Back in a rather smoggy Chengdu I find it easier to describe the environmental problems that China faces than it is to propose solutions but perhaps that is the nature of my calling. Coming from a scientific background, I tend to think primarily in terms of technological ‘fixes’. I help to define ecological and chemical targets in order that a motley band of regulators and engineers can restore a lake or river to good ecological status. But these targets, as is the case with most legislation, really define the lower limits of acceptable behaviour, setting a threshold for the point at which the state should intervene to limit bad behaviour. Achieving ecological targets does not, necessarily, equate to morally good behaviour.
This brings to mind a quotation from the US environmental lawyer Gus Speth: ‘I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy … to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation – and we scientists don’t know how to do that.’
The only part of that statement with which I disagree is the need for 30 years of good science. In the case of aquatic ecosystem health, I think we already know what needs to be done in broad terms. Reconciling the investment required with the ‘willingness to pay’ is as big a challenge in China just as much as in Europe. Willingness to pay recognises that environmental improvements come with an ‘opportunity cost’ – a pleasure that has to be foregone. And by focussing attention on selfishness, greed and apathy, Gus Speth is spot on, for China just as for the West.
The irony of the situation in China is that two of its most prominent religions – Buddhism and Daoism – have a philosophy that should, in theory, provide a justification for a less materialistic lifestyle but which, somehow, exist in an uneasy equilibrium with modern China’s capitalism. This is amply summed up by the photograph at the top of this post: showing the Daci Bhuddhist temple close to the centre of Chengdu overlooked by the gleaming skyscrapers that encapsulate modern Chinese capitalism. The monks and continue their devotions just a few metres from an upmarket shopping mall that has been built around this temple complex, complete with Western brands such as Gucci, Dior, Louis Vuitton and Cartier (see “Reflections from the banks of the Yangtze” for another of these paradoxes).
The shrine to Guanyin, goddess of mercy and compassion, at the Yuántōng Temple in Kūnmíng.
It maybe that we in the West see Buddhism, in particular, through rose-tinted spectacles. The reality is that most Chinese are only nominally Buddhist (often with a seasoning of Daoism and Confucianism too) rather than strict in their adherence. Somehow, these eastern religions co-exist with materialism, just as Christianity does in the West. The infrastructure of all religions depends upon individuals producing more than they need for basic sustenance and being prepared to donate part of the surplus as ‘alms’ or ‘tithes’ in return for the benefits that the religion confers. This is exemplified by the prominent shrines to Guanyin, the goddess of compassion and mercy (roughly equivalent to the Virgin Mary in Catholicism) and a mediator between worshippers and the divine. The temple becomes a focus for transactions, rather than for reflection and transformation. In this way, Buddhism can be one more part of a system that indirectly encourages wants and desires even if the religion, in theory, is about transcending these.
I would encourage you to read Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, for an inspirational look at how modern economic theory has resulted in an unsustainable situation. She also proposes solutions yet, for these to work, each of us will have to accept that creating a sustainable world will carry a considerable opportunity cost. That will mean an adjustment in expectations, and a need to find a source of contentment that is independent of materialism. The environment, to be blunt, cannot be considered without also thinking about economics. At the same time, radical thinking about economics will need to be accompanied by a deeper shift in behaviour and attitudes if it is to succeed. That pushes us to the very edges of rationalism, and into the realms of mysticism.
And, yes, this whole post was written in China so I have to admit to an element of hypocrisy if I am to write about a more sustainable world whilst still indulging in long-distance air travel. More about that in a future post.
Pagodas at the Chongsheng temple complex at Dàlī, with Ērhāi Hú in the background.
The Chongsheng temple complex at Dàlī, against the backdrop of the Cāng Shān mountains.