Building China's Ecological Civilization

By Xu Chun

For the past several years, China has been pursuing a stated goal of developing an "ecological civilization," a concept that is not simply about preserving the natural environment but encompasses economic, political, cultural and social development. Xu Chun looks at the principles needed to bring this about.

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Sustainable development is an approach grounded in care and concern for the survival of humankind, demanding that we look at development from a broad perspective. It is an approach to development that acknowledges the interrelatedness of people, resources and the environment. If any of these elements lack sustainability, it is impossible for the economy and society to achieve development that is sustainable.

Thirty years after opening up its economy and instituting reforms, China has entered a phase of very rapid growth. This compressed temporal and spatial development has created complex issues for Chinese society. The environmental problem China confronts is multifaceted, with implications for the very structure of society. It is beginning to adversely affect China's economic and social development. Some industrialized regions exhibit the characteristics of postindustrial development, and the environmental problems caused by factors such as excessive emissions from motor vehicles and industrial pollution are indicative of a lifestyle of high consumerism and wastage. On the other hand, the environmental problems in agricultural regions are related to methods of agricultural production adopted in those regions and include problems such as the excessive use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers that degrade soil quality, as well as pollution associated with livestock and poultry farming. To meet these challenges, it is crucial that modern China develop as an ecological civilization.

This could be described as a new pattern of human civilization replacing industrial civilization. The growing tensions between humans and nature created by industrialization are resolved through ecological thinking and approaches. The concept of an ecological civilization does not reject the goal of material prosperity that drives industrial civilization, but, utilizing the benefits of science and technology, it pursues a deeper understanding of the laws of nature and of our relationship with the natural world in order to establish the harmonious coexistence of humans and nature.

The building of an ecological civilization within the unique socialist structure of Chinese society has to be in line with the development of human civilization as well as China's process of modernization. There are two difficult issues: How do we proceed on the path of ecological civilization while accomplishing our goal of industrialization and ensuring that China's development continues at a rapid pace? How do we reconcile the seemingly antagonistic goals of environmental protection and development and ensure that protection of the environment leads to economic development that serves the interests of people, enterprises and the whole country? It is vital that we focus on the following: maintaining ecologically sound production processes; observing moderation in consumerism; promoting greater environmental awareness among the public; ensuring modernization of agricultural regions, where industrialization and urbanization are in line with sustainable development and interaction between man and environment remains harmonious throughout.

An ecological civilization, from the standpoint of sustainable development, adheres to the principles of harmony, recycling, collaboration, moderation, prioritization and humanity: resolving eco-environmental issues through improving people's well-being; abiding by the laws of nature while establishing sustainable industrial structures, production processes and modes of consumption; with moderation as the yardstick, adopting modes of production and lifestyles that exhibit self-restraint; the creation of eco-friendly environments and enhancing their capacity for sustainability; allowing ecosystems to "rest and recover" with emphasis given to caring for the natural environment; and constructing a framework for the development of an ecological civilization with the government taking the lead and enterprises forming the bulk of the framework. In such a framework, civil society organizations should provide the necessary driving force and encourage the participation of all citizens. This will generate the momentum that pushes the government's public policy toward a more scientific and democratic approach.

Xu Chun is professor of philosophy at Peking University, Beijing. Her research interests include environmental philosophy, social development theory and ecological civilization.