The political report emerging from China’s recent Party Congress said that the country needs to “build an ecological civilisation”. It’s a remark that has attracted widespread attention. It represents an attempt by China’s leaders to redefine the model of growth that China should follow, taking into account an objective analysis of severe problems the country faces in terms of resources. It also represents the state of Chinese thinking on the future of global civilisation in the light of the world’s shared environmental challenges.
The idea of “ecological civilisation” is based on a reconsideration of the unsustainable model of development that has arisen out of industrial civilisation. In its history, the human race moved from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural societies. Then the industrial revolution enveloped the west around 200 years ago. Since then, industrialisation became our main marker of civilisation. While it created unprecedented levels of material wealth, the industrial model of development, based on high levels of resources and energy consumption, also brought serious pollution and ecological destruction to the industrialised world.
Over the past 30 years, riding on the wave of globalisation, industrialisation has brought unprecedented levels of rapid economic development to the world. Global capitalism has transferred the most polluting, resource-intensive and high-risk manufacturing industries to developing countries. This has allowed developed countries to alleviate the pressure on their own environments, without making any changes to their model of growth. The environmental burden on developing countries has increased, and pollution has now reached every corner of the globe. But global climate change means that no country can isolate itself from the effects of pollution generated abroad. Every country is now faced with the urgent question of how to reduce emissions – and keep global warming in check.
Attention has now focused on China. The country’s economy has grown rapidly, but we are paying a high price in terms of our resources and environment. China currently leads the world in terms of resources consumption and pollution emissions. Ultimately, our model of industrial civilisation is unsustainable. Large-scale production and consumption by western nations has wreaked havoc on the global environment. As countries like India and China attempt to join the club of rich nations, the problems are becoming more acute. The global environment is heading quicker than ever towards crisis point. And it is with this background that China’s leadership put forward its “ecological civilisation” plan. It has profound implications not only for China’s hopes of maintaining long-term growth, but also for attempts to guarantee the security of the global environment.
Ecological civilisation is a new idea, and as such, there are no models for us to follow; putting the theory into practice will be a tough task. Ecological civilisation differs from industrial civilisation in the way it views humans’ relationship with nature. Industrial civilisation requires that nature is conquered and moulded to our needs. Ecological civilisation, however, requires that humans live in harmony with our environment, because the environment is the foundation of our very existence. As early as the 1930s, the ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote, “Civilisation is not…the enslavement of a stable and constant Earth.” Humans have spread out to inhabit every habitable corner of the Earth, and have acquired the power to destroy the ecological balance. Now we have to put down our tools and try to recover our lost sense of respect and gratitude for nature.
Ecological civilisation is not the same as pollution control or environmental recovery. It transcends traditional ideas that stem from our current model of development, based on the constant expansion of resources. It is important to recognise that, given the size of China’s population and the scale of its economy, even by taking the most extreme clean-up measures, our effects on the environment will still be severe. In order to find a way forward that is truly in harmony with nature, we need to develop clean, renewable energy on a large scale and make efficient use of resources, which should then be recycled. This fundamental change cannot be achieved by any single country, but only through the concerted efforts of China and other countries who together aim to safeguard global ecological security.
However, building an ecological civilisation does not mean entirely abandoning existing environment management systems and techniques. Many post-industrial countries are still seeking a new model of sustainable growth. Effective environmental and resources management approaches have come out of their experience, and will help in building an ecological civilisation. The challenge for a China, which is still stuck in the industrial age, is immense. But as a developing country, China can learn a lot from the experience of other countries. New technology can be used to replace existing infrastructures.
We should recognize that ecological civilisation focuses on conserving and respecting nature, but that nature cannot participate in efforts
to protect the environment. It is humans who need to act as guardians of nature.
The idea of sustainable development, according to the 1987 Brundtland commission, is “development that meets that needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Similarly, the “scientific concept of development”, advanced by China’s leaders, centres on the principle of “putting people first”. If the aim of development is really to benefit the people, we cannot destroy the very resources on which people rely for survival. The best way to ensure the public protect the environment is to implement policies that grant people the right to information and to participate in environmental affairs, and give them access to legal aid.
There are a wide variety of opinions on how to develop in the post-industrial era. The quest for an environmentally friendly model of growth has now become an important global undertaking. Ecological civilisation, China’s view of future economic development, shows that China is acting responsibly, and taking environmental issues very seriously indeed.
Background: the Congress report
In the16th Central Committee of the Communist Party’s report to the 17th Party Congress, general secretary Hu Jintao unveiled new requirements for establishing a well-off society. One was to “build an ecological civilisation and a model of growth and consumption, as well as industries, which are frugal in their use of energy and resources and protect the environment.”
Hu said the circular economy should be expanded, and there should be a focus on renewable energy. He added that if pollution emissions could be controlled effectively, the environment could be improved substantially, and that the idea of ecological civilisation should be firmly established throughout the whole of society.
A recent report by China’s State Environmental Protection Administration said that the country’s state of environmental affairs was “critical”, and frequent environmental accidents are negatively affecting the lives of many.
According to official figures, China’s chemical oxygen demand is the highest in the world, and far exceeds the country’s environmental capacity. Tests of China’s waterways show that 62% were polluted, with 90% of rivers near cities contaminated. In May, The algae-bloom incident in Taihu Lake caused widespread alarm. The area, in eastern China, had developed chemical, heavy and light industry to boost local economic growth, causing such severe pollution that the water supply to 2 million people had to be cut.
Ma Jun is the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs
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