Conflicting Values in a Conflicted World: Ecofeminism and Multicultural Environmental Ethics

By Gruen, Lori | Women & Environments International Magazine, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Conflicting Values in a Conflicted World: Ecofeminism and Multicultural Environmental Ethics


Gruen, Lori, Women & Environments International Magazine


One of the most intractable problems facing environmentalists is how to address global environmental issues given the very different, often conflicting, ways that nature is valued within and across cultures. In many parts of the world, nature is valued as an exploitable resource that when used efficiently can raise standards of living, improve the quality of life, or increase the wealth of a select few. In other places, people believe that economic development efforts must be sustainable; promoting natural balance and improving living standards are values that can be achieved simultaneously. For many people, the value of global justice suggests that rich nations must do more to protect the global environment in order to allow for the legitimate improvement of the quality of life of the poor (a point that is lost on the current U.S. administration whose intransigence on the issue of greenhouse gas emissions is in clear violation of any principle of global justice). To make things more complicated, there are additional values beyond the value of a decent standard of living, the value of nature, and the value of justice, I'll call them "cultural values," that place some groups or nations at odds with others in their very conceptions of what respecting nature and protecting the environment means.

The controversy over the legitimacy of the revival of the Makah's whale hunt in 1999 is one example of this clash between cultural and other values. The Makah people live at the northwestern most tip of the Olympic Penninsula. For hundreds of years before contact with Europeans, they were a prosperous nation that hunted whales and sold whale oil up and down the Pacific coast. After the U.S. colonized them, they were granted treaty rights to hunt whales in exchange for giving up most of their lands. In the 1920s they stopped hunting as the whales had become endangered by European and American commercial whale hunting. Even though no Makah currently alive has ever witnessed or been a part of a whale hunt, most Makah today view the hunt as a way to reclaim their traditions and to provide the younger generation with the basis of identities that can help to shape their goals and aspirations (some elder members of the Makah community view the hunt as a travesty).

For the majority of the Makah, the value of promoting and preserving their culture is paramount. Many environmentalists and animal protectionists, on the other hand, view the hunt as a shameless attempt by the Makah to solve their social problems by slaughtering beautiful, sentient beings. The value of whales' lives and freedom is the guiding value for many environmentalists opposed to the hunt. Some Makah suggest that the value of the whales' lives and the value of the Makah traditions can be promoted simultaneously, but western critics cannot understand how killing young whales is a way of valuing whales. Some Makah view the value judgement of environmentalist critics as yet another form of cultural imperialism. In this case, the value of sentient lives and the value of tradition and cultural autonomy appear to be in hopeless conflict.

The Challenge of Cross-Cultural Ethics

Given the enormous variety in the ways nature is valued, it may seem that there simply cannot be an ethic that applies across cultures. Indeed, it has been suggested that any system of norms meant to guide our thinking about how to protect the environment must be relative to particular cultures, and even particular communities within those cultures. I think adopting this sort of relativism is a mistake, although it is indeed important to pay attention to and learn from the varieties of reflective valuations within and among cultures. Considering the shocking rise of ethnic cleansing, racial violence, religious intolerance and other outrageous acts carried out under the banner of particular cultural identities or ethnic traditions, highlights the seriousness of the problems ethical relativism faces.

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