Non-Western Perspectives on Environmental Ethics

Read this article, which introduces ways that environmental ethics are viewed around the world. Does Western culture dominate the discussion about environmental ethics today? Is it ahead of or behind the views of other parts of the world? What role do you believe the media plays in this?

Some claim that many of the contemporary views in Environmental Ethics are peculiarly Western -- that is, grounded in views, and social and economic contexts particular to Western industrialized countries. Of particular concern to many non-Western thinkers are the substantive claims made by various environmentalists regarding restrictions on further development and on human use of various natural areas in less developed countries. Many preservationist claims have the direct implication of significant economic losses for local peoples. This, in itself, is not the relevant problem as preservationist claims very nearly always have this implication. However, in less developed countries, people are typically not in a position to be able to afford such economic losses; controlling development or preserving certain areas may well make it impossible for local people to survive in that area. In short, some observe that environmentalism is a feature of already affluent societies, i.e., societies that already have high degrees of environmental exploitation.

Connected with this idea, along with the recognition that someone has to pay (i.e., be burdened in some way) for conservation or preservation actions, comes a further point. People in less developed countries (and the poorer people in developed countries) end up paying disproportionately. Standard ideas of marginal utility show this; closing off from exploitation pieces of the environment has little effect on the affluent, who already have what they need to live comfortable lives. But it has a much greater effect on the poor who need to exploit the environment to satisfy basic survival needs, and would need to increase exploitation to increase standard of living.

A second issue arises with respect to non-Western perspectives on Environmental Ethics. As we have seen, some (e.g., White) claim that the attitudes we possess that have led to the so-called environmental crisis have their origins in Western cultural ideas and principles. Given this, some claim that non-Western cultures have special belief or attitude sets that set them apart from Western cultures. That is, non-Western cultures -- or at least some of them -- are inherently 'environmentally friendly'.



Satyagraha for Conservation: Awakening the Spirit of Hinduism -- O. P. Dwivedi

The Buddhist Attitude Towards Nature -- Lily De Silva

(Samarrai): Islamic Environmental Ethics, Law, and Society -- Mawil Y. Izzi Deen

These first three readings in Chapter 6 give accounts of religious grounds for environmental thinking that is non-Western. We need not go into a detailed analysis of each of these. The key points to look for are the differences -- or at least the purported differences -- between these outlooks and what is supposed to be the unique Western outlook. Also, in each case, it is fairly clear that some kind of case can be made for the religious basis of environmentally sound thinking and attitudes. Whether this would actually convert into sound practices needs consideration. Further, it looks like any environmental ethical principles generated would be, at least in some instances, anthropocentric. Given this, we might think that if ever anthropocentric concerns confronted environmental concerns, the environmental ones might be overridden (this is perhaps less likely in the case of Buddhism).

A couple of problems arise when looking at religions and how their grounding ideas reflect general thinking about the environment in the relevant cultures. First, there is always the problem of interpreting religious doctrine. Often scholars will disagree about key principles within a religion. Second, it will always be difficult to assess to what extent, if any, religious doctrine influences peoples' actual decisions about how they behave towards the environment (or their behavior in general, in fact).

These difficulties aside, many think that there is something important to be gained by looking at the beliefs and attitudes of people from other cultures. Further, that religions can influence peoples' decisions about how to behave towards the environment.

Some further questions:

  • What grounding is there for religious views?
  • Even if certain religions prescribe non-exploitative interactions with the natural environment, why should we change our behavior?
  • Even if we reject religious doctrines, is there any reason to make recourse to these doctrines (with respect to environmental issues)?
  • Is the materialism/consumerism often proscribed by religions actually immoral?


An African Perspective on the Environmental Crisis
Segun Ogungbemi

Ogungbemi addresses some general environmental ethical views, but from an African perspective. He argues that in order to properly understand the nature of the environmental crisis in Africa, we need to understand the ways in which both traditional and modern social structures have led to environmental degradation. One important aspect of African society to take into account is that it is predominately rural.

Certain other facts are relevant.

  • There is a high level of poverty
  • Fuelwood is the most common source of energy
  • Bush burning is a relatively common hunting method

Ogungbemi argues that there is a traditional "ethics of care" [not to be confused with the Feminist moral theory] regarding the environment. That is, traditionally, people lived in harmony with the natural environment, their behavior reflecting an attitude of caring for the non-human world in which they live. He does acknowledge, though, that the relevant patterns of behavior may come, at least in part, from an inability to exploit nature because of low levels of economic and technological development.

Unfortunately, social and economic attitudes and motives are changing. There is a desire on the part of governments to adopt Western-style economies. This has resulted in rapid increases in environmental exploitation. Many African nations are resource-rich, but because their economies are not structured to take full advantage of these resources, they are exported with little or no 'value added'. The net results are relatively few jobs and other economic advantages (and what advantages there are often siphoned off by the corrupt elite), and considerable environmental damage. Moreover, this damage often results in loss of agricultural land that the poor rely upon, and significant pollution of waterways. The majority of people gain nothing from the environmental exploitation and suffer considerable losses.

Dramatic increases in population looks to be a further problem. Many African countries have rapid population growth, with the usual resulting environmental problems. However, Ogungbemi says that it's not clear that population, by itself, is the key problem. Rather, it is inequitable distribution of global wealth.

Other problems:

  • Air pollution
  • Military spending

Ogungbemi proposes a return to the traditional attitude reflected in the "ethics of care" regarding our interactions with the environment. This is not a preservationist approach, nor is it in any way non-anthropocentric. Rather, it is an approach that recognizes that humans necessarily rely upon the natural world for existence. Because of this reliance, we must treat the environments in which we live with due respect -- for the sake of current and future human well-being.


Radical Environmentalism and Wilderness preservation: A Third World Critique
Ramachandra Guha

Guha presents a critique of deep ecology. He argues that it:

- has a too narrow cultural basis
- has a too narrow view of peoples' economic requirements
- and, would have very grave social consequences if put into practice.

According to Guha, deep ecology (it's North American version) has four defining features.

  1. Deep ecology reflects a move from an anthropocentric to a biocentric perspective [As we have noted, it's probably more accurate to say that deep ecology reflects an ecocentric perspective.]
  2. Deep ecology focuses on the preservation of unspoiled (by humans) wilderness, and restoration of natural areas where possible. These claims of preservation may have either a historical, moral, or ecological grounding.
  3. Typically, there is an invocation of Eastern spiritual traditions. This invocation, however, is selective, with the selection seeming to be biased towards identifying traditions that accord with the underlying ideas of deep ecology. Sometimes, it might be more appropriate to replace "Easter" with "indigenous".
  4. Deep ecology thinks of itself that it is the leading edge of Environmental Ethics.

Problems with Deep Ecology

(1) In evaluating deep ecology, Guha notes that typically environmental ethicists take the following question to be central:

What ought to be the primary motive of environmental concern? Should it be biotic integrity or some other human motive?

However, he thinks that this distinction between anthropocentric and biocentric concerns is not important because it has no tangible connection to the two biggest environmental problems, overconsumption by industrialized countries, and militarization.

(2) Moreover, if it is true that these really are the biggest problems, concentration on wilderness preservation is at best of little relevance, and is likely directly harmful to Third World countries. "Project Tiger" is a clear example. That is, a preservationist claim for the requirement of national parks ignores the interests of local people who need at least some level of use of the local environment in order to survive.

(3) Deep ecologists, according to Guha, make grossly inappropriate invocations of Eastern religions. Such invocations:

- are narrow minded and selective
- conflate different religions and branches of religions
- ignore the fact that the West has no monopoly on ecological disasters
- and, rather, should focus on the issue of industrialization (and 'agriculturalization') with respect to environmental damage.

(4) Guha questions how radical deep ecology or radical environmentalism really is. The concept of National Parks is an antidote to modern civilization. He sees wilderness as being understood as a kind of amenity that only has a place in an already affluent consumerist society. Quoting Nash: environmental preservation is a 'full stomach phenomenon'.

Discussion issues

Is it necessary to equate environmental protection with wilderness preservation?

Is overconsumption by those in more developed countries a genuine problem, i.e., one that requires a solution?

It looks like that, at least to some degree, and perhaps to a significant degree, Western industrial societies rely on exploiting Third World environments. Are we rich because they are poor?

Some less developed nations have claimed that they ought to be given the right to exploit Antarctica in order to level the economic playing field. Should Antarctica be 'closed off' as a World Park in the face of such claims?

Source: Michael Fleming
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

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Last modified: Monday, January 11, 2021, 6:05 PM