- Toward an Ecological CivilizationPerspectives from Daoism
A major task of both scholars and party-members has been framing the ecological civilization agenda in the context of Classical Chinese thought. However, most efforts deploy a syncretic vision of Chinese traditions, avoiding any close readings of particular texts or traditions. This paper is a response to this void in the literature, reading the Daoist canon through the lens of ecological civilization.
The concept of "ecological civilization" (shengtai wenming 生态文明) provides a vision of the future promoting a form of human flourishing that is fundamentally intertwined with the well-being of the planet Earth and its systems. Although this phraseology has a global reach, it has gained the most traction in China (Cobb and Vltchek 2019). Its rapid ascent as a dominant philosophical and political paradigm is contextual both to China's ideological heritage and current needs. Given the unfettered ecological degradation that occurred there over the past thirty years, a major change in both thinking and action was needed. Ecological civilization provides a new modality that facilitates a continuity of progress in the lineage of Chinese Civilization (Hansen and Liu 2017, 323). It also simultaneously offers an alternative to a GDP-oriented understanding of productivity that has dominated Chinese policy since the Deng Xiaoping era (Wang 2019).
In their article on the subject. Martin Schönfeld and Xia Chen note, "Daoism is often described in philosophy as the greenest of all schools of wisdom" (2019, 1). They counter, however, that the resonance of Daoism [End Page 221] with ecological civilization is much deeper than superficial "green" prose and submit that its metaphysics are ideally postured to implement the radical paradigm shifts necessary to respond to the current ecological crisis (Schönfeld and Chen 2019, 14).
This paper picks up where Schönfeld and Chen left off. By conducting a close reading of the Daode jing and Zhuangzi through the lens of ecological civilization, it hopes to elucidate valuable insights to the modern movement. Also, reading the ancient texts through this lens, new light is shed on the original motivations of Laozi and Zhuangzi. The idea of ecological civilization emerges not only as a necessary project in modernity, but also as a vision for life on Earth that has been present for millennia.
The term goes back to 1985, when a Chinese journal translated and published a Russian environmental article (Goron 2018, 41). The following two decades saw only sporadic use, without any unified voice. At the 17th Communist Party Congress in 2007, the term first became a specific ideological concept (Shuai 2018, 1-2). It quickly gained political momentum and in 2012 was adopted into the Chinese Communist Party's constitution (Gare 2017, 136). By 2018, it was ratified in the Constitution of People's Republic (Goron 2018, 41).
As significant as this idea has become in China, however, as Mette Hansen notes, ecological civilization "may still sound obscure to readers unfamiliar with Chinese political discourse and civilization campaigns" (2018, 195). Coraline Goron, however, asserts that "the concept has received increasing attention, especially since the Trump administration pulled the United States out of global environmental governance" (2018, 39). Therefore, as ecological civilization becomes a dominant paradigm of sustainable development globally, it is invaluable to know what is meant by the phrase—as well as its political and philosophical baggage.
In China, the notion emerged from two distinct needs (Douglas 2008). First, the country faced an unprecedented ecological crisis. Industrial environmental degradation created a public-health crisis threatening the legitimacy of the CPC (Hansen and Liu 2017). It was necessary to mitigate the negative impacts of unfettered industrialization, necessitating [End Page 222] a radical transformation of development models and governance. The CPC realized that it needed to shift away from their former rubrics of success (primarily GDP) toward a new assessment tool, one that incorporates environmental integrity (Rapoza 2013). Beginning in 2008, it implemented robust environmental legislation, facilitated a vibrant environmental NGO community, opened an eco-centric judiciary, and began a propaganda campaign to promote a new environmental focus. A key term to describe this agenda was ecological civilization.
Second, and closely related, the CPC...