Rewriting the Ecological Imagination

Rewriting the Ecological Imagination

Water-wind (Qi).





The Chinese term Qi refers to the indiscriminate force that sustains all fauna and flora on Earth. It is one of 30 loanwords outlined in An Ecotopian Lexicon, a book that helps us reimagine the role of language in our fight against the climate crisis.

Water-wind (Qi).
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Acknowledging the basic facts about our warming world is only the beginning of reckoning with what needs to be done to mitigate the worst impacts on the planet, nonhuman species, and ourselves. We all struggle to understand how to respond, emotionally and politically, collectively and as individuals, to the ongoing climate and nature crises. The situation is dire, but instead of more catastrophism we offer something else: conceptual tools to help us imagine how to adapt and even flourish in the face of socioecological adversity.


We need to reconfigure our cognitive maps of the world. What are the psychological analogs of calving icebergs and drowned coastlines? What new cultural constructions will arise along with renewable infrastructures? The question is not whether the world will change, but how. Through the medium of language, our ecotopian lexicon presents possibilities for the cultural maps of better futures, a prismatic window into the ecological multiverse.


The labor of constructing a better future will take many forms, including activism, policymaking, engineering, innovation, and education. But the power of language and concepts should not be understated. Indeed, many environmental thinkers have noted that language is an important site of analysis and intervention. Critics and scholars have published insightful critiques of familiar but problematic terminology (such as nature, climate change, and the environment) and highlighted newly resonant terms (including denial, extinction, and apocalypse). We offer a slightly different perspective, with potential loanwords—from speculative fiction, activist subcultures, and other languages—serving as conceptual tools for reckoning with the environmental, political, social, psychological, philosophical, and spiritual challenges of the Anthropocene, today and in the decades to come. We don’t stop at critique of what exists today, but argue for what could or should be.


Insofar as every choice we make shapes the cognitive frames we inhabit, our future is established not only through dramatic historical events but also through gradual accretion: moment by moment, act by act, word by word. In this spirit, our lexicon does not merely describe unfolding disasters but offers buoyant linguistic and conceptual tools for the collective construction of a future that is more just, equitable, pleasurable, and truly sustainable for Homo sapiens and the millions of species with whom we gratefully share this planet.

Our future is established not only through dramatic historical events but also through gradual accretion: moment by moment, act by act, word by word.

Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and Brent Ryan Bellamy

While constructing new things will be necessary, we ought to seek appropriate responses to our collective challenges with the full tapestry of human experience in mind. As environmental critic Ursula Heise has noted, “The environmentalist ambition is to think globally, but doing so in terms of a single language,” or a single culture, “is inconceivable.” In this spirit, we hope that these loanwords might expand the collective imagination of environmental possibilities and highlight the world’s linguistic and cultural diversity. In an era of increasing displacement, migration, and xenophobia, we need more bridges and less walls.


Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and Brent Ryan Bellamy are the editors of An Ecotopian Lexicon, a new book that outlines 30 loanwords that help us adapt in the face of the climate crisis. Keep reading for Yifei Li’s chapter on the Chinese term Qi and its role in enabling a new ecological order.


Pronunciation: chee (tʃi)


Part of Speech: Noun (uncountable)


Provenance: Chinese, mainly Confucianism and Daoism


Example: According to the United Biota Economic Taskforce (UBET), the economic analytics for the last month show signs of sustained harmony and balance, as the flow of qi at the anthropic level continues to align with the flow of qi at the ecological level.


The qi between heaven and earth flows in order. A rattled order brings chaos to the people. When the yang remains eclipsed and unexposed, while the yin overwhelmed and inescapable, earthquakes ensue.

—Book of Zhou, History of Nations



In the second year of the king of You’s rule in the Zhou Dynasty (780 BC), three earthquakes jolted the Chinese nation. They all took place along major rivers—regions home to vast populations in the largely agricultural economy of the Zhou era. Reports of casualties kept escalating. The king of You summoned his chief historian, Father Boyang, to the imperial court and inquired about these earthquakes. Father Boyang made the comments found in the epigraph and candidly predicted the demise of the dynasty within the next decade. Nine years later, the king of You was assassinated, ending the nearly three hundred year Zhou Dynasty.


Father Boyang’s observation was remembered not only for the accuracy with which it prophesied the demise of the Zhou Dynasty but also for being the first articulation of qi as a philosophical concept in ancient Chinese thought. His description of qi as a self-balancing order of universal being that regulates everything in between heaven and earth has inspired generations of Chinese thinkers to further elaborate on its meaning. It is a concept that has endured the test of time.


Why does the notion of qi warrant consideration as a loanword in the era of climate change? Our present predicament has been characterized by philosopher Stephen Gardiner as the “perfect moral storm,” marked by a plethora of interrelated environmental challenges, including air pollution, species extinction, and rising sea levels. This “perfect moral storm” blows through familiar spatial orders (of cities, regions, and nations) and temporal scales (of days, years, and decades). It poses a major cognitive challenge for people to make sense of the conditions of the biosphere. In part, the “perfect moral storm” stems from the lost connection between human societies and the natural world—between culture and nature. From the food we put into our bodies to the gasoline we pump into our cars, elements of nature are so far removed from their origins that we hardly recognize them as such. Moreover, the complex web of ecological relations is partitioned into separate domains of knowledge—culinary science, petroleum engineering, ecotourism management, and the like. The contemporary human experience is also conveniently compartmentalized into binaries: local versus global, city versus wilderness, private versus public, and, above all, us versus them.

From the food we put into our bodies to the gasoline we pump into our cars, elements of nature are so far removed from their origins that we hardly recognize them as such.

Yifei Li

Qi offers a way to reconstruct our ecological imagination for this era of planetary crisis. Two qualities of qi are particularly worth noting. First, it is universal. Qi describes an indiscriminate force that sustains all fauna and flora on earth as well as human communities. It creates an all-encompassing field of dynamism in which different forms of life connect, interact, and exchange qi. Second, qi is self-balancing. The well-being of life-forms does not depend on the growth of qi but on its yin–yang balance. Yin and yang describe ideal types of seemingly opposite ends of a spectrum, such as light and dark, cold and heat. Although they appear contradictory to human senses, they are interdependent at the general level of qi. In fact, they constitute a check on each other; too much of either yin or yang disrupts qi and threatens harmony. As Father Boyang put it, “A rattled order brings chaos.” Chaos, which seems destructive at the moment of its occurrence, restores the yin–yang balance of qi in the larger scheme of things.


At the core of qi is an emphasis on connectivity. It embeds individual humans in the network of social relations as well as in the web of ecology. This conception echoes sociologists Michael Bell and Loka Ashwood’s understanding of the environment as “the biggest community of all.” In this big community of farmers, blacksmiths, traders, beavers, elephants, pine trees, rainforests, volcanoes, and all other earthly beings, qi is the common source of vitality. Members of this community are brought together by qi.


Curiously, the flows of qi find their most elemental expression in the human body and soul. According to various strands of ancient Chinese thought, qi is fundamental to the well-being of individuals, both physically and spiritually. The yin–yang balance in qi, which was the basis of Father Boyang’s diagnosis of Zhou Dynasty’s predicament, figures prominently in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Qi is thought to flow in all bodily organs. The human body gains supply of qi not only through breathing fresh air but also by consuming different types of food. The Book of Five Tastes of the Divine Pivot, a Chinese medical classic compiled in the first century BC, notes that “half a day without grain diminishes qi, and a full day exhausts it.” However, the relationship between the amount of food consumed and the amount of qi gained is not linear. Some types of food contribute to qi of yin quality, which is calming and soothing to the human body. Examples include cucumber and pear. Conversely, other foods, such as pepper and ginger, produce qi of yang quality, which is energizing and stimulating to the body.


The principal TCM diagnosis of a bodily dysfunction, therefore, rests on an analysis of qi that circulates in the troubled organ or organs. Sickness is said to result from insufficient qi, imbalanced yin–yang, or a combination of both. A common TCM treatment is to use particular types of herbs to help restore the abundance and balance of qi. However, that alone is hardly sufficient. TCM practitioners often give advice about diet, exercise, sexual activity, and a range of other aspects of life. When TCM practitioners advise patients to refrain from disturbing qi, they refer to not just to breathing air and digesting food (both are material manifestations of qi) but also the preservation of temperament, integrity, and honor (all immaterial forms of qi). An edgy person is described as having agitated qi, a lucky person managed qi, and an upright person squared qi. In this sense, physical well-being is simply an observable display of a healthy mind and heart, and vice versa. Seemingly disparate aspects of an individual’s life are thus connected and thoroughly integrated thanks to qi. After all, the death of a person is announced as the moment when one swallows their last breath of qi.

The flows of qi find their most elemental expression in the human body and soul.

Yifei Li

Yet qi is not just a matter of private concern; it also figures prominently in social life. When people get along well, they are said to have a mass of congenial qi. When they don’t, they are said to produce qi against each other. The same qi, in other words, works both ways: it can bring people together or pit them against each other. It is fraught with contradictions. Interestingly, a mass of congenial qi is shared, benefiting everyone in the group. When one produces qi against another, however, the most immediate consequence is that the producer of qi is thought to inflict pain on the self. Outrage, in this light, is as much self-directed as it is other directed.


The production of qi has been the subject of many recent studies on activism in contemporary China. When protesters engage in collective action against merciless factory owners or despotic local officials, they often cite “unwillingness to swallow the mouthful of qi” as their reason for action. This “mouthful of qi” is not amassed in a day but is the result of cumulated experiences of exploitation and repression over a long period of time. Factory workers in China are, more often than not, willing to put up with instances of delayed payments, poor labor conditions, missing safety mechanisms, long hours, and other labor violations. They expect, however, that their patience will add to the relational debt that the factory owner owes them. This accumulated debt, relational or financial, is expected to be paid back by some future acts of beneficence. When they fail to materialize, collective action ensues.


Activists speak of their emotional and behavioral eruptions as a way to “release qi.” They also frequently refer to factory owners and local officials as people who “lack righteous qi.” In this context, “righteous qi” is an expression of trust and justice in the community. It embodies the commonsense expectation of reciprocity. Isolated instances of repression are written off as outliers, thereby leaving the mass of congenial qi undisturbed. However, recurring and cumulated experience of hardships leads to collective eruption of qi against factory owners or public officials. The community’s burst of resentful qi is similar to what sociologist Émile Durkheim termed “collective effervescence,” a moment when the torrent of communal sentiment is larger than the sum of individual emotions.


Why are people willing to endure substantial hardships before resorting to collective action? The Chinese idiom, enduring qi and swallowing voice, is often invoked, reflecting a much deeper cultural conviction that qi needs cultivation. A thin-skinned person is described as not having voluminous qi. Every time one endures a challenging moment, qi is thought to mature inside. For example, the Book of Rites, the Warring States period (475–221 BC) classic text on social norms and conventions, instructs its readers to “avoid initiating major uproars, in cultivation of qi.”


The pursuit of congenial qi figures most prominently in ecological relations. A Tang Dynasty (618–907) folk song, “Golden Well,” opens with the words: “Civilization in harmony. Heaven and earth in purity. Qi in unity. And all beings in dignity.” Here as elsewhere in classical Chinese literature, qi is thought of as the source of energy behind all life-forms between heaven and earth. For thousands of years, Chinese literati have been inspired by observations of birds and beasts, winds and waters. When these ecological elements recur in Chinese poems, they serve much more than a metaphorical purpose; they appeal to a deep sense of concord between culture and nature. Radiation from the sun breathes qi into all living things. Likewise, plants, animals, and people prosper when they are bountifully filled with earthly qi. This qi-centered worldview prioritizes commonality above everything else. Oneness was the highest ideal, and harmony was the utmost pursuit for ancient Chinese thinkers.

Radiation from the sun breathes qi into all living things. Likewise, plants, animals, and people prosper when they are bountifully filled with earthly qi.

Yifei Li

This worldview still lives on in different parts of the Chinese-speaking world, particularly through the practice of feng shui, which literally translates into “wind water” in English. According to the frequently cited Jin Dynasty (265–420) classic, the Book of Burial, “Qi disperses with wind and conserves by water.” Therefore, the practice of feng shui, or wind water, boils down to a set of principles to conserve qi. Today, feng shui is most commonly applied in architecture and interior design, especially in building orientation and interior layout. Feng shui masters specialize in taking advantage of environmental conditions, such as natural light, wind patterns, sloped ground, and local materials, to maximize the qi-conserving potential of the built environment. Auspicious feng shui is believed to emanate from structures that are organically integrated into the surroundings.


While qi is a crucial consideration in spatial design, its upkeep depends on the everyday work of the occupant. Most minimally, the daily conservation of balanced qi is done through opening windows often. In recent years, with high levels of air pollution in major urban centers across Asia, there has been a clash between time-honored practices of open windows and the grim reality of contaminated outdoor air. A team of researchers at Tsinghua University had to warn the public in a recent report that “when the observed value of PM 2.5 exceeds 150 μg/m3, open-window ventilation becomes a damaging factor for indoor air quality.” Such an admonishment, while scientifically sound, stands at odds with the established cultural wisdom. A time-tested cultural preference becomes an ill-advised reference for living through air pollution in the age of planetary climate change.


But is it? The traditional practice of open windows reflected a willing submission to nature. It was based on a cultural conviction that the natural yin–yang proportion of elements (i.e., in outdoor air) was far superior than that dominated by human influences (i.e., in indoor air). Of course, outdoor air had never been free from human factors—there was the burning, the fermenting, the cooking! But in the outdoors, the human factor was enveloped in a much larger system of ecology. When it came to the quality of the outdoor air, anthropogenic factors were negligible. In this sense, flows of qi from the outdoors helped restore the indoor qi to its primordial state. Open windows served as a connection to nature.


That outdoor qi, however, no longer carries the same natural proportion. Decades of careless growth and development have altered the air, water, earth, and all other ecological elements. It is not that the ancient philosophical construct of qi has gone obsolete but that the commitment to balanced qi has been outrageously violated. In its original use in classical Chinese literature, qi revealed humanity’s inherent sense of unity with other earthly beings; it also laid a modest claim to membership in a shared ecosystem. In today’s colloquial use, however, tong qi, or letting through qi, is reduced to a mere instrumental act of ventilation. Modern users keep the form but leave behind the substance.


What’s left behind is the ethics of qi: the recognition of qi as cosmic energy that governs social, political, biological, geological, and ecological worlds alike. Such an ethics is not merely a denunciation of modern consumerism or a declaration of deep ecology. It is a near-religious reminder of human inadequacy. In the same way that Chinese naturalist painters intend to meticulously recreate the flow of qi in nature with the flow of ink on paper, living with qi is living consciously under the full spectrum of its ethical principles.


In the epigraph, Father Boyang applied his theory of qi to the analysis of earthquakes. He regarded the three devastating earthquakes as physical proof of the disturbed flow of qi in the dynasty. The yin–yang balance was manifestly in peril, a sure sign of the myriad problems under the king of You’s rule, including moral corruption, economic failure, and military vulnerability. Nearly a decade after Father Boyang’s prophesy, the king of You swallowed his last breath of qi, as did the dynasty his predecessors had fought to sustain.

Most minimally, the daily conservation of balanced qi is done through opening windows often.

Yifei Li

Father Boyang provided a holistic diagnosis of the national condition. Rising above the noise of everyday bureaucracy, he was able to focus his attention on the big-picture course of events. He did not treat individual events in isolation but rather prioritized connections between them—qi. If Father Boyang was alive today, he would probably ask a series of penetrating questions: Would a coal mine nurture the same kind of qi as a solar farm? Would a bicycle bring to its user the same kind of qi as a gas guzzler? Would a fossil fuel–dependent economy foster the same kind of qi as a locally self-sustaining society? What kind of qi does it take for individuals to band together to resist dangerously unsustainable lifestyles?


These questions invite us to think about connections that may not be immediately apparent to the modern mind. They foreground the relationships between the well-being of individuals, communities, and ecological systems. They emphasize that the environmental predicament of the current era is profoundly connected to various other challenges at the individual and communal levels. In other words, the failure of individuals to overcome narrowly defined notions of self-interest and the failure of communities to act collectively in the common interest are at the root of ecological degradation. The cosmic energy, qi, which powers action at multiple levels, is in disarray. A palpable example in our times is global environmental cooperation, or lack thereof. When countries like the United States and China are so absorbed in their tit-for-tat trade war, blame game, and threats about “decoupling,” their rattled qi blows out every hope for a meaningful US-China climate partnership. By contrast, the 2015 Obama-Xi summit managed to deliver a ground-breaking bilateral climate pact, not least because a gust of congenial qi empowered them to rise above the narrow confines of self-interest and nationalism. A truly sustainable world order is only imaginable when a sustainable balance of qi begins to flourish at all levels.


Moreover, qi entails a universal sense of care. The same qi that empowers humans lies in mountains, rivers, landfills, and even parking lots. The notion of qi establishes a complex web of relationships that traverse boundaries, scales, and species. It is indiscriminate.


It should be clear by now that a qi-based worldview departs from the philosophy of the Enlightenment in at least two general fashions. First, instead of treating the individual as the natural unit of analysis, a qi-based worldview situates individual human beings within a network of vibrant life-forms. Rather than elevating humans above all other beings in a food chain–based hierarchy, it throws humans back into the “mosaic ecosystem,” to borrow a term from environmental historian William Cronon.


Second, a qi-based worldview makes no distinction between rational interests and emotional sentiments. The flow of qi does not assume that rationality is the only basis of social and individual action. In this conception, individuals make calculated decisions for themselves, but they could be based on rational cost–benefit analyses (e.g., the projected net gain of qi) as well as on sentimental desires (e.g., the urge to release qi). Neither is reducible to the other. A full understanding of social action in the age of planetary crisis must account for both affective attachments to ecological elements and knowledge of natural degradation.


In these ways, qi has the potential to enable a new ecological imagination. Qi is at once personal, communal, and ecological. For ancient Chinese thinkers, the qi of the individual is sustained through the management of all kinds of worldly desires. It entails sacrifice of hedonism in individual life, endurance of temper in interpersonal relations, and moderation of appetite for materiality. All loom large for life in our radically uncertain world.


Excerpted from An Ecotopian Lexicon, edited by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and Brent Ryan Bellamy. Copyright 2019 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. Reprinted by permission of the University of Minnesota Press.

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