“Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water. Empty your mind; be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; you put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; you put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend. “
The above is one of my favorite philosophical sayings, and it is from a legend of my hometown, Bruce Lee, a martial artist and modern philosopher.
Simple and honest, this philosophy is about the idea of adaptability and learning from previous experience and reshaping ourselves. This is exactly the way of thinking that we need to make the world develop in a more sustainable way. We know that there are rapid changes in our ecosystem, and we know that we have made so many mistakes during our development. However, the problem now is that, being set in our ways, we do not want to change and adapt even though we know we’re heading down a dangerous path. Whether it is the fear of the unknown or the general problems of moral hazard and free riders that keeps us here, we need more solid actions. And in order to do so, we have to tackle our problems from the root – our way of thinking.
I am quite certain that the awareness that the world has always been over-consuming and that we follow an unsustainable approach to development is getting stronger, at least amongst developed countries. People may know the fact that carbon dioxide emissions are 10 to 50 times higher in rich countries compared to poor nations. They may even know the fact that we are using 50 per cent more resources than the Earth can provide, and unless we change, even two planets will not be enough by 2030. However, they cannot change their consumption habits and their ways of development because the world is still measuring ‘bads’ in terms of the well being of the planet. If we are still cheering the BRIC countries on for how many products they produce, without considering their means of production and how sustainable these economies are, how can we achieve a sustainable world wide green economy? We do not need only announcements of GDP but also announcements of Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI) on our news.
It’s all about the values of the citizens and politicians. It’s all about how we define what ‘success’ of a country is.
I suggest that everyone, citizens and politicians, should rethink our consumption and development in a Chinese philosophical way. The famous phrase ‘regarding human and nature as a whole’ appeared in Confucianism in the Han Dynasty 2000 years ago. It means that human beings are just one part of the system of nature and human beings should not be separated from the nature. Human beings should not try to control and alter the system too much either. The fundamental concept of Chinese traditional culture is the concept of circulation. Everything in nature supposes to move circularly and maintain a level of stability and harmony.
It may sound philosophical and deep to some people but it is really easy to be applied. Many Asian countries, even today, are heavily influenced by this concept.
Japan is a country that can thoroughly demonstrate the above philosophy in their policies and culture. When I was living in Japan for a year, I was amazed by how strict their recycling policy was; how the government announced electricity usage and electricity reduction targets on TV; and how everyone including big corporates and industrial leaders, had a strong awareness of environmental conservation.
Why is Japan able to achieve this and continuously lead the development of green technology and economy?
When everyone in the society has the concept of ‘regarding human and nature as a whole’, and is able to understand the importance of respecting nature and grow with nature, it’s not hard to implement policies and make changes. As I observed, the ideas of sustainability are firmly embedded in Japanese’s mind through education and media, and those ideas are already part of the culture and norm.
It is thus ironic that many of Asian countries, including China, have forgotten their precious traditional values to fall victim to the ‘trends’ of consumerism.
We have to take actions to ‘be water’ – to fit in our changing environment and fix our mistakes. We should try to reintroduce some Chinese philosophy (or any philosophic ideas that support sustainability) into our policy planning and business models and educate our new generation about respecting the nature.
One day, I hope that all parents around the world will teach their kids the Chinese phrase ‘when you are enjoying your water, be thankful to our mother nature’.