CHILDREN IN A BURNING HOUSE
The Challenge for China of Building an Ecological Civilization
C. Robert (Bob) Mesle, PhD
This is part of a paper presented at a conference on Ecological Civilization, sponsored by the Center for the Postmodern Development of China, at Hebei University of Industry in Tianjin, China, August 7-8, 2011.
What will China do? Today, that is one of the most important questions in the world. China can help save the world, or destroy it. Will you build a sustainable ecological civilization or not? There is the great danger that China will follow the Western example, and especially the American example, and speed up our mutual destruction. There are also signs that the leaders and people of China have the wisdom to create an ecological civilization. I am here to plead with you to help save China, and, if possible, the rest of the world.
I will assume today that thoughtful, educated people understand that modern Western civilization, especially as embodied in the United States of America, cannot sustain itself. We are consuming resources which we can never replace, and which will soon run out. We are destroying life in the oceans, without which we cannot survive. Economically, America has built its economy on debt. Banks, credit card companies, merchants, and advertisers make money by enticing people into private debt, while politicians win elections by pushing us into public debt. Ours is not an ecological civilization.
I assume you already understand these problems, and you know that Americans are among those most to blame for what is happening. I assume you also understand that as India and China, especially China, join the modern industrial world, you must choose what course you will set on these crucial matters. With that in mind, I want to tell you a story from the great Buddhist text, the Lotus Sutra. The Buddha told it as a story about our human failure to control our personal desires and fears, but it works equally well for our great global crisis. They are fundamentally the same problems.
Once there was a large, wealthy family. Their home was a wonderful palace filled with beautiful objects. The children believed that their home was the most wonderful palace in the world, and that it would last forever.
One day, the children had a party. They ate delicious foods and played with wonderful toys from all over the world. They played with toy cars, trains, airplanes, boats, and doll houses. They played with toy animals and toy people. They played with toy armies with which they fought great battles and conquered the world.
Suddenly the servants shouted that the house was on fire, and everyone must stop playing and help put out the fire. But the children did not listen. They were having too much fun eating and drinking, and playing with their toys. The servant shouted more loudly that the house was on fire, but the children would not listen.
Some of the children simply refused to believe them. Their palace was far too beautiful to be on fire. It was the best palace in the world, and would stand forever. Such a beautiful palace could never burn down.
Other children listened to the servants and paused to smell the smoke and see the flames. But to the servants’ amazement, they would not leave. They said they were having too much fun with their toys. Surely the palace would not burn down until after the party was over. Maybe the fire would burn itself out, or the fire department would put it out. They were having too much fun, and would not leave the burning house even though they could smell the smoke and see the flames.
You can easily see that this story describes the Western world, and especially America. Our house is burning down and we refuse to leave because we are having too much fun. We are very foolish children who refuse to stop playing even as our house burns around us. The problem for you is that if our palace burns down, so will yours, because we all live in the same world.
The author of the Lotus Sutra understood something which applies to our situation well. The Buddha understood that it was precisely the fact that the children were playing with their toys—were refusing to control their desires--which caused the house to burn. For the Buddha, this was a story about how we destroy or build our lives. But the Buddha’s point works just as well today, because we know that we are destroying our environment, burning our house, by our uncontrolled desire for more cars and other toys and food from around the world. Still, even when we know this, we continue to play, hoping that somehow the fire will go out.
Let me imagine another part to the story. In this part of the story, some children who live nearby—children from India and China—arrive at the party just as the fire is growing large. They can smell the smoke and see the flames growing. The children from India and China are trying to decide whether to join the party or help put out the flames. Some of the children shout that everyone must help. But some of the children from India and China insist on joining the party. They cry and complain, “It is not fair. These rich American children have gotten to play with all of these wonderful toys. We deserve a turn. It is not right that they get to play and we do not. It is only fair that we get to eat and play like the Western children. Why should we have to build an ecological civilization?”
The children of India and China are right. It is not fair. It is especially unfair if American children continue to play while children in India and China help put out the fire. It just is not fair.
Still, you must decide what to do. Will you join the party and throw fuel on the fire, or will you choose to be more wise? To be fair, I must also say that many people in America and Europe do understand the problem and are committed to changing the way we live. Western people, for all of our problems, can be very creative. The freedom we enjoy, while allowing us to be foolish, also allows people to explore many solutions to our common problems. Many Western people are among those trying to put out the fire.
My son and his wife live in Chicago, a large city filled with cars. But they do not own a car. They ride their bikes or public transportation. Because someone saw a creative solution to a problem, if people in Chicago need a car, they can now rent one for just an hour or two, or as long as needed for a trip. Even though my son lives in an apartment, they bought a plastic container to use as a compost pile so they can recycle their garbage. Outside, in separate containers, they are growing vegetables and herbs to eat. Our daughter and her family live in Los Angeles, the American city most famous for all its cars and highways. They own a car, but on most days he rides his bicycle several miles to work and back. They chose to live in a neighborhood where they can walk to most placed they need to go. Our whole family works hard to recycle everything we can. Many Americans are like us, and many are better.
But still, the great question is: What will China do? If China follows the American example and you all buy gasoline powered cars, there is no hope for China or the world. Your great cities will become vast parking lots; you will not be able to breathe the air; and the world’s petroleum will be consumed in the blink of an eye. If you follow the American example and build your economy on consumption and debt, there is no hope for the world. Your economy will collapse as ours is doing. If you continue to build too much of your economy on exports to the Western world, then when oil and coal become too expensive to drive your ships, what will become of your economy? If you follow the American example, and industrialize your agriculture, you will be forced to drive 99% of your people off of your farm land and into new cities.
Will these choices be wise? Will they make the people of China happier? Will they help put out the fire that is burning down our world? The challenges which face China can be seen in the single fact that by 2007 China already led the world in the emissions of green house gases which contribute to global warming—mostly from burning coal. But the fact that China’s leaders and people understand the problem is equally visible in the fact that by 2008, China already led the world in the production of electricity from renewable sources. (“Can China Go Green?” Bill McKibben, National Geographic, June 2011, 120)
The great traditions of China--Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism-- all teach that happiness is found not in wealth, but by living in harmony with each other and with nature. Marxism also affirms the importance of social harmony, but has not been as good at understanding the crucial value of harmony with nature. Today, harmony with each other and harmony with nature is a Chinese and Asian value to which China and the West must give priority.
China and the Western world can learn from each other. You can benefit by giving your people more political, economic, and intellectual freedom to explore new ideas for how to help save our world. The West is struggling to learn Asian wisdom about the importance of living in harmony with society and nature. We need the wisdom of both to survive.
My friends, our house, our planet, our world, is on fire. Our own actions are causing it to burn. It is unfair that people in the West lit the fire and are continuing to fuel it, and then call on the people of Asia, especially China, to help put the fire out. It is not fair, but the fire is still burning. Some people in the West are trying to put it out. There are signs that the leaders of China, and many Chinese people, have the wisdom to build a society which will help put the fire out and save as much of our world as can be saved. It is still possible for China to build an ecological civilization. So the question is,
What will China do?