Resisting Desire to Control Nature Key to China's and the United States' Green Future

taoist painting

15th century painting, "Poet on a Mountain Top" by Shen Zhou via The Nameless Blog

In an interesting interview over at China Dialogue, reporter for The Guardian and author of the new book When a Billion Chinese Jump Jonathan Watts offers an important insight into the different tugging philosophical perspectives that have driven, and are now driving, China's attitudes towards the environment. It all comes down to the difference between Daoism and Confucianism, between trying to control nature and embracing the wildness of it. Which side is in the ascendency and has implications and applications far beyond China. Here's what Watts says:

The book points to some of the deeper dynamics at play in China's response to the environmental situation. One is the tension between the Daoist tradition, with its desire to find harmony, and Confucian philosophy, with its tendency to impose order on the natural world. How did you find this shaped China's response to this stage of development?

Looking for a solution to the predicament we are in, of living unsustainably, the importance of values comes up again and again. The focus in China is mainly on science and technology, on hardware - on things that if you drop them will hurt your toe. The importance of values hasn't really kicked in, but it's absolutely essential. Where do you get these values? Clearly western values haven't stopped the west from screwing up the environment. So, it's worth looking to China's philosophical and cultural roots. 

One of the sub-themes of the book is an exploration of China's Daoist side. There have always been competing philosophies in China. It intrigued me that you can't really have a Daoist civilization - it's almost an embrace and acceptance of the wild, of anarchy and chaos. Most of the time Confucianism has been the predominant philosophy, though there have been times that China is more Legalist. However, in Chinese history, you hear that some Mandarins were Confucians while working in their official positions, but when they went home they tended their gardens, or wrote poetry, and gave space to their Daoist sides. Maybe that's one of the secrets of Chinese civilization and why it has lasted so long: that balance of the two sides. 

I spoke to the popular philosopher Yu Dan, who has made her name writing about Confucian ideas - which is very much in line with Party orthodoxy at the moment. She told me that she is more of a Daoist, but that she doesn't think "China is ready for Daoism yet". Certainly in the last 60 years, that Daoist side has faded. The trend has been to order things.

Watts goes on to say that the old vision on conquering nature isn't as strong as it once was, and suggests that China is now both in the best and worst position to become the worlds first green superpower.

China Won't Be Able to Follow the Model Which Led Britain, the US to Success
The bad is that China can't just outsource it's problems like other rising powers have in the past; the good is that because the economy is growing so quickly there are plenty of resources, and it has to reinvent itself. It has momentum, which by contrast the United States doesn't have, Watts says. By contrast the US is trapped by inertia, trying to hold on to and protect what it already has in the world.

Embracing Change Key to US & China's Future
It's that last part which seems to have great importance outside of China and contains a great lesson: It's in that holding on tightly, in that desire to control and maintain and dominate in a situation that can never be anything but fluid, dynamic and changing, that will break the US.

On the other hand, should the US choose to embrace change and embrace its morphing status in the world--both geopolitically, but also on the community and personal level, in terms of adapting to new environmental conditions and the shifting habits, standard of living (or at least quality and character of living) that is required to create a more equitable distribution of natural resources globally--if all of that is embraced, the conditions for continued flourishing can be nurtured.

By balancing the two age-old and essentially human tendencies of embracing the wild and trying to control it, a sustainable path forward can be created.

Read the rest of Jonathan Watts interview; he's got lots of interesting things to say: China's search for greener values
Like this? Follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

More on China's Environment:
½ of All China's Water Is Too Polluted to Drink
China's Coal Burning Cost the Environment $13 Billion Last Year
China No Longer a Developing Nation - Per Capita Emissions Higher Than France's
Pollution in China Is Worse Than Ever, Citizens Say

Related Content on