Necessities for an Ecological Civilization

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is

This speach was delivered at a conference of Chinese delegates at the Claremont School of Theology, May 3-4, 2010. Used by permission of the author.


The awareness of a tension between tradition and modernization in China may offer the most hope for the emergence of a new consciousness fully supportive of the move toward an ecological civilization. China deserves high marks for its efforts to deal with the problem of overpopulation. However, the most important research for China to engage in now is how to produce more food and fiber with less water and less arable land.


It is my great joy and privilege to welcome you to Claremont. We are truly honored that you have come to exchange ideas with us. You certainly should not come to the United States in hopes of finding here an ecological civilization. What you may find are people who have been hoping and working for breakthroughs in this direction, but have grown increasingly frustrated by developments in this country. The chance that China may take the steps that could lead to such a civilization is for us a source of great hope. But the chances of any nation actually doing all that needs to be done for such a civilization to emerge remain uncertain.

One requirement for a nation to move far in the direction of ecological civilization is cultural or spiritual. People are not likely to treat nature with the necessary respect if they do not deeply feel that they are part of it. In this regard the remnants of indigenous cultures point the way, but none of them are in position to lead a contemporary nation. As hunting and gathering cultures gave way to agricultural ones and then to urban-oriented ones, deep diversities emerged with respect to the relation of human beings to the encompassing world. The separation went furthest in Western Europe, climaxing in what we call the Enlightenment and modernity. Chinese civilization, on the other hand, retained something of the ancient feel for participation and belonging in the natural world.

Not everything about modernity is bad, and not everything about traditional Chinese culture is good. Nevertheless, the persistence of the influence of that culture almost certainly supports an ecological consciousness better than do those cultures that have been alienated from nature for many centuries. The awareness of a tension between tradition and modernization in China may offer the most hope for the emergence of a new consciousness fully supportive of the move toward an ecological civilization.

Another prerequisite for a nation to move toward ecological civilization is that those with greatest power care about the well being of the nation’s people as a whole and especially for the poor. A nation that is largely controlled by corporations and especially financial institutions, such as the United States, can do very little. I believe that the Chinese government still remains dominant over those who have private economic power, and I hope this continues. In every society wealth threatens to corrupt, and China is not free from this danger. But as of now I believe that the government can act, and that it has the will to act, for the common good of the people of China, and to a lesser extent, of the world.

A third prerequisite for moving toward an ecological civilization is control of population. There is no way that an ecological civilization can be established with an exploding population. The population must be stabilized. Such stabilization has been achieved in some countries without effort or even intention. But the problem has been a difficult one for China as for many other countries. Among those nations in which economic and cultural factors did not support the move toward this goal, none has worked as hard as China to achieve this stabilization. In the process China has encountered many problems and many criticisms, some of which are valid, and despite the seriousness of its efforts, they may have been insufficient. But if any country is to be given high marks for its efforts to deal with the problem of overpopulation, it is China.

Beyond these basic prerequisites, China has taken the great step of announcing its intention of becoming an ecological civilization. Of course, even genuine intention does not mean that this one goal replaces all others. China also has the goal of being a great power, and it has not abandoned the goal of growth in conventional GDP terms. The question is now whether it will envision the nature of an ecological civilization wisely and quickly begin the experimentation and implementation that is so urgently needed.

Most of the current discussion focuses on what can be done to reduce the rate of exhaustion of limited resources, the polluting of air, water, and soil, and the rate of global warming. This is important and deserves all the attention it is getting. But if the world is on a collision course with disaster, it is also important to consider how the disaster could be avoided and not only delayed. In 1972 we held here in Claremont a conference on "Alternatives to Disaster." This question still preoccupies me. And I will summarize my present judgment.

We can divide most of contemporary global society into two parts: rural and urban. The countryside provides what is most essential for any society: food and fiber, as well as raw materials for construction and for industry. On the othr hand, most of the construction and industry along with commerce, government, and advanced education, communication, and entertainment, take place in the urban sector. In the world in which we now live, neither the countryside nor the city is sustainable. I will make two proposals for change, one about agriculture in the countryside and the other about the physical construction of cities. In conclusion I will comment on how these changes would contribute to the solution of other problems.


In a survey of issues especially affecting the countryside, one would need at least to consider mining, forestry, and livestock in addition to farming. I select the latter for my example. To be an ecological civilization a nation must be self-sufficient in food and fiber, and this must be produced in sustainable ways. I will separate the two points: self-sufficiency and sustainability.

1) Until recently China was basically self-sustaining in agricultural production. In 1995 Lester Brown published a booklet entitled, "Who Will Feed China?" Since China was self-sufficient, many did not appreciate the book. But Brown saw that as Chinese became more prosperous and ate more meat the situation would change even if the population of China did not increase. Now the Chinese government is seeking to gain control of large tracts of land especially in Africa from which it can supply the additional food Chinese will need.

This is from many points of view a wise and farsighted move, but it is not compatible with an ecological civilization. Africa does not have genuinely surplus land. On the contrary there is much hunger, even starvation in Africa. A truly ecological civilization will do as little damage as possible to weaker and poorer people in the process of supplying its own needs. Furthermore, nations that are not self-sufficient will increasingly enter into conflict with one another over control of such assets. An ecological civilization cannot be one that is frequently at war.

But is there any alternative? Obviously the first responsibility of the Chinese government is to its own people. Even if China is still nearly self-sufficient, its needs will increase, and problems with Chinese agriculture will worsen. Deserts will continue to spread; aquifers will be exhausted; and the glaciers in Tibet will melt.

I cannot speak to this question of an alternative possibility with any personal authority. I will only say that I believe that the most important research for China to engage in now is how to produce more food and fiber with less water and less arable land. This involves both the more efficient use of water and the development of crops that need less. Further, since China’s need for agricultural products is increasing, the quest must be for ways of farming that are even more productive than those now used. This is asking for a great deal.

The need to produce more agricultural products with less water and arable land will tempt a modernizing China to engage in crash programs of high tech farming that will prove radically unsustainable. This will make the achievement of an ecological civilization impossible. China must not go the way of industrial agriculture. China should build on its great resource of skillful hard working peasants who can learn to be even more productive. This will be a labor-intensive form of agriculture, and, if China becomes an ecological civilization, it will owe this achievement most of all to skilled farmers who learn how to produce more with less. A major element in envisioning such an agriculture will be the shift from annual to perennial grains now led by Wes Jackson of the Land Institute.

People who know assure me that there are methods of sustainable farming that can increase total production. They are very labor intensive. They have been developed here and there at the fringes of organic farming. Learning from them and developing a highly productive agriculture appropriate to each ecosystem will require a great deal of study and training.

Mainstream economists have taught farmers how to economize on labor, that is, how to produce more crops with less human involvement. The modern industrial farm has resulted. The agriculture of the future will need to economize on land, water, and chemicals. If it requires a great deal of human and animal labor, so be it. An ecological civilization is one in which the needs of all are met in sustainable ways. This may require hard work. It will require a love of the land and a sense of solidarity with all life that is very different from the feelings of those who drive huge combines over vast fields. I believe China has the possibility of developing this form of agriculture and achieving self-sufficiency of a sustainable sort. That will be a huge step toward an ecological civilization.

For this to work, farmers who are skilled in making more out of less in a sustainable way should be honored by all of society. This is both a matter of paying well for their products and public recognition of the importance of their skills. If we want farmers to engage in sustainable and even regenerative agriculture, we must make sure that they see what they are doing as contributing to the well being of their children and their children’s children. Developing an ecological civilization involves cultural, social, and economic changes as well as technical skills.

Critics will point out that food will cost more when its production is so labor –intensive and when the labor of farmers is well-compensated. My reply is, so be it. The cost of food is going up under the present system as well, because the cost of oil is rising and even with more chemical additives the supply is not keeping up with demand. But in the present system the profit from the rising price goes primarily to the great agricultural corporations. Sometimes the income of those who labor on the farms grows less than what the price they must pay to eat the food they produce.

There must also be a reversal of the trend, dictated by urban growth and economic policies, to turn much of the best farmland into industrial and residential sites. An ecological civilization will prize its farmland too much to continue this process. This trend results in part from policies that make moving to cities attractive to members of farm families. Hence celebrating and rewarding farm labor will reduce the process of shifting population from the countryside to the cities. But we also need to reconceive cities so that the trend will be to return land to its most important use.


This leads into the second major element in an ecological civilization – ecologically frugal urban habitat. For habitat to be ecologically frugal it would need not only to use little of scarce resources and to end pollution; it would also need to use less land, especially land needed for agriculture. In this regard many years ago I was captured by the vision of Paolo Soleri. He proposed that many structures, such as bridges and dams could have multiple uses, such as providing housing without taking up additional space. But, most important, he showed that what at first glance seems to be unpleasant crowding could in fact improve livability.

A great deal of the space in our cities is devoted to transportation. In addition to the streets and highways, there are also parking lots and filling stations. All this contributes to noise, crowded streets and sidewalks, and pollution. Much can be done to improve this by building subways and using bicycles. But Soleri proposes a more radical solution. Remove the streets altogether and fill that space with buildings, or rather incorporate it, along with the existing buildings into a single architectural ecology or arcology. Build this single structure high into the air. It will then be able to house not only a large population but also businesses and schools and sports stadiums and theaters. At the base of these arcologies will be the industries that support them. Within the arcologies, there will be elevators and escalators and moving walks as well as walking and biking paths. Much of the land now covered by streets and buildings can be returned to agriculture or woodlands.


One particularly unecological feature of our current world is its rapid consumption of fossil fuels. These are a finite resource, but more serious than that is the consequence of their consumption. Pollution and global warming are the results. Industrial agriculture adds greatly to the use of fossil fuels. Transportation is another great user. And cities consume enormous quantities to heat and cool their buildings.

An ecological civilization will greatly reduce its use of fossil fuels. Of course, this can be done by shifting to other forms of energy, but most of these also have problems. This is especially true of nuclear energy, which does not belong in an ecological civilization. Only passive solar energy seems to be completely free of such problems. The goal of an arcology, like that of ecological agriculture, would be to meet all its needs with passive solar energy. Soleri believes that if sufficient energy can be gathered for the industries at the base of the arcologies, the waste heat from these industries can meet the other needs for energy. The solar energy might be collected in vast greenhouses that would also be part of the labor-intensive agriculture of the ecological civilization.

There would remain transportation between cities and between them and the countryside. The first goal here, too, would be to reduce the need. Consider first, human movements from one city to another. In our social and economic arrangements a great deal of this is required. However, the goal in an ecological civilization would be to make arcologies together with the nearby countryside as self-sufficient as is practical. Most businesses would operate in only one arcology. Business travel would be greatly reduced. There would be less tendency for family members to disperse to distant arcologies, so that the need to travel for family reasons would also be reduced.

Nevertheless, communications with people all over the country and the world would continue to be important. Advances in technology are already making it possible for widely scattered people to interact extensively and satisfactorily without being physically together. This should be encouraged. Of course, some travel would continue, mostly by rail, but also by air.

More important than human movements is the transportation of goods. Here physical movement cannot be avoided. The products of the countryside must be brought into the city and the produce of factories must be taken to the countryside. Some increase in the use of animals for this purpose is possible, but for the most part the task will be to find the most efficient means of such transportation and use solar energy as far as possible to power it.

However reduced, there should and would be continuing exchange of goods between arcologies. This should be done mostly by rail with trains powered as much as possible by solar energy. These trains could, of course, also carry passengers.

Even in what I am sketching as an ecological civilization there would, thus, be some use of fossil fuels. But it would be a small fraction of present use. Hopefully, it would be within the limits of nature’s capacity to absorb wastes. Technological progress should further reduce it.

Obviously the economic system that would fit in with arcologies and the primacy of farming would be quite different from the one that has dominated most of the world in recent times. The major issue would not be capitalism versus socialism. It would be meeting the needs of an ecological society. China rightly decided some years ago that prices should be set by the market rather than the government. Arcologies together with their surrounding countryside would provide markets of sufficient size for there to be sufficient competition in many fields. Considerable freedom of action in the business community would be possible.

However, the economy would be market socialism, that is, a civilization in which the society as a whole insisted that its comprehensive well being be the goal of all of its functions. Economics would change its bottom line from growth measured by money to success in meeting the needs of all people in a sustainable way.

Needless to say, my effort has been simply to sketch an outline of what would constitute an ecological civilization. The real work is in the development of details. But I hope that an overview can encourage us to recognize that the task, though difficult, is not impossible. I believe that China is uniquely positioned to lead the world.