PAN JIAHUA:Building a beautiful China by listening to nature

By Pan Jiahua / 08-01-2013 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)



Pan Jiahua

Director of the Institute for Urban and Environmental Studies,

Chinese Academy of Social Sciences


To build a beautiful China, we must follow the ideas and principles of “ecological civilization”. In the new era, we possess astonishing production capacities and vast technologies of industrial society. It is also one that has been fortified by its accumulated knowledge and understanding of the natural world. Nature is no longer a mysterious expanse which defies and beleaguers the analytic eye of humankind. However, by no means does our intellectual mastery over nature give us carte blanche to disrespect it. If we are to regard respecting nature as an ethical obligation, then it follows that our normative model for human behavior should be one which is in synchronicity with nature. To go against the laws of nature is undoubtedly to disrespect nature; to violate nature’s law of conserving itself is eventually and inevitably to destroy nature.


“Environmental capacity” is ultimately determined (and confined by) what we call nature’s “carrying capacity”. China’s territory is vast; the climate varies in different regions, and discrepancies in the environmental capacity of different regions are evident. This has even shaped the corresponding socio-economic patterns within China’s different regions. In Western China, low environmental capacity and straggling natural production preclude large-scale urbanization and industrialization. The environmental capacity in Eastern China is on the order of ten or even one hundred times that of Western China. Sticking in the bounds of what nature makes readily possible, it would be unwise, to transfer resource-intensive manufacturing industries to the ecologically vulnerable areas in the Western region solely for the purpose of balancing regional development without first evaluating environmental carrying capacity. Efforts to transcend the limits nature prescribes, like urbanization and artificial greening, both waste the financial resources and deteriorate the natural environment.


The role of technology envisioned in industrial society is not wholly in accordance with the requirements of ecological civilization. The ethos of ecological civilization is that human life should conform to and respect the laws of nature. The technological requirements of ecological civilization abide by this ethos. For instance, there is a limit to the extent to which we are able to improve energy efficiency, even for renewable energy. Let’s take solar thermal and photovoltaic energy as an example: the total amount of solar radiation which reaches the earth’s surface is fixed and finite, but still, we can improve the efficiency of how we utilize that radiation through technological innovation. Looking forward, this means some aspects of technology which ecological civilization inherits from industrial society are already compatible with the ethos of ecological civilization, while some still require innovation and improvement under the guidance of this ethos. A “beautiful China” will not be achieved by building upon, harnessing or excavating  every last inch of natural territory, but by sparing some of nature’s bounty—some for other creatures that walk the earth, and some for posterity—to share and enjoy.


Given the economic and technological conditions of the present day, the key to its achievement is to develop the economy and better the environment within the confines of nature’s environmental capacity. In areas where the level and intensity of socio-economic activity has already exceeded the environmental carrying capacity, we need to employ a three-pronged approach to reign in undue pressures on the environment and scale back to a level of human impact within the environmental carrying capacity.  


First, we need to reduce the intensity of socioeconomic activity to reasonable levels. Direct measures such reforestation of farmland and reduction of livestock grazing acreage are indubitably the most efficacious, but likely the most prone to facing restriction and obstruction as well. Secondly, we need to redouble our efforts in upgrading technological capabilities and improving system design. By using resources more efficiently, we can, stated quite simply, double output per input. For example, by cultivating drought-tolerant plant species for agriculture in arid areas or increasing the yield per unit area of arable land in such a way that does not increase the strain on the environment (perhaps even in a manner that reduces the strain), we can increase our output to the point where we are able to meet society’s demands. Thirdly, we need to allow nature more space for self-restoration. It has been overloaded and severely denigrated by long-term urbanization and industrialization and continuous exploitation and destruction of the environment. Protecting nature necessitates following its ways; we cannot stoop to some quick-fix which creates the illusion of restoring nature while actually transgressing its laws. In water-scarce areas for instance, maintaining a water-consuming front lawn is not the correct solution to beautify the environment. Similarly, planting trees in arid areas, actively trying to convert habitat that may only be able to support grassland to forest, will actually destroy the environment.   


To build a beautiful China, we must reconcile the image for which we strive with the beauty manifest in and by nature—this is the aesthetic which is most authentic and most sustainable. Constructing artificial lakes in the city-centers of many cities located in arid areas with the intent of so-called “beautification of the environment” is not only costly, but also a waste of valuable water resources and altogether at odds with the surrounding ecosystem. In many locations, huge squares have been erected and super-wide streets have been paved without any consideration to the loss to nature’s environmental capacity or the corruption of nature’s beauty. We need to be aware that large-scale artificial construction is irreversible; once the earth’s surface has been adulterated and molded to human design; it takes several hundred years for it to recover its natural capacity.


Nature is an indispensible part of a society’s material wealth. Manmade assets are no substitute for natural capital. Only by following nature’s tune—listening to its rhythm and synchronizing the patterns of our lifestyles with its meter—will we meet the preconditions and establish the foundation for constructing a beautiful China. Conforming to the nature is not only a question of China’s sustainable development, but also a question of global ecological security. A sustainable and harmonious world requires a beautiful China.


Translated by Feng Daimei

Revised by Charles Horne


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