“Be Water” – Adapting, Changing and Maintaining Sustainability through Chinese Philosophy

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“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’.


5 thoughts on ““Be Water” – Adapting, Changing and Maintaining Sustainability through Chinese Philosophy

  1. I love the analogy with Bruce Lee’s philosophy. You are absolutely right, but the big challenge is how do we shift people’s mentalities from one of consumerism to one of humanism?

    • As mentioned in the article, education and changing the way we measure countries’ success are the keys to change people’s mentalities.

      Different groups and countries are now promoting education for sustainable development in various ways. For example, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization(UNESCO) is actually working on this issue by holding world wide forums and regional campaigns, partnering with Governments, civil society, NGOs and business/industry.

      UNESCO’s website: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/leading-the-international-agenda/education-for-sustainable-development/

      Nowadays, different scientists and researchers suggest different ways to measure the green development and sustainability of an economy. Ideas and indicators such as ecological footprint and environmental sustainability index are getting popular. However, in order to transform the mentalities of people, the key is the implementation of these indicators by our governments and social systems. Individuals and different organizations have the responsibilities to urge our governments to put the five major sustainability indicators including environmental systems, reducing environmental stresses, reducing human vulnerability, social and institutional capacity and global stewardship on top when they are making decisions.

  2. Loved the Bruce Lee reference. Being an idol of mine more ways than one, I love the idea of instituting this philosophical line of thought into development. I think it was Camus who said the only philosophical question worth answering is whether or not we choose to live, and from there how.

    I’m not too sure about the rich nation vs. poor nation emisson though, If I’m not mistaken developing nations now have a higher carbon foot print, I’m going to link the guardian for now but I’ll get something more scientific later,


    Also a question regarding size of country – would that not effect its philosophical content? For instance you’ve got giants like India and China that have different but ultimately common humanistic values across their land, localizing it around a common denominator of development sounds futile.

    All said though, love the idea of bringing philosophical fortitude into economics. It’s not done enough.

  3. I totally agree that the developing countries are actually under a quite worrying situation of having more carbon footprint. Therefore, it is very important for the whole world to change their way of thinking while accessing countries’ success. We should STOP cheering for ONLY the GDP growth of developing countries but instead, introducing more green and sustainable indicators for their development.

    There is no doubt that differences in culture do exist, not only in the same country but also around the globe. It is therefore quite a challenge to try to localize one philosophical idea. Therefore, it is more about digesting the ideas and focusing on some values that are valuable and can be shared across the globe. This process is not only limited to Chinese Philosophy, but also to all kinds of philosophies whichever can bring positive impacts to our development.

    After all, it’s all about how we change our mindset and how we set good examples for our future generations.

  4. Pingback: The Northstar mindset | Filip Maertens

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