Open society and environment awareness: a lesson from China

Chinese environment correspondents thought they could open their society because of the urgency to face environmental problems. Their failure teaches us how much the survival of Britain’s open society matters if the world is to tackle global warming.

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‘Chinese environment correspondents talked with me shortly before President Xi came to power. They were on a high about the potential of the environment issue to propel China towards being a more open society. Environmental degradation had grown so large in the minds of all but the most dogmatic communists, that they were ‘open[ing] them up to public discussion and debates….a spirit of participation is fostered’[1]

Religion versus nature

Daoist and Buddhist thinkers, influential in East and South Asia for well over 2500 years until the arrival of the Europeans in the 19th century, saw human beings as part of nature and advocated harmony with the earth and all living things.

This was rather eccentric. Most pre-modern peoples were ruthlessly exploitative of nature, as are the few remaining primitive tribes today.[2] In

the West, the submission of nature to human whims has been baked into the ruling religions; a humbler approach to the world of which we are a part, pioneered by those East Asians, only began to emerge, in Britain, 2000 years later.

Christianity and Islam encouraged the idea that human beings are superior, in the image of God, and that nature is provided for their sanctified domination and exploitation.  These assumptions were also part and parcel of the, secular, religions of the 19th century, capitalism and communism.

The first environmentalists

When John Evelyn published a call to landowners to plant trees in 1664, it reflected a slowly emerging awareness that we are part of nature and that our environment has needs no less than we. A century later, Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia petitioned for clean air and Malthus warned of the ecological destruction that he imagined would result from overpopulation.

In the 19th century thinkers such as Emerson and Thoreau encouraged us to respect nature and botanists and ornithologists advocated conservation. Evelyn’s ideas about woodland conservation of two centuries earlier had practical results when, in 1855, in British India, the first permanent and large-scale forest conservation programme in the world was implemented.

Interest in, and concern for, nature was stimulated by the enlightenment and applied through the voyages of exploration, of which the most famous is that of the Beagle, from which Darwin conducted his investigations. In 1859 Darwin published The Origin of Species which further weakened the hold of the sanctified domination view of nature and encouraged those who wanted to limit our impact upon the environment.

Clubs and societies for the study of, and protection of, nature, proliferated. In 1865 the Commons Preservation Society was established, its concern for public access to be reinforced with the setting up of the Ramblers’ Association in 1935. In 1889 the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds was founded.

Environmental concern became more and more generalised and the destruction caused by both world wars increased awareness of the fragility of the environment, at least in the English-speaking countries. In 1958 Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring exposed the damage caused by pesticides; in 1961 the World Wildlife Fund was set up, followed by a plethora of organisations from Friends of the Earth (1969) to Greenpeace (1971) and initiatives such as David Attenborough’s Life Collection (2005) .

Open and closed societies

Until very recently, almost every significant lobby group, environmental campaign and book on this subject has been the product of people from the Anglophone, societies. That is not very surprising, because, though not democratic in the way we now understand democracy, these countries were, at least by comparison with others, open societies.

In the twentieth century, although environment awareness and the environment movement were developing rapidly in the English speaking countries and, by the latter half of the century, elsewhere, that century saw appalling degradation. This was probably much more severe than that caused by even the earlier industrial revolutions in Britain, the USA and northern Europe. Communism was the cause.

Communism, like the Bible religions, considered man the master of the world, its owner to smash and grab at will, above nature and lord of it. Moreover, at the practical level of law-making and policymaking, communist societies did not allow the kind of questioning that could in open societies, at least sometimes, hold back the worst excesses of exploitation.

The brave people who questioned the Three Gorges Dam Project in China, when completed in 2012 the biggest vanity project of politicians since the pyramids, redolent of toxic masculinity, went to prison. Thousands of communities were destroyed, millions displaced and the damage to the environment is incalculable; the price will be paid by generations ahead.

Since the Soviet Union collapsed, the government of Kazakhstan has been struggling to reverse one of the world’s worst environmental disasters. The fourth largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea, in Kazakhstan, containing over a thousand islands, disappeared by 2010 thanks to ill-conceived irrigation projects ordered, decades before, in Moscow.

Pollution in the former Soviet Union was the most extreme until China won that crown, during the Russian-inspired development programme which managed not only to reduce living standards to pre-1949 levels by 1979 [3] but to murder many of China’s educated people and peasant farmers who had the knowledge needed to work with nature.

Meanwhile, in Britain, planners created green belts around our cities and identified 150,000 miles of public footpaths, to encourage people to enjoy nature. Awareness of the cultural environment took more time to catch on, even in Britain. While in the 1950s Russian urban planners bullied the Chinese leaders to obliterate most of 14th century Peking, one of the wonders of the world and habitat of a rich popular culture, ‘modernisers’ in Britain produced plans to complete the destruction of central London which had been started by the German air force[4]. Fortunately, they failed, though Birmingham and other British cities were torn apart by greedy developers and irresponsible politicians. Moved by the writings of hundreds of proto conservationists, such as Gilbert White (just look up a list of them in Wikipedia), ordinary people worked to preserve the cultural achievements of their forbears and what they could of the natural environment. As early as 1810, Wordsworth conceived of the Lake District as something akin to a national park and this was further emphasised in a parliamentary bill of 1908, originated by the Scots MP James Bryce, which sought to ensure access to mountains. Birkenhead Park has been called the template for all parks everywhere in the world[5].

Anglophone leadership, China’s power

Not surprisingly, therefore, the pressure to get to grips, first with environmental degradation, then attenuated biodiversity, then ecology and now, most urgently, with climate change, first came from the Anglophone countries. 50 years ago, academics and activists imagined that they only had to control global corporations, mainly Anglophone run, to deal with the problems.  Things are very different now. The USA, under President Trump, relinquished leadership on the issue and denied its importance[6]. Today, it is what happens in China that will determine whether the world tackles climate change. China accounts for 29% of global carbon dioxide emissions, the USA 15%. Emissions per capita are much higher in less populous countries.

Although China has emphasised again and again that it gets that climate change is a threat and has demonstrated commitment to environmental action through air quality improvement and massive investment into renewable sources of energy and commitments to reduce greenhouse gases, it is doubtful whether it can lead the world. So many powerful interests are in favour of continuing China’s coal addiction, the forces of environment protection are weak and journalists, such as the one I quoted above, have been emasculated[7]. A 2022 major feature film showed that the exploitative attitude of the ruling class towards the environment has not changed since the 1950s: Cloudy Mountain (China Film Corporation) celebrates the destruction of mountains in pursuit of road building. Anglo-American demonisation of China has been a boon for ultra-nationalists and those who fear and hate ‘the West’; they even associate climate activism with Western imperialism.

Is there a constituency for the kind of self-discipline needed if the world is to reverse climate change? Whereas in the Anglosphere and Europe, thanks to openness and reasonably active media, many have understood the dangers and are adapting their habits, the newly well-off in China and other populous parts of Asia appear to have no intention of limiting their demand for meat, cars, electricity and foreign travel, all of which generate more greenhouse gases. Stewardship by families and communities ended when the Party seized ownership of land and property to be run by officials with no interest in the long term. The highest priority in many countries today is not the environment but stabilising the economy and society after decades of disruption, communist or capitalist.

And it will be the same in Britain, where the pandemic and the energy crisis

are taking a toll on economies already suffering from generations of neglect by politicians.  What politician will advocate putting climate change first, when the pent-up anger of left-behind Britain demands growth at any price?

On the other hand, the free circulation of ideas means that we are not limited by our politicians’ imaginations. People are both agitating and acting. In accord with British tradition, rather than adopting an ideological approach, they are assuming personal responsibility and fostering local approaches. Thinkers have argued that it is not governments and NGOs that will provide the solutions, but the empowerment of small communities and local associations. It is property rights and duties, community stewardship, trusteeships, taxation nudging that we should be thinking of as mechanisms to turn us from exploiters into protectors[8]. These, and doubtless many other ideas, emerge because our society is open and participatory.

A role for the UK?

With this deep background, Britain should be leading the argument. Yet the well-known weaknesses of our economy, long, in Larry Elliot’s grim expression ‘going south’, mean that our politicians, perceived as shallow vote-pleasers, have little or no credibility. Not until we have turned round our own economy, addressed the regional and individual inequalities and elected a government which serves, not the interests of the cosmopolitan rich but the marginalised majority, can we hope to be taken seriously as thought leader in the biggest enterprise of all – tackling global warming.

Aside from the USA, the other country with which we should be able to work closely and without whose partnership we cannot hope to influence global warming, is China. This is the country that our politicians, singing from a US song sheet, have done their best to alienate. If you wish to influence others, you need two qualities: a reputation for competence that gets you listened to; a willingness to understand their points of view and therefore the ability to deconstruct them, with empathy as well as reason. Unfortunately, our politicians have demonstrated little of either.

The nations that produced John Evelyn, the first activism for conservation and environment and, most recently, Extinction Rebellion, have a responsibility to share their insights with the world, and, in the process, get authoritarian states to become more open, if only because openness is a precondition for recognising the environment crisis – and acting.


Hugo ‘Huge’ de Burgh is a Professor of Journalism and author of China’s Media in the Emerging World Order (2nd edition UBP 2020) and Investigative Journalism (3rd edition, Routledge 2021).

[1] A Chinese environment correspondent, quoted in de Burgh, H and Zeng, R (2011) China’s Environment and China’s Environment Journalists Chicago: Intellect, p83

[2] Ridley, Matt (1996) The Origins of Virtue London: Penguin, p220-224

[3] Deng K. (2012) China’s political economy in modern times London: Routledge.

[4] Bryson, Bill (2016) The Road to Little Dribbling London: Black Swan 91

[5] Bryson (2016) p385

[6] President Biden thinks differently, but who knows how long that will last, and, anyway, the damage is done.

[7] There have been exceptions: Chai Ling’s documentaries and Cui Yong yuan’s blog, for example. See de Burgh, H (2020) China’s Media in the Emerging World Order, London: UBP, pp 21,54,88.

[8] Green Philosophy, by Roger Scruton, argues that people respect the environment when they associate it with their home and that of their children. Matt Ridley (1996) gives Asian examples of how local communities conserved, but government schemes were destructive.

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