Ecological Civilization - Chinese Policy

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Arran Gare:

"In November 2007, ‘ecological civilization’ was incorporated into the Central Commission Report to the Chinese Communist Party’s 17th National Congress and embraced as a central policy objective by the government, and in 2012, the Party included the goal of achieving ecological civilization in its constitution, and included this goal in its five-year plan. Then in 2017, the 19th Congress of the Party called for an acceleration of ecological civilization construction. Ecological civilization is associated with the quest for a circular economy ‘where one facility’s waste, including energy, water, materials –as well as information – is another facility’s input’ (Geall and Ely 2018: 1189).

Expenditure on technology to ameliorate environmental damage, reduce pollution and reduce greenhouse gas emissions has been massively increased, although environmentalists believe far more is required. Hardly surprisingly given the centrality accorded to ecological civilization in Chinese political culture, what is meant by ecological civilization is highly contested (Gordon 2018).Ecological civilization is often characterized as what comes after industrial civilization. This can also be interpreted as dealing with ecological problems generated by industrialization by utilizing market driven technological solutions, much as in Western capitalist countries. A more radical view is that the centralization of power engendered by capitalism and industrialization needs to be challenged. Ecological civilization requires a more democratic structure, creating institutions to control markets and empower people at local levels.

This is the view defended by Pan Jiahua, Director of the Institute for Urban and Environmental Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (Pan 2016; Martinelli 2018:380ff.). More broadly, it is argued by Zhang Yunfei (2019) of Renmin University that ecological civilization characterizes all civilizations to different degrees, with those societies that fail to achieve a sufficient level of ecological civilization destroying the conditions of their existence. Ecological civilization at present is relatively is weak and it is necessary to recover and advance the lost wisdom of earlier eras. Not necessarily inconsistent with this, it is argued that global ecological civilization now has to be the goal of humanity to overcome the current global ecological crisis, along with addressing local ecological problems. Since the dynamics of capitalism are seen as the main driving force for ecological destruction on a global scale and for paralysis in efforts to avert such destruction, this more radical view is often, although not always, explicitly linked to the struggle for eco-socialism as socialist ecological civilization. This is the view of Pan Yue, the former Vice-minister of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration until 2016, who was the leading exponent of ecological civilization at the government level. He has been strongly supported by among others, Huan Qingzhi from the Research Institute of Marxism, Peking University (Pan 2005; Huan 2016; Gare 2012).For these eco-socialists, the logic of capital is the prime culprit in ecological destruction. Consequently, Pan Yue argued, “we must use Marxist theoretical weapons to ‘fight against any forms of production and lifestyle that deviate from ecological civilization’”. He claimed that “socialism is more likely to provide system motivation and system security for ecological civilization” (Wang 2014: 10). In accordance with this, Lu Feng from Tsinghua University argued that ecological civilization and its practice will negate and transcend modern and urban civilization, being connected to new kinds of economic, social and cultural institutional frameworks through which people will be able to live more meaningful lives (Huan 2016: 55). In this case, ecological civilization is equated with an advanced form of eco-socialism. So, while ecological civilization has been strongly linked to eco-socialism, the way the term is used does not involve equating ecological civilization with eco-socialism. To show that ecological civilization is underpinned by and implies eco-socialism it is necessary to understand the historical background to the development of this concept."



Arran Gare:

"This history of the background to the quest for ecological civilisation explains its rise in China and the diversity of its interpretations. To avoid being subjugated, China has had to embrace and assimilate a huge chunks of culture from European civilisation, and this was undertaken by embracing Marxism. This facilitated the industrialization of China while enabling the Chinese to maintain a critical distance from European traditions. However, the history of Marxism has been confused and often misunderstood, and in some cases this has led to an almost uncritical adoption of Western culture, despite its problems. In these cases, ecological civilisation can be understood as little different from forms of environmental protection characteristic of Western societies. However, there are still strong Chinese cultural traditions that have survived, traditions that had indirectly influenced the work of Marx and Engels. This placed the Chinese in a position to appreciate the resonances of the notion of ecological culture developed in the Soviet Union with socialism without full knowledge of the eco-socialist roots of this notion. Arguing that ecological civilisation has some presence in all societies is away of recovering and defending superior aspects of past cultures, including Chinese culture, that havebeen suppressed with commodification, standardization, homogenization and debasement of reality associated with the advance of capitalism. Defending cultures of the past is not inconsistent with defending socialist ecological civilisation and calling for a global ecological civilisation, and this is the grand narrative that is now emerging as a global cultural force (Gare, 2017b). Even without referring to eco-socialism, the unfolding of the core ideas of ecological civilisation as it orients people for action will inevitably reveal its eco-socialist roots .Once the full implications of ecological civilisation are understood, it should be clear that there isno need to speak of ‘socialist’ ecological civilisation since in the modern world, ecological civilisation could not be anything else than socialist. In fact, ecological civilisation not only brings into focus the ultimate failure of capitalism and the ultimate reason why it must be replaced; it also clarifies what is socialism and what humanity should be striving to create. It can provide the coherence required for an alternative hegemonic culture capable of overcoming the hegemony of capitalist culture. Civilisation has always been defined in opposition to barbarism and decadence, and in late capitalism we are facing a combination of hi tech barbarism with the decadence of consumerism (Stiegler 2011). Ecology, focussing on the system of ‘homes’ or ‘households’ of organisms, including people; that is, the conditions of their existence, examines how the interaction between these organisms succeeds or fails to provide the conditions where they can develop in such a way that they can augment these households, and thereby the resilience of their immediate biotic communities and broader communities of these communities. Extended by human ecology, ecology is providing the forms of thinking required to rethink economics and the other human sciences, ethics and politics (Gare 2010;Gare 2017b; Hornborg 2019b). A socialist society is one in which the self-realization of each individual and each organization and each community will be aligned to augment the conditions for the self-realization of all individuals, organizations and communities contributing to augmenting life, including the health of the biotic communities within which humanity has evolved and on which it is dependent, including the current regime of the global ecosystem"

The Russian Source of Ecological Civilisation

Arran Gare:

"The Chinese term for ecological civilisation was first used by Qianji Ye, an agricultural economist. In 1984 he published an article in the scientific socialism edition of The Journal of Moscow University ,and in 1987 this was translated in a Chinese newspaper (Huan 2016: 52). The initial term was ‘ecological culture’ and it was translated as ‘ecological civilisation’ (shengtai wenming), but in Chinese, the words for culture (wenhua) and civilisation ( wenming) are sometimes seen as synonymous, and the way the word ‘civilisation’ is used in China corresponds more closely to the way the word ‘culture’ is used in Russia. The notion of ‘ecological culture’ was initially promoted by Marxists in the SovietUnion and widely used from the 1970s onwards, for instance, by Yu. M. Manin in ‘Ecological culture and communism’ in Social Aspects of Ecology, (Manin 1983) and by V.S. Lipitsky in ‘Ecological cultur eof personality and ways of its formation’ (Lipitsky 1983). Then a leading government figure, Ivan T. Frolov along with T.V. Vasileva, V.A. Elk and others took up the notion of ecological culture in a paper published in ‘Ecological propaganda in the USSR’ (1984), and Vasileva defended a thesis on this topicin the same year. Frolov was a philosopher of science specializing in biology, and a leading figure in the Soviet Union and an advisor to Mikhail Gorbachev. He later became editor of the main ideological journal in the Soviet Union, Kommunist , and then of the main newspaper, Pravda.

He argued at a conference at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University in 1985, just before Gorbachev became General Secretary of the CCCP, that confronting the global ecological crisis could and should unite humanity in a common goal, overcoming the Cold War. Detailing the implications of this ecological orientation, he argued that ‘it would be a mistake to conceive of the biosphere merely as a source of resources or a ‘disposer’ of wastes’ (Weiner 1999: 399). It is equally important to reintegrate both aesthetics and ethical values into our way of relating to the world and into our science, Frolov argued. He called for a switch from anthropocentricism to biosphero-centrism. Elsewhere, arguing against sociobiology according to which social behaviour is determined by genes, the doctrine that revived social Darwinism and legitimated the rise of neoliberalism, Frolov invoked Marx’s characterization of humans as ensembles of social relations, arguing that humans are essentially cultural beings (Frolov 1986).Although the proponents of ecological culture might not have been aware of this, the place they accorded to culture was really the continuation of a tradition of Marxism originating in the 1920s. Itwas part of a radical form of Marxism promoted by the Vpered (Forward) wing of the Bolsheviks, and it included the Commissar for Enlightenment, Anatoly Lunacharsky, who had been placed in charge of environmental protection by Lenin. Rejecting the crude interpretation of the base-superstructure model of society as technological determinism, the interpretation that led Marx to proclaim that if there was one thing he knew, it was that he was not a Marxist (Engels 1962, 486), and arguing that technology and ideology were different components of culture, these radical Marxists believed that to create a socialist society it is necessary to create a new culture, including a new form of science, to overcome the deficiencies and distortions of understanding generated by capitalism and to counter the cultural hegemony of the bourgeoisie and their managers. This was endorsed by Lenin in 1918,although he wanted a more practical orientation (White 2019: 392).The movement for a new socialist culture, Proletkult , was inspired originally by Lunacharsky’s brother-in-law, Aleksandr Bogdanov (Gare 1994; White 2019: ch.13). In characterizing the base-superstructure model of society in the ‘Preface’ to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy , Marx had argued that ‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness’ (Marx 1970: 19). Bogdanov pointed out that social existence is conscious existence, and merged these in the category ‘culture’. Consciousness is involved in the technological component of culture, and also in coordinating people, the ideological component of culture. While Marx had written critiques of the bourgeois mode of production, showing how the categories of economics were not eternal but expressions of historically specific forms of being structuring relations between people, except in unpublished works such as the 1844 Manuscripts and the Grundrisse, Marx had only hinted at the categories required to replace these categories. Developing some observations by Marx, in The Philosophy of Living Experience(2015) and later The Science of Social Consciousness (White 2013), Bogdanov argued that science is organized collective experience of humanity and showed how categories articulating relations between people in their organization of production are entrenched and developed by being used as metaphors or ‘substitutions’ for nature, which are then used to interpret and explain society and legitimate its existing social relations, helping to reproduce these social relations (Bogdanov 2015:47ff.; Gare 1994; White 2019: ch.11).In making this argument, Bogdanov was not denying the achievements of science, even in a capitalist society where science appeared to be legitimating capitalism. However, he suggested that new advances in science would be stifled under capitalism as they challenged the interests of its ruling class, and to advance science further would involve a struggle to overcome capitalist culture (Gare2000). The development of Proletkult was not merely the basis for the proletariat to unite and act effectively; it was to be a culture that would overcome the cognitive deficiencies of all past cultures while incorporating all that was best within them, and would prevail by virtue of the superiority of this culture. This view of Proletkult was very different from the top down imposition of correct views associated with the cultural revolution from 1928-1931 which gave rise to Lysenkoism, as Sheila Fitzpatrick pointed out (1978: 10). Influenced by Marx and Engels’ Eleven Theses on Feuerbach with its emphasis on praxis and concern to change the world, Bogdanov believed that this new culture was required not only to advance our comprehension of the world but to provide the concepts through which people could redefine their place in nature and their relations to each other, enabling them to organize themselves to create the future. This would be a future in which the division between manual and intellectual labour would have been overcome, workers, with the help of these concepts, would be able to manage their own work, and people would understand themselves as part of nature. In other words, humans would overcome their alienation from each other, from nature, and from humanity and from their own creative powers. This would involve overcoming Descartes’ dualism and the mechanistic view of nature, expressions of class divisions of capitalist society with a sharp differentiation between the conscious ruling class and workers, who along with nature, tend to be objectified as things, mere instruments or obstructions in the struggle by the ruling class for greater profits (surplus value). Scientists, or philosopher/scientists, who in their work had already overcome the opposition between intellectual and manual labour and were able to organize themselves were advancing science accordingly. They were coming to recognize that they are active agents in the world they are striving to understand, and beginning to overcome this dualism in their scientific theories. Building on advanced science, most importantly, thermodynamics and relativity theory where scientists being part of nature had come to be appreciated, Bogdanov (1984) called for and set out to develop a general theory of organization, Tektology , as the basis for an integral world view. From this perspective, ‘[t]he entire world consisted of an organising process, an infinitely developing series of complexes of different forms and levels of organization in their mutual relations, in their struggle or their unification’ (White: 2019: 289). This overcame the opposition between the natural sciences and the human sciences and between science, history and the arts, while providing people with the means not only to understand their place in nature, society and history, but the means to organize and govern themselves rather than being organized by managers (Gare, 2000). Tektology inspired general systems theory and was a precursor to complexity theory. It was this notion of cultural hegemony and the need to challenge it that had a formative influence on the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci became acquainted with these ideas when he lived for two years in Moscow in 1922-23 and 1925 (Brandist 2012). To counter the way opposition movements tend to mirror the ways of thinking, practices and organization of those they are opposing, he called not just for a ‘counter-hegemony’, but an alternative cultural hegemony based on a different conception of the world (Ahearne 2013). An alternative hegemonic culture would include developing a superior science, superior not only because it serves the interests of workers, but because it overcomes the deficiencies of science generated by but then constrained and limited by capitalist social relations. Proletkult, Tektology and Ecology Biology had a major role to play in creating this new culture. Initially, the biology that gained favour in the Soviet Union was anti-vitalist and anti-Idealist, and was essentially positivist and reductionist materialist. However, as Engels’ Dialectics of Nature began to exert its influence, Soviet biology, along with psychology, became a major centre of what came to be known as the Third Way – neither vitalist nor mechanist; that is, an anti-reductionist naturalism. Ecology with its focus on the inter-relatedness of organisms and its challenge to previous disciplinary boundaries (most importantly, between physics, geology, chemistry and biology) had an important place in advancing this new science (Gare1994), and was strongly supported in the 1920s by Lunacharsky, who also supported the work of Vladimir Vernadsky and his concepts of the biosphere and noosphere (Rispoli 2014). Such ideas were very much in accordance with Bogdanov’s Tektology (Gare 1993). In the 1920s research in ecology in the Soviet Union, incorporating thermodynamics along with ideas from Engels, was highly original and more advanced than anywhere else in the world (Weiner 1987: ch.6).

This did not last. With the triumph of Stalin and the implementation of what Bogdanov had warned against, ‘war communism’ rather than ‘worker socialism’, freedom of enquiry was severely limited. Lunacharsky resigned as Commissar for Education in 1929 in protest at government interference in education. While many ecologists were persecuted by Stalin and his followers who were hostile to any claims that nature could not be completely dominated, this movement of radical science was not completely destroyed, and was sustained in the Soviet Union in what Weiner charactered in the title of a later book as, A Little Corner of Freedom (1999). While neither Bogdanov, nor Lunacharsky, nor Vernadsky put forward the idea of a global ecological civilisation, their work provides the background against which the introduction into China and the prominent place it has gained there can be understood, and also, the failure to achieve a consensus about what is meant by it. Frolov and other Russians calling for an ecological culture were carrying forward Bogdanov’s conception of culture as the forms of consciousness on the basis of which people produce and organize themselves. From this perspective, socialism requires the development of a new culture, overcoming the deficiencies of previous cultures while incorporating all that is best in them. The development of post-reductionist science is central to this development. Bogdanov, Lunacharsky, Vernadsky and Soviet ecologists were all socialists, and saw their work in science as a challenge to mainstream science engendered by capitalism and as central to creating genuine socialism, and saw genuine socialism involving a new appreciation of nature. Ecological civilisation is underpinned by this radical socialist tradition within the sciences. As such, it involves a very fundamental challenge to the culture of capitalism and its legitimacy as a natural form of life, and conversely, it legitimates and maintains the trajectory of movements, institutions and governments set up to challenge capitalism, instituting socialist forms of life to create a socialist world-order. Because capitalism is dependent upon science, it is here that the challenge to the hegemony of capitalist culture can be most effective, and the advance of science is showing that the world-view on which capitalism is based and which legitimates it, is being invalidated. Efforts to neutralize this challenge by ‘managing’ science to make it serve the economy, is destroying it (Charlton 2012).Climate science and ecology are now spearheading this challenge to prevailing assumptions. This challenge has the potential to rescue science from its current fragmentation, with Robert UIanowicz arguing that ecology should become the reference point for defining science, overcoming the conceptual logjams that currently hinder progress in understanding evolutionary phenomena, development biology, the rest of the life sciences, and, conceivably, even physics (Ulanowicz 1997,p.6). Such science is as likely to reveal the limits to how much nature can be controlled as to show how to control nature, while at the same time facilitating an appreciation of its intrinsic significance. Through the development of the concepts of resilience it should also provide guidelines for how to diagnose the sickness of modern civilization and how to maintain the health of ecosystems and create healthy societies, replacing economics with human ecology as the core framework for formulating public policies (Gare 2002; Ho and Ulanowicz 2005; Hornborg 2019a).Once the seeds of radically new ways of thinking have gained a foothold, especially when they are included in narratives defining communities, they can set in train the system innovations that can totally transform societies and civilisations. Making ecological civilisation the official narrative in China might look to some like a public relations exercise. However, having this in place has resuscitated the grand narrative of socialism in its eco-socialism form. As Sam Geall and Adrian Ely argued in ‘Narratives and Pathways to Ecological Civilization in Contemporary China’ (2018), this narrative is likely to gain strength and influence pathways to a sustainable social order both in China and internationally over the coming years, a view supported by Marinelli (2018: 375ff.). What is emerging is a new, reinvigorated grand narrative of socialism as ecological civilization that can challenge and replace the reductionist materialist, social Darwinist grand narrative of neoliberalism, the grand narrative that launched the last major advance of capitalism in the 1970s."