John Cobb Addresses Chinese Students Online
at the Opening of the 2020 Cobb Eco-Academy
Postmodern Eco's Facebook Post, March 18, 2020
Postmodern Eco's Facebook Post, March 18, 2020
I had never been to China before a recent trip where I had the opportunity to make several presentations at some conferences relating to ecological civilization—the idea of moving toward a civilization that is sustainable environmentally, economically, physically, and spiritually.
The trip was sponsored by the Institute for Postmodern Development in China, whose director is Dr. Zhihe Wang. My colleagues on the trip were Dr. Annie Ingram (Environmental Studies, Davidson College), Dr. Stephen Field (Trinity University, Chinese Studies), and Dr. Jay McDaniel (Hendrix College, Religious Studies).
I write this as a companion to a short piece written by Dr. Ingram about this trip: It All Starts with Dancing: How the environmental humanities can learn from China. I hope you will read it as a complement to this article.
We Americans were in China, not only to present papers at conferences, but also to explore sites where concrete experiments are being undertaken in developing an ecological civilization. It may sound odd to talk about “ecological civilization” when visiting the dense smog-imbued cities of Beijing (19.6 million) and Guangzhou (14 million), and even “small” cities like Lingbao (720,000), whose pollution is significant though not as bad as the other cities. However, as I came to the end of my trip, I think China may be just the place to learn about ecological civilization for two reasons.
It's Official: China seek to become an Ecological Civilization
The first reason has to do with China’s official policy. Built into the formal planning of the Chinese government is the idea that, in the future, China wants to move beyond the worst aspects of industrial civilization and become an ecological civilization.
Many of the people we met in the first half of our trip were people in universities, mostly in large and heavily polluted cities such as Beijing and Guangzhou. In my conversations with students and faculty, they were very aware that the central government had made “ecological civilization” a priority in national policy. I was told that experiments were going on in communities throughout China to make progress on the environmental problems facing China.
Some experiments are deep, as illustrated in the local villages below, and some are relatively modest, such as signs in the streets of Beijing encouraging citizens to be more environmentally responsible or cafeteria signs at a university recommending a “low carbon diet.” In areas where pollution is not as serious a problem, such as Zhuhai, there is an experiment with United International University to partner with a dying village, Hui Tong, to help revive it in a way that is sustainable economically and environmentally.
These signs, deep and modest, are illustrative of the fact that China has not only been well aware of the pollution problems created by rapid industrialization over the last 25 years, it is consciously taking steps to address them. This will not happen overnight. It should be remembered that in the United States, there was considerable lag time between the passage of the Clean Air Act and the improvement in air quality in Los Angeles and other cities (and there is still more to go). The one thing that China has over the United States is that there is wide spread recognition of the need to address the problem of pollution at every level of society, especially the problem global climate change.
Rural Renewal: Stemming the tide of migration to cities
by making rural villages desirable places to live
The second reason China is a good place to learn about ecological civilization has to do with what I witnessed in two rural communities: Hongnong and Yongji. Each of these communities is made up of natural villages—villages that have been around for many generations as opposed to administrative villages that have been created by the government. In Hongnong, Each village has a significant community project that involves the majority of the villagers in organic farming practices, handicrafts, a financial coop (essentially a community-based credit union), and other opportunities for enrichment and community building.
About ten years ago in Hongnong, Professor He Qing Zhou, a professor of agriculture, started an academy that promotes these opportunities through moral education that is based upon traditional wisdom, especially associated with Confucianism and Daoism. Her philosophy, which seems to be widely embraced by the villagers, is that by learning the traditional wisdom of China, the villagers today can live in harmony with nature (through organic farming), each other and themselves (through practicing respect, trust, and service).
As children and adults come to the academy to learn arts and crafts, or techniques of organic farming, they also recite—virtually chant—in unison sayings of Laozi and Kong Fuzi, bowing regularly as they do. The academy has become the village social center in both formal and informal ways. We were present to participate in the ribbon cutting ceremony of a new credit union by which farmers will provide one another micro loans to help each other provide a living through organic apple tree orchards and production of apple cider. The pride and excitement of the community is contagious.
Creative Localization: Think globally, develop locally
Perhaps it is in these villages that a new kind of 'development' is quietly emerging in China which may in the long run be promising for other nations, too. We can call it creative localization in urban and rural settings.
For the past twenty-five years, since the opening of China to market economies in the 1980's, China has followed a model inherited from the modern west. The emphasis has been on heavy industry, urban development, and manufacturing products for export. Along the way many Chinese have forgotten the wisdom of their own past, having been enamored of western models.
But in these villages we see a reclaiming of traditional wisdom in a new and, as Dr. Wang would put it, constructively postmodern way. They are reclaiming three realities that are sorely needed in the world today as adumbrated by Dr. Ingram: (1) a sense of local community, (2) a love of the earth, and (3) a renewal of the cultural treasures from the past, as inspiring concrete hopes for a new and more ecological future.
If there is hope for our world, perhaps it lies in these kinds of experiments. Already such movements toward creative localization are occurring in other parts of the world, as illustrated in the transition town movement where local citizens are trying to develop post-petroleum communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory and ecologically wise. The rural communities that I saw in China, were seeking to be examples of transition towns, Chinese-style. They offer concrete hope to a world in need, given the realities of global climate change. It is time for us to follow their lead.