John Ashton: China needs to repair torn fabric of nature and society

Former chief UK climate diplomat says China must look to the earth to rediscover its dreams for the future

Pic: Trey Ratcliff/Flickr

Pic: Trey Ratcliff/Flickr

By John Ashton

My Chinese dream is a dream of earth. It was in the yellow earth that the first seed of this nation took root.

Out of earth carried by great rivers down from the mountains, through the plains of north and central China to the sea, out of earth you rose.

In soured earth, China’s dream will be a sour dream. If what you breathe is not pure, if what you drink is not pure, if what you eat is not pure, China’s dream will become sour.

If you cannot trust those who on whom you rely for the purity of what you breathe, what you drink and what you eat, China’s dream will be a sour dream.

In the imagination of my ancestors, there arose long ago a separation between human beings and Nature. A separation, and a dominion.

A belief that we humans are superior to Nature. That it is our destiny to exploit and manipulate Nature to suit our own purposes.

This belief probably goes back to the moment nearly 10,000 years ago when Indo-European pioneer farmers learned to cultivate wheat on what is now the Anatolian plain of Turkey.

They discovered for the first time that they could grow more than they needed. That made possible the first cities but also the accumulation of power. With that came a loss of humility, an arrogance, towards Nature.

I’m afraid this belief in separation and dominion proved contagious.

It was built into the culture of the industrial revolution and of the early capitalists.

Engels understood the danger. “For each victory”, he wrote, “Nature takes its revenge on us”. But his insight did not prevent the same belief being transplanted into the foundations of what became Marxist-Leninism.

And still today the belief in separation and dominion underpins the supercharged model of growth that since the fall of the Berlin Wall has been shaping all the major economies.

Maybe not always in theory: China’s leaders have long spoken of the need for harmony with Nature.

But in practice, on the ground, as you know, that remains aspiration not reality.

But Nature cannot be exploited and manipulated freely. It does take revenge. We are part of Nature, not apart from it.

To take from it more than it can regenerate, to tear up an ecological fabric on which we depend utterly but which we still do not fully understand, is not only pollution but self-harm. It is no different from cutting off our own limbs.

Nature is our mirror. If we look at Nature and see ourselves, we can live a good life on the good earth.

In good earth China’s dream will bear sweet fruit. From good earth China will rise.

My Chinese dream is a dream of fire.

We humans are restless. We are never still, never satisfied. Whatever we have we always look for more. A fire burns in our breasts that never goes out, that always needs more fuel.

We British tend to think we are different from our neighbours. We think the sea that surrounds us and divides us from the rest of our continent has been a barrier behind which we built a nation in our own image.

The sea was never a barrier. It has always been a bridge. With the waves of the sea have come waves of people, looking on our shores for something more. More territory, more power, more wealth; or just a better prospect of survival.

We did not build Britain in our own image. We were forged and are still being forged in a crucible from different peoples kept in flux by the fire that burns in our breasts.

The fire burns, but must not burn out of control. When it burns out of control there are no dreams only nightmares.

We have learned to contain the fire that burns in our breasts, to quench it when it flares up, so that we ourselves are not consumed in its flames.

We have had to learn that we cannot always have what we desire. We have had to learn to control our passions.

We have had to learn to treat other people as we would wish to be treated ourselves. And that has taught us how true fulfillment comes from seeing ourselves in each other’s faces.

And so we manage, most of the time, to bring our own appetites into line with the needs and rituals of the society to which we belong.

If we do not do that, history shows us, the strong exploit the weak; the wealthy plunder from the earth and turn it sour; corruption spreads like weeds in a field of crops.

Every footprint we make now treads on top of somebody else’s. As with people so today with nations.

Confucius understood. He urged us to cultivate a  quality that is not easy to translate into English, a kind of benevolent virtue, what you call in Chinese “ren”(仁). He asked:

if we are without virtue, how can there be culture?

if we are without virtue, how can there be harmony?

人而不仁, 如礼何?

人而不仁, 如乐何?

If your fire burns without virtue, China’s dream will be consumed in its flames.

We are mirrors for each other. If we can look in our neighbour’s face and see ourselves, we can build good societies, a good global society and we can live a good life.

In virtuous fire, China will forge an alloy that is strong and bright. In virtuous fire, China will rise.

This is an extract of a speech made by the UK’s former chief climate diplomat John Ashton at Fudan University, Shanghai on June 11. Download a full version below.

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