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December 18, 2012
China Environmental Experiences #8: Environmental Protection as an Act of Cultural Change
This essay, the last in my series about the environmental experiences of an environmental law professor in China, concludes my three-part discussion about how different underlying environmental philosophies held by American and Chinese people can lead to different approaches in environmental governance. The first part addressed differences in the human relationship to nature, and the second addressed differing approaches to conservation, stewardship, and scarcity. This essay concludes with parting thoughts about the philosophical roots of some of these differences, the Cultural Revolution and the processes of cultural change, and the significance of all this for environmental protection in China. (For the full series background, see the introductory post, reflections on China and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, an account of air quality issues in China, an exploration of water quality issues, and a review of Chinese food and consumer product safety.)
I began the previous two essays about environmental philosophy by acknowledging the delicacy of exploring the underlying cultural differences that correspond to some of the environmental experiences I’ve written about in this forum. I noted how exquisitely careful one must be in discussing cultural differences, given the inherent shortfalls of any individual’s limited perspective and experience. And before plunging once more into that fraught territory (and with apologies for the repetition), I’ll once more share the important qualification that:
My observations are inevitably, hopelessly entangled with my own cultural vantage point. My Fulbright year did not make me an expert on the inner world of Chinese culture—nor, frankly, did my earlier Harvard degree in Chinese language, culture, and history. My observations qualify as neither empirical scholarship nor serious ethnography, based as they are on casual research, personal experiences, anecdotes, and generalizations. But in hope that they may be useful in illuminating the philosophical roots of some gaps between Chinese and U.S. approaches to environmental governance, I share them here.
In the prior two essays, I discussed how diverging Chinese and American environmental perspectives may be informed by different baselines in our cultural relationships with the natural world, and expressed through our different approaches to managing conservation, stewardship, and scarcity. This final piece, the most fraught and likely flawed of the three, considers the relationship between the Chinese approach and the Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian ideals that undergird Chinese culture. It engages issues of gender roles, environmental protection, and cultural change in both China and the United States (with a shout-out to Vietnam).
But first, a brief note about the cultural baggage that I bring to the project. Long before this seemed prudent to the average American college student, I majored in Chinese language, culture, and politics as an undergraduate in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I had started out as a philosophy major but switched departments in order to study Eastern traditions that were not part of the standard Western philosophy curriculum. I locked myself in the language lab to catch up on my Mandarin so that I could graduate on time, but it was worth it to peer into the incredible story of this unfamiliar nation. I was riveted by the breadth of Chinese history, the expanse of Chinese philosophical traditions, and the cultural foundations—so contrasting my own—that enabled modern societal movements like the Cultural Revolution and One Child Policy. I was curious about Confucianism and Buddhism and especially enchanted with the Naturalist School of Taoism, in which I saw an emphasis on harmony between the human and natural worlds that resonated with my own personal sensibilities. From Taoism originates the philosophy conception of Yin and Yang (literally, “the shadow and the light”), emphasizing the surprising but inevitable ways that seemingly opposing forces are interdependent and interconnected within the world, suspended in an organic embrace of balance.
So I was very excited when the Fulbright program and Chinese Ministry of Education placed me in Shandong province, the historic home not only of Confucius but also to many renowned Taoist temples among the enchanting Laoshan mountains. I knew that China faced daunting environmental challenges, but in some subconscious way, I hoped that home-grown Taoist principles would provide cultural support for resolving them. But the Taoism I found in China held little in common with the stylized, “Tao-of-Pooh” version that I studied in college. The Taoist temples that I visited appeared to emphasize faithful worship of colorful immortals over personal adherence to the Way (or “Tao”) of simple joy and interconnected balance. On the surface, they seemed very similar to Buddhist temples, which I had expected to differentiate a contrasting path of detachment to avoid suffering within cycles of rebirth.
Fully recognizing the interpretive limitations of my tourist perspective, I asked the students accompanying me to help me understand the differences between Taoism and Buddhism from their own vantage points, but I found that they were generally unable to articulate much about either tradition—nor were they terribly interested in doing so. What they did describe was wholly unrelated to my own schooling, focusing on important historical moments rather than underlying ideas. Granted, I’m sure I would have had a very different experiences talking with the actual Taoist or Buddhist monks in those temples, and I suspect that many echoes of these traditions continue to reverberate through Chinese culture in ways that neither I nor my students fully appreciate. (I’m also sure that the sterilized versions I learned at Harvard never accurately reflected the full reality of Chinese experience.) Either way, I discovered that the majority of mainland Chinese don’t pay all that much attention to these ancient traditions these days—many seeing them as quaint at best, and culturally backward at worst.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, given how strongly (and often violently) ancient Chinese philosophies were discouraged during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. In that second Chinese revolution, Chairman Mao set out to eradicate the traditional belief systems that he warned were holding the Chinese people back--and also, most likely, to consolidate his own weakening political power. Women were liberated from centuries of repression and peasants at the bottom of the social order were exalted, but teachers were pilloried, libraries destroyed, and many monks and scholars persecuted to their deaths. (Horrifying estimates suggest that somewhere between one and twenty million people were killed during the decade-long struggle.) Four decades later, it was fascinating to see how the Cultural Revolution had succeeded in some of its ideological objectives, especially in eroding the overt roles that Taoism and Buddhism play in the philosophical world of most mainland Chinese. For what it’s worth, though, the same routing of “old thinking” has also succeeded in fundamentally changing the status of women in society. While women are hardly co-equal with men in modern China, their position in society has improved immeasurably since 1949, thanks in part to the relentless urging of the early communist party that “women hold up half the sky.”
This example of purposeful cultural change yields an especially fascinating comparison with Vietnam, a neighboring socialist republic that is also the result of a political revolution, but this one uncoupled from a cultural revolution of the sort that rocked China. In Vietnam, the rhetoric of the new political order stands on seemingly equal footing with ancient cultural and philosophical traditions. Nearly every home, hotel, or restaurant that I visited included a little shrine, honoring a mix of immortals, ancestors, and other objects of traditional worship— unselfconsciously adjacent to political propaganda signs honoring heroes of the revolution or touting contemporary political objectives and loyalty. The richness of traditional Vietnamese culture continues to suffuse people’s everyday lives, in contrast to modern China, where cultural traditions flourish around holidays but seem less entrenched at other times. (Indeed, several Chinese privately lamented to me that the nation had lost its ethical moorings after the decimation of the Cultural Revolution, perhaps explaining the hunger for spiritual entrepreneur movements like Falun Gong—which revives some elements of Buddhism and Taoism—and Christianity.)
Yet in Vietnam, I also observed the inevitable flip-side of entrenched ancient traditions—a literal expression of the Yin and the Yang—epitomized by the plight of a remarkable woman I met while guest lecturing there, whom I’ll call Linh. Linh is a twenty-something, overseas-educated, up-and-coming young professional with a plumb job working for the government who nevertheless fretted about her future, especially regarding marriage. She feared getting married because, according to traditions once universal in China and still prevalent in northern Vietnam, marriage would require her to leave her family home and become a member of her husband’s family household, where she expected ill-treatment from her parents-in-law.
She had a vivid picture of what that treatment might look like based on the experiences of her own sister-in-law, who lived together with her, her brother, their toddler, and Linh’s parents in her father’s home. The sister-in-law had been unable to see her own family since the birth of her son, because Linh’s father had forbidden her from taking the child away from the family home for the two hour journey to her village.
Linh summoned the courage to tell her father that he should be nicer to his daughter-in-law and allow her to see her parents. After all, she reminded him, one day she would be someone’s daughter-in-law wanting to see him. But he did not take well to being scolded by his daughter, and nothing changed as a result. Linh seems resigned that she will someday have to get married, but she does not look forward to that day.
It broke my heart to hear—in 2012!—this age-old story of fear and sorrow from a well-educated professional woman at the pinnacle of Vietnamese society. Aside from the foreign education and government job, her story is reminiscent of countless Chinese women over the thousands of years that young brides were forced to leave their parents’ households for their husbands’, often to be persecuted by an unhappy mother-in-law once forced to leave her own family. I recall learning in college that the suicide rate among young Chinese women during this time was estimated to be the highest of any social group anywhere on earth at any time in human history, evidencing the misery that so many endured. (Sadly, recent studies show that this trend continues in rural China, where traditional family structures remain entrenched.) Fortunately, that time is long gone in the urbanizing parts of China that I visited, and the situation is much improved in Vietnam as well, given the social and economic power that comes to women like Linh from working outside the home. So at least some of the “old thinking” extinguished by the Chinese Revolution should not be missed—even if many of the methods can never be condoned.
Yet not every aspect of traditional Chinese culture was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Notwithstanding the dismantling of so many foundations, one critical cornerstone of traditional Chinese culture survived relatively intact: Confucianism. Founded on the teachings of the ancient philosopher Confucius, the philosophy of Confucianism continues to provide a strong ethic of righteous living and rules of conduct in relationships that redounds throughout Chinese culture. As a humanist delineator of right and wrong behavior, it focuses on the cultivation of personal virtue, respect for authority, and deference to proper roles within the community. Among its principles, Confucianism emphasizes the importance of education, reverence for the ancestors, and the critical responsibilities of individuals within clearly articulated social hierarchies.
Confucian ethics are among the proudest cultural traditions of China, and they form the backbone of many other Asian cultures, from Vietnam to Japan to Korea. They infuse the flavor and texture of Chinese society, gracing it with respectful behavior, deep regard for the wisdom of elders, and societal support for teachers and education more generally. It also emphasizes the proper role of individuals given their particular role within the social order. Children should obey parents, wives should obey husbands, and husbands should obey local leaders, who should, in turn, obey national leaders. This system of ordered relationships has provided needed social stability during times of great political upheaval, reaching back over thousands of years of territorial conquest and dynastic change that might have otherwise torn Chinese culture apart.
So even after the Cultural Revolution successfully eradicated the already weakening traditions of Taoism and Buddhism from the Chinese popular consciousness, the Confucian bedrock of Chinese society continues to thrive—probably because the current political system is itself so well-aligned with Confucian principles. The success of the Chinese Communist Party is inextricably intertwined with broad-based Confucian respect for the wisdom of national leadership, deference to authority, and Confucian-cultivated obedience within an explicit societal hierarchy. Of course, in reinforcing these strict social hierarchies, Confucianism has also facilitated the long stability of arguably oppressive traditions like the practice of female foot-binding (eradicated by the mid-20th century), and the gender roles that continue to haunt women like Linh throughout Asia. The Yin and the Yang.
How, then, does all this relate to environmental governance? Possibly profoundly. Even as the great tradition of Confucianism exhorts right behavior within the social order (and even setting aside the most contested areas of that social order), I cannot help but wonder about the relationship between Confucian principles and environmental ethics. As I discussed in the previous essay, I found a less entrenched cultural tradition of environmental stewardship in China than I have seen in equally crowded nations, and I wondered why. For example, I remarked on the striking way that most Chinese seem to differentiate between the care they take of the environment inside their own homes and the care they take of the environment beyond their front doors:
“Inside the home, Chinese people take immaculate care to maintain cleanliness and beauty. Shoes are often left at the front door. Walls and shelves are adorned with enchanting art and objects reflecting the majestic culmination of thousands of years of traditional Chinese culture…. But outside that front door, the duty of care appears to end. Common doors, hallways, and stairwells in Chinese apartment buildings receive little attention from residents; empty walls are often cracked with peeling paint and crumbling cement in seemingly abandoned hallways that open surprisingly into those beautifully maintained dwellings once you cross the inner threshold. This may reflect other collective action problems relating to commonly-owned property, but it also reflects a widespread sense that what happens beyond the inner threshold is someone else’s responsibility.
“Crossing the outer threshold onto the street reveals an even more dramatic difference… Littering is a human cultural problem throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world, demonstrated by American smokers who continue to discard cigarette butts indiscriminately, long since cultural tolerance for this waned after the 1970s environmental movement. But in China, cultural permission to discard waste in public places extends beyond water bottles and cigarette butts, complicating the environmentalist message... [discussing the tradition of allowing children to toilet-train on public streets and sidewalks]. With so much Chinese ground thus anointed, the outside environment is generally (and correctly) viewed as a terribly unclean place….
“Here’s the thing. If you see the world outside your own home as a legitimate place to offload waste… how can this not extend to greater environmental management? If it’s culturally permissible to drop litter (and worse) on the street or the beach, why wouldn’t it be okay to release manufacturing waste into the river, or pipe it into the air? The potential implications for environmental law are obvious. Because it’s not just an economic challenge for the government to convince industrialists not to pollute; in some important way, it’s also a cultural challenge. Professional polluters aren’t just doing it because it’s cheaper than the alternative. They are doing it because—at some level—it’s what they have always done, and without moral misgivings.”
Indeed, in China, moral misgivings are more likely to come from the violation of Confucian ethics than the violation of relatively new, state-mandated environmental laws. And herein lies the great challenge for Chinese environmental law.
Confucianism teaches the maintenance of social order through right behavior within strictly nested social hierarchies. Chinese culture is permeated with Confucian ethics, which teach people to focus on their own sphere of responsibility and act obediently toward the sphere above them. These ethics reinforce the power of the very political system now earnestly trying to generate meaningful environmental laws and nurture the “Recycling Economy” that I discussed in the previous essay. But in teaching people to focus on their own sphere and not beyond, is it possible that these same ethics unwittingly support an underlying environmental tendency to think, perhaps, a little too locally and not enough globally? Could Confucian ethics unintentionally encourage a duty of care that extends only to the corner of the world under one’s direct control—the inside of one’s home—leaving responsibility for the rest to others? Could this help explain the comparatively weak tradition of environmental stewardship in China?
It certainly can’t be the only explanation, given the confluence of Confucian ethics and strong environmental stewardship traditions in neighboring Japan, another Asian nation founded on deeply Confucian traditions, coupled with a Shintoist reverence for nature. Still, I can’t help but wonder whether there is some explanation lurking here to account for the remarkable way that the Chinese duty of care for the environment seems to coincide with Confucian circles of agency, responsibility, and authority. Americans sport buttons and bumper stickers exalting us to “think globally, act locally.” But most Chinese people seem to orient both their thinking and acting within the bounds of their most powerful culturally designated sphere of responsibility: the family home.
Confucian ideals remain steadfast in China, but cultural change is imminent—and on the rise, thanks to both top-down and bottom-up sources. Operating through the Internet from the bottom up, a thriving economy of Chinese social media has dislodged young people from the strictly local sphere as they build communities of interest across the country (although not the world, thanks to the “Great Firewall” that blocks domestic access to social networks abroad). And as I discussed in the previous essay, the Chinese government is working hard from the top-down—hopefully harnessing citizens’ Confucian respect for leadership—to inseminate a “Recycling Economy” within the new social order. The Recycling or “Circular Economy” sustainability campaign exhorts citizens to see the relationship between their every-day behaviors and the health of the overall environment beyond their front doors, and to connect the health of the environment to overall human well-being.
But there is no way around it: the environmental project in China is going to take an act of cultural change. The Cultural Revolution represents one way of successfully implementing cultural change, but nobody inside or outside China would advocate the tragic human and cultural violence of that method today. Instead, this is the time for a gentler variety or ideological entrepreneurship—best accomplished through the old-fashioned tools of community-based education and consciousness raising and the new-fangled platforms of mass and online social media.
Facebook and Weibo aside, it’s the same kind of cultural change that made recycling ideals an every-day part of American life. I still remember when curbside recycling began in my childhood neighborhood and we were asked, for the first time, to rinse cans and bottles before putting them out for street-side collection in big blue bins. My incensed father simply could not get past the idea that he was being asked to “wash garbage” (and then to pollute his pretty neighborhood with ugly blue bins). “But it’s not garbage,” my sister and I insisted—“it’s recycling!” And the blue bins weren’t ugly to us, because we found beauty in the good they would do for our environment (similar to the philosophically-driven aesthetic I find in many of today’s modern wind farms). This is what we had learned in school, though obviously not at home, and our family demonstrates the way that cultural learning can move through the generations backwards as well as forwards. My father, now in his seventies, today dutifully washes the recycling and my mother maintains separate receptacles for paper, plastic, glass and aluminum, and trash. This is what cultural change looks like.
Cultural change should come from within, not without, goes the very wise wisdom. The good news is that the “Recycling Economy” and other efforts to increase public sustainability awareness show that Chinese leaders are taking steps toward environmental progress, and a series of unprecedented public protests over pollution show that the Chinese public is also beginning to engage serious environmental issues. Just as China takes on issues of conservation and stewardship, so should Americans better grapple with our issues of overconsumption and waste. Indeed, all human beings must learn to live more sustainably, but the world’s two largest economies bear special responsibility. All of us must take care not only of our homes, but the hallways, streets, creeks, lakes, rivers, oceans, atmosphere, and biosphere that make up our shared environmental home. And as we move forward together through separate acts of philosophical growth, economic development, and cultural change—it just might help us to understand a little bit about exactly where each of us is coming from.
Which, in the end, has been the ultimate purpose of this series of essays. Now that I am back in the U.S. and reintegrating into the strange traditions of my own culture, I conclude the year-long series with the sincere hope that they have contributed helpfully in some small way to our ongoing cultural dialog, conducted in hundreds of thousands of individual points of contact every day. Indeed, U.S.-China relations have never been more important than they are right now, for both nations—and because of the collective environmental, economic, and political impacts beyond our own borders, to all the peoples of the world. Together, with a little patience, humility, humor, and mutual respect, we can all continue building that bridge toward a brighter future, brick by individual brick.
After all, it was the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu—the founder of Taoism—who intoned around 500 B.C. that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” What do you think would happen if all 1.8 billion Chinese and Americans took that single step at the same time?
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