Communication for Sustainable Development

Lessons from Confucius on sustainable living

When Joel Kassiola visited China for the first time in 2006, he saw firsthand the environmental impact of a nation with the largest population on Earth, and the experience galvanized his thinking on the environment and the need for social change.

A longtime expert on environmental politics, Kassiola began making regular trips to China to lecture at universities and think tanks. "I told the current and future leaders of China they must find a new way, and not follow the American hyperconsumer lifestyle with its ubiquitous advertising, debt, bankruptcies and environmental degradation," said Kassiola, dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences and professor of political science. "But I realize that without proposing an alternative to consumerism, the status quo will always have the advantage."

In a new book, Kassiola suggests that Confucianism, a cultural tradition based on the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius, could provide China and western nations with valuable lessons about what a more sustainable society could look like.

"With its focus on morality over materialism and an emphasis on family and relationships, Confucianism can inform how we construct an alternative model to western consumerism," Kassiola said. "A focus on Confucian values could provide a pathway to a more sustainable and just China."

"Confucian philosophical thought on harmonious relationships between man and nature, man and his/her fellow man, and between the inner spiritual world of man and his/her outer material world provides insight into the root causes of, and possible solutions to, various environmental, economic and social problems and challenges facing the contemporary world," said Sujian Guo, professor of political science.

Edited by Kassiola and Guo, "China's Environmental Crisis: Domestic and Global Political Impacts and Responses" brings together a collection of essays based on research presented at the Association of Chinese Political Science annual meeting in 2008. The book includes contributions about China's awakened interest in global climate change negotiations, the country's growing non-profit sector and the use of social media to mobilize citizens to protest about green issues.

"The book doesn't dwell on descriptions of devastation. Instead it looks at how environmental issues are changing Chinese politics and society," Kassiola said.

Following is an excerpt from Kassiola's chapter in the book:

The subject of China's path to development is not only of paramount importance to all Chinese citizens and their leaders but is of profound significance to the entire world because of the many ecological, economics, politics and social consequences that will ensue from the decisions that are made in Beijing and throughout China. The point is central to all of my work on the environment and political theory: human values and politics lie at the root of the environmental crisis, and it is only when we recognize and call upon political theory for ideas to implement social change of our values as well as the social practices based upon them that the feared global environmental catastrophe can be averted and we can learn how a socially just and sustainable society can be created.

The basic principle of my thinking on the environment … is that the environmental crisis is not, as most people define it, a crisis in technology or science, wherein a breakthrough in these fields will resolve it. Instead…the environmental crisis is at its root a crisis in values – a spiritual crisis…"

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