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Eastern and Western Civilizations, and Symbiosis with Nature -- Wanglin Yan


Eastern and Western Civilizations and Symbiosis with Nature

Wanglin Yan

1. Eastern and Western Civilizations and Symbiosis with Nature

A new magazine is being published in Japan with the arrival of the new century. Its name, Nature Interface, would suggest a desire to understand and interact with nature - a desire to coexist with nature.

In the history of civilizations and indeed of humankind, you will find countless examples of human beings putting nature to skillful use. Yet there is no equating of the animal instinct to survive with the intellectual activity that sustains civilization. Symbiosis with nature is finally gaining acceptance as a scientific concept, at a time when the continued existence of human society is being threatened by the serious effects of human activity on the Earth's natural systems.

Even China, with its thousands of years of civilization, has shockingly few records of human symbiosis with the environment. The one exception is Yi Jing, parts of which touch upon the mutual interdependence of heaven, earth and humanity. Unfortunately, subsequent generations have interpreted this solely from the point of view of yin and yang as well as five elements (gold, wood, water, fire, and soil), never reaching the status of scientific theory. Fengshui, the Chinese way of understanding the harmony between artificial structures and natural elements, includes geographical features and compass direction, but its mix of taoist thought, social customs and feudalistic superstition precludes it from being a systematic view of nature.

The history of China is also a history of the conquest of nature, battles against nature that include the Great Wall, the Great Canal and legendary flood control measures carried out in ancient times. In modern times, there has been the mountain and river improvement movement promoted by Mao Zedong, and the current construction of the Three Gorges. The scale of each of these projects is beyond the imagination.

There is little doubt that such alterations of nature contributed to social stability and development in their respective eras, but a heavy price was also paid. Through successive dynasties, forests were cut down to make the bricks to build the Great Wall. This practice is considered by some to be one of the causes of the formation of the present-day Loess Plateau by windblown silt. Mao Zedong's mountain and river improvement movement may have been the only way to ensure a minimum of food for peasants on the brink of famine. But because it converted vast amounts of forest and grassland to agricultural land, the water recharge capacities at the upper waters of rivers became lower and soil was eroded.

Following reforms, an open policy gave peasants the right to manage the land freely. Seeing only the profits before their eyes, they cut down the forests and overgrazed cattle, causing desertification. The front line of the desert has just reached the suburbs of Beijing, a mere 70 km away from the city center. In addition, the Three Gorges, which are currently under construction, can be appreciated for the vast amounts of electricity it promises and for the consequent reduction in coal consumption, which will improve the environment. However, the effects of the dam on the natural environment, in terms of both time and space, are unfathomable today. Many scholars say that one day the payback will come.

Such projects, large and small, ancient and modern, may have been necessary in certain ways for the Chinese people to survive in a bad natural environment, but it is certainly true that the idea of human beings adapting to and getting along with nature is rarely found in Chinese thought. The desire or necessity to understand nature has been more prominent in modern Western civilization. Ecological thinking can be traced back to Aristotle, but this does not necessarily indicate that Western civilization has believed since ancient times in a symbiosis with the environment based on such ideas. This becomes apparent when you look at the environmental destruction that Europeans wreaked when they discovered new continents or colonized foreign lands.

In the summer of 2000, I spent three weeks in the tropical rainforest of the Atherton Tablelands in Northeast Queensland, Australia. By nature, this area had been covered with tropical rainforest. For tens of thousands of years the indigenous aborigines lived in this rich natural environment. At the beginning of the 17th century, European countries ventured to foreign countries and also reached the Australian continent. Later, large numbers of Europeans began to "settle" the land. To the Europeans, the lush forests and primitive civilizations meant an ideal chance to gain wealth and to build a country according to their own values. Important families from Europe and war heroes were given land, and soon gold mines, timber mills and ranches began to spring up.

In the eons since the Australian continent separated from Antarctica, it has been host to life forms that evolved on no other continent. This is the reason why ancient animals such as the platypus are indigenous only to Australia. At the same time, with no significant geological changes, there was no surface erosion due to orogenic activity or glacial movement, both of which other continents experienced, so Australia's soil is generally poor. in fact, it is generally said that even if you were to replace the forests with cattle pastures and farmland, such fragile soil would produce harvests for no more than three years. Once settlers understood that the land was not suitable for farming, they abandoned it and moved on to cultivate new land. In the 150 years from the establishment of the country at the end of the 18th century to the end of World War II, Australia's tropical rainforests dwindled to less than half their original size. The remaining forest is divided into patches, and more than a few are too small to be considered tropical rainforests or even to support animal life.

The harmful effects on the Australian environment wreaked by European settlers were not limited to the direct use of forest and coal resources. The many animals and plants that the settlers brought in dealt a fatal blow to the local ecology. As for animals, the inundation by rabbits is a well-known example. Poisonous frogs, which were introduced in hopes of reducing destructive insects, instead were responsible for the extinction of one indigenous frog species after another. Adventive plants are known commonly as "weeds." Lantana, brought from Brazil, has an incredible ability to survive. It grows big in southern Australia, almost like trees, but in northern areas it keeps to the ground like ivy. Wherever it finds a gap or an edge in forested land, it will always be the first to grow, preventing the penetration of other plants, cutting off the natural transition of plant life. The Australian government has spent huge sums to eradicate these weeds using chemical and biological methods, but with little result to show for their efforts.

In the end, it seems that we have reached the modern society without any improvement in Eastern or Western civilization's deficiency in understanding nature. It is true that Western civilization was the first to sense that human reshaping of nature was detrimental to the environment, and modern ecology can be considered an outgrowth of the reflection on that detriment.

2. Negative Legacy of the 20th Century

The 20th century will be remembered by history for its industrial civilization. However, the benefits of industrial civilization have not spread equally to all of humanity.

Most people in advanced countries that have achieved prosperity live in cities that are well-equipped facilities for health, welfare and recreation, allowing them to enjoy life as civilized people. The price paid is the consumption of huge amounts of physical resources. The resources consumed per urban hectare are said to be 2,000 times that of the equivalent area in

rural regions. This statistic should give us some idea of how great a strain urban areas around the world place on environmental resources.

It is also true, however, that just one-fifth of the world's population enjoys the benefits of modern civilization. In developing countries, a large number of people are forced to lead lives at a subsistence level. This huge gap will be perhaps the worst legacy of the 20th century. People in developing countries want to lead lives like those of people in advanced countries, but given the present-day condition of the Earth's ecosystem, this is an infeasible desire. This planet cannot bear any further human burden. Therefore, environmental conservation is an issue that human society worldwide must face directly, even though the situation differs between advanced and developing countries.

In advanced countries birth rates are dropping, and sharp declines in population have become a problem. And people from farming families are increasingly moving to urban areas. From the perspective of economics, it is good for a country's population to be concentrated in urban areas. However, as a result, vast tracts of agricultural land are being ruined. The land adjoining farming villages is already a lot of human-destroyed nature, but if neglected further such land will only get worse. The same problem exists in the Atherton area of Australia mentioned above. In the early 20th century the coal-mining town of Chilago flourished there, with several thousand workers at its peak. Today the town stands in abject decline, almost no one lives there anymore, and all you see are the smokestacks of the former refinery and the abandoned marble quarry plus a few tourists. It is completely desolate. The town is surrounded by vast arid and semi-arid land. To maintain the ecosystem, grazing needs to be managed, wildfires prevented, destructive insects exterminated, etc. A great many things need to be done. But can such tasks get done when there are no workers?

To restore cleared forestland to healthy growth requires huge amounts of labor and time. For a tropical rainforest to recover by itself, more than a full century would be needed. The ecological system will not wait for such slow natural progress to take place. Increasing numbers of animal species will become extinct, soil will erode and grasslands will turn to desert. The sooner this progression can be arrested, the better. However, Australia has over 7.5 million square km of land, with a total population of just 18 million, 90% of which inhabits the coastal regions. Urbanized individuals may enjoy spending their leisure time in nature, but it is impossible for them to devote their time and energy to activities aimed at restoring nature in a town far from where they live.

This problem takes a different form in developing countries. In Southeast Asia and Brazil, the felling of tropical rainforests and burning of fields is a recurring problem, and seems to be caused by the supply of timber to advanced countries. These are not the only problems in developing countries. The situation in western China is worse. Some of the warning signs from nature are continuing: The Yellow River drying up in 1997, the Changjiang (Yangtze) River basin flooding massively in 1998 and northern China being hit by sandstorms in the spring of 1999 are just a few examples. Yet the rate of activity that destroys the environment is not slowing down in the least. Farming in the dry highlands of western China is poor. Because the area is largely inhabited by minority peoples, the one-child policy of the government was lifted when China started the family plan program in the late 1970s. As a result, the population just continues to rise. For example, Guyuan County in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region is arid or semi-arid, but the population density at the end of 1999 reached 130 people per square km, 5.9 times higher than the range of 7-22 people recommended by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This destitute land cannot support such a population. As a result, a large number of steep slopes were cleared forcibly for farming land, inviting severe soil erosion. Xiji County, also in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, received support from the FAO in the early 1980s to carry out a project to return farmland to forest. For every hectare of farmland afforested, 1500 kg of food was provided. Under this program, 100,000 hectares of forest land and grassland have been planted with trees and 60,000 hectares of farmland restored to forest, boosting the percentage of forested land to 11.5%. However, in the ensuing two decades, 80% of the afforested land has been destroyed, once again to be used for farmland. Various reasons have been cited for this turn of events, including that the program's design was not good and that its management was unsustainable, but the most important reason is the excessive rise of the population. At the time the project began, the provincial population was 300,000. Today it is 450,000. Since there are no other employment opportunities for the additional population, people have been forced to cut down the forests and make farmlands to grow food.

Sichuan Province is located in the Changjiang (Yangtze) River basin. After decades of deforestation, a huge quantity of soil has flowed into the river, upsetting the balance of the catchment's ecological system. Furthermore, the river is said to be in danger now of becoming the second Yellow River--shallow, muddy, and prone to devastating floods. This kind of unwarrantable development brought on one of the worst floods in Chinese history 1998, shocking the Chinese government and people. In the midst of fighting the flood, the Chinese government issued a total ban on logging of forests in the Changjiang River basin. However, the chainsaws did not stop for long. According to a report on 19 August of that year, a state-run lumberyard along the Changjiang soon resumed logging as before, and that year alone 300,000 km or 3,000 hectares of forest disappeared. Faced with pressure from the mass media, the Sichuan Province government must take drastic measures. Beginning 1 September 1998, all logging was unconditionally stopped in the upper basin of the Changjiang, and all lumber trading posts were closed.

In other words, in the face of unbearable population pressure, even a good policy may be ineffective. Unless methods are able to both conserve the environment and improve people's lives, the people will not accept them and the policies will not last long. In advanced countries, restoring abandoned land that had once been developed, in order to prevent it from going to ruin, has become an issue. But in developing countries, forced to focus on the survival and livelihood of rural populations, there is still no solution to the dilemma of development versus conservation.

3. Human environmental study in the new century

The single biggest problem facing 21st-century humankind is how to fulfill the continuing development of their lives despite the hard realities.

The industrialized countries, which had been worried about environmental pollution problems, immediately realized that the extension of one-sided industrial production was damaging to the environment. In the 1970s, they nearly solved these problems. Into the 1980s, in general, and at first considering environmental effects, large-scale buildings began to adopt an Environmental Impact Assessment system. And in the 1990s, the conception of the environment became more extensive, including the connections between the natural and social environments, all of the spaces around human life, which yet have been organized for human activity. As a head of a house had been getting fruits from his trees ever since he was born, but one day realizes his trees have become so poor and small that he might not have its fruits next year, he decides to feed his trees for his family's future life. From then on he and his family take care of the trees sincerely.

Today, most urbanites would be similar to this man and his family. Despite being reminded by environmental slogans in the past ten years, not all cities in Japan limit their refuse disposal. Very recently, a public official recommended incinerators for use by families and factories, but this call was soon abandoned for fear that emissions of dioxins would increase. Garbage disposal facilities also came to be hated like poison after the dioxin problems emerged. After all, nature is managed by human measures that are almost the same as those used 50 years ago. Even though high-quality techniques have become commonplace, humans are drifting even further away from nature.

So, I learned about the Australian "Landcare" program, a human environmental study for the 21st century. I was indeed impressed when I stayed in tropical forests considering these questions. I want to describe in this magazine a few features of the Landcare program.

From the end of WWII until 1985, for some 40 years, the Australian government recommended afforestation and the conservation of land by allocating huge amounts of capital and labor power. The results were a bad influence on the country's environment and development, as mentioned above. However, few Australians participated in this program, owing to the controlled governmental policies, and the program was ineffective. At the end of the 1980s, however, the Landcare program began as a grass-roots campaign, and it has been spreading ever since. After 13 years, over 4000 Landcare groups have been established, and almost all landowners and farmers in Australia are members. In the cities and towns, several hundred groups have been formed to promote the protection and conservation of land and water by a grass-roots movement. Neither the national nor local governments established these groups, but government subsidies do support them by providing information and techniques.

In 1989, three years after the first Landcare group was formed, the government announced a ten-year plan for Landcare, setting out a strategy to support this national Landcare movement. During my stay in Australia, I participated in a lakeside tree-planting project conducted by the Peterson Creek Landcare chapter.

Landcare's object is to preserve the farmer's management of the land and its ecology, and to continue developing a healthy community that seeks to strike a balance between economic needs and the protection of nature. The nucleus of each chapter is the local inhabitants, who indeed know the local environment. Generally, participants are landowners, wives and students, all volunteers, so that expenses are minimal. The Landcare program is so successful that it is extending to New Zealand, Africa, both eastern and western Asia and the Americas. One of Australia's contributions to the world, this program is highly rated by groups around the world, such as Eucalyptus.

At the end of 2000, I returned to China and learned of a sort of Chinese version of the Landcare project. The Chinese government started it really to restore the land to the ecological state that existed before violent development destroyed much of it over the past 50 years. In March 2000, the Chinese national civil mass meeting discussed on the great Western development, which was not merely economical development, but looked deeply at the recovery of the Western ecological system and its conservation. The policy called Tui Geng Huan Lin, turning farmlands into pastures and forests, for managing economical development and the environment. If a farmer turned a slant farmland of 1 ha into a forestland or a pasture, the program provided 2250 kg of foodstuffs and 300 yuan for purchasing seedlings. Yet the government grants the long-term right of using the land and no land tax during a proper period.

Such land-used policy focused on the ecosystem never existed in Chinese history. This may be the most fundamental reversal of agricultural policy in the 50-year-history of People's Republic of China. Chinese land, which for so long helped China's culture to develop, now cannot sustain greater loads. If China does not correct its course immediately, it is now destined to follow in the steps of the last Rouran City, which was lost in the desert.

The Chinese government's Tui Geng Huan Lin policy looks a lot like the Australian Landcare program, but its ways are different. Both have as their object the recovery of the land and the protection of the ecology, and both of them respect farmers' independent will. However, only one year has passed after the Chinese government's Tui Geng Huan Lin policy started. The Landcare program would be helpful to build up the Chinese system.

Therefore, I would rate the Australian Landcare program highly, for several reasons. First, this program is meant to take care of nature, which is different from the concept of conservation which until now has centered on man. Suppose we consider a human civilization that is supported by fragile nature. Landcare's environmental study will be the most important thing for the people of the present day. Second, Landcare is a locally established, grass-roots organization. Government and professional people provide funds and techniques to these local chapters, but nonetheless the basis for this program is that people discuss their problems and ideas with each other and decide what they have to do at that time. Third, basically people do both economic development and the conservation of the environment. Without both aims, Landcare would not have the support of farmers or landowners. Fourth, many activities of Landcare are based on small drainage areas using the key words of soil and water. Thus, Landcare is the most scientific and effective measure when natural systems are focused on. Fifth, Landcare has the support of government resources appointed to back up projects and programs, to enforce and to strictly check the results.

Around the world, no other environmental program can match Australia's Landcare, which has 13 years' worth of actual results, national participation and systematic methods. All people should become familiar with the word Landcare, and to associate it with love of nature and the land, no matter what country they are in. I believe that such love will spread out from Landcare to Environment care and Earth care.

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