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Comparative Philosophy

Philosophy Educating Humanity:
From Western to Asian Environmental Ethics

Carl Becker
Kyoto University

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ABSTRACT: The 20th century may be considered the ultimate expression of Western ideals and philosophy: "civilized" humanity's attempt to dominate "uncivilized" peoples and nature. The 21st century soberingly proclaims the shortsightedness and ultimate unsustainability of this philosophy. This paper shows the limitations of a modern Western world-view, and the practical applicability of ideas to be found in Asian philosophies. In outline, the contrast may be portrayed by the following overgeneralizations: (1) From a linear to a cyclical world view; (2) from divine salvation to karmic necessity; (3) from human dominion over nature to human place within nature; (4) from the perfectibility of humanity and the world through science; (5) from atomistic mechanistic individualism to organic interdependence; (6) from competition to cooperation; (7) from glorification of wealth to respect for humanhood; (8) from absolute cultural values to necessary common values. Each of these attitudes is examined in light of what we now know about the world in the 21st century, as Asian philosophy is found applicable to address future problems.

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(1) From a linear to a cyclical worldview

The Judaeo-Christian-Islamic world-view epitomizes linearity. God creates the world out of nothing and destroys it when he pleases; the world has a beginning and an end. Moreover, the beginning and end of the world are within human memory and anticipation; humans trace their lineage back to Adam and anticipate the end of the world. Recent Christians may argue for a more ancient beginning in the Big Bang, but seem no less convinced of the temporality and linearity of the human project. Humans are born from nothing, live only once on this world, and then return to dust or are judged on another heavenly plane.

The byproduct of this worldview is the notion of disposability. Like actors on a stage, humans have no responsibility to preserve their stage-set for the next season; this season is all that matters. The world is so huge compared to human size and time-frames that humans seem incapable of exhausting its "resources." Material objects are precisely that, "resources" to be used by "resourceful" humans for their benefit or enjoyment. Since the world is materialized from "nothing," we are absolved from contemplating the origins and limitations of the materials we mine and consume.

The 21st century makes painfully clear the fallacy of this use-and-dispose attitude. Humans are likely to outlive our resources, at the rate we consume them. Petroleum will be exhausted in half a century. Fresh water is becoming an increasingly valuable commodity. One after another, Asian countries are changing from food exporters to food importers, and African countries increasingly approach starvation as the deserts expand upon once-arable land. The limitations of food, fuel, and land become painfully evident.

The only viable solution to these crises involves a changing of ideals, from consumptive to sustainable, from linear "use and dispose" to cyclical "reuse and recycle." In practical terms, this means that everything which is mined, manufactured, or produced must be recycled and reused, with a minimum of wasted energy and resources. Land cannot be wasted on raising beef cattle when the same land would feed many times as many people raising soybeans. Petroleum cannot be wasted in pipeline leaks, idling engines, unnecessary trips and empty passenger seats; solar, wind, tidal, and ocean energy must replace fossil and nuclear.

The circularity of human existence is a basic presupposition, not to say realization, of Buddhist philosophy. The consequence of this realization is to treat food, fuel, and the earth with great care: to receive each item with awe and respect. It includes a recognition that human life itself is inescapably predicated upon the consumption of resources and the taking of life. The guilt of our taking of life cannot be fully assuaged by the assurance that it is inevitable; rather, this consciousness gives rise to a deep humility and desire to make the most of one's life, so that the many plants, animals, and minerals sacrificed for each human life will not have been sacrificed totally without meaning. Because life is seen as essentially suffering, it becomes a goal to reduce the suffering of all sentient beings as much as possible.

(2) From divine salvation to karmic necessity

The conception of human sin or hubris runs deep in Western thought too. But the tendency of the Western religious world-drama is to end in salvation of both world and humankind by supernatural intervention; a deus ex machina resurrects the faithful in a new magically created world even as the material world is destroyed. The population and food supply of heaven is no more a concern than that of earth; both are magically cared for. Since God will terminate the whole human experiment someday soon, we need not care too seriously about how much we bequeath to our great-grandchildren; since God will terminate our bodies anyway, we need not care too seriously about how we pollute them. 19th century American popular thought imagined that the earth and sea would absorb whatever were spat or discarded upon them.

Recently, we are learning to our awe and ultimate peril that neither air nor earth nor sea can absorb the level of waste we are throwing at them. The 21st century painfully portrays the limitation of the ecosystem to absorb wastes and byproducts. A corollary of the circularity of resources is that everything that is "used" goes somewhere and affects something. Nothing is without effect on the environment. In a matter of a generation, our CFC pollution has made a dangerous dent in the ozone hole, and our CO2 exhaust has created an irreversible rise in global temperature. Decreased polar ice means decreased plankton generation, while increased UV means a decrease in krill, because krill eggs are killed by UVb. So the very basis of the ocean food chain is being eroded by human pollution, even as overfishing taxes its limits at the upper ends of the food chain.

NOx and SOx thrown into the air fall as acid rain, making land and water less suitable for farming. DPEs (and tobacco smoke) lead to lung cancers, while heavy metal wastes lead to Alzheimer's disease. Decades of dumping unsorted garbage leaves our landfills and underground water reserves polluted with heavy metals and carcinogens.

Everything we discard affects us in the future in some way. This notion that every action (karma) has ineluctable future effects, is part and parcel of the Buddhist world view. Ironically, although Western science also preaches cause and effect, its analytic approach makes it all too easy to ignore effects which are not desired or anticipated. This consciousness of limitation, of cause-and-effect, of interdependence runs deep in Taoism and Buddhism, and is now much needed in the modern world. Ultimately, every glass, metal, paper, or plastic that is manufactured must be recycled into other non-polluting forms. Every organic material which is produced must be reduced by bacterial action into combustible gas and solid fertilizer. Waste heat and other emissions must be recovered or minimized wherever possible.

(3) From human dominion over nature to human place within nature

The tendency of the dominant Western Christian ethic was to oppose man to nature, civilized man to barbarian, "good" animals and insects to "bad." Man's "destiny" consisted in bringing nature under human control, exterminating or "civilizing" peoples who had not yet adopted (Christian, Islamic, or Enlightenment) Truth, and killing off large mammals, wolves, and "pests" of all kinds. The artificial polarization of "right and wrong" "good and bad" "true and false" not only engenders conflicts as divergent cultures come into conflict, but often backfires in the ecological sphere.

Killing off one species of insect, for example, leaves a particular plant without its pollinator, and another species without its food. Those species in turn destabilize an ever growing circle of lives in the ecosystem and food chain, until the widespread damage is irreversible. Human introductions of foreign species into the Great Lakes of America and Japan have had equally disastrous results, destroying native populations.

Extermination of species is not only a question of aesthetics, but may be a key to human survival. Of the thousands of varieties of grain cultivated or harvested by humans until the 19th century, only a few dozen remain in wide circulation — and some of these are hybrids with heavy fertilizer-dependence and little ability to reproduce. As desertification, salinification, acid rain and global warming change the climatic parameters for world agriculture, the limited number of highly specialized species now grown may not be able to respond to new conditions as readily as might other strains, ostensibly less productive but in fact more durable or adaptable. Grains harvested in marginal to desert areas, for example, have given way to more productive hybrids which require heavy input of water and chemical fertilizer. Now that it is evident that neither water nor chemical fertilizer will be indefinitely available, there is once again a rising need for grains which can naturally adapt to and survive within marginal conditions — but such gene pools are rapidly disappearing.

Similarly, the promise of cloning is proving to be a hollow dream. Cloned foods have been implicated in lower immunity and resistance within consumers, as well as in tumerogenesis. Cloned laboratory animals promise more consistent statistical results in drug tests — but conversely less applicability of those results to the spread of natural populations. Cloned species which narrow, rather than broadening the gene pool threaten to reduce adaptability. And there is wide agreement that the producing of humans purely for the purpose of organ harvesting violates all moral principles and sensibilities.

The evidence points rather in the opposite direction: that we should prize genetic variety, both for its future adaptability and for its inherent potentials. Here too, the one-cause one-effect billiard-ball thought habits are inapplicable. Genes tending to sickle-cell anemia on the one hand, at the same time provide immunity to malaria; altering a single genome for a single purpose may entail a wide-range of unforeseeable and irreversible consequences.

All of this suggests that humans need to be more humble in the face of nature; and to see themselves less as agents destined to dominate than to live within and in harmony with nature. It is widely understood that Eastern worldviews, from Shinto Animism to Taoist "Dancing WuLi Masters," had an appreciation of the organic interconnection of all "sentient beings;" that Eastern philosophies tend to place man in a not-very-privileged position within the natural world, rather than as the crown of creation above or opposed to the non-human world. While such world-views can also be found among many primitive or developing societies, is was primarily in the East that these world-views were elevated and refined through centuries of debate and cogitation to the levels of world-class philosophies rather than mere attitudes alone.

(4) From the perfectibility of humanity and the world through science

The twentieth century was an age of great faith in the ability of science to overcome human problems, typified by the search for cures for everything from plagues to conflicts. There were campaigns to wipe out disease; wars to end wars; people are not crippled or senile, they are "challenged." From antibiotics to nuclear energy, science has changed human life expectancies and lifestyles. However, great expectations have given way to even more challenging problems which these technologies have created. Antibiotics have evolved strains of super bacteria resistant to known antibiotics. Nuclear power has produced megatons of toxic nuclear waste for which no safe disposal method is known. CFCs, DPEs, and dioxins raise cancer levels, while heavy metals threaten large human populations with Alzheimer's.

While sterilization, vaccination, and antibiotics have temporarily stemmed epidemic plagues, they leave us with new diseases for which no cure is known. The same chlorine which kills bacteria leaves PCBs in drinking water or generates carcinogenic trihalomethanes during its journey from the pumping station to the point of use. Cancer, heart, blood, and brain dysfunctions are products not of single invasive bioorganisms, but of years of lifestyle and pollution. Such diseases can rarely be cured by single operations or simple injections.

Western science and medicine, paradigmatically analytic, tend to underestimate the variety of factors which give rise to diseases and immunity impairment. Conversely, Buddhist and Taoist philosophies tend to see causes, not as singular, unique, or operating in vacua, but rather as multifold, interlinked, and dependent on a wide range or causal conditions. (While science also understands this theoretically, it tends to simplification for methodological purposes.) A reduced human hubris and a more holistic understanding of human health as well as environmental integrity is encouraged by a re-reading of Eastern medical models. When medicine is seen as a war on aging and disease, it is doomed to failure, because aging and disease can never be overcome. This is a fundamental insight of Buddhism. Western doctors traditionally fail to provide adequate spiritual care for their terminal patients because they have been trained to rescue the body but not to counsel the soul when the body is irrecuperable. A more humble understanding of the limitations of medicine and technology might lead to a more humane treatment of terminal patients.

(5) From atomistic mechanistic individualism to organic interdependence

Classical atomic theory suggested that matter acted like billions of independent little billiard balls, bound by natural laws but not by relations to other billiard balls. Enlightenment thinkers like Locke and Rousseau extended this atomistic notion to the human realm, suggesting that men (not women) were essentially free agents whose liberties extended indefinitely as long as they did not infringe upon the liberties of others. Such a philosophy could only have arisen in a substantially underpopulated state, in which almost unlimited resources seemed available for anyone's use and development.

A more Buddhist perspective suggests that nothing could fail to affect others, that our existence itself is inextricably relational and interdependent. Thus, the air I breathe is air you cannot breathe; the food I eat is food (and land and fertilizer and labor and transportation) you cannot use; the time I use a phone or WC are time and space you cannot use it, and the condition in which I leave them affects the feelings of subsequent users.

My existence depends both upon my parents, and upon a host of other factors which affect their relationship and habits in raising me; my existence also depends on farmers and power plant workers and teachers and sanitary engineers, in fact on the whole web of society who in turn are affected by the ways I pay them, respect or disrespect them, thank, curse or ignore them. The illusion of independence may remain possible in certain parts of Alaska or Australia, but in most of the world, population has reached the point where our social interdependence and interrelationships is no longer open to question.

This consciousness of relatedness is deeply embedded in Sino-Japanese culture, visible in Confucius' Rectification of Names; in Buddhist pratitya samutpada; in Japanese and Korean languages, where every sentence expresses not plurals and tenses, but distance and levels of relationships between speakers, listeners, and third parties.

(6) From competition to cooperation

Charles Darwin's discovery that species compete for survival and territorial expansion was quickly extended into a Social Darwinism used to justify a wide range of monopolism, sexual and racial discrimination, and the prosperity of the richest. More recently, this extension of this view has led to theories like the Selfish Gene and the Blind Watchmaker, vindicating extended selfishness on biological bases, and the Naked Ape/Killer Ape, which would link male aggressive tendencies to biological bases.

Such theories were theoretically unsound from the beginning for a number of reasons. Darwin's observations were not about individual happiness or success, but rather about traits that enabled whole species to survive in competition with other species. Conversely speaking, Darwin presupposed that unwritten rules within any given family tend to work to keep that family from self-destructive behavior. Ironically, while Darwin recognized that limited resources and territory were one reason for inter-species competition, his emulators who adapted Darwinism to the social sphere tended to focus more upon the values of competition than upon any concern of how this competition ultimately affected the environment itself.

The ultimate challenge, not only to darwinism, but indeed to the human race itself, comes from the glorification of competition. Military competition continues to threaten the thermonuclear destruction of the planet, as nuclear proliferation reaches smaller and more desperate countries outside of the superpowers. Technology can neither safeguard nor harmlessly dismantle all the nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons men have created. At the same time, interethnic rivalries and competition for limited resources elevate the danger that local conflicts will escalate from name-calling into fatal violence. Indeed, humankind must ask itself: can we overcome our tendencies towards violence, and replace them with tendencies to cooperation?

Matrilineal societies in the simian world, and societies which highly regard "feminine" qualities of compromise and mutual support tend to demonstrate that humans can find alternatives to violent competition and lethal force. If humans desire to pass on a livable planet to their progeny for more than a few more generations, they must learn to curb their appetites for sex and violence, and replace them with the joys of nurturing and working together.

It is almost needless to say that these qualities have typified the crowded cultures of East Asia for centuries. The million-peopled cities of Kyoto and Edo, for example, supported their populations not by military empire or far-flung trade networks, but by close cooperation with neighboring areas. Within each town and village, extended families and clans were organized into collective community-help organizations, which helped each other in times of disaster and celebrated together in times of good harvest. Weapons were illegal for most of the population, and conflicts were resolved by negotiation, compromise, and sublimation rather than by joust, contract, or lawsuit.

(7) From glorification of wealth to respect for humanhood

As Max Weber pointed out, the Industrial Revolution in the West overturned the ascetic and chivalric ideals of the Christian Middle Ages with the notion that labor and its rewards were proofs of divine salvation. As capital became portable, and accumulation of capital became acceptable among Christian communities, the acquisition and consumption of resources became equated with human worth. This is ironically reflected today in the measuring of national worth by GDP or GNP, which attribute greater value to expenditures on a war or oil spill than to volunteer work or successful parenthood. This distorted philosophy was made possible by the illusion (not present in original Calvinism, to be sure, but superimposed by the colonialism of new continents) that resources were unlimited; the more one consumed, the more contribution to the national economy. Ironically, Puritan Christianity eventuated in a glorification of wealth, self-satisfaction, and even greed.

Karl Marx argued that wealth was a product of inherently valuable resources and the human labor spent to exhume, shape, and market them; Subsequent Economists (name) demonstrated that prices in a free economy are products of supply and demand. Marxist attempts to regulate supply and demand almost inevitably gave way to capitalist economies, and socialist attempts to provide benefits to less productive segments of society almost inevitably bankrupted their exchequers.

The fatal flaws of Western Capitalism are at least twofold. First, prices fail to reflect the hidden costs of (a) resource recycling or reprocessing when the product is consumed or discarded; (b) recouping the waste heat and byproducts during manufacture; (c) assuring continued availability of the kinds of resources and energy being used to produce the given goods. Prior to the industrial revolution, when populations remained small and most goods were organic by nature, such problems of recycling and waste byproducts seemed insignificant. Today, with populations covering every inhabitable land area, and manufacturers producing goods with materials which will take millennia to biodegrade, it has become essential to build in the cost of recycling and environmental maintenance into the pricing of goods. Such moves are already well begun in the EU, in recycling taxes, carbon taxes, ISO 1400, and similar standards.

The second important reevaluation required of capitalism is a critique of the standards it unwittingly fosters, of valuing all activities and even human beings in primarily economic terms. This has the ridiculous and tragic consequence of valuing child-care, education, and environmental volunteerism less than the money-making activities of pimps, pushers, and stock speculators; it encourages the illusions that "more is better" and "money is the key to happiness." These illusions are ultimately as fatal to the environment as they are to any genuinely sustainable happiness or human-level satisfaction.

Humanity must re-learn the truths, not unique to the Orient, to be sure, that the reasons to respect humans are not primarily economic, not for what they will yet earn, but because they have intrinsic aesthetic value as beings in themselves. In Japanese culture, for example, one is not "born human," but one "becomes" human, or "achieves" adulthood, through self-cultivation. Countless schools of self-perfection, from Zen meditation and tea ceremony, to music, art, physical exercise, calligraphy, poetry, and even cooking give ranks and respect to people demonstrating levels of mastery. These arts are not eroded by age; rather the skills of tea-master as well as of calligrapher are enriched with age and practice. Indeed they confer an honor to the aged which tends to be forgotten in money-oriented Western societies. People are respected for what they know, for what they can do or have done, for their refinement of character, wisdom, and sensibility. This is what makes them truly human as opposed to animal. While the recognition of the Buddhist values of wisdom, compassion, and human-heartedness is possible without ranking them, the Japanese custom of attaching names and ranks to people's talents and characters has the added merit of presenting a public acknowledgment, an alternative to the monetary standard, and a goal to which youth can aspire.

(8) From absolute cultural values to necessary common values

Most isolated cultures tend to absolutize their own values; for others, like the Judaic, Christian, and Islamic traditions, contact with competitors, oppressors, or external challenges foster a petrification of values systems, literally or figuratively carved in stone and sacred books. Discoveries of geology, paleontology, and astronomy tend to cast doubt upon the accuracy of some parts of those sacred books, even while encounters with other cultures and life-styles challenged traditionally-held values. Some people respond with a blind fundamentalism, but the broader Western tendency has been to a relativistic humanism if not nihilism, suggesting that no values are ultimate and perhaps all are ultimately groundless. Ironically, rejection of traditional values has often occasioned a moral vacuum in education, an inability to educate morality because of an inability to exalt one value system over any other.

One solution to moral relativism might be to seek the common values held by the vast majority of successful cultures: restraints against killing, incest, deceit, etc. Another proposal might be to seek the meta-ethical preconditions for successful interaction, as in Habermas' theories about the ideal communication community. In the train of this paper, however, a more fruitful approach were to begin with the common conditions which face humanity and the future of the earth.

If the human project is to be maintained more than a few generations into the future, considerations of population control, biological diversity, sustainability of technologies, and responsibility to future generations become unavoidable. These depend not on cultural tastes or traditions; they become minimum prerequisites for human continuity. The shrinking of the globe and the foreshortening of history demand new common values, not based on the power of one group over another, but based on a consciousness of our organic interlinking with each other. Stripped of their cultural paraphernalia and chauvinisms, some Western as well as Asian religious philosophies may already hold this ideal, but one need not be religious to understand and espouse it. The survival of the planet as we know it demands nothing less than human cooperation in this project.

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