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Ecological Civilization: A new development paradigm

By Pan Jiahua, Professor of Economics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences University, with technical assistance from Yang Xinran the end of 2019, which was entirely devoted to this concept.
Almost every strategic study on environment and development solicited by the Chinese government refers to ‘ecological civilization’. Successive presidents have connected their names to it. The simplest interpretation of this term has been as the Chinese equivalent of sustainable development in China. But beyond that, what does ‘ecological civilization’ mean? PAN Jiahua explains here. Professor Pan organized the annual conference of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences at

Ecological civilization as a new development paradigm has been practised in China in an attempt to remedy inherent vices such as social inequality and environmental unsustainability associated with industrial civilization. The characteristics of this new paradigm are in essence different from the industrial civilization. The Chinese experiences demonstrate that this new development paradigm has the potential to lead us to global sustainability.

Key Elements of Ecological Civilization

Literally speaking, ecology and civilization are a combination of natural and cultural attributes with the relationship between humans and nature at the nucleus. The reason that the definition of ecological civilization is traced back to the ancient Chinese philosophy of “nature and Man as one” is the need to understand and define the relationship between humans and nature.

At a direct and fundamental level, the relationship between humans and nature is a matter of values: the approach to nature. The philosophy of “nature and Man as one” by Oriental saints underscores the unity between humans and nature, where humans are part of nature and must respect and follow nature. Humans are not the master of nature and cannot attempt to transform and conquer nature. Humans and nature are equal and shall live in harmony; humans must be rational and adjust their approach to nature. What huans pursue is not the limitless accumulation of material wealth but the recognition and respect of the values of nature. If respecting and following nature represents ecological justice, the values of “nature and Man as one” also include social justice, i.e. respect for human rights and the fair sharing of the return from natural resources. Ecological justice and social justice go hand in hand and jointly create the foundation of values for ecological civilization. Human beings are a part of nature and ideologically they must respect nature and treat nature fairly; in terms of a code of conduct, all human activities must fully respect the laws of nature and seek harmony between humans and nature.

Ecological civilization in a broad sense includes not only respecting nature and sharing the values of common prosperity with nature but also encompasses the method of production, economic foundation and superstructure, i.e. the institutional system developed under the guidance of such values, which create a form of social civilization characterized by the progress of humans and nature in harmony, highly advanced productivity, all-round development of culture, and sustained social prosperity.

The method of production in ecological civilization is not a linear model of natural resources going through the production process of becoming products and wastes but pursues the efficiency of material output on the premise of ecological rationalism rather than the maximization of output. This approach requires forsaking inefficient, extensive, predatory and destructive methods of production and embracing the most resource-efficient methods of production at a minimum cost to the environment and a circular production model in which raw materials are processed into products which, after use, will be recycled back into raw materials. Our ways of consuming cannot aim at possession, extravagance and waste but should focus on green, conserving, healthy and rational ways of life that emphasize quality. Supplies of essential materials are limited but human desires are infinite. Instead of calling for a frugal life and returning to an agrarian civilization, ecological civilization requires that the desire for unnecessary material possessions and consumption be restrained and instead be focused on the basis of securing basic material needs. Given that the demand for these is determined by a way of life is also reflected in the methods of production, ecologically-civilized ways of life and consumption are a reflection of the ethical values of ecological civilization.

Ecological civilization pursues all-round human development and quality of life. In contrast to passive deference to nature advocated by ancient philosophers more than 2,000 years ago, the contemporary concept of ecological civilization represents unity between humans and nature on the basis of applying modern science and technology and an advanced understanding of nature. The tranquility and grandeur of  nature is not only the cradle of thought but also an indispensable element of a high quality of life. Economic prosperity and social stability are essential to maintaining the beauty of nature. Unity between nature and humans supported by modern science, technology and economic development is an ideal condition of harmony between humans and nature, humans and humans, and humans and society.

Regarding the creation of an institutional system, there is a set of effective mechanisms to respect and protect nature, promote social justice, regulate our ways of life and work, and secure cultural development. Systematic institutions and mechanisms must be in place to check and guide the fostering and development of ecologically-civilized ways of life and work. Human development and quality of life also require an architecture of relevant standards, rules and legal systems. The creation of capitalist systems is not only an outcome of the industrialization process but  assures the successful implementation of the industrialization process. Without the creation of market systems and the improvement of the rule of law, capitalism cannot have developed and evolved in such an efficient and orderly manner.

It can be seen from the above discussions that the key elements of ecological civilization as a development paradigm are justice, efficiency, harmony, and cultural development. Justice means respecting natural rights, achieving ecological justice and safeguarding human rights to achieve social justice. Efficiency, in this case, means the identification of: i) ecological efficiency defined by the equilibrium and productivity of the natural ecosystem; ii) economic efficiency defined by low input, zero pollution and high output of economic production; and iii) social efficiency with complete and well-functioning social systems. Harmony means mutual tolerance and benefit between humans and nature, humans and humans, and humans and society, as well as the balance and coordination between production and consumption, between economy and society, and between regions including cities and rural areas. Cultural development refers to the dignity, equality, and healthiness of life. These factors are interconnected: justice is the necessary foundation of ecological civilization, efficiency is the means to realizing ecological civilization, harmony is the external reflection of ecological civilization, and cultural development is the ultimate objective of ecological civilization.

A Comparison with Industrial Civilization

Industrial civilization originated from the Industrial Revolution and came into being in the context of agrarian civilization. Thanks to tremendous progress in science and technology, utilization of fossil fuels, and sophisticated means of production, industrial civilization put an end to the “realm of necessity” of agrarian civilization defined by awe of and submission to nature. The industrialization process driven by fossil fuels dramatically enhanced social productivity, created immense material wealth needed by human society, and transformed the social development paradigm. Agrarian civilization characterized by low productivity, self-sufficiency, and frugality gave way to industrial civilization defined by utilitarian values, leadership by technology innovation, conquering of nature, exploitation of natural resources, high consumption, and corresponding ways of life, work and social structure.

If industrial civilization and ecological civilization are two different development paradigms, then what is the differences between the two? The first difference is the values or ethical foundation. In A Treatise of Human Nature, leading philosopher of Scottish Enlightenment movement in the early period of British Industrial Revolution, David Hume[1] created utilitarianism from moral and emotional levels. Convinced by his theory of utilitarianism, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued for the greatest happiness principle – “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”. In Utilitarianism (1861) written by philosopher and economist John Muir[2] in his late years, it was proposed that a person had the ability to sacrifice his/her own maximum welfare in exchange for the welfare of others and that any sacrifice that could not or did not contribute to the growth of aggregate happiness would be in vain. He stressed that happiness based on utilitarianism was not the happiness of an actor alone but the happiness of all people associated with him or her. When you treat others the way you expect others to treat you and when you love your neighbors in the the way that you care for yourself, the utilitarian concept of morality will reach a state of perfection. Obviously, happiness is materialistic and realistic and if certain elements of the environment or natural resources cannot bring about happiness, it will be to no avail. In addition, utility is realized through the market. Without market value or if market value is relatively small, it has to give way to useful or more useful purposes. The ethical foundation of ecological civilization is the successor of Chinese ancient philosophies and seeks ecological justice and social justice. Humans are a part of nature and cannot destroy nature for their own happiness. Although utilitarianism calls for the maximum happiness of the society, it does not put a premium on equality among people and between people and society. Some scientific philosophies such as the Darwinian Origin of Species proposed the theory of survival of the fittest, yet social Darwinism not only neglects the interests of vulnerable groups but has been used by racists to implement policies of racial discrimination.

The objectives under the development paradigm of industrial civilization, namely of pursuing the maximization of profits, wealth accumulation, and utility have led to a worship of GDP and the single-minded pursuit of interests among society at large. As a new development paradigm, ecological civilization underscores the harmony between humans and nature, environmental sustainability and social prosperity over monetary return and the accumulation of material assets. As a matter of fact, ecological civilization attaches greater importance to natural assets and the appreciation of their natural value while human-made assets require tremendous expenditures for maintenance and depreciate over time.

In terms of the energy foundation, industrial civilization relies upon fossil fuels while ecological civilization advocates sustainability and sustainable energy transformation. Of course, energy production and consumption under the development paradigm of ecological civilization will not return to the inefficient and low-quality utilization of renewable energy sources typical of agrarian societies but will adopt highly efficient and high-quality commodity energy services. Industrial civilization does not recognize the boundary of development and may expand continuously disregarding resource constraints. The paradigm of ecological civilization unequivocally recognizes the limits of nature and follows its boundaries.

In terms of the ways of life and work, the extensive linear model of collecting raw materials for manufacturing that leads to products and waste under industrial civilization stands in sharp contrast to the circular model of reusing and recycling used products and their parts and waste materials. Consumption under industrial civilization is typically possessive, wasteful and extravagant, while consumption under ecological civilization is low carbon, quality-oriented, healthy and rational consumption.

These differences between ecological civilization and industrial civilization represent areas in which industrial civilization needs to be modified and improved. Many advantages of industrial civilization must not only be succeeded by ecological civilization but also further developed. For instance, innovation and technology as a driver of industrial civilization is also needed in ecological civilization. On the other hand, technologies that are conducive to sustainable development must be encouraged and technologies that damage the environment and waste resources must be checked and even prohibited. Utilitarian principles such as democracy, the rule of law, and the market mechanism from the institutional system of industrial civilization can be directly grafted to the development paradigm of ecological civilization. Nevertheless, the paradigm of ecological civilization also has its unique elements such as ecological compensationecological red line and the evaluation of natural resource assets and liabilities.

 The ecological compensation is a payment either by the government or the beneficiary for the ecological services to people who conserve or maintain the natural environment in an ecologically healthy condition. This term “red line” is adopted from physical urban planning, meaning the strict boundary for development. Therefore, it is understood as zoning for nature protection spatially and something that is strictly forbidden such as hunting and trading protected wild animals.

A New Development Paradigm with Implications for Global Sustainability

Given that the environment and sustainability concern the common future of humankind and that a clear correlation between the environment and development does exist, sustainability becomes an increasingly important item on the agenda of international politics, such as the UN 2030 Agenda for sustainable development and Paris Climate Agreement concluded in 2015.

In the context of increasing global awareness of green growth and sustainable development China, as a responsible stakeholder, should not only ensure sustainability in China but contribute to global sustainable development as well. In light of the current levels of industrialization and urbanization, and in light of global movements for sustainability, the grave challenges of “uneven, uncoordinated and unsustainable” economic and social development in China stand in the way of achieving a green transformation of China’s economy and society based on the values of ecological civilization and sustainable development.

The development of ecological civilization aims at securing clean air and water, fertile soil and a healthy environment for the people; promote balanced, sound and real economic development; safeguard human rights and interests and social justice; optimize the income distribution pattern, reduce the gaps between the rich and the poor, and promote balanced regional development. The new development paradigm under ecological civilization is taking shape internationally and the global community is making efforts to accelerate the process of transformation towards sustainability. The 5 P’s (People focused, economic Prosperity, Planetary boundary, Peace and Partnership) are consistent with and reflect the basic principles of ecological civilization. The setting of sustainable development goals and climate targets provides technical measures for transformation towards a new development paradigm under ecological civilization

The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of CCICED.
1. David Hume (1711-1776), a Scottish philosopher, economist and historian. He was regarded as one of the most important figures in the Scottish Enlightenment movement and the history of Western philosophy.
2. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), British jurisprudent, utilitarian philosopher, economist and social reformer.For a more indepth analysis, see PAN Jiahua (2015) China’s Environmental Governing and Ecological Civilization. Springer and China Social Sciences Press.

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