Confucius’ contribution to Ecology



Why have the thoughts of Confucius been so long-lasting?

What did this person who lived in the 5th Century BC have to contribute to the world that has made his thoughts extend globally, and throughout time to the present day?

 Confucius lived in a time of great social upheaval. Wars, violence, social degradation, and moral crises plagued the land. (Sound familiar?) In order to counteract the corruptness of society that he saw, Confucius returned to the legacy of the Zhou dynasty, invoking the moral inheritance of the Zhou kings.

This returning to the past for guidance when society is experiencing great turmoil has been called “Golden Age Decline Theory” – ie the looking backward to past ages to find guidance for the future.

Indeed, a foundational thought of Confucius himself was that the past is intrinsically connected to the future, and that in times of strife one must turn to the sages of times past for guidance. Confucius taught it was important to live within the practical reality of one’s time, bringing the wisdom of past ages into the present.

One of the crucial arenas in which Confucian thought is being heralded as a signpost for our own times is that of environmental degradation.


Joel Kassiola highlight’s the sage’s philosophies as a means to addressing today’s environmental malaise. Kassava’s view is that the greatest problem is the manner in which Western society’s view the ‘environment’. Confucian thought, on the other hand, views nature in a cosmoanthopic way – that is to say, the Heaven, Earth, and Humanity are a trinity, intrinsically interrelated.

To view nature as “different” and something external to humanity, leads to a mindset that humans are more important than non-human life. This view is the opposite of the ancient Chinese worldview, where it was believed that humans must be in harmony with Earth and Heaven – ie the natural world.

Whilst western scholars like Kassiola and James Miller propound the importance of Confucian thought for navigating the future of our planet, neither has the sage been forgotten in his homeland.

China’s president Xi Jinping recently invoked Confucian thought as not only being an important cultural heritage of China, but as guidelines for ethical behaviour for solving China and the world’s problems.

President Xi used the principles of Confucian thought not only as guidelines for China, but for international relations, citing concepts like “coordinate and seek harmony with all nations”

“We should preserve the diversity of civilizations of all countries and nations, enhance mutual communication, learning and reference, instead of mutual estrangement, exclusion, and even displacement,” President Xi said.

The Huffington Post has compared Xi Jinping’s invoking of Confucian principles as on a par with Mao’s Little Red Book.

As China continues to take the world stage, the principles of the ancient sage will perhaps become more and more relevant to not only the future of China, but to the future of our planet. As Joel Kassiola says

By examining the philosophical tradition that built Confucius’ ideas, we can learn about ways to avert an environmental disaster and lead a more moral and satisfying life by creating a sustainable and just postmodern social order

( Kassiola, China’s Environmental Crisis…..)

7427ea210acc1579f8a428Traditional Culture and China’s Reform Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius, 2014

Further reading:

Kassiola, Joel, China’s Environmental Crisis and Confucianism: Proposing a Confucian Green Theory to Save the Environment in

Ren, Bingqiang and Shou, Huisheng (eds) Chinese Environmental Governance: Dynamics, Challenges and Prospects in a Changing Society

Kassiola, Joel, Confucianism: How Non-Western Political Theory Contribues to Understanding the Environmental Crisis, in Cannovo, P and Lane, J (eds) , Engaging Nature: Environmentalism and the Political Theory Canon

Li Tianchen, Confucian Ethics and the Environment