Chinese leader calls for ecological civilization

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A former leader of the National People’s Congress says industrial civilization has come to a dead end and an ecological civilization is needed

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This article appears in January 2013 issue of the English-language edition of Qiushi Journal, a publication of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. The author, Jiang Chunyun, is former Vice Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of China.

by Jiang Chunyun

As the old Chinese proverb goes, “To return a kindness with gratitude is a good deed, the act of an upright man; to treat a kindness with ingratitude is a bad deed, the act of a petty man.” These words, “good” and “bad,” “gratitude” and “ingratitude,” have long been the most fundamental criteria for judging the morality and action of an individual.

Do children treat their parents with respect out of gratitude for the loving care their parents have given them? Do countrymen serve their motherland wholeheartedly out of gratitude for everything their motherland has afforded them? And do human beings have awe for and cherish their green home out of gratitude for the life that nature has granted them?

Everybody on earth, individuals and groups alike, must find rational answers to these questions, regardless of their nationality, race, gender, class, and occupation, and must require both themselves and others to act in accordance with a just code of speaking out for good and doing good instead of evil.

Life on earth began as early as several hundred million years ago, while the story of human evolution started only several million years ago. This means that humans are latecomers. At every step of human evolution—from our transformation from Australopithecus to Homo erectus, and again from archaic Homo sapiens to Homo sapiens—we have been cared for by nature, which, like a great and holy mother, has allowed humankind to grow from a species with few members to one with several billion members.

In comparison with family and country, the care that nature has bestowed on us is more fundamental, more worthy of our gratitude. Yet how have we treated nature? This may be a difficult question to answer, but it is one that we must answer as a matter of conscience.

Frankly speaking, there are many people who are able to show appreciation towards nature. These people have made active contributions to ecological protection and the improvement of the environment.

But at the same time, there are also people who have no sense of gratitude towards nature. These people are indifferent towards the changes that are affecting nature and the environment. Moreover, there are even people who are so ungrateful towards nature that they would wantonly damage the environment. These people are by no means few in number, and their violations against nature are on the increase.

This is the root cause of the ecological degradation and environmental deterioration that has plunged the human race into a survival crisis.

Ecological and environmental issues began to emerge with the advent of agricultural society, although at that time the impact of human activities on the environment was gradual and relatively minor. However, with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution and the rapid development of science and technology, human beings began to deal serious damage to the environment as they created great material wealth and cultural achievements.

This damage has become increasingly serious in modern times. Air pollution, water pollution, soil pollution, desertification, global warming, the melting of the glaciers, the depletion of the ozone, the spread of acid rain, the sharp drop in biodiversity, and the frequent occurrence of fatal diseases and natural disasters—these startling facts are a warning that the earth’s biosphere, which mankind relies on for its survival, is damaged.

They tell us that the major ecological systems supporting the earth’s biosphere, such as forests, grasslands, wetlands, rivers, lakes, farmlands, mountains, the atmosphere, and oceans, are bruised all over, weakened, and that untold dangers lurk amongst them. The biosphere is like a cracked fish tank which is losing its water. As the water seeps out of the tank at an increasing rate, the survival of the fish inside is coming under threat. Therefore, if we are unable to repair the biosphere quickly, the damage will only become worse and worse.

This will continue until the biosphere eventually ceases to function, being no longer able to operate, and when that happens humankind will descend into a desperate struggle for its survival. This is not alarmist talk, but a real depiction of a hidden crisis that will threaten the survival of the human race.

In an effort to address the human crisis that has been triggered by environmental deterioration, the international community and the countries of the world have frequently convened meetings, signed conventions and accords, issued declarations, made commitments, and taken action. While in some cases these efforts have led to positive results, in overall terms our efforts to restore ecosystems and rectify environments have yielded few results.

At most we can say that there has been partial improvement. The trend of environmental deterioration on a global scale is yet to be reversed, and there are even signs that it is becoming more serious.

James Speth, the Dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University and former Administrator of the United Nations Development Program, says that the trend of environmental decline, which has made the international community uneasy, is yet to be fundamentally mitigated. Ill omens still exist, and these problems are becoming more ingrained, bringing about immediate danger. Speth believes that problems such as global warming, environmental pollution, resource depletion, ecological degradation, and the loss of biodiversity are much worse than we are able to understand, willing to admit, or tend to estimate.

The reasons for global environmental deterioration are deep-seated. Though we cannot rule out the influence of reverse ecological succession, the fact remains that the most fundamental cause of global environmental deterioration is humankind’s failure to treat nature correctly. Human beings have made irreparable mistakes due to their biased understanding of the relationship between humans and nature.

The predatory exploitation of resources and irrational modes of production and lifestyles that came with the Industrial Revolution have had a devastating impact on ecosystems and the environment. Traditional industrial civilization was undoubtedly a revolutionary step forward from agricultural civilization, creating much higher productivity, huge material wealth, as well as technological and cultural achievements. However, the shortcomings of industrial civilization are not difficult to see: it is extremely profit-driven, greedy, predatory, aggressive, and even crazy in nature, its values and approach to development being the rapid accumulation of wealth and capital at any cost.

In recent centuries, under the influence of these ideas, developed industrial countries in the West engaged in an unprecedented campaign to conquer, plunder, and destroy nature. With this came a long succession of colonial wars which not only saw millions die and hundreds of millions become slaves, but also caused the world’s ecological environments to suffer on an unprecedented scale.

Many of those who plundered the world’s natural resources were proponents of anthropocentrism, the view that human beings are the masters of nature and that all other things in the natural world are mankind’s possessions, consumables, and servants. Guided by these notions, they robbed, seized and destroyed without restraint, and led extravagant, luxurious, and extremely wasteful lifestyles. In more than 200 years of industrial history, developed countries in the West have consumed around half of the world’s non-renewable resources, which took billions of years to form.

Fact has repeatedly warned us that we cannot rely on traditional industrial civilization to correct its own mistakes when it comes to the environment. Traditional industrial civilization has therefore come to a dead end. Despite this, however, certain developing countries have failed to break away from the developmental mode of traditional industrial civilization as they have sought to industrialize. As a result, within the space of just decades, they have encountered the kind of environmental pollution and ecological degradation that took one or two hundred years to emerge in the West. These countries must now meet the challenge of maintaining a balance between economic development and environmental protection.

Since the latter half of the last century, we have come to the profound realization that industrial civilization is unsustainable. Drawing from the lessons of the past, we have proposed the creation of an ecological civilization, which is characterized by sustainable development and harmony between mankind and nature.

Ecological civilization provides us with broader prospects for resolving the environmental crisis and maintaining balance between development and the environment. It represents a substantive step forward from industrial civilization, because it not only embodies the strengths of industrial civilization, but is also able to address its weaknesses and failings by applying brand new ideas. The basic features of ecological civilization can be summarized as follows.

First, human beings are a part of nature. The relationship between human beings and other creatures should be one of equality, friendship, and mutual reliance, as opposed to a relationship in which humans are supreme.

Second, since it is nature that has given us life, we should feel gratitude towards nature, repay nature, and treat nature well. We should not forget the debt that we owe to nature, or treat nature and other creatures violently.

Third, humans are entitled to exploit natural resources, but we must take the tolerance of ecosystems and the environment into account when doing so in order to avoid overexploitation.

Fourth, human beings must follow the moral principles of ensuring equity between people, between countries and between generations in resource exploitation. We should refrain from violating the rights and interests of other people, other countries, and future generations.

Fifth, we should advocate conservation, efficiency, and recycling in the utilization of resources so as to maximize efficiency whilst keeping consumption and the impact on nature to a minimum.

Sixth, we should view sustainable development as our highest goal, rejecting the overexploitation of resources and short-sighted acts aimed at gaining quick results.

Seventh, the fruits of development must be enjoyed by all members of society and not monopolized by a small minority.

It is essential that we correct the way we treat nature and assume our rightful position in nature. As the wisest of all creatures, we should give full play to our intelligence and capacity for thought by shouldering the responsibility of caring for, protecting, guiding, and strengthening nature, and ensuring that all of nature’s creatures are able to live in harmony and develop in a balanced, orderly, and continuous fashion.

It must be noted that while China has made remarkable achievements in socialist modernization during more than 30 years of reform and opening up, it has also encountered serious environmental problems that are undermining its sustainable development. Fact has demonstrated and will continue to demonstrate that we must take Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, and the theories of socialism with Chinese characteristics as our guide, commit to the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, implement the Scientific Outlook on Development, which puts people first and seeks to promote comprehensive, balanced, and sustainable development, and build a resource-conserving and environmentally friendly society.

These are not only the essence for promoting ecological progress and realizing the transformation of human civilization, but also a prerequisite and solid foundation for ensuring the sound and rapid development of economy and society, the balancing of economic development and environmental protection, the establishment of a harmonious society, and the improvement of people’s well being.

There are two old Chinese sayings which, through their dialectical materialism, reveal to us the key to success in any undertaking. The first is: to go undefeated in a hundred battles, you must know both the enemy and yourself. The second is: success belongs to those who are prepared, and failure to those who are not.

If we are to reverse the trend of environmental degradation and save the biosphere, we must correctly assess the state of our living environment, face up to environmental problems instead of trying to conceal them, use scientific means to anticipate dangers that lurk ahead, and sincerely reflect on our maltreatment of nature. Once we have acknowledged our errors we must take action to correct them. To do this, we must enhance our sense of mission, danger, and responsibility, and take the necessary measures to turn a precarious situation into a favorable one, so as to realize a sound balance between development and the environment.

It is about time that we changed our way of thinking and discarded our concept of a traditional industrial civilization in favor of a modern ecological one. It is about time that we put an end to our irrational modes of development and consumption, and made efforts to save the earth’s biosphere.

The struggle to save the biosphere and transform our civilization from a traditional industrial civilization to a modern ecological civilization will be an endeavor more magnificent than any seen before in human history, and a complex social undertaking of huge proportions. It will require that we humans carefully consider, correctly understand, and answer a series of questions, some of which are as follows:

What is the relationship between human beings and nature? Is it one of the conqueror and the conquered, the dominator and the dominated, and the ruler and the ruled? Or is it one of equality, friendship, harmony, coexistence, and mutual flourishing?

Why is earth the only cradle of life among the vast number of celestial bodies in universe? What is the earth’s biosphere, and how will ordinal or reversed ecological succession affect the survival and development of human beings?

Which biological systems support and maintain the earth’s biosphere?

Is it inevitable that the survival and development of the human race will come at the expense of ecosystems and the environment?

How should we understand the relationship between promoting an ecological civilization and transforming our modes of development and consumption? How should we deal with the contradiction between limited natural resources and limitless human desire?

Should we make up for the huge damage caused to nature by long-term overexploitation? If so, how do we repay this debt?

Should we let nature rest and regain its strength like humans do when they become old or ill?

What is the role of science and technology in saving the biosphere?

What is the relationship between population growth and resources, environment and sustainable development?

What do the constant wars of human beings mean to nature? How do we give full play to the role of law and ethics as effective means of guaranteeing environmental protection and the salvation of the biosphere?

Why must we improve our methods and standards for evaluating economic and social development?

How should the countries of the world cooperate and coordinate with one another in saving the earth’s biosphere and developing ecological civilization?

Drawing lessons from both our successes and failures in interacting with nature, we must see the global environmental crisis for what it is, and work out the relevant theories, ways of thinking, and countermeasures as we commit ourselves to the path of promoting ecological civilization.


  • Jiang Chunyun’s comment is not a political program. It is a call for an ecological civilization. Rather than critizising it for its lack of a class analysis, one might try to judge whether a society built upon his seven principles would be sustainable vs nature and resources, and be communist in the sense that there would be no oppression and no exploitation. If the answer is yes, the task is to develop a way to get there — in theory as well as in practice. In each country, people will have to find their own way.

  • I appreciate the author’s comments as adding another dimension to the usual ecosocialist dichotomy of us-vs-them, and only the naiive would take his essay at face value. I welcome a “more-the-merrier” approach, none of us have all the answers all the time, and every little bit brought to the table adds a richness we can benefit from.

  • Jiang Chunyun is the Al Gore of China. He represents the most ecologically-conscious current within the Chinese leadership.

    And, like Al Gore, he seems to have no class analysis whatsoever. It seems the planet’s problems are caused by humans being “ungrateful” toward nature and by the “shortcomings of industrial civilization”. The contradiction, he says, is between “limited natural resources and limitless human desire”.

  • “The trend of environmental deterioration on a global scale is yet to be reversed, and there are even signs that it is becoming more serious.” Really? At this stage of the game this is pretty weak tea, written at a very general level. It acknowledges there’s a problem but doesn’t recommend any concrete steps (like reducing China’s dependence on fossil fuels) to deal with it.