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Insights from 16th Claremont International Forum on Ecological Civilization

The world renown  Dr. John B. Cobb Jr., who is the founding co-director of Center for Process Studies and the president of Institute for Postmodern Development of China and a member of the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences, addressed the participants of the 16th Claremont International Forum on Ecological Civilization and 5th International Youth Forum on Ecological Civilization in the opening remarks. He pointed out that “today, there is no topic that is more important than ecological civilization!” Indeed, the present situation of ecological civilization is a pressing and urgent issue for all of humanity as a part of the global community.

I am grateful for the invitation of Dr. Wang Zhihe, Director of Institute for Postmodern Development of China, and felt very honored to take part in this important forum centered upon the shared concern of the human future, the mutual enhancement of international cooperation, and the collaborative construction of ecological civilization. During the three-day forum, I was inspired by the discussion on the current situation and future directions of ecological civilization in global society. It enriched my knowledge of the construction of ecological civilization and I am left with a greater confidence in sustainable developments. All the participants were assured that we are not working in isolation but in a community, which together strives for the development of an ecological civilization.

The theme for the first day was “Transforming Self for Ecological Civilization.” The construction of ecological civilization is inseparable from self-transformation, as self-transformation plays a significant role in the formation of an ecological self. I found the personal experiences and insights of the panel speakers very valuable.

Dr. Brain O’ Donnell, a psychotherapist with expertise in Pathwork, mentioned that though he loved to play in the woods and around the lakes when he was a child, he grew to dislike it because he did not want to feel the suffering of the earth. He noticed that in contemporary society, many people are in denial and are characterized by a numbness, pretending that the ecological crisis does not exist. He pointed out that the source of fear is our very selves. According to Dr. O’Donnell, the beginning of self-transformation is marked by accepting ourselves with kindness and without judgment, by caring for those around us, and by experiencing love in our hearts.

According to my observations, numerous people in today’s world have the habit of turning a blind eye to what is going on in society. However, certain issues, such as the environment, concern all living things on earth. No one can escape from them. In my opinion, we need to pay attention to ecological civilization and embrace it with courage. We need to work together with people around us to improve and protect our environment. This is an important task that requires our action.

Dr. Jeremy Fackenthal, who holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Religion and Theology from Claremont Graduate University, expressed that it is important to live in a community where we can try things out and surround ourselves with love and support. I appreciate his view and agree that community is central to ecological civilization and can provide people with much needed support, connection, and confidence.

Mr. Young Pei is a special researcher at the Institute of Religious and Cultural Studies at Peking University, a senior visiting scholar at the Center for Process Studies in the United States, and a visiting researcher at Otani University in Japan. He emphasized that human beings, as a part of nature, are interconnected with nature. Humans and nature mutually interact and influence each other. We as human beings ought to follow the law of nature and the universe. Only when humans are one with all of creation, there can be peace in the world. Mr. Pei shared his own reflection on transformation from the perspective that considers Chinese traditional culture and religious thought – represented by Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism – as thoroughly ecological, given its understanding of the oneness of all creation and the oneness of humans and nature. Further, Mr. Pei proposed that we must be kind to nature, to animals, to other people, and to all creation, while abstaining from greed and striving toward selflessness and benevolence. His proposal was very insightful and thought-provoking for me. Indeed, central to the realization of ecological civilization is our respect for nature, our creation of a shared community, our achievement of a harmonious co-existence with creation, and our commitment to the common good.

Mr. Pei mentioned that, according to Cobb, process philosophy, constructive postmodernism, and Chinese traditional culture share deep affinities with each other. Process philosophy and constructive postmodernism are characterized by a philosophy of organism, which perceives the universe as a living and interconnected whole in a flowing process. When considering human relationships, they reject the radical and rigid individualism in favor of the understanding of inter-subjectivity and self-in-relation to mitigate the conflict between the self and the other. Process philosophy and constructive postmodernism are ecological. They stress the dynamic relationship between human and nature, where nature is not the object of human conquest, but is in a harmonious co-existence with human beings.

The wisdom and insights of Chinese traditional culture, process philosophy, and constructive postmodernism provide invaluable resources for the creation of an ecological civilization, the development of which demands that we pay ample attention to them. Human beings are a part of nature. Humans and all creation are one. They exist in a reciprocal relationship, mutually interacting and implicating each other. To better our lives on this planet, every individual must respect, protect, and co-exist with nature. Further, I was greatly inspired by Mr. Pei’s way of life. His practices of waste sorting, green transportation, and reducing emission and energy consumption by installing only one air conditioner at home, serve as a good example for all of us.

The Korean philosopher of religion, Dr. Wangshik Jang, spoke of his previous ambivalence toward ecological civilization. He said that he used to avoid opportunities to participate in activities related to the topic, because he felt that long discussions didn’t solve any problems. However, the COVID pandemic and environmental pollution in the recent years made him realize that ecological concerns are rather urgent. Currently, he is rethinking issues related to the environment, changing his attitude from within, and actively taking part in seeking solutions for ecological issues starting with himself.

I believe that Dr. Jang’s experience of ambivalence resonates with many of us. Fortunately, the understanding that ecological civilization is critical has entered our consciousness. I am convinced that the situation will improve if we were to change our attitude and work together to protect our common home, starting now.

During the working group discussion session at the end of the first day, I shared my own reflections on “transforming self.” I used to work in frontline clinical care in a hospital. Given the intense stress at work, I liked to lie down at home during my off time. However, I realized this lifestyle was not only unhealthy for me, both psychologically and physically, it also disconnected me from nature. Then, I returned to nature by listening to the birds, talking a walk, and jogging in the forest. I found it delightful, allowing me to develop a deeper intimacy with nature. Later, I studied ecopsychology and expressive arts therapy. Whenever I have time, I would organize interested friends to go hiking, play games, dance, paint, meditate, and engage in various activities in nature. This allows us to take time away from the craziness of work and everyday life and to be immersed in nature. It helps us to relax both our body and mind, to experience joy, and ultimately to fall in love with nature.

The theme for the second day was “Transforming Society for Ecological Civilization,” where we discussed what kind of social transformation is needed for the construction of an ecological civilization and how to serve the common good of the planet. The plenary panel speakers were Professor Wen Tiejun, the renowned “San Nong” expert and a recipient of the “John Cobb Common Good Award;” Dr. Riane Eisler, a noted social systems scientist, futurist, cultural historian and the author of The Chalice and the Blade; Dr. Jonathan Dickstein, Assistant Professor at Arihanta Academy; and Dr. Hiheon Kim, a philosopher of religion. I found their personal experiences and thoughts rewarding.

Dr. Eisler mentioned that human beings are one with nature and we should construct and focus on a greater harmony while achieving a deeper connection in our consciousness. She pointed out that marginalized groups, such as women and children, are an integral part of our ecosystem and demand our attention. I resonate deeply with Dr. Eisler’s concern for women, given my personal experience. It is difficult for women to balance work, because most women face challenges of childbearing and child-rearing, as well as the demands of domestic responsibilities within the family. Further, women often encounter unfair treatment in society. Nonetheless, women play a significant role in society and family, whose development depends on the feminine. It is my hope that women can be treated justly and their important role in society and family can be better realized.

According to Professor Wen, China began its transformation from industrial civilization to ecological civilization in 2007. Currently in China, much emphasis has been put on rural development. The New Rural Reconstruction Movement has been developing for over 20 years. Many national fundings have shifted from the focus of urban construction to rural reconstruction. There are over 300 eco-villages in China. With the increasing improvement of rural infrastructure, many middle-class people originally from urban areas are returning to their hometowns to live with local farmers. Professor Wen calls more urban residents to return to the countryside to support rural development, local economy, and green energy, so there can be a greater integration between urban and rural residents. Together, they can establish eco-villages and eco-farms. It seems to me that many people have responded to Professor Wen’s call. Today, most people are paying attention to the improvement of our environment. Some are willing to return to rural areas and contribute to the development of ecological civilization in their hometowns by establishing eco-farms and supporting rural development efforts.

I have also reflected on the topic of “transforming society.” I have studied nature therapy for many years. As an aromatherapist certified by the Aromacampus, I am very enthusiastic about aromatherapy. I am also very interested in eco-farms and enjoy organic food. I spent a lot of time visiting eco-farms and biodynamic farms and thought about establishing an organic farm in my hometown or in the mountains of Dali, Yunnan. I have a vision about establishing an eco-nature studio at the farm to share related knowledge and skills with people who are interested, for example, how to improve soil conditions, how to cultivate organic aromatic plants, how to create aromatic cuisine, and how to express through natural forms. The realization of this vision requires much work from me. Nonetheless, I am hopeful. A friend of mine shared a similar vision and has already realized hers by establishing a farm by Cibi Lake in Dali and named it “Nongchan Garden.” It is a biodynamic farm certified by Biodynamic Federation Demeter International. It grows many aromatic plants, has outdoor aromatic kitchens and nature classrooms, and serves as a great place for my friends and I to relax, decompress, and stay connected to nature.

In my view, the present social situation requires that we begin with an internal transformation by increasing our knowledge and taking part in social reform. As we share our stories and insights, more people will join us. I consider the continuous effort and experimentation to shift from the individual level to the social level as a fundamental transformation characteristic of ecological civilization. 

The theme for the third day was “Transforming the Future and the Youth Forum.” This is a transformation that is comprehensive and entails the co-creation of a civilization and a new way of living. It also means that we need to reevaluate the mode of human existence. The plenary panel speakers include Ms. Dylan Romine, who holds a Master of Biology from the University of Central Arkansas and is currently managing an eco-farm; Ms. Luo Yi, the founder of Laotu and the 2018 recipient of the “UNEP Youth Champion of the Earth;” Ms. Jessie Green, who is Project & Development Associate at EcoCiv; and Ms. Yukyung Jin, who is a graduate student at Hanshin University. As the younger generation of ecological civilization practitioners, the four speakers shared their own stories.

What I found most inspiring in the forum was Ms. Romine’s story of co-founding the Green Bear Coalition at the University of Central Arkansas. It was a small-scale organic farm with vegetables and flowers, where interested people can come and work together, so they can experience the joy of growing and harvesting food. The farm also offered some cooking classes and would share with other people their own cooked vegetables. At the same time, it provided young people the opportunity to learn how to grow plants, to know more about them, and to connect with the earth on a deeper level. This farm formed a community for different people to come together and live with plants. Regular meetings were organized, so people of different generations can learn from each other. The farm also connected people from different countries and cities, creating mutual support and collaboration, so everyone can participate in this shared space and contribute to ecological civilization. This project has been ongoing for three years and many people are interested in joining them to transform it into a cross-disciplinary project, so to attract more people to be part of this work.

I was very interested in this project. Though my vision of starting an organic farm in my hometown will take time to actualize, Ms. Romine’s work is a great inspiration for me. I thought about getting a small piece of land located in a remote area of my current residential community and organizing interested residents to design it together. We could plant vegetables, aromatic plants, and flowers and gradually turn it into an urban mini eco-farm, where children, elders, and other interested people living in the community could take part in cultivating and managing this land. We could also create some ecological classes that teach people how to plant vegetables, aromatic plants, and flowers and how to cook aromatic food. We could even organize small meetings, where people can come and work together to protect the environment as a community. From the perspective of ecopsychology, this is a great way for people to decompress and relax and is beneficial for both physical and psychological health. I thought that this would be a very meaningful contribution, so I spoke with the relevant personnel, and he was very supportive of my ideas. We worked together to create this project and discussed all the preparation needed and possible challenges we might encounter. We are committed to this project and plan to start it by the end of the year.

I was also inspired by Dr. Cobb’s powerful speech on the third day of the forum. He praised the efforts of both Chinese and international young people in building an ecological civilization and apologized to the younger generation for leaving them with a world full of challenges. He pointed out that our present situation is very complex. To try to do everything as an individual is simply self-destructive. Instead, we can become a part of a community, so we can work together toward a common goal. As a community, we would have greater strength to confront challenges and bring about change. Dr. Cobb emphasized that as long as we seek strength, support each other, and walk hand in hand in love with our teams, communities, and like-minded people, there is hope. He highlighted the importance of love and cooperation and expressed that to die happily in cooperation and love is far better than to live in loneliness and without love.

As an elder, Dr. Cobb possesses great wisdom and love. He did not pressure the younger generation, but led by his own example and radiating positivity. He expressed his support for their efforts to continue striving for an ecological civilization. I believe that as a global community, we will witness the ecological improvement of our common home, that is the Earth, if we help each other and move forward together. I am confident that through our collective efforts, sustainable development as a part of an ecological civilization will reach new heights.

Dr. Simeiqi He recently graduated with a Ph.D. in Social Ethics from Drew University. She holds a Master of Arts in Theology and Ministry from Brite Divinity School, a Master of Social Work and a Graduate Certificate in Women and Gender Studies from Texas Christian University, and a Bachelor of Science in Materials Physics from Sichuan University.

Lifang Zhang received her Master Degree in Applied Psychology from California Institute of Integral Studies. She has been a Health Manager and Aroma Care Practitioner. She has studied ecological psychology and natural therapy for many years, and is a practitioner of ecological civilization and natural healing.