The University of Sydney is organising the inaugural graduate workshop of the recently launched multidisciplinary research program on China in the Urban Age. The program will build a multidisciplinary approach to the study of China to stimulate a connection between the production of local knowledge and the global discussion on the environmental, social, engineering, health, cultural and governing challenges of urbanisation.
The first graduate workshop, aimed at any branch of the sciences, humanities and social sciences with an interest in sustainability, is devoted to China’s environmental challenge and eco-civilisation: a multidisciplinary approach to the Anthropocene. This is an initiative of the China Studies Centre in collaboration with the Planetary Health Platform at the University of Sydney.
What is eco-civilisation and what are its implications? In China, the expression eco-civilisation – as 生态文明 shengtai wenming – has become ubiquitous in the policy mantra of the government, political discourse and everyday language.
Different points of view have given different meanings to the idea of eco-civilisation: an inspirational new ideology whose connotations filter through to practical policy in enlightened ways, providing an example of how the problems of the planet can be tackled as quickly as the current crisis requires; an empty sentence that has no connection to the policies that it inspires and is legitimising the intervention of the authoritarian state in a number of previously unconnected realms, from infrastructure to air quality, from transport to food safety and from energy to sustainable building; a way to prioritise ecological outcomes and the preservation of the ecosystem over profits, therefore offering a different way to evaluate the success of developmental policies; a way for the government to control the content and reach of the nascent and growing environmental movement in China; a way to control the potentially subversive language of ecology, by coating its policies in a new centrally defined rhetoric; finally, and perhaps most productively – as an overarching concept rich in potential but marred by contradictions, as in the risks of a growing inequality at times produced by low-carbon policies, or by massive water and energy infrastructure projects.
Whatever the potential is, the concept remains one of the most important ideas we are facing. How to turn it into ‘the right policies’ in the environment, public health and social development arenas is a crucial global question, and so a multidisciplinary gaze on China is a necessary contribution to a global debate that cannot be postponed. This suggests the need for a thorough and inquisitive discussion, an interrogation of the concept that is at the same time an interrogation of the policies, solutions, practices and discourses that emerge from it and with which China is rapidly experimenting. While undergoing a comprehensive urbanisation, China is facing the structural outcomes of far-reaching policies that often cannot draw directly on precedents elsewhere: from the promotion of electric vehicles and the rapid adjustment of public transport, to the development of a sustainable and safe food industry in the face of a growing and increasingly discerning middle class, to dire consequences for non-communicable diseases connected to the rapid urbanization of lifestyles, to an energy sector faced with the decline of coal dominance; from a sustainable construction industry after years of speculative development, to the preservation of natural resources, indigenous and nomadic cultures while the territory is rapidly restructured and constructed.
The first China Studies Centre Graduate Workshop at The University of Sydney is devoted to these issues. The workshop will be an opportunity for anyone interested in discussing these ideas to immerse themselves in one week of masterclasses bringing together experts from across the sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities. We recognise that communicating across disciplines often requires a new language; that the findings of the social and natural sciences are not emerging in a cultural vacuum; and that the adaptation to any global challenge is likely to be complex.
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