China’s “Ecological Civilization”

China Ecological Pilot Zone

The term “ecological civilization” was first used in 1978 by Iring Fetscher, a German political scientist engaged in research on Hegel and Marxism. In 1983, a Chinese scholar, Xinshan Zhao, used this term, and in 1984, a scientist in the former Soviet Union called for an ecological civilization. In 1987, Qianji Ye, a Chinese agricultural economist used the term to plead for a more sustainable agricultural development model. In 1995, in Ecological Democracy (1995), Charles Morrison stated that the idea of “ecological civilization” was first officially proposed by the Chinese government in 2007, at the 17th Congress of the Communist Party of China.

At that time, the goal identified by the term is to form “an energy and resource efficient and environment friendly structure of industries, pattern of growth, and mode of consumption.” In 2012, “ecological civilization” was written into the CPC constitution.  In 2018, it was also written into China’s national constitution. China announced its intention of making ecological civilization its goal.  It is, of course, far from that goal, but it has taken significant steps. 

The government invested 922 billion (yuan) for protecting and improving the environment in 2016, 6.9 times as much as in 2001.  One highly visible improvement has been in forest cover.  In the past five years, China has completed 508 million mu of afforestation, and its forest coverage is now 3.12 billion mu.  This is 21.66% of the land of China. The forest stock volume is 15,137 billion cubic meters.  China’s increase of forest in the past five year is the greatest of any country.

“Ecological civilization” means in China that, alongside the almost universal goal of economic growth as measured by GDP, China is committed to improving its natural environment.  China considers these two goals compatible and of equal importance.  This is called the two-mountain theory, and it is quite remarkable that China has combined rapid industrialization with maintaining its environment and improving it in many respects. The success in greatly reducing extreme poverty in fact is an extremely important contribution to a healthy ecological civilization in the enlarged sense. 

Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that outside of China, an “ecological civilization” is usually understood differently.  It is understood as the inclusive goal. It would subordinate economic policies to questions of how the economy can contribute to the overall well-being of life on the planet. 

Considerations of sustainability and human health and happiness will be in tension with GDP annual growth. Even from the strictly economic perspective, GDP might be replaced by a measure that includes sustainability, thus reducing the tension between the two mountains.  Even so, as time passes, it seems inevitable that China’s “both/and” approach will not always work. Whether China’s vision of “ecological civilization” will expand to guide judgments about the economy remains to be seen.      

In the meantime, many developing countries are much more likely to adopt the goal of ecological civilization as understood by China.  They will adopt it as complementing their existing goal of economic growth. Very rare will be explicit abandonment of the goal of growth, even though many advocates of “ecological civilization” believe that overall growth will and must end.