By Satish Kumar, author of Soil, Soul, Society.

This article was first published in Resurgence & Ecologist issue 310, September/October

2018. Reprinted here with permission from the publisher. To buy a copy of the magazine, read further articles or to find out about the Trust, visit

China is facing grave problems of air, water and soil pollution. Through carefully managed debate, the government is keen to be seen taking action. But is it more than words? Satish Kumar visited the country to find out more.

China’s recent history is one of change: the communist revolution, the cultural revolution, the
industrial revolution and the consumer revolution have taken place at breakneck speed, with mixed
outcomes. One of the results has been the devastation and degradation of the precious natural
environment so beloved of the Chinese people. Their religion, culture, art, poetry and lifestyle have
always been rooted in the idea of living in harmony with Nature. So how could they get swept away
from their fundamental source of nourishment?

Out of this psychological as well as environmental crisis an opportunity presented itself to reexamine
their modus operandi. In 2007 a new insight emerged: a new dream and a new promise of
creating an ecological civilisation arose on the horizon. Soon the idea was enshrined in the Chinese
Communist Party’s constitution, and in every government department a special unit was established
to promote the practice of an ecological civilisation.

The first step in this direction was to make a handsome investment in renewable energy. Then, more
importantly, an Ecological Civilisation Association was created, with its headquarters in Beijing, and
many branches in various regions and provinces of China.

The present generation is heavily wedded to the pursuit of economic growth. Their minds and
behaviours are conditioned and committed to the old paradigm of an industrial civilisation.
Therefore, the only hope for creating an ecological civilisation was to prepare the younger
generation before they were sucked into the old paradigm of development at the cost of the

I had the pleasure of visiting China in March this year with my friend James Graham, an artist and
activist who is campaigning to stop plastic pollution around the world. We wanted to know whether
this ecological civilisation is merely a slogan, or a genuine commitment to ecological values in
everyday life. We have no doubt that there is profound interest on an intellectual and academic level,
but it is not so evident at a practical level. Nevertheless, the government, the media, the universities
and even the economists are putting Nature conservation at the top of their discourse, and that is
something to be welcomed.

Our time in China was brief, with only a visit to the province of Fujian during our week’s stay. We
were guests of the Agriculture and Forestry University in the city of Fuzhou. The question for our
deliberation was stark: how to reconcile an ecological civilisation with economic prosperity. This
gave me an opportunity to introduce my favourite trinity in the context of Chinese culture.

It is useful for any great movement to articulate its vision in a few words; a trinity is a perfect form
for this. For the Chinese Ecological Civilisation those three words should be Soil, Soul, Society. If we
look into the cultural history of China we have three historical figures – Lao Tzu, the Buddha and
Confucius – who, in my view, represent this trinity.

Lao Tzu was a natural philosopher. He said: “The people are ruled by the Earth, and the Earth is a
sacred vessel.” He further said: “Nature never makes an aesthetic mistake, and it is this perfection
that allows us to rest in awe.” His wisdom was rooted in Nature, and thus he represents the voice of
the soil.

Then the Buddha – he was not Chinese, of course, but his teachings have had a profound influence in
the country – represents our absolute and unassailable unity with the spirit: what I call Soul. From a Buddhist perspective, ecology is not simply an external matter of organisation. Ecology should be
built on the foundation of love.

The Buddha said: “Radiate boundless love towards the entire world; above, below, and across,
unhindered, without ill will and without enmity. Love without measure, love unconditionally and

Third, Confucius asks us to take total responsibility and live in perfect harmony with all human
beings (Society). Human wellbeing is as much a part of an ecological civilisation as the wellbeing of
planet Earth (Soil) and the individual person (Soul).

Confucius was a social philosopher who upheld the paramount importance of benevolence. He
reminded the Chinese people again and again that the universal moral order is based on the
principal of reciprocity and mutuality, and that only by adhering to these principles can we
accomplish social coherence.

He said: “First there must be harmony within your own mind. Then this harmony will spread to your
family. Then to your community and finally to your entire society. Only then can you have peace all
around. Let the state of equilibrium and harmony exist in perfection. Then a happy order will prevail
throughout heaven and Earth, and all things will be nourished and flourish.” One of the wisest golden
principles taught by Confucius was, “What you do not wish others to do unto you, do not do unto

Thus Lao Tzu, the Buddha and Confucius laid the foundations of an ecological civilisation. We can
formulate their teachings in the trinity of Soil, Soul, Society.

The ideal of an ecological civilisation is very much in line with the ideal of the New Rural
Reconstruction Movement led by Wen Tiejun. Wen is collaborating with Schumacher College in
Britain, and the college is collaborating with his University of Southwest China to reconnect the
Chinese economy with ecology on the basis of appropriate land use, agro-ecology, rural crafts and
artisan food. Wen knows President Xi Jinping personally and believes that he is genuinely committed
to promoting a high degree of ecological awareness.

I asked Wen: “Isn’t there a contradiction between President Xi Jinping’s announcements and the
Chinese pursuit of continuous economic growth?”

He replied: “Yes, there is an apparent contradiction, but things cannot be changed overnight. Also,
not everybody in the Chinese government is in total agreement with the president’s view. China was
facing grave poverty, so the government’s first and foremost task was to bring millions of people out
of poverty. That has been achieved. So now we can begin to change our direction.”

We were fortunate to meet Mr Wang, the head of the Ecological Civilisation Association in Beijing. He
said: “It is more than tragic, it is catastrophic that President Trump is pulling out of the Paris
(Climate) Agreement between nearly 200 nations of the world. If the USA, which is supposed to be
the leader of the western world, behaves in such a manner, what hope is there for the future of our
planet home?

“It will be utter foolishness to take pure air, clean water, pristine soil and blue sky for granted. If we
pollute the air, infect the water, poison the soil and fill the sky with greenhouse gases, we will be
behaving like a fool who is cutting the branch on which he is sitting. Our ideal is that all nations must
come together and embrace the concept of an ecological civilisation.”

This article was first published in Resurgence & Ecologist issue 310, September/October
2018. Reprinted here with permission from the publisher. All rights to this article are reserved to The Resurgence Trust. To buy a copy of the magazine, read further articles or to find out about the Trust, visit