Cross-Cultural Environmental Lessons: An Indigenous Case-Study

Article excerpt


The new environmental consciousness characteristic of the second half of the twentieth century ushered in a dual trend of reinterpretation and appropriation of traditional beliefs and practices. While religious leaders and theologians have sought to creatively relate and reinterpret religious beliefs and practices to accommodate environmental concerns, both Western and Eastern environmental scholars have turned to Eastern philosophical and religious traditions for conceptual resources and eco-friendly practices. Within the academy, the latter trend is palpable in environmental courses and textbooks-particularly in such humanistic disciplines as Philosophy and Religious Studies-that devote considerable time and energy to the study of Eastern religious beliefs and practices. (1) Impact of this trend is also unmistakably discernible in current environmental discourse and growing literature in the field that seeks to integrate the ecological insights and ecofriendly practices of eastern traditions like Hinduism and Buddhism. (2)

The interest in Eastern and traditional worldviews and practices is, by and large, inspired by the conviction that these could provide alternative conceptual and practical resources for developing a global environmental ethic. The appropriation of Eastern beliefs and practices for such purposes has been fiercely criticized and condemned by such comparative philosophers as Gerald Larson as an unfortunate remnant of an orientalist, colonial legacy while others like Holmes Rolston pose the critical question 'Can the East help the West to value nature?' (3) Sensitive to cultural specificity and conscious of the pitfalls of naive romanticism, contemporary environmental scholarship-best exemplified in the writings of Callicott and Ames adopt a more disciplined approach to comparative environmental study. (4) These scholars however remind us that, while some environmental activists and scholars might have jumped onto the romantic bandwagon, this was not true of mainstream environmental scholarship. They argue that "even in the early enthusiastic and native literature of environmental philosophy, the notion that an alien set of ideas could be mined from its cultural matrix, exported to the West, and intellectually consumed with therapeutic effect was skeptically greeted." (5)

Instead, they cite the following as discernible benefits of cross-cultural environmental scholarship: "One clear way that the East can help the West to understand and value nature is... by revealing certain premises and assumptions-concerning the nature of nature and who we human beings are in relation to it, as well as the kind of knowledge of it that we seek to obtain-which lie so deep within or which so pervade the Western world view that they may not come to light any other way;" (6) Additionally, "Eastern traditions of thought ... share certain untraditional insights into nature with contemporary Western science; but they express these insights, unlike contemporary Western science, in a rich vocabulary of imagery, symbol, and metaphor. If indeed there is a convergence of traditional Eastern philosophy and contemporary Western science toward a common understanding of the nature of nature, then the East may help the West express its own new natural philosophy ... in a vocabulary more accessible to a lay public than the arid formulae of Western science. Eastern modes of thought, in short, may resonate with and thus complement and enrich the concepts of nature and values in nature recently emergent in the historical dialectic of Western ideas." (7)

More recently, scholars like Callicott have embraced a "one-many" approach to cross-cultural environmental ethics. In Earth's Insights (1994) Callicott writes: "Thus we may have one worldview and one associated environmental ethic corresponding to the contemporary reality that we inhabit one planet, that we are one species, and that our deepening environmental crisis is worldwide and common. …


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