COMMUNITIES OF SHARED DESTINY
Prospects for Ecological Civilization
in China and the United States
John B. Cobb, Jr.
This talk was presented at 11th Annual International Forum on Ecological Civilization held in Claremont, California, April 28-29, 2017. Approximately fifty visitors from mainland China were in attendance. For a description of conference as a whole, see Int'l forum in southern California highlights ecological civilization on the English webpage of the Xinhua News Agency.
Welcome. We always welcome visitors from China. But this year is quite special. In the past, we have had a favorable press in China, so that for Chinese to come here was not a risky political act. Now we have become a focus of controversy * Many who would otherwise have come, are not here this year, and some of you are making a statement and taking a risk by coming. We appreciate that. We hope that the present controversy will die down, and that we will be able to build on our earlier work again. But if the American connection or the Christian connection becomes an obstacle to our continuing, it will be people like you who can build in China the ecological civilization to which we have hoped to contribute.
I am proud that we have attracted enough attention in China to be controversial there. In the United States, we are ignored. This country has never seriously discussed becoming an ecological civilization. And the few small steps we have taken in that direction are being undercut by our present administration. Nevertheless, I am personally encouraged.
Under the Bushes, Clinton, and Obama, with little protest, we Americans drifted toward both causing irreparable harm to the environment and losing our democracy. Now, Trump’s election has awakened large numbers of people. They realize that unless we act, we will indeed lose our democratic rights. They realize that the United States has already moved a long way toward oligarchy, that is, rule by the few. We sometimes call it “corpocracy,” that is, rule by corporations, but the concentration of power may be still more narrowly centered. We hope that we still have some possibility of checking it.
Many of us recognize that we are seriously threatening the habitability of our planetary home, and that our administration is refusing to make even small concessions to the need to act in its behalf. This is truly frightening, but it forces us to recognize that we have a great responsibility as citizens. It is opening the door to greater initiative locally, and much is happening.
Two years ago, we held a conference here in Claremont that may have been the first major attempt in the United States to launch work toward an ecological civilization. I am glad to say that at least two hundred Chinese took part. But what was most important was to lay a foundation for the United States to begin to catch up with China. Now, two small organizations are working to follow up on this conference. Like many progressive movements, their potential and popular support has grown because of the distress engendered by Trump’s election.
I will describe one possibility that we hope to make an actuality. One of the new organizations committed to ecological civilization is called Pando Populus. It takes its name from the largest aspen grove, very ancient, but now endangered. Each aspen grove, although it appears to consist in many separate trees, is actually a single organism with a single root system. We hope this image will work against the extreme individualism of American culture
This organization is working in Los Angeles County. Currently it has established itself sufficiently, so that we can speak of a goal, even a plan, to make Los Angeles an ecological city. If Los Angeles’ bid for the 2024 Olympics is accepted, we think our prospects of success will be enhanced – that many individuals and groups will support plans to achieve significant ecological goals by that date. We also think that, if we have major accomplishments of which to boast, the occasion of the Olympics will be a good time to tell the world about them. We hope that, if Los Angeles has really shown how cities can make major progress, this will encourage other cities to make serious efforts. So much of the world’s population is now living in cities, that stimulating cities to become ecological cities may prove a major contribution to the global goal of ecological civilization.
Please understand that, just as the commitment of the government of China to the goal of ecological civilization does not mean that China is now a model of such civilization, so also our posing a goal for Los Angeles does not mean that it is now a model ecological city. We live by hope.
The theme of our conference this year focuses on shared destiny. Chinese and Americans live on a single planet, and much that is happening affects the planet as a whole. This is especially apparent with respect to climate. An agreement between the leaders of our two countries made it possible at Paris to reach accords that, while woefully insufficient, were a major advance over what had been done before.
Now our president seems intent on undoing what little progress we have made. One might say that he is opposed to all postmodern thinking and policy. The “modern” policy is full speed ahead on increasing production, no matter the accompanying concentration of wealth in fewer hands, the exploitation of workers and land, and the increasing social, cultural, and ecological cost. Modernists like this can be found everywhere, but few speak as blatantly as President Trump about their indifference to everything except wealth and power. He may withdraw the United States from the Paris Accords.
Much then depends on how others respond. There are penalties specified for withdrawal within the accords. I trust they will be imposed. The major question is whether other countries will take this as the occasion to withdraw. The most important question is what China will do. If the United States ignores our shared destiny, will China follow suit?
I trust that it will not. This behavior on the part of the United States will announce to the world that we have abandoned our role as leader. China will fall heir to that role. If it moves forward with even greater determination to deal with our shared destiny, the world may actually gain from the irresponsible behavior of the United States.
Of course, if this leads the United States to continue and increase its contribution to global pollution and the exhaustion of resources, it will be difficult to celebrate this change. But I dare to hope that the negative effect will not be as extensive as one might fear. For example, its effect on actual energy use may not be great. If Republican policy is simply to leave matters to the market, developments in the past decades have been such that coal will continue to decline and farsighted financiers and industrialists will recognize that new sources of energy will be more profitable than fossil fuels.
Citizen action will increase. Many institutions will disinvest from fossil fuels. Port cities such as Portland will continue to do what they can to slow the shipping of fossil fuels. The building of pipelines will continue to be extensively challenged. Even if all protests and legal proceedings fail, the cost in time and money will have increased and profits decline. Market forces shaped by citizen action will take up the task when the federal government ceases to be a support for change.
States can also move ahead, and some will. California has already gone far beyond the nation as a whole in reducing its per capita ecological footprint. I believe Los Angeles’ efforts will be strengthened by the Trump reaction. I believe other cities and states will take up the slack. A healthy democracy is one in which the people take initiatives. We have been lethargic. Not now.
Even though my hopes for the real change required for a positive shared destiny have increased, I know, as we all do, that the shared destiny of our species is far from promising. The problems of changing climate with which we have dealt thus far are serious, but they are minor in comparison with what is in store even if we now work very hard to contain the damage. The problems of relocating refugees will escalate many-fold. And no matter what we do now, fresh water is going to be globally scarce and regionally inadequate to support life.
Meanwhile, American policy includes the threat of using nuclear weapons even when real reasons are minor. Imagine the temptation to use these weapons when needs for food and water become desperate!
I do not mean to intensify the fear that we all feel as we notice the consequences of our irresponsible behavior. I mention these matters to say that sharing destiny is not relevant only at the global level. It is also important at very local levels. When war, or storms, or epidemics, or famines take place on a large scale, the systems of distributing food and water and medical care often break down. We are accustomed to buying food in the grocery store, but their shelves could be emptied in a day or two if supply chains collapse. We are accustomed to getting water from the tap, but there will be times and places when nothing comes, or when the water is so polluted that we cannot use it.
What will happen when the infrastructure on which we rely collapses? That depends, of course, on many things. I will just talk about one factor. I believe that where people have a strong sense of shared destiny with their neighbors there is a much better chance of survival than where this is lacking. To simplify my illustration of this point, let us assume that the crisis is one of abrupt isolation rather than a prolonged drought.
Consider first a rural village. In this case, the chances are that food will not be a critical problem. Let us suppose that in this village there are two or more factions that have a long history of rivalry and mutual suspicion. In a crisis, members of each faction would gather around their leaders. They would support one another within the faction, but view the other factions with suspicion. Much of their energy would be devoted to protecting what their faction has from the others. If one group had all the medical supplies and is unwilling to share, tensions could escalate into fighting. Even if there is no actual violence between the groups, projects that require large numbers of people would be difficult to carry off.
Of course, we all recognize that a harmonious village is preferable to a contentious one. My point is that, in the sorts of crises that are likely to become increasingly frequent and intense, survival may be at stake. Eco-villages that have developed a cooperative and mutually supportive community, one that is relatively self-sufficient, will have the best chances of survival.
Urban dwellers are the majority of the population in both China and the United States. For them, the problem is more difficult. There was a time when, in many cities, there were tightly knit neighborhoods in which people knew one another and felt some responsibility for one another. Some of these still exist, I feel sure, in both China and the United States.
However, today, In the United States, people living in the same apartment building frequently do not know each other. Rarely do they have any feeling of mutual responsibility. Most people have some friends, but some of one’s friends often do not know each other. The organizations to which urbanites typically belong consist of people who do not live in proximity, and the members rarely take much responsibility for one another.
When a crisis comes, individuals and nuclear families are likely to look out for themselves. Food is critical, and the tendency will be to grab and store. Each individual is likely to recognize that when others have urgent needs they may try to take what they need without much concern about who is the owner; so hiding and protecting becomes a major concern. Those who have had the foresight to plant vegetables are not likely to be able to prevent hungry neighbors from helping themselves. Something like the war of each against all, wrongly depicted by Thomas Hobbes as the natural state of human society, may actually obtain.
One may hope that some individuals take leadership in assembling the others and guiding them into cooperative behavior. One may hope that this cooperation does not lead to predatory relations toward people outside the group. But in a group of people with no previous ties there is little chance of overcoming individual self-concern sufficiently to offer security to all.
Accordingly, as we work for ecological civilization and prepare for now inevitable disasters, one major concern is to create communities in urban settings that recognize their shared destiny. To whatever extent possible, these communities would encourage vegetable gardening and fruit trees. In some cases, the gardening could be communal, and the community could develop its own sources of power and even of water. It might store some staples communally. Or it might have an understanding with local grocery stores to stop normal sales during a crisis and shift to rationing organized by the community. The more the members of the community feel participation in ownership, the easier it will be to share and protect what they have. Patterns of leadership and specialized contributions as well as habits of cooperative work will stand the community in good stead.
We can call such communities urban eco-villages. Their development is not impossible, but, at least in the United States, developing close relations among neighbors cuts against deep-seated habits of most city-dwellers. As we work to create ecological cities, we need to keep in mind that they consist of ecological neighborhoods or urban eco-villages. These will have a chance of surviving.
Whether we focus on global issues or local ones, the idea of shared destiny provides the key to what is needed. The nations of the world have a shared destiny as the planet changes. Neighbors in both rural and urban areas will have a shared destiny as crises come. The sooner, and the more deeply, we appreciate our shared destiny, the more we act from that realization, the better the chance that our shared destiny will be life together rather than mutual destruction.
(1) Note from editor: The "controversy" of which John Cobb speaks revolves around an article written by an academic in China who was critical of the work of "constructive postmodernists" in China and abroad who encourage Chinese to reclaim the wisdom of the past as they march into the future and who propose that, amid industrial development, rural farming and its lifestyles simultaneously be restored. The academic proposed, quite falsely, that the true agenda of constructive postmodernists was to keep China behind and to convert Chinese to Christianity, as evidenced by the fact that John Cobb is a Christian theologian.