Much intellectual discourse about Chinese philosophical and religious views of nature focuses on ideals such as harmony between humans and the natural world, or “forming one body with heaven and earth” (tian ren he yi). But when it comes to historical studies of Chinese environmental history, it’s hard to find instances of where this ideal was concretely realized. Mark Elvin concludes his monumental history of China’s environment with the following observation
The religious, philosophical, literary, and historical texts surveyed and translated in the foregoing pages have been rich sources of description, insight, and even, perhaps, inspiration. But the dominant ideas and ideologies, which were often to some degree in contradiction with each other, appear to have little explanatory power in determining why what seems actually to have happened to the Chinese environment happened the way it did. Occasionally, yes, Buddhism helped to safeguard trees around monasteries. The law-enforced mystique shrouding Qing imperial tombs kept their surroundings untouched by more than minimal economic exploitation. but in general, no. There seems no case for thinking that, some details apart, the Chinese anthropogenic environment was developed and maintained in the way it was over the long run of more than three millennia because of particular characteristically Chinese beliefs or perceptions. or, at least, not in comparison with the massive effects of the pursuit of power and profit in the arena provided by the possibilities and limitations of the Chinese natural world, and the technologies that grew from interactions with them.
But when it comes to the history of religion in China, (rather than philosophical ideas), the story is quite different. Chinese religions demonstrate a continuous attempt to grapple with the natural world, imploring the heavens to aid the productive bounty of the earth. For popular Chinese religion in particular, the natural world is also depicted as a dangerous force capable of producing death and destruction on a massive scale. (More…)
A poster announces a power plant to be built in Tianjin, China.
On Sunday the New York Times published a report, China Outpaces U.S. in Cleaner Coal-Fired Plants, which documented China’s transition to cleaner forms of energy. Although much of China’s energy needs are still met by inefficient coal-fired power stations with poor track records in terms of emissions, China has begun to invest heavily in cleaner coal technology with a view to improving efficiency and reducing emissions. The effect of this transition is already being taken into account by climate forecasters. (More…)
A collapsed building in Dujiangyan, close to the epicentre of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
China’s massive system of hydroelectric dams and water distribution has come under fire once again. Right after the devastating Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008, in which over 70,000 people lost their lives, officials rushed to deny that the massive Three Gorges Dam complex hundreds of kilometres downstream could have played any role in triggering the natural disaster.
Now officials are working hard to play down a call by Fan Xiao, Chief Engineer of the Regional Geology Investigation Team of the Sichuan Geology and Mineral Bureau, for scientists to investigate whether the Zipingpu dam project, located upstream of the quake area, may have triggered the earthquake.
Fan’s call comes in the wake of a paper by Christian Klose at Columbia University which theorized how abnormal surface stresses caused by the Zipingpu dam system may have triggered the massive earthquake. Klose’s hypothesis also matches work conducted by Lei Xinglin a geologist with the China Earthquake Administration in Beijing.
By Mary Evelyn Tucker
In a world where eco-systems are unraveling and where water, soil, and species are rapidly diminishing, there are few places on Earth where environmental problems are of greater concern than China. The sheer size of the population, over a billion people, and the rapid speed of modernization are creating a collision course for a sustainable future. As China modernizes with an unprecedented rapidity, the destruction of its environment is becoming increasingly visible and ever more alarming. This is affecting not only China but also the entire world. Our interconnected global markets, trade, cultural exchange, and travel are pushing us up against one another as never before. The way China resolves its environmental problems may have an immense affect around the globe.
There are many signs now that these problems are being felt strongly in China with some 60,000 protests a year occurring and with government officials recognizing that the prized Confucian value of political stability may be eluding them. Clearly some new approaches are needed that are not simply punitive, drawing on traditional Chinese Legalism – laws and regulations. Rather, many are looking to Confucianism and other Chinese traditions for a humanistic approach that would create new grounds for environmental protection and social harmony.