New pathways: learning from China’s ‘greenization’

Electric scooters_Timothy Takamoto_Flickr CC

There is much talk of ‘Rising Powers’ in contemporary worldwide development debates. But my experience is mainly in ‘Failing Powers’. So I will focus my summary on some of the key things I have learned in this conference on Pathways to Sustainability in a Changing China conference, coordinated by Beijing Normal University School of Social Development and Public Policy (BNU-SSDPP) and the STEPS Centre.

Too often, it is assumed that more newly “emerging” economies must follow earlier paths. So it was very refreshing to hear Professor Zhang Xiulan, Director of BNU-SSDPP talk in her introduction, about the transformative ambitions of China’s new model, the New Normal. This is even more important, because of the explicit priority placed by the New Normal on something that is too often neglected elsewhere – the direction (rather than just the pace) of innovation. The Chinese strategy of ‘Greenization’ has significant lessons to offer elsewhere – in aiming to foster not just innovation in general, but the very particular pathways needed to lower resource consumption, boost green industries and promote low-carbon living.

According to a Xinhua state media agency report, the Chinese Government stated last month: “Henceforth, conservation culture should be considered in all aspects of government work — economic, political, social and cultural — in pursuit of ‘industrialization, urbanization, informationization, agricultural modernization and greenization’.

It was also clear from Prof. Zhang’s keynote speech at the launch of the STEPS Centre’s China Sustainability Hub, that Beijing is increasingly aware of the importance of complexity, diversity, uncertainty and dynamism – and the gaps between reality and practice in addressing development challenges. These challenges are frequently neglected elsewhere, where government policies and business strategies still too often address the world as if it took the simple forms with which they are comfortable and which they find expedient, rather than by taking seriously the messy realities of real-world complexity.

Here, an especially significant message from Prof Zhang was that New Normal is about many different development pathways. In this sense, it is not just the latest version of “the” (singular) normal, but an entirely new plural kind of normal – one that highlights the disparities between places and the circumstances of different people. If these readings are right, then my experience elsewhere suggests current trends in China evidently have much to teach the wider world.

This theme of diversity was also very strong in today’s conference – where discussions have encompassed many different dimensions of plurality. In various ways, the conversations have explored: diversities of settings and people (urban/rural, west/east, north/south, affluent/poor, women/men); diversities of decision levels (household, community, local, regional, central government); diversities of disciplines (natural and social science, with social science framing research design); diversities of instruments and business models (public policy market, community and behaviour change); and diversities in the inequalities and forms of poverty themselves – that must form the priority focus of action, involving social, political and cultural exclusion as well as economic.

In discussing the “good, bad and ugly” implications of the New Normal and greenization and the problems they seek to address, Prof. Zhang also illuminated another quality in all this diversity. The challenges are not just about identifying means, but about defining the ends themselves – as Professor Zhang said: China is in the process of finding out what greenization even means. In this, she stressed that alongside a diversity of values there also exists a diversity of knowledges, including indigenous knowledge and local knowledge. So, what counts as good, bad or ugly is not always self-evident, but can look very different from different perspectives. Addressing this is a crucial feature in engaging with the complexities of the New Normal.

All this resonates strongly with the STEPS Centre’s pathways approach, which tackles directly how the ways a system is ‘framed’, determine how it is understood and valued and what kinds of action look better or worse. For instance, a farmer, a seed merchant, a member of parliament and a multinational food company might all frame an agricultural system in different ways. These lead to different narratives – or stories – being told about the same system and different choices being made.

The discussion that Prof. Zhang sparked was fascinating. The diversity of institutional forms in China is itself remarkable with examples being given, for instance, of hybrid institutions, with individualised market approaches combining with customary and community practices. Also subject to fascinating discussion, was a diversity of governance styles, involving both ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ elements as well as combinations between the two – with crucial roles also being discussed for “neutral independent actors”.

What all these different kinds of plurality bring to the fore, is the general challenge of what might be called ‘diversity governance’ – the governance of diversity by diversity. And here too, it was exciting that we heard many possible ways to do this. One example was the discussion of double loop learning. Overly restrictive top-down accreditation was cited as an obstacle to effective governance, risking blocking vital diversities in interests and understandings. Also relevant here were the frequent calls for interdisciplinarity – the combining of different disciplinary approaches in ways that are more diverse, problem-focused and sensitively-integrated than is normal in large heavily-structured multidisciplinary programmes.

But the scope of discussions was so rich – extending also beyond conventional academic disciplines, that I wonder whether a better word for what is needed is transdisciplinarity: encompassing academic and non-academic knowledges in more equal terms – engaging not only high-level policy makers but also local government, small business, civil society and local people. This recognises that power relations are not just relevant to the implementing of action, but also to the knowledges that help shape the action. So transdisciplinarity for ‘diversity governance’ goes beyond integrating a single body of knowledge, to triangulating diverse understandings, affording greater influence and respect to understandings and perspectives that may otherwise be marginalised in wider power gradients?

In these ways, discussions at the conference were fascinating and educational. But I did feel there was a possible slight gap in the debate around the roles voluntary association, social movements and civil society. Around the world, these are recognised as crucial sources and spaces for nurturing and realising the values of social diversity. After all, both the problems and responses identified in Sustainability agendas – to which the New Normal and greenization are so positively addressed – were all originally formulated and prioritised in global civil society struggles. Maybe this is implicit in all the discussions of different diversities, such as knowledges, values, decision levels, learning? But it might perhaps assist more effective diversity governance, if this were to be more explicit?

So, to conclude, I can only describe the conference as inspirational. I have learned a lot – that there are many grave problems and serious challenges for both research and policy. But this gives our new China Sustainability Hub all the stronger motivations for exploring the possibilities for cooperative, transdisciplinary research. And with the network of the other five regional Hubs in the emerging Pathways to Sustainability Global Consortium, there is a compelling opportunity for international collaboration. This is an exciting beginning in Beijing.

Photo credit: Electric scooters in Kunming by Timothy Takemoto, Flickr CC