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.
For the Chinese are realizing, as are we in the West, that the ecological crisis is also a crisis of culture and of the human spirit. It is a moment of reconceptualizing the role of the human in nature. They are wondering what do the Chinese classics have to say about mutually enhancing human-Earth relations? They are asking what kind of inspiration can be drawn from Confucian, Daoist or Buddhist classics for a Chinese ecological ethics.
In June 2008, my husband John Grim, James Miller, and I met with Pan Yue, the Vice-Minister of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA). We had been following his work for many years, collecting his speeches that focused on how the Chinese tradition could be used to create an ecological culture. He was filled with energy and attention as he came into the room, just returning the day before from the devastated earthquake region in Sichuan. His schedule was so demanding and yet he made time to see us because he felt this work in world religions and ecology has a particular relevance for China. He said with expansiveness and humor, “You’ve come to the right guy!” He acknowledged that he met with ministers for the environment from all over the world, most of who believed that environmental problems would only be solved by politics or economics. He has a different view.
Pan Yue, is calling for a Chinese ecological ethics to be identified from traditional Chinese religions. He writes: “Why is environmental protection considered a cultural issue? One of the core principles of traditional Chinese culture is that of harmony between humans and nature. Different philosophies all emphasize the political wisdom of a balanced environment. Whether it is the Confucian idea of humans and nature becoming one, the Daoist view of the Dao reflecting nature, or the Buddhist belief that all living things are equal, Chinese philosophy has helped our culture to survive for thousands of years. It can be a powerful weapon in preventing an environmental crisis and building a harmonious society.”
Pan Yue is calling for the creation of an ecological culture in China and an ecological civilization for the world. And he has written and spoken extensively on this topic. He observes that environmental laws are on the books in China, but they cannot be enforced because there is not an ecological culture to support them. (This situation applies to the West as well.) An ecological culture may be created in part, as Pan Yue has observed, by drawing on Chinese thought and values to respond to the present critical state of the ecological crisis in China.
These efforts can be best understood within the broader context of the revival of religions traditions in China since religious tolerance was promulgated in the early 1980s. Since that time the interest in Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism has been strong and many of the writings of western Sinologists are being translated and read in China, and across the East Asian world. The revival of traditional thought within modernity is of growing interest in China. It is here that Chinese classics have an important role to play in developing an indigenous environmental ethics for China. For no longer is religion banned as it was during the Mao years. A religious revival of sorts is taking place in the People’s Republic and Confucianism is part of that. In fact, one popular book written on Confucius by a woman who is not a scholar has sold millions of copies. The bookstores are filled with new editions of the Confucian classics. There is a search for spiritual roots across China that hopefully will have important implications for creating an ecological culture.