“Even an entire society, a nation or all simultaneously existing societies taken together are not owners of the earth, they are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familias [good heads of households].” – Karl Marx, Das Capital, Vol 3
China is a country of big numbers. Every year it has between 80,000 and 180,000 “public disturbances.” The government stopped releasing most protest statistics several years ago, when the annual number of “mass incidents” surpassed 100,000. Among these incidents are many environmental protests against heavy-metal pollution, dangerous chemicals, toxic waste, and pipelines, while corrupt bureaucrats playing footsie with environmental regulations. The Chinese government routinely condemns the protests, but it is often forced to react to the “will of the people.”
In one celebrated case, the authorities in the industrial city of Dalian ordered the immediate shutdown of a controversial chemical plant after thousands of people took to the streets to protest. In the Sichuan city of Shifang, thousands of residents rioted for three days against the proposed construction of a molybdenum-copper-alloy plant. After police arrested several protesters, residents besieged city hall demanding their release. The next day, the city announced that it would scrap plans to build the plant. Similar incidents have been reported throughout China.
Most protests are organized spontaneously on social media. They lack an obvious leader, making it hard for the government to arrest “ringleaders.”
Even documentaries on environmental issues can shame the government into taking action. Last year Chinese cinematographer Wang Jiuliang produced Plastic China, a documentary on China’s import of waste from mostly Western countries. The movie went viral on the Internet after having been shown at the Sundance Film Festival. Chinese authorities blocked Internet access to the movie, but a few days later, the country banned all import of foreign waste.
In the rush to modernize, China neglected its environment. Now that it has lifted 700 million people out of poverty and raised living standards dramatically, people start demanding clean air, clean water and clean food. The middle class in China’s large urban centers have started to embrace organic farming after a series of food scandals that included bacteria-infected vegetables, melamine-injected milk, counterfeit baby formula, and pollution-poisoned fish.
Throughout China, farmers are reverting to traditional farming methods without modern fertilizers. Farmers in Huinan county, Jilin province, raised 5,000 ducks in rice fields, feeding them on grass and prawns. It eliminated the needs for manual weeding and chemical pesticides. In southern China, farmers discovered that a native breed of spiders leaves webs among the vegetables and feed on hard-to-detect whiteflies, eliminating the need for harmful insecticides. Grass that co-exists with crops functions as a regulating factor of the microclimate by keeping the soil humid. Farmers on the outskirts of Shanghai found that trees, bushes, grass, insects, birds and cattle can co-exist. They are turning their farms into natural habitat.
President Xi Jinping has also jumped on the green bandwagon. In a major change in government policy, he announced that the country would pursue an “ecological civilization” to ensure “harmony between human and nature.” Sounding like a true Taoist, Xi added: “We, as human beings, must respect nature, follow its ways, and protect it. The government will encourage simple, moderate, green, and low-carbon ways of life, and oppose extravagance and excessive consumption.”
He added that the government would “step up efforts to establish a legal and policy framework that facilitates green, low-carbon, and circular development, promote afforestation, strengthen wetland conservation and restoration and take tough steps to stop and punish all activities that damage the environment.”
Xi’s speech could have been written by John B Cobb Jr, an American theologian, philosopher and environmentalist who is highly influential in China. Cobb is the pre-eminent scholar in the field of process philosophy and process theology that emphasizes ecological interdependence – the idea that every part of the ecosystem is reliant on all the other parts. His ideas have resonated with Chinese thinkers. Cobb is co-founder the Center for Process Studies in Claremont, California, which now has 30 academic institutions throughout the world, 23 of which are in China. Cobb has taken a leadership role in bringing process thought to the East, most specifically to help China develop a more ecological civilization. This goal is now written into China’s constitution.
Several years ago, while China’s ecological crisis was making global headlines, Cobb sounded a contrarian note. “The hope of ecological civilization lies in China,” he said, pointing at four factors that give China unique advantages to realize its goal.
First, China has a long tradition of emphasizing the harmony of nature and humanity, which has enabled Chinese civilization to survive for thousands of years. Second, unlike the US, China still has thousands of traditional villages and hundreds of millions of farmers who continue doing small intensive and meticulous farming. Third, China’s political system is able to mobilize massive social forces to cope with major crises such as the ecological one. Fourth, the Chinese government has shown its determination to create an ecological civilization by writing this goal into both the party’s constitution in 2012 and China’s national constitution in 2018.
Greening the planet
Cobb could have added that China is now the world’s largest player in clean-energy development. The country makes 60% of the world’s solar panels and surpassed Germany in 2015 as the world’s largest producer of photovoltaic energy. In January it pledged to invest US$367 billion in renewable power generation – solar, wind, hydro and nuclear – by 2020. The investment will add about 10 million jobs to the already existing 3.5 million jobs in the sector. China already produces nearly half of the world’s wind turbines, at a rate of about two every hour.
In 2017, China stopped or delayed work on 151 planned and under-construction coal plants, in response to flat-lining of demand for coal power. The affected coal power plants have a capacity equal to the combined operating capacity of Germany and Japan (95,000 megawatts) and cost around $60 billion. The boom in China’s renewable industry and a slowdown in energy demand has left China with hundreds of coal plants it doesn’t need. Newly increased targets for solar power, five times the current US capacity, will put more pressure on coal-fired plants.
China also plays a key role in the greening of the planet. Data from US National Aeronautics and Space Administration satellites have revealed an increase in global foliage. A research team studying NASA satellite images found that global green-leaf area has increased by 5% since the early 2000s, an area equivalent to all of the Amazon rainforests. At least 25% of that gain came in China, the result of its ambitious tree-planting programs. Overall, one-third of Earth’s vegetated lands are greening, while 5% are growing browner. The study was published on February 11 in the journal Nature Sustainability.
The Chinese government first used the term “ecological civilization” at the 17th Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2007. Growing environmental protests and China’s opportunity at global leadership in the renewable technology sector made the aim of ecological civilization a timely step. Xi noted that the focus on gross domestic product is a great obstacle to ecological civilization, adding, “We shouldn’t judge one to be hero or not merely according to GDP. Instead, we should look at welfare improvement, social development and environmental indicators to evaluate leaders.”
Marx would have agreed. In 1844 he wrote: “Man lives on nature, [which] means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.”