On Day 2 of our Fixed Meeting Week, we had a fascinating session on the “Future of Sustainability” that featured a speaker from China, an economist currently working for a UN agency in Geneva, who spoke to us about China and how its government and 1.3 billion people are approaching sustainability.

You cannot pick up a paper or magazine (or turn on the TV for that matter) without hearing about China these days, and for many environmentalists in their discussions about sustainable development, it is the elephant in the room.

This speaker shared with us some refreshing insight into what China is doing in our field. First, he spoke about how China is translating the concept of ‘sustainability’ into ‘harmony’. Apparently, in 2005, the Chinese government shifted its focus from growth, to building a harmonious society. The concept of harmony has had its root in Chinese culture for thousands of years. Unlike ‘sustainability’, the concept of a ‘harmonious society’ is made in China. So it is more likely to be accepted by Chinese policy makers and people. Harmony is also an embracing concept; it means harmony within a person, between people, and (newly added) between people and nature. In fact this latter type of harmony is the foundation of this concept, as without harmony with nature, the other two types of harmony become increasingly difficult to attain. This concept of a harmony is being spread pervasively; the speaker saw a sign on a highway toll booth in rural China which read, “Collect tolls harmoniously”. When the Chinese government wants to do something, it can do it. Which brought him to his next point.

China’s political commitment to building a harmonious society is backed up by a strong state environmental protection agency, which in China is getting unprecedented power. While other sectors develop more fully in China, he said, that people are happy to have a strong central government and environmentalists are particularly happy that the state EPA has a much strengthened role.

The final point that our speaker made was that China is experimenting with sustainable living on a very large scale now. He noted that on an island near Shanghai, they are building the world’s first ecological city, which will become the model for 40 more cities of this kind that will be built in China in the next 20 years. Built using renewable energies, public transport, and more, these cities will help China learn about how urban sustainable living can be approached by its growing population.

Our speaker gave some final thoughts; China wants to play a role in a more sustainable world, it can play a role and it will play a role. How can we welcome more Chinese colleagues into our discussions, meetings and projects to learn together about what works for sustainable development in all parts of the world?

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