The state of China’s environmental health, specifically air quality, continues to be a hot topic throughout China and the world. Public concern has sparked huge debate, particularly with the release of the documentary Under the Dome. Additionally, the National People’s Congress (NPC) has put pollution at the very forefront of its agenda. As environmental concerns grow worldwide, revisiting Confucian texts and commentaries from an environmental perspective could help enlighten modern society in facing this challenging issue.
Confucian philosophy holds that there is basic order in the universe and a natural harmony linking human kind and the moral universe known as tian or Heaven. This moral universe includes humankind’s relationship with Earth. Earth can be understood as the source of economy and nourishment, as well as our environmental heritage. Scholars of Confucius may pinpoint the environmental problem to a lack of balance between Earth’s sustainable development and the quest for profit at all costs.
Sam Crane, a professor of Chinese Politics and ancient Chinese philosophy at Williams College, points out in his article titled “Green Confucius” that, “Profit has infected the relationship of man and environment and, ultimately, has undermined the ability of many Chinese people to protect their social relationships (think of all of the health problems that have harmed families as a result of pollution).”
Self-awareness with regard to the balance of relationships must be created across a wide spectrum in 21st century life, this includes not only with people and societies, but relationships with the environmental resource base as well.
In an article titled Confucian Ethics and the Environment, scholar Li Tianchen uses ancient Chinese sources to attribute “ecological and environmental protection as a matter of concern to the national economy and people’s livelihood.” He draws attention to the following quote by Xunzi, an ancient Confucian philosopher who emphasises human responsibility towards nature:
“Respond to it with peace and order, and good fortune will result. Respond to it with disorder, and disaster will follow. If the foundations of living (i.e., agriculture and sericulture) are strengthened and are economically used, then Nature cannot bring impoverishment…But if the foundations of living are neglected and used extravagantly, then Nature cannot make the country rich.”
The loss of Confucian wisdom has led to an environmentally regressive trend in which the xiaoren – the Confucian term for a petty-minded self-seeking individual – reigns supreme. The people, corporations and systems that put profits ahead of other considerations may be contrasted to the junzi, the morally noble person. The junzi is viewed by Confucius as the role model who upholds a nurturing relationship between nature and humanity.
Deputy Minister of the Environmental Protection Ministry Pan Yue once said that “the core of traditional Chinese culture, both Confucianism and Taoism, is harmony between Man and nature and it should be revived as a way to tackle today’s environmental problems.”
Could going back to Confucian insights help ignite a new sense of environmental awareness and ultimately lead to a rise above the dome?
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