China Wakes Up to its Water Crisis gets to the heart of an even more serious problem: China has only 7% of the world’s fresh water, but 20% of its population. While electricity can, in the long run, be produced by more renewable means, water cannot be manufactured out of nowhere.

China’s massive population and its relative scarcity of natural resources magnifies the impact of China’s environmental problems. As the world marches towards a population of 10 billion people, the reality that Chinese people face today will soon become the reality faced by the most of the world. China is now beginning to export its pollution to neighbouring countries and even to Africa and Latin America, which, like the Canadian tar sands, are undergoing massive natural resource development in part to meet China’s demands.

Soon the grim environmental reality that China’s citizens face could be shared by the rest of the world.

But here’s the good news.

There is no debate in China as to whether climate change is real. While some American leaders act like King Canute watching the ever rising tides that will eventually submerge them, the Chinese are already preparing sustainable megacities, and the massive sustainable agriculture systems that will feed them over the coming century. All of the world’s leading architectural and engineering practices are undertaking revolutionary work in China on the sustainable design of buildings and cities, and the whole world will benefit from the massive experimentation that is currently taking place in China.

Comparison of Countries' Actions and Policies on Climate Change

Comparison of Countries’ Actions and Policies on Climate Change

Since 2011, China’s environmental policies have been declared better than those of North America by Oxford University’s Smith School. While not as good as some countries, they are definitely moving in the right direction.

China has accepted that lower economic growth is the price worth paying for not destroying the planet, and in March this year China’s premier declared war on pollution just as China once declared war on poverty. It’s hard to imagine Western leaders declaring that their policy objective is to have lower economic growth than in previous years. The fact that this is occurring in a developing country makes this all the more remarkable.

China’s consumers are the second greenest out of seventeen countries measured in National Geographic’s Greendex. The report measures consumers’ attitudes towards recycling, eating vegetarian food, using public transport and other important lifestyle choices. Remarkably, Chinese consumers have become even more green as they have become rich. As the Greendex report highlights:

Chinese consumers’ Greendex score has consistently increased since 2008 despite rapid development in China. Consumers in the other emerging markets surveyed, including Brazil, Russia, and India, have not seen this upward trend in scores.

If this trend continues, it will be one of the most significant developments in consumer culture in the world.

Finally, China’s ancient cultural traditions, long neglected in the rush for modernization and development, have the capacity to underpin China’s postmodern engagement with a new and more sustainable form of civilization. While American Christians go to war on environmentalism, Chinese Confucians, Taoists and Buddhists have a long and complex history of recognizing the significance of the natural world for human wellbeing, as my new co-edited book on Religion and Ecological Sustainability in China demonstrates.

In the end, China will solve the world’s environmental problems, because it has to. While Canadians and Americans debate the reality of climate change, and wonder whether they can afford to invest in public transport infrastructure, Chinese people have no such luxury. Their investment in sustainability is already taking place. If it is successful, it will be a boon for the whole world.