The mass devastation and environmental destruction that has resulted from the devaluation of nature in today’s capitalist economy can be considered one of the major security issues in the twenty-first century. As scholar and activist Dr. Vandana Shiva (2014) points out, ‘Nature has been subjugated to the market as a mere supplier of industrial raw material and dumping ground for waste and pollution’ (p. 14). The push by governments and corporations to unrestrictedly consume in order to develop a strong market has led to mass-scale desertification and wastage, where consumers in industrialized countries waste almost as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa on a yearly basis (222 million vs. 230 million tons). The United Nations Food and Agricultural report (2017) found that as one-third of the food produced for human consumption (about 1.3 billion tons) gets lost or wasted every year, uneven demographic pressures and changes in food demand in developing countries means that billions of people still face the threat of hunger, poverty, joblessness, and environmental degradation from unsustainable agricultural practices.
The monoculture system, for example, which involves growing single crops such as corn and soybeans intensively and on a vast scale, relies heavily on chemical inputs like synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2016). Currently, there is an ongoing investigation on agro-chemical company Monsanto as more than 400 lawsuits were filed in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco by people alleging that exposure to Roundup herbicide, most commonly used for monoculture crops, was the cause of large-scale cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded in 2015 that the herbicide was “probably carcinogenic”. With the high growth rate of the human population meaning that feeding humanity will require at least a 50 percent increase in the production of food and other agricultural products by the middle of the century, the Monsanto case (and others- see Rifai, 2017) shows that there is still a lack of environmentally sustainable approaches and technologies to facilitate farm mechanization and the large-scale extension of agricultural systems.
In China, rapid economic growth over the past three decades has resulted in extreme environmental hardships around the country. For example, two-thirds of China’s 656 cities suffer domestic and industrial water shortages (Cao et al., 2013). Moreover, China is believed to have 16 of the world’s 20 cities with the worst air pollution and the world’s highest rate of chronic respiratory disease with a mortality rate five times that of the United States (Liu & Diamond, 2008, p. 37-38). Air pollution is estimated to contribute to about 750,000 premature deaths every year, and more than half of China’s cities are reported to be affected by acid rain (Zhang & Smith, 2002). These figures show that the Market Paradigm and the open door policies adopted by Chinese officials and corporations in their attempts to maximise wealth has been detrimental for the country’s health and environment. With the Western individualism model, which is based on the reason over nature hierarchy and the repression of the female/maternal, being inadequate to address these problems, there have been arguments that the country needs to restore environmental equilibrium through indigenous teachings and philosophies (Lindsay, 2012).
One of the proposed alternative approaches to environmental governance is based on Confucian teachings. According to this perspective, Confucianism can help China transform the country’s relationship with the environment by promoting an attitude towards nature that teaches people how to tend, cultivate, and reshape nature in order to bring about social flourishing. By the widespread adoption of such views, it is believed that those in power will be increasingly pressured to abide by environmental laws and approach policy decision-making in a way that serves both human and environmental development. The internalising of principles such as ren (仁, “benevolence”) and zhengming (正名, “reification of names”) can help to establish this. Jan Eric Christensen (2014) explains that the concept of zhengming, which involves calling things by their proper names and dealing with reality, is concerned with being aware and reflecting on one’s moral values. The method for this practice is to “recognize the meaning of the individual within the social group and within the natural universe” (p. 287). In other words, to practice zhengming is to acknowledge the role that individuals play in both the social and natural worlds. Thus, while nature is recognised to be a resource for human needs and survival, just like the rules and norms around social interaction, the use of nature is believed to be set within particular normative and cosmic constraints. The Doctrine of the Mean highlights the Confucian conception of the human-nature relationship and the duty that humans have towards nature in chapter 22. It states,
Only those who are absolutely sincere can fully develop their nature. If they can fully develop their nature, they can fully develop the nature of others. If they can fully develop the nature of others, they can fully develop the nature of things. If they can fully develop the nature of things, they can assist in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth. If they can assist in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth, they can thus form a trinity with Heaven and Earth.
The passage suggests that to act sincerely and authentically is to act in accordance with our moral intelligence, which means to promote the wellbeing and flourishing of others and other species. This principle requires that every person develops the responsibility of nourishing the Heaven and Earth to be able to strive and live a life with compassion and dignity.
However, with the commodity economy resulting in people over-purchasing their food, an ecological imbalance occurs as growth in supply leads to more pollution and chemical wastage. In principle, the rules around food consumption in Chinese culture are about balancing the need to access the necessary nutrition for sustaining life and maintaining health and well-being. In the Analects, it is written that Confucius “did not eat rice that had gone sour or fish and meat that had spoiled. He did not eat food that had gone off colour or food that had a bad smell. He did not eat food that was not properly prepared, nor did he eat except at the proper times” (10.7). Such passages use Confucius as a model to convey rules about consumption and dining, illustrating a standard of moderation and the importance of dietary safety. The underlying message is that food and drinks should be consumed in moderation. When describing an exemplary or morally superior individual, the Analects notes that when drinking alcohol, Junzi people are able to hold their drink (9.16). As for Confucius, “even when there was plenty of meat, he avoided eating more meat than rice” and he “did not eat more than was proper” (10.8). The implication is that all human activities, including the most basic such as food consumption, are inseparable from the problems of value and consistency. So, by exercising righteous and proper behaviour, which involves practising constraint, can one come to an ideal state of zhonge (中和), which often translates to ‘equilibrium and harmony’. Once this is realised to the highest degree, it is believed Heaven and Earth “attain their proper order and all things will flourish’ (Chan, 1963, p. 98).
The need to exercise restraint when using the environment to attain resources and promote human prosperity is further discussed in the text Mengzi. Here it is stated that there was a time when the trees were luxuriant on the Ox Mountain but by being situated on the outskirts of a growing settlement, the trees were being constantly chopped down, so “Is it any wonder that they are no longer fine?” (Mencius 6A.8). Although this passage is used to compare the nature of humans as having a predisposition towards humanity and righteousness just as a lush mountain tends to restore itself over time, the description of the barren mountain as being the consequence of human activity shows that the early Confucians were aware of the impact that human settlement had on the environment. For Confucius, the way to avoid environmental destruction was to regulate such interaction. For instance, when fishing it was preferable to use a fishing line and not a cable with many lines attached to it, and when shooting birds to avoid shooting the roosting ones (Analects, 7.27). By not excessively extracting from the environment, the natural world would be able to recover and develop itself back to the ideal state of zhonge.
The theory that humans should dominate and conquer the natural world was never part of mainstream thinking in classical China. Despite this, the question remains as to how Confucian environmental principles can be put into practice in the modern world. More specifically, how should China, who claims to be an “ecological civilisation”, apply Confucian environmental ethics to its economic policies without harming the country’s growth? The third part of this sustainability series will provide a critical overview of China’s recent environmental projects and examine whether the application of Confucian principles is adequate to transform human-environment interaction.