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Growing Ecological Civilization in China

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences invited me to an international ecological conference in Jinan, Shandong Province. The Academy gave the conference a provocative and insightful title: a Paradigm Shift: Towards Ecological Civilization: China and the World.

I listened to several Chinese and non-Chinese experts talk about a variety of issues (political, economic and ecological) touching on our present world crisis.

The discussion tool place during the  last two days of October 2019. Chinese speakers had reasons for being exuberant. They merged their ecological dreams with their celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Chinese Revolution.

Chinese forum speakers stressed their ideological victories of having institutions dedicated to the exploration of ecological civilization in all its complexity. In such pioneering task, they have the blessings of Xi Jinping, president of China. A section of the forum examined “the world significance of Xi Jinping’s thought on ecological civilization and Chinese traditional ecological wisdom.”

Western participants like me brought out the looming threats industrialized civilization poses to human health and the health and very survival of the natural world.

Theory

The picture that emerged was by no means pretty: the world is upside down. Politicians, scholars and scientists spoke, sometimes passionately, about how to make China and the world better places, especially how to avoid the worst effects of climate change. A former German politician, Hans-Josef Fell, warned us of existential threats, even cataclysmic consequences of business as usual. Fell is right. American and UN climate scientists give world leaders no more than ten years to get their house in order: primarily banning fossil fuels and replacing them with renewable and non-polluting energy.

Leaving fossil fuels in the ground would be a boon to public health. Moreover, stopping burning them would put a break to global warming. Healthy alternatives exist. We can get the energy we need from the inexhaustible Sun and other non-polluting sources like wind, geothermal energy and water.

There’s little doubt in my mind we better act now (in the next ten years) to make the fundamental changes necessary in slowing down the awaken climate monster. Yes, no more petroleum, natural gas and coal. But we also need to change our mentality: the ways of seeing the world, both that of the Earth and that of the cosmos.

The ancient Greeks worshipped the Sun god Helios for millennia. Did they know something about the cosmos that, in our hubris, we ignore? That the Sun is forever? That the Sun is life-giving and light-giving? The Greeks called the Sun Helios because Helios means the gathering of people observing the rise and setting of this magnificent star.

The Greeks put the Earth (Gaia) at the center of the universe. We describe that cosmological design as the geocentric universe. This shows the immense respect Greeks had for the Earth as a living being, even the oldest of the gods, according to Plato. But then in the third century BCE, another natural philosopher, Aristarchos of Samos, put the Sun at the center of the cosmos. Aristarchos’ heliocentric cosmology best explains how the universe works. It’s our cosmology.

However, the rulers of the planet and most scientists look at the Earth as a mine for resources, not a living world. That explains the hunting and killing of wildlife and the ruthless treatment of our terrestrial home: perpetual clearcutting of forests, exploitation and pollution of the seas, and the transformation of ancient and gentle and ecological practices of growing food to mechanical factories that poison the land and the very food people eat.

I focused my remarks at the Jenin conference on the so-called industrialized agriculture. I tried to convey the fact that making farming a mechanical factory was no less a grave error than becoming addicted to petroleum, natural gas, and coal: we have been undermining our health and the health and survival of the natural world.

Here’s how it happens.

America, Europe, China and the affluent classes of most other nations have embraced giant farms growing a few selected crops. These large pieces of land are the 2019 version of medieval plantations and state farms of the twentieth century. Their corporate, state or private owners manage these farms like factories. They employ machines, genetic engineering for the modification of crops, and neurotoxic pesticides.

The toxic cover of such large agricultural territories and the crops themselves are often fatal to pollinating honeybees, other insects, birds and wildlife. Poisons sip into the land and devastate microorganisms responsible for carrying nutrients to the crops. In addition, spayed neurotoxins become airborne and travel with the winds. They contaminate the environment, including organic farms.

The conversion of forests to industrial farms and the concentration of thousands of animals in gigantic animal factories make a substantial contribution to greenhouse gases warming the planet.

I urged China to take the initiative in sponsoring a World Environment Organization for collective international activities for the transition of the world economy away from fossil fuels. Such actions and policies must be compatible to the awesome emergency of climate change and over-industrialization of farms and food production.

Praxis

The second part of my visit to Jinan was praxis. I spent a day visiting a distinguished Chinese scientist by the name of Jiang Gaoming. He works in the Hongyi Organic Farm, his land in the village that gave him birth.

Vegetable garden. Hongyi organic Farm. Jiang Family Village. Photo: EV.

A Dutch colleague, Harris Tiddens, and I went from Jinan to Qufu, the hometown of the ancient Chinese philosopher, Confucius who flourished in late sixth and early fifth centuries BCE. From Qufu we travelled to the Jiang Family Village located in Pingyi County, Linyi City.

Jiang Gaoming is a man of knowledge and passion for organic food and ecological civilization. He is associated with the Institute of Botany of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Shandong Province that funds his research. He is a prolific botanist interested in public health and the health of natural world. He grows organic food and tests plants for their food and medicinal virtues.

Jiang Gaoming showing off his vegetables. EV.

Jiang Gaoming, his two graduate students, the farm manager, Harris Tiddens, Gao Yuan, a graduate student in the philosophy of science at Beijing Normal University, and I sat on a round wooden table for dinner. Five bowls included delicious vegetables, noodles, and rice. Each of us had two wooden chopsticks for taking food from the bowls. In addition, Jiang Gaoming kept filling our tiny glasses with a drink from sorghum and sweet wine.

This memorable symposium led to extensive talk. I listened to him describing his work and marveled at the breadth of interest and deep knowledge he possesses. He is a professor of plant ecological physiology. In other words, he is inventing the natural history of plants that make life possible. Ecology is his mission. He and his graduate students are paving the path for China to enter the scientific and political realms of ecological civilization.

The next half a day Gaoming gave us a tour of the various strips of land where he and his graduate students are testing plants. His German shepherd dog, Tiger, followed us everywhere. We even went to the center of his village where a small store holds his books for sale.

I departed China with the botany professor in mind.

Talk about ecological civilization is sweet. No one knows what ecological civilization was, is or if it is possible among humans. But we know traditional Greek and Chinese wisdom and institutions are the closest possible models of ecological civilization.

Yet it’s great to have gigantic dreams of one day converting semi-barbarian humans hooked on petroleum and pollution to caring for the Earth like ancient Greeks and ancient Chinese did.

It’s never too late, except basic questions for survival must be resolved in the next ten years. In November 5, 2019, in the journal BioScience, 11,000 scientists from 150 countries issued a warning to the leaders of the world:

“Despite 40 years of global climate negotiations, with few exceptions, we have generally conducted business as usual and have largely failed to address this predicament… The climate crisis has arrived and is accelerating faster than most scientists expected… It is more severe than anticipated, threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity… Especially worrisome are potential irreversible climate tipping points and nature’s reinforcing feedbacks (atmospheric, marine, and terrestrial) that could lead to a catastrophic “hothouse Earth,” well beyond the control of humans… These climate chain reactions could cause significant disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies, potentially making large areas of Earth uninhabitable.”

President Xi Jinping would do well to heed the advice of these scientists and dramatically cut China’s gigantic carbon emissions. Start the conversation with our hospitable, friendly, and ingenious professor Jiang Gaoming. He is growing a new species of ecological civilization.

More articles by:

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.

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