As far as I can remember I felt good in nature. My earliest summer holiday memories are of hiking in the Alps immersed in the sights, colours, sounds, textures and scents of nature. There was the magic of deep blue gentians, pink mountain rhododendrons, butterflies and grasshoppers, creatures going about their lives quite independently of us people. During the term, there were after school walks in London’s Richmond Park, now a nature reserve, where deer herds roamed and frog spawn appeared in ponds in spring. Even my native Switzerland’s national anthem is about the splendours of nature, so it was quite normal for me to be a nature lover.
As I grew up, I found out that all was not well for nature. In the mountains and around where we lived there was habitat loss; and environmental science taught me the chemistry of air and water pollution. Nowadays, we keep up to date with the Internet, and the news continues to be mostly sad. Deforestation, ocean plastic pollution, whales colliding with container ships, yet another animal or plant species going extinct, everywhere, it seems, civilisation is at war with nature.
So what a surprise when an Internet search brought up an intriguing phrase juxtaposing the word “ecological” to “civilisation”. Ecological civilisation? And it was all very official. In a statement to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), a Chinese spokesperson announced to the world that ecological civilisation was China’s new national strategy, that the view of man as conqueror of nature was outdated and that the new approach to modernization would be to strive to live in harmony with nature.
A further web search directed me to a course on this subject, “Transitioning to an Ecological Civilization: Dialogues East and West” organised by Schumacher College, UK and the Institute of Rural Reconstruction, Southwest University, China. Should I go as far as China to take this course? I hesitated. My family and friends encouraged me to go. So a few weeks later I was landing at Beijing Airport and joining the course group with nine Chinese and four other Westerners.
During the first part of the course we visited rural cooperatives in the Beijing region. Whatever the type of civilisation, food is an essential need. How would it be produced in an ecological civilisation? The places we saw are answering this question hands-on. Part of a rural reconstruction network, these agricultural coops essentially provide a livelihood to the members who run them, deliver the food they grow to their urban members, sharing risks and benefits with them like in Western vegetable box schemes.
The coop members come from varied backgrounds. There are older farmers who have stayed on the land. For instance, Shared Harvest Farm, a coop we visited was created through a partnership with one. The “new farmers” include jobless migrant factory workers, younger people who want to return to their home place and retired government employees who can rely on their pension for income. Some new farmers come from the educated, environmentally-aware urban middle class. They are concerned about the quality of their food and surroundings, but also about rising social disparities.
Besides agriculture, these coops are engaged in a variety of activities. Little Donkey Farm, one of China’s first experiments with community supported agriculture, organises organic agriculture demonstrations, rents out gardening plots to urban dwellers as well as office space—one of our course colleagues, an eco-architect, had her office there. Phoenix Commune has a guesthouse that we stayed at and conference rooms. Like the other coops it has a cafeteria that serves food produced onsite.
The rural reconstruction movement advocates living a simple life and building a relationship to the Earth. The Liang Shuming Rural Reconstruction Centre, the largest coop we visited which covers several traditional villages, has a song that summarizes this way of life: “We safeguard this piece of land/We are surrounded by mountains/Four seasons/Sing and share our emotions/Born and living in this place/Happy because we are satisfied/When we die we return to the soil”. The centre has services for elders who in turn contribute by teaching traditional skills to the younger generations and produce arts and crafts. One-year programmes are offered to graduates who can stay in a village to learn farming skills. In summer, there are camps for children. People can also get training to set up their own cooperative. On a very down-to-earth level, the coops demonstrate how to save water. Each of us had to wash our own plate and chopsticks after meals, using a nontoxic cleaning product so the water could be used for watering. There were dry toilets, a septic tank and plants to purify sewage water.
The second part of the course focussed on the inner aspects of transitioning to an ecological civilisation. The philosophers of the ecological civilisation have turned for inspiration to the modern scientific worldview of a universe in which everything is interrelated—it has replaced the 18th century clockwork universe—and to the traditional spiritualities of China, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. For instance in Taoism, people should consider their link not only to other people and society, but also to the Heaven and the Earth, which comprises nature, landscapes and wildlife.
We travelled 21h by train to reach the birthplace of Taoism in the western province of Sichuan. On the way, we witnessed the current construction boom as tall buildings sprout from the agricultural plain, in stark contrast to the vision of an ecological civilisation. We got off the train at Chengdu, China’s “Silicon Valley” and the province capital.
Fifty kilometres from Chengdu, we visited the Dujiangyan Irrigation System, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition to the ancient hydraulic engineering structure, there is a large shrine complex on the river bank in honour of its creators. Originally built around 260 BC and still in use today to protect from flooding while keeping the fields supplied with water, it has made Sichuan one of the most productive agricultural regions of China. Unlike contemporary dams that block the water with a wall, the Dujiangyan channels and divides the water, letting fish and other creatures swim through in an illustration of the Taoist approach to the human-nature relationship.
Our lecturer and guide, a local person, shared her personal experience of the site. She was at primary school when she placed a small stone for the first time during the yearly maintenance of the dam in which the whole population participated. This created a feeling of belonging and connection so that people would want to take care of the place. The river’s annual cycle is marked by three festivals that remind people of their spiritual bond to the river that nourishes them, their crops and animals. Our lecturer concluded that we are too yang, too external, we have too many things, too many tools, and she recommended that we become more humble and less wasteful again.
The concept of Ecological Civilisation or shēngtài wénmíng brings hope that we may still find a way to live a pleasant life in harmony with nature. There is no consensus in China about exactly what an ecological civilisation would look like because transitioning in this direction is an adaptive process, like natural processes or like the ancient Tao.