Confucianism — Saving the Planet!

I don’t know; I’m a bit skeptical. Someone convince me otherwise.

From the Christian Scientist Monitor:


How Confucianism could curb global warming

China openly debates the role of Eastern thought in sustainability.

By James Miller
from the June 26, 2009 edition

Kingston, Ontario – Now here’s a curveball to secular Western policy experts: China’s intellectuals are openly debating the role of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism in promoting the Communist Party’s vision of a harmonious society and ecologically sustainable economic development.

Nowhere is the question of what to do about the environment more vital than in China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases – especially because scientists agree that climate change disproportionately affects the poor and the disenfranchised and that climate change will affect future generations far more than the present.

Yet the general impression of China’s role in issues relating to environment is one of foot-dragging because it hasn’t bought into a Western model to address it.

But Pan Yue, China’s vice minister for environmental protection, is calling for China to capitalize on traditional Chinese religions in promoting ecological sustainability.

He says, “One of the core principles of traditional Chinese culture is that of harmony between humans and nature. Different philosophies all emphasize the political wisdom of a balanced environment. Whether it is the Confucian idea of humans and nature becoming one, the Taoist view of the Tao reflecting nature, or the Buddhist belief that all living things are equal, Chinese philosophy has helped our culture to survive for thousands of years. It can be a powerful weapon in preventing an environmental crisis and building a harmonious society.”

And this just might work.

As The New York Times recently reported, China is in the midst of a transformation to cleaner forms of energy.

Although much of China’s energy needs are still met by inefficient, coal-fired power stations with poor track records in terms of emissions, China has begun to invest heavily in cleaner coal technology in an effort to improve efficiency and reduce emissions.

Because of this, the International Energy Agency reduced its estimate of the increase in Chinese emissions of global warming gases from 3.2 percent to 3 percent even as the same agency raised its estimate of China’s economic growth. China is managing to increase its economic output at a greater rate than its emissions.

This is good news for everyone.

But buried innocuously in the middle of this report was the startlingly frank statement of Cao Peixi, president of the China Huaneng group, China’s largest state-owned electric company.

When asked about his company’s decision to invest in more expensive but cleaner technology he replied: “We shouldn’t look at this project from a purely financial perspective. It represents the future.”

The $64,000 question facing economists and politicians across the world is how to make decisions that take into account the big picture beyond the “purely financial perspective.”

This is a hard question for Western economic and political theorists to answer, because their theories are based on the Enlightenment view of the self as an autonomous, rational individual.

But how are we to make decisions that take into account the interests of those who have not yet been born?

Being respectful to the interests of past and future generations is key to the Confucian view of the self and groups. To the question, “Who am I?” the Confucian answers, “I am the child of my parents and the parent of my children.”

Confucianism begins from the proposition that human beings are defined by kinship networks that span the centuries. From this perspective the interests of the individual are bound up with the interests of the kinship group as it extends forward and backward across the generations.

This will be a key factor in the way China handles present and future environmental issues.

Consider the views of Jiang Qing, a leading Confucian intellectual. According to a recent report by Daniel Bell, a political theorist at China’s Tsinghua Univeristy, Mr. Jiang proposes a political system that can take into account the interests of those who are typically ignored in modern democracies, such as foreigners, future generations, and ancestors.

“Is democracy really the best way to protect future victims of global warming?” he asks.

As China assumes a greater leadership role on the world stage, we can expect the emergence of a variety of models of sustainable development rooted in a plurality of cultural traditions, including Confucianism.

The time when Westernization was the only credible model of development is over.

(James Miller is a professor of Chinese studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Queen’s University, Kingston. He is currently researching the relationship between religion, nature, and modernization in China.)

27 thoughts on “Confucianism — Saving the Planet!

  1. Oh, man! If I could have two wishes for academic journals in Chinese philosophy, they would be…

    1.) …that they no longer accept submissions that attempt to associate Dao with Dasein, and…

    2.) …that the major academic journals of Chinese philosophy in the U.S. stop accepting submissions wherein they debate the hypothetical environmental policies of Zhuangzi, Confucius, 等等.

    For my latter wish, this is a step in the wrong direction. The whole scope of this kind just strikes me as wrongheaded. How are we to appeal to a source to address an applied problem for which the main sources had not even conceived such potential problems? It’s like looking to the Quran for its input on international trade policy.

    Sorry to hold your skepticism on the matter at hand, though. I’m reminded of this gem and other analogs of speech: , which struck me more as I watched a CCTV ceremony during Chinese New Year, 2008, which awarded citizens for both Party-desirable and Confucian-adored behaviors (I don’t recall how many annual awards had been given previously). Some were hopeful that the ancient Confucian examination would take a hold once more, and that such a requirement would turn China back to its ancient roots, but that has yet to be seen. I think we’ll all have to hold out similarly for any real change in its environmental policy.

    I’ve got my fingers crossed for the 人民代 to collapse and to have its 天命 fulfilled by something better, myself, but that’s just a pipe dream, I fear.

    Also, cool link!

  2. Hi Manyul

    Glad you posted this. I am curious what aspect about this you are skeptical about?

    I assume you are not skeptical about the viability of other non-Western environmental conservation models. That there are environmental conservation models which are informed by Western concepts of the environment is pretty self-evident and that there would be other possible models also seems fairly plausible (you can see this in Japan where there policies– while based largerly on northern european laws and practices–are also informed by traditional sensibilities. And the Japanese will often cite their traditional sensibilities too as part of the deal.

    I am sure this happens all over.

    So, I am guessing you are skepitical about the democracy comment? I am too. Except to say that there are some matters where central planning (which can rise above pure free market) might indeed be helpful in pushing through painful environmental conservation laws. (the laws just stimulate new business and opportunities in the market anyway but often in places where business has too much power –business lobbies etc- won’t let the gov’t do what it really needs to do– hence??) That is the only thing I can think of regarding the democracy comment– though this (my suggestion here) is weak probably.

    Finally, I hear that the chinese gov’t dis-allowed the hummer deal based on environmental grounds. I am sure cynics will accuse CCP of other grounds but who cares? I say this from LA– where every other car is a hummer or a a hummer wannabe.

    My town in Japan, by the way, has cut trash by 30% over the past 3 years. This is huge. 30%. And what is huge is that people are not buying the large cars or multiple electronics so companies are trying to go along with consumer demands and are manufacturing green but also are making smaller more efficient products.

  3. Hi Joshua,

    Thanks for the link, in turn. Here’s the part that seems to me to be a careless error about the West:

    The $64,000 question facing economists and politicians across the world is how to make decisions that take into account the big picture beyond the “purely financial perspective.”

    This is a hard question for Western economic and political theorists to answer, because their theories are based on the Enlightenment view of the self as an autonomous, rational individual.

    But how are we to make decisions that take into account the interests of those who have not yet been born?

    Actually, in the West the interests (not to mention the rights) of the unborn are both a serious topic of ethical-political debate and, it seems to me, completely consistent with “the Enlightenment view of the self.” Given some theory that people’s interests are to be given impartial or equal weight based on their rational agency or their sentience, depending on the theory, one philosophical question that arises is whether to discount the interests or rights of future persons, and on what basis that would be justified. What we owe to future generations is a philosophical question that probably comes up in every applied ethics course taught in the U.S. — at least it should be.

    That said, is there an especially effective justification for caring about what one leaves behind for future generations, available in the Confucian concept of the moral community, which “extends forward and backward across the generations”? That’s the part where I want to say: well, maybe in one sense–namely, if that conception is the only option intellectually available to the Chinese. But that seems false; they’re as capable of being persuaded that rational agency matters or that the broader criterion of sentience matters as anyone in the West is. Why resurrect the Confucian conception, one that also involves taking the “interests” of the deceased seriously, in order to promote an ecologically sustainable economy? Hence, I remain skeptical…

  4. Sorry, Peony; I just rescued your comment from my Spam robot (bad robot, bad!).

    I just wrote what bothers me, in response to Joshua, but here’s some more:

    Consider the views of Jiang Qing, a leading Confucian intellectual. According to a recent report by Daniel Bell, a political theorist at China’s Tsinghua Univeristy, Mr. Jiang proposes a political system that can take into account the interests of those who are typically ignored in modern democracies, such as foreigners, future generations, and ancestors.

    I’m not sure the practice of modern democracies typically ignoring these groups is justifiable even within the democracies themselves, at least in the case of foreigners — consider it from a purely self-interested motive. With respect to future generations and ancestors, however — well, see my comment above.

  5. Hi Manyul,

    I disagree that the above is a “careless error.” As far as any generalization goes, the above one is not that far off since I think the author was probably not pointing to “rights” of the unborn to be born but more about the “interests” of those future generations to have a viable future in terms of the environment. And as an American who has lived my entire adult life in east asia for what its worth my own opinion stands very close to the author’s (that is, I feel that my own country has a far more short-term focus on business and the environment than my adopted home)

    It’s like having two-generation home morgages or putting people in 班 to be responsible and police each other’s trash. That there can be different emphasis or approaches based on culture makes sense (though like any generalization if you push the argument you can break it down).

    In any event, I will leave this conversation to the China hands since I think until the US starts taking steps that have been in place in other countries in the developed world for years that it doesn’t much have a leg to stand on anyway. That is to say, whether the CCP evokes Confucious, Shinto philosophy or the Grateful Dead– I still am glad the hummer deal fell through! 🙂

  6. You know, on the other hand, I had this experience yesterday in a Mexican cantina here in LA. The place is run by a Dutch man, whom I have know for years. The environment is one of his passions. he bikes to work and has all eco-friendly packaging in his shop. yesterday, I happened to be in the restaurant (I walked there) and I witnessed him having a fit of anger whereby he threw his recycle bin trash can across the restaurant screaming like a madman, “If no one is going to cooperate I give up!”

    So, maybe you are right Manyul (on that point). And so then it appears you are mainly skeptical about the author’s descriptions of Western civilization (enlightenment culture)… not to his Confucian predilections concerning the environment. 同感。

  7. Hi Peony,

    (In reply to comment 6) No, I did mean the interests of the future generations (not so much the abortion-unborn debate). I mean, there’s the thinking (or absence of it) of people on the whole, in the culture (either here or there), and then there’s the thinking that people (either here or there) engage in who want to make a case for environmentally sustainable practices and policies. With regard to the latter, I think it is spurious to suggest that the Enlightenment conception of persons somehow makes it more difficult to take into account the interests of future generations. It might have other problems, but not that. Likewise, I don’t see that the Confucian conception of persons or the “extended” moral community is without problems. So, maybe these conceptions are even as far as that goes.

    I do think that on either conception, there has to be a good justification given for caring about the interests of as yet merely possible persons (and which possible ones should we care about more?). But let me focus on Confucianism, since that’s what is interesting here. Even the good Confucian has to allow for the possibility that he or she will not have progeny beyond the immediately following generation. If that’s as likely a possibility as having progeny, then what good reason does Confucianism provide for caring about the future, except for the indeterminate future population of *someone’s* progeny, not with any certainty his or her own? That, it seems to me, puts Confucianism on just the same starting point as the Western philosophical concern with indeterminate future persons. Why should one care (on either conception) about future persons who may or may not be specially related to oneself? I’m not saying there’s an easy answer to this; just pointing out that the Confucian attitude toward one’s ancestry has to be asymmetric with that toward one’s possible progeny, and that there has to be some justification that goes beyond Confucian filial piety and generational concerns in order to think coherently about the interests of future persons.

  8. I see where you are coming from Manyul. And yet, that Enlightenment views on the autonmous individual as well as humanist views of nature vis-a-vis the central position of man has had impact on environmental practices is probably an arguable point. And, like I said, this is just my personal experience but I do feel that at least comparing Japan to the US, that Japanese tend to have a more multi-generational and collective approach. And in part this is from a certain Confucian persuasion.

    On the other hand, Japan’s model for many of its laws and practices have been Germany– one of the great Enlightenment cultures… so there you have it.

    I agree with your worries, but remain not skeptical of the article!

  9. Manyul and Peony, you guys make some really interesting points. I would just like to add, somewhat tangentially, that as an environmentalist I would love to see North American culture develop a bit more reverence for our ancestors. Ideally, people should perhaps respect the earth for its own sake, but I think having a personal connection to specific places because one’s ancestors are buried there is a good starting place. Currently, cemeteries don’t always stop new highways or developments; Civil War battlefields stand a much better chance of being preserved (and even they aren’t inviolate). But the impulse to protect heritage sites of one sort or another does seem to be spreading.

    Isn’t Singapore an explicitly Confucian state? I just read something the other week, also in the CSM, about their waste management program. See It’s a landfill — and an ecopark. The article indicates that practical considerations rather than ideology drove the innovative design of their landfill, though.

  10. Hi Dave,

    Actually Manyul made most of the interesting points… but you know, in art history books about chinese landscapes there is the inevitable explanation about the way that Chinese philosophy informs the artistic practices that went into this painting. That, I think, is the main point of the article in terms of the environment. It’s not that the author is saying that Germany won’t come up with its own policies but rather that China, by turning to its own cultural roots might find great sources of inspiration and these might even be better places for them to look…

    Concerning the focus on ancestors and progeny, I agree with you dave I too feel this could have significance to one’s outlook about long term environmental conservation. At the same time, I think the focus of the article was on Chinese philosophy about balance (in contrast to humanism?)

    Finally, I do dis-agree with Joshua as I think if a Muslim wanted to approach international business/trade policy in a spirit of reform, that the Quran and especially early islamic history would be a productice place to look. Indeed, many Muslims do just that, right?

    I am now at the limits of anything I could ever possibly contribute to the discussion since in fact… this is not my area of expertise 🙂

  11. Hi Peony and Dave,

    I appreciate the points each of you makes about the potential role that a sense of collective community or a strong sense of reverence for a place and its history might have in promoting environmentally sound decisions. It may be that there is more coincidence here than conceptual connection. Reverence for a place (e.g. a burial site, a battle site, an historical landmark, etc.) and environmentally sound decisions or policies can collude nicely; likewise for a strong collective identity and the latter. But I can imagine each of those things actually coming into conflict with an environmentally sound proposal, though nothing factual comes to mind as an example. Perhaps, as both of you suggest, practical concerns often provide more of the impetus than the feelings of identity and reverence.

  12. I’m with Manyul and to some extent Joshua on this one: While I have nothing against individuals endeavoring to look into Confucian traditions for ecological principles and inspiration, I suspect there’s little there of relevance, especially in comparison, say, with Daoism, or the science of ecology, or even economics that takes on board ecological concerns, as in the work of Partha Dasgupta, or Green political thought for that matter. In discussions such as this generalizations and simplistic stereotypes or caricatures about the “the Enlightenment,” individual autonomy, and Western political theory proliferate with abandon (e.g., I don’t think there’s such a thing as ‘the’ Enlightenment view of the self).

    As to the Islamic tradition, Muslims don’t in fact “look to the Quran for its input on international trade policy” (even if they might presuppose or assume the relevance of the Quran and ahadith, or fiqh for that matter and for example, in addressing questions, say, of distributive justice germane to the principles that might undergird such trade policy), nor do most Muslims necessarily look back to early Islamic history for definitive or authoritative guidance in practical, political or economic matters. There is a genre of “Islamic economics” but exactly what that consists of is eminently arguable and vigorously contested by Muslims and non-Muslims alike (see, for instance, the relevant titles under the headings of ‘Jurisprudence’ and ‘Culture, Economics and Politics’ in my Islamic Studies bibliography, available here: Incidentally, and far off topic, I’ve been posting things about Islam and…democracy, constitutionalism, law, etc. at Ratio Juris (no plans for ‘Islam and ecology’ however) by way of a very modest contribution to similar such efforts at addressing or overcoming crass generalizations about Muslisms, the Islamic world, and so forth and so on made by otherwise intelligent people.

    Environmental ethics, and moral and political reasoning in environmental practice (the latter the title of an important volume edited by Light and de-Shalit), are fairly pluralistic in Europe and North America and I see no reason why this cannot or should not likewise be the case in the Chinese context.

    Lastly, I think the final sentence from Miller’s piece is absolutely on target insofar as there surely are various developmental paths or possibilities sensitive to different geo-political and “cultural” conditions (there is not one size that fits all, in other words) and thus China, or India, ir Iraq, or South Africa and so forth need not slavishly imitate the socio-economic historic models provided by the affluent and hyper-industrialized nations of the northern hemisphere. Unfortunately, however, “the Bretton Woods Institutions” (i.e., IMF, World Bank and WTO) and Neo-Liberal economic ideology that animate them, have to date not been very imaginative or democratic in the deepest sense when it comes to setting the terms of ecologically sensitive socio-economic development, and recipient authoritarian or simply corrupt regimes exacerbate if not make matters worse on this score. Of course until the current species of capitalism has fully penetrated every nook and cranny of the globe the conditions and terms of economic development are not likely to change in too radical a fashion, and this is no less true even if enlightened capitalists “go green” (in the end, both the science of ecology and ecological principles will clash with the ‘sovereignty of capital,’ as the latter invariably trumps, as Michael Luntley has made persuasively argued, any competing conceptions or visions of the Good).

  13. I’m glad that the article provoked some intelligent discussion! As an educator, that’s the only thing that keeps me going every day.

    For me one of the interesting questions is whether democracy is capable of promoting ecological sustainability. When I debate this with my students, the majority opinion is always no. But that’s probably because they’re mostly environmental scientists whose work tends to be frustrated by the democratic process, rather than encouraged by it–at least in Canada.

    For me the main reason for interest in Confucianism and Daoism, or Islam, for that matter, is that the secular project of the Enlightenment has horrifically failed when it comes to the question of the environment. I, like many others, am scrambling for alternatives. And don’t think that science necessarily helps. Just because you know something doesn’t mean you’re going to act on your knowledge. For this little conundrum read my

    So to Manyul’s skepticism, I say, show me anything better that’s happening in China, and please encourage it.

  14. Hi Patrick,

    Nice to hear from you here and elsewhere too! It’s been awhile…

    Regarding Confucianism, the article seemed to not be stressing Confucianism over Daoism really. This conversation has turned to that for whatever reason but the article did not start nor end there. Indeed, the point of the article–to my mind– is that there are plenty of cultural traditions, philosophies or sources which could generate ecological consciousness– including Daoism and Confucianism. (This is based on what to my mind is a commonsense notion that the great books of the past have much that can speak to us today– this was perhaps something Joshua was trying to question but I am not quite sure why)

    To suggest that there isn’t much in Confucianism to my mind is not a particularly productive path to go down. But in any event, you merely state this but do not argue it. If you were to attempt to make a real case for this, there would only be one valid method that I can think — and that is perhaps this: you would do best to provide empirical evidence which backed up the suggestion right? “Look, we can see that in fact Confucianism has not historically inspired (nor does it currently inspire) ecological principles.”

    But, in fact, what do we find on the ground?

    Living in a place where Confucian thought is very pervasive, I beg to differ that it cannot serve as a source for ecological conscienceness. It can and does. Actually, I would agree with you that like daoism, it is shintoism that more influences Japanese ecological consciousness. However, not only having lived there 20 years, but more doing quite a large junk of my translation work in corporate IR related content to green corporate activities, I do think that in much the spirit as the author of the article stated– that in japan at least– a communitarian and multi-generational responsibility approach is present to a larger extent then one usually finds in English. And that this stands as a theme informing not just ecological consciousness in Japan but more in the approach toward implematation of conservation policies, activities and practices undertaken there.

    (I am only speaking for Japan and would be fairly suspicious of anyone’s opinions regarding what actually happens in practice there on the ground if they were not natives or very proficient in the language and experienced in life in any place they are talking about).

    While I would NOT argue that this “confucian” tradition could offer a better or somehow superior model for ecological principles or consciousness than the Western model, I would hesitate to say that it has “little to offer” as in fact, at least in Japan it has had undeniable resonance.

    A quick google search in fact will show over 300,000 hits for ”儒教、環境」 and the first 2 pages were full of academic papers.

    In addition to the more philosophical aspects as explored in an article like this

    which would inform or influence ecological consciousness, there is another aspect, which is in implementation of actual policies. I have seen again and again gov’t policies (as well as corporate activities related to the environment that I translate) explained in terms of the strong cultural predeliction one can find in Japan for community and group (as something often over-riding individual desires) and the very strong commitment to ancestors and DUTY or OBLIGATION for the future generations.

    Even the highly complicated and time cosuming trash separating/recling that I sometimes complain about– including taking turns patrolling the 班 trash site, we have notebooks and write down what offenses are found… the high fees for trash bags and large fees for large trash removal, these things might be hard to push forward in places where economic efficiency is the bottom line. Above I mentioned the 30% decrease in our trash in our town since starting these draconian practices. What is even more amazing is that the policies have affeted consumption habits.

    When I return here to California it is really like stepping back in time.

    On the other hand– like I said, Germany is a model for Japan on this so it’s not like these things are not possible without a daoist or confucian model but rather that it is perhaps through our cultural background that we interpret or express these things. So, why not Confucianism too?

    And as far as the idea about the Enlightenment self. This is every bit a generalization as anything else. That from Enlightenment thought we can extrapolate that culture’s idea of the self is every bit as “Real” as anything we attempt to extrapolate and make a statement about, right? It is less about an Enlightenment Self as a statement of things we can say about the modern idea of self that has its origins in Enlightenment culture. That’s all really, I think (Robert Harrison had a great Entitled Opionions show about the Enlightenment and notions of the self come up right away inthe program so it is certainly a valid thing to try and talk about, I think!)

    Finally, regarding the Quran and business, I disagree there too and have something to say but honestly am afraid I will later be described somewhere online as one of those “otherwise intelligent people who say stupid things”… well, in my case, maybe I won’t even be described as “otherwise intelligent” 🙂

    More later in a different media format….

  15. Welcome James (jemiller),

    It is indeed a pleasure to discuss and learn (學而時習之,不亦說乎?). Thanks for the link to the post on scientific knowledge and the environment. I certainly agree with these points that you make there:

    One of the most serious problems that I’ve had to deal with among my students is the basic assumption that seems to be taught in environmental science, namely that knowing more about the environment is the best way to generate action on the environment…. We moderns, to the contrary, have a far greater empirical knowledge of nature and environment, but have fostered eminently unsustainable relationships with the environment. Our knowledge has not saved us.

    Usually more knowledge can’t hurt, but it certainly isn’t sufficient to generate action unless there’s some sort of prior motive in place for which the knowledge is relevant. That’s a Humean point, and a useful one coming out of the Enlightenment.

    But it seems like the same holds for democracy. As a political system, it serves — ideally speaking, and usually in some indirect way — the pursuit of things that the participating citizens want to pursue. But if the motive for environmental sustainability is lacking, democracy is as inert as science for the purpose.

    Here, I think, you want to draw on some kind of strong, culturally present nexus of motivations that can then be linked to increased concern for the environment — e.g. Confucianism or Daoism. They provide, perhaps, a set of motives that goes beyond the ones that, originating in the Enlightenment, seem to require linkage to rational self-interest.

    Of course, all the talk of “practical concerns” or “pragmatic concerns” in discussions of the environment tend to be short hand for exactly that — the link to rational self-interest (“Don’t you want to be able to see your grandchildren breathing clean air?”). Your exploration of Confucianism in this context, I see as a search for a potential source of motives that provide an alternative to rational self-interest. But there is where it seems problematic to me. The Confucian concern for the well-being of one’s progeny seems very much to be the same sort of thing as rational self-interest, though expanded to people who are patronymically related to oneself (which has its own kind of narrow-mindedness, it seems to me). Hence, it seems to have similar sorts of limits as the recourse to rational self-interest.

    I wish I had the answers, but in the fine tradition of philosophy, I have a bunch of meddlesome questions first…

    Thanks again for dropping by!

  16. Hi Peony!

    Did Confucianism prevent deforestation or other forms of ecological devastation in Chinese history? I doubt it. Of course my ignorance may be glaring here but I’m unaware of any sustained attempt within Confucianism to explore or elaborate what we might term “ecological principles and practices.” That self-described Confucians today may attempt to do so I readily grant (and said so above). That some Confucian ideas and practices may be conducive to a kind of ecological sensitivity, awareness or consciousness–perhaps, but that seems highly speculative and I’m uncertain as to the nature of the empirical evidence that might be invoked to show just how that is in fact the case. I think the burden of proof is rather on those who would argue that Confucianism has something unique to contribute to ecologically sensitive beliefs and practices or ways of life. I’m open to persuasion but utterly sceptical for now.

    In any case, and on the ground, I’m not so sure we can disentangle the effects of Confucianism from other religious traditions such as Daoism and Buddhism and am dispositionally inclined to believe these traditions are more (potentially if not practically) conducive to motivating ecologically sound behavior. And your mention of Daoism and Shintoism (pardon all the ‘isms’) appears to reiterate this point. In any case, I was speaking to China and not Japan…or Korea or….

    As to duties to future obligations, as Manyul mentioned, there’s a fairly decent amount of literature in contemporary philosophy devoted to this topic. I’ll take as emblematic or representative a recent volume cited at Larry Solum’s Legal Theory Blog edited by Axel Gosseries and Lukas H. Meyer: Intergenerational Justice (2009).

    In the realm of the anecdotal now, where I live, we have a model recycling program (I worked at the first recycling center in Santa Barbara in the 1970s) and the nationally renowned Community Environmental Council and a fairly large number of ecological activists. My personal experience with the Abalone Alliance (against the siting of the Diablo Nuclear Power Plant) and the Green movement suggests that individuals come to the environmental movement and ecological ideas and practices for all sorts of reasons and out of myriad motivations, some of which are grounded in religious worldviews and some are not (I’ve known several
    Marxist ecologists…or ecological Marxists). And I participated in vigorous and distracting if not debilitating debates between “Deep Ecology” (which stressed the importance of religious–usually Asian–worldviews) Greens and “Social Ecology” Greens (largely but not exclusively acolytes of the late Murray Bookschin) that convinced me that it is not necessarily a question of finding alternative (especially religious and often ‘New Age’) worldviews to philosophies of Enlightenment provenance: what is of singular significance is the willingness of individuals and societies to alter their environmentally unsound behavior and practices and getting from here to there *need* not depend on the adoption of or allegiance to a particular religious worldview. (For a more sophisticated argument on something along these lines, please see Robert Goodin’s Green Political Theory [1992]). If folks within disparate worldview traditions today find or fill out “ecological meaning” or wisdom in their texts, so be it.

    On the “self” thing: I think this is one of those notoriously complext topics wherein generalizations are hazardous to both historical truth and philosophical acuity and we best avoid them (Charles Taylor’s work might be an exception on several counts but I think he still leaves much out).

    On Islam and business, economics, etc. I would like to recommend you read (and just by way of example or illustration) some of Haider Ala Hamoudi’s works which are available at SSRN:, as well as several books and articles by Timur Kuran.

    Incidentally, the “otherwise intelligent people” remark was not directed personally at you but was simply an expression of my ongoing irritation at reading stuff in which people make absolutely outrageous claims about Muslim…and this, that, and the other thing.

    One last thing: I don’t subscribe to the belief that the “secular [European] Enlightenment project” is the source of all that ecologically ails us, even if some ideas of Enlightenment vintage were ecologically pernicious. For instance, some have plausibly argued, the historian Lynn White, Jr., for one, that the “ecological crisis” has its roots in the Hebrew Bible. As Roderick Nash reminds us, White “was perfectly willing to concede that Christians [and presumably Jews as well] of the 1960s might form a commitment to environmental responsibility from their reading of Genesis. He agreed that there was a biblical basis for environmentalism. But his point was that for nearly two thousand years the Christian tradition had not been so construed. Instead people used Scripture to justify the exploitation of nature in the same way defenders of slavery used it to justify ownership and exploitation of certain classes of humans.” Now I don’t want to debate the merits (or lack thereof) of White’s well-known if not timeworn argument (I said a few things about it in a review essay of a book on Judaism and Environmentalism for the journal Philosophy East and West several years ago), but simply note the possibility that it seems rather simplistic to locate responsibility for our current ecological problems solely in the ideas that grew out of the European Enlightenment. Heidegger no doubt thought, again plausibly, that the roots of the current crisis go back to the Greeks.

    At any rate, it’s clear that the science of ecology owes something to the Enlightenment’s valuation of science in general and thank goodness for that! Ecological problems were with us long before the Enlightenment, but certain facts about the modern era: the nature of industrialization, including industrialized agriculture; the pace of technological change; the peculiar forms of urbanization; colonialism and imperialism (i.e., and in short and crudely, exploitation of peoples in the Southern Hemisphere by those in the Northern Hemisphere), etc., have exacerbated and quickened our experience and appreciation of ecological devastation. To blame it all on the Enlightenment may be an instance of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

    Well, I’ve said too much. Hopefully Manyul will forgive me for speaking on matters far outside the purview of his blog.

  17. Hi Patrick!

    If you come this way, we should walk up to the Mexican place for lunch. We can interview the owner about his recycling woes! And, of course, your town would have something great in terms of a recycling program.

    However, I have learned (from my work) that what is really important in terms of recycling programs is that they cut down on overall trash. Well, actually the aim is to change consumer habits in order to cut down on overall manufacturing (this is done with the expectations that new more environmentally-friendly industries– or at least better greener products will be born in their place). This is accomplished on various levels; part of which is the stimulation of environmental or ecological consciousness. And, it is here that cultural traditions can be affective.

    Did Confucianism prevent forms of deforestation? No, of course not. But could it be one of many valid places to find inspiration for ecological consciousness. YES, why not??

    And given the topic, Japan or Singapore or Taiwan, KOREA– are very valid places to discuss the way Confucianism can add to ecological consciousness. And indeed, that is all I am talking about– other valid philosophical traditions that stimulate commitment to conservation.

    Along these lines, rather than asking for a burden of proof for this, I would echo James above to say, any discussion ought to be encouraged. If it is not hurting the environment why not save your skepticism?

    I liked the article I linked to just above, by the way. And perhaps the 2 unique perspectives (unique in emphasis to Confucianism maybe??) is the emphasis on inter-dependence between people (not just family but all the “relations”) and strong sense of obligation to ancestors and progeny. These are markedly stronger in japanese than english and I wonder about China.

    Also too, in this context rather than “self” per se, we are really talking about worlds (worldviews, cultures, lichtung etc etc).

    Totally agree with you about enlightenment and science. In fact am uncomfortable with anything that seeks to compare. In the same way I don’t wish to undermine anything in the Chinese tradition that could undermine ecological values, ditto for European ones. Heidegger, though, I think specifically saw our ecological woes as originating in the modern technological paradigm. Therefore, I do not agree that he saw our woes as going back to the Greeks. The unworlding of the world I seem to recall is a modern phenomenon. It is also, according to Heidegger, unique in history.

    Will check out Haider Ala Hamoudi’s article

  18. Peony,

    Perhaps others who are experts on Heidegger can chime in but I recall learning some years ago that he traced modern science and technology (their ‘essence’ if you will) all the way back to Aristotle and Plato, believing Greek thinking took some wrong terms after the pre-Socratics (i.e., lost their poetizing impulse).

    I don’t think I was in any way discouraging discussion, just questioning the ecologically salvific power of Confucianism. If it is fairly innocuous–i.e., not hurting the environment–I don’t see how that speaks to the argument of Miller nor what you yourself wrote about earlier.

    “Ecological consciousness” does indeed play an important role, I simply made the point that it *need* not be a religously oriented consciousness to deserve the appellation “ecological.”

    And I wasn’t questioning the “validity” of discussing Confucianism outside of China proper, I simply stated that I was confining *myself* to speaking about that country. Everyone or anyone else is perfectly free to address Confucianism elsewhere as well, I just didn’t have anything to say about Confucianism elsewhere.

    Could Marxism be a valid source of ecological consciousness? YES, why not?

  19. Hi again,

    I see what you mean abut Heidegger now. Yes.

    And Yes to Marxism too, but again I would prefer to see empirically how this played out on the ground. That’s because often what we would like to think of things is not necessarily how things really come to pass. (that means, yes, it _would seem_ that daoism has more to say, but is it in fact affecting in this way? This is the interesting question if you seek to compare confucianism to daoism)

    And like you said, who could even make the call “Shinto plays more of a role in modern ecological consciousness than Confucianism” The point being both are valid and both can be said to inform the Jpse pluralistic approach (this has been my argument).

    Likewise, does Marxism (or has it) in fact generated environmental principles and ecological consciousness in the real world? Confucianism is not necessarily religious but rereading your comment 13, I think I now see where you are going.

  20. Well, there are ecological Marxists or Marxist ecologists working for environmental change, living as vegans and vegetarians, etc., as well as elaborating more or less Marxist ecological worldviews (I’ve worked alongside several of them and identify with much of their socio-economic philosophy. In Europe there’s been occasional Red-Green alliances on the Left/Social Democratic end of the spectrum (Fundi Greens like the late Rudolf Bahro were not too fond of them however).

    From my bibliography, “Ecological and Environmental Worldviews” posted at Ratio Juris ( one finds works like Ted Benton’s Natural Relations: Ecology, Animal Rights and Social Justice (London: Verso, 1993), James O’Connor’s Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism (New York: Guilford, 1998), and Martin Ryle’s Ecology and Socialism (London: Radius/Century Hutchinson, 1988). Of late, the editor of the independent socialist periodical, the Monthly Review, has written several things of interest: Ecology Against Capitalism (2002), Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (2000), and just out: The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet (2009). See too Joel Kovel’s apocalyptic sounding title, The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? (2nd ed., 2007).

    Again, I think people come to ecological consciousness and practice from disparate motivations and for motley reasons and thus from the vantage points provided by any number of worldviews: religious, spiritual (which could be a form of non-religous philosophical praxis in Martha Nussbaum’s, John Haldane’s or Pierre Hadot’s sense), or naturalistic (or ‘materialist’). Over time some worldviews may prove themselves to be more viable or significant in this regard, but that’s an ex post not an ex ante determination. Of course I have some thoughts as to which worldviews might prove to be more “ecologically friendly” than others, but I’ll wait and see what happens (and it may be far more important how people vote at the ballot box than what particular worldview inspires them or even whether or not they adopt a ‘green lifestyle’).

  21. Hi all,

    I’ve been following this thread with interest, and thought I’d throw out a few thoughts. It’s certainly true, as Patrick suggests (#18), that Confucians did not work consistently or effectively to forestall deforestation and so on; on the long-term environmental degradation of China, see Elvin’s remarkable Retreat of the Elephants. In her The River Runs Black, Elizabeth Economy makes much the same point, saying that notwithstanding their philosophical interests in the environment (on which more in a moment), Neo-Confucians could not be called “environmentalists.” (Still, some Neo-Confucian officials like Yu Shen did explicitly notice and work against specific aspects of environmental degradation, and justified their stances with Neo-Confucian principles.)

    Manyul says, in response to James Miller (#17):

    Here, I think, you want to draw on some kind of strong, culturally present nexus of motivations that can then be linked to increased concern for the environment — e.g. Confucianism or Daoism. They provide, perhaps, a set of motives that goes beyond the ones that, originating in the Enlightenment, seem to require linkage to rational self-interest.

    In Neo-Confucianism, at least, there is a very clear motivation/justification that goes beyond any sort of narrow, rational self-interest. These thinkers took the idea that we humans “form one body” with all things very seriously, and discussed the spontaneous dismay one could feel at seeing “plants broken and destroyed” as continuous with one’s other moral motivations. That quote comes from Wang Yangming’s “Inquiry on the Great Learning“; another very apt source if Zhang Zai’s “Western Inscription.” There’s of course a lot more that one could say about these ideas, which are anthropocentric in a way, but nonetheless potentially powerful sources of an “environmental ethic.”

  22. Hi Steve,

    You know, I was planning on responding to Patrick, but rather than take up space here was going to email him. However, what I wanted to say (and what I have been trying to say– probably ineffectively) was very much along the lines of your comment–

    That is– it is not that anything in the text informs specifically modernday issues (how could it?) BUT, that as one of the major sources of cultural attitudes in that part of the world, that Confucianism does affect people’s approach toward the environment. And, I used the words “approaches” or “implementation” of policies or practives, but I prefer your word motivation.

    First, like you said, the idea of inter-connectedness with other humans in the community and with nature. In my own embodied experience this is felt not as “recycling as a choice” or even “recycycling made convenient for individuals” but rather non-negotiable policies that come “from above.” There is no choice. And they are not convenient. They cost money to people and take enormous time. When the “han”  班 has its seasonal river cleanup event it is not a matter of choice. We all go. We often have a morning beer and kampai. Afterwards kids receive snacks… those who cannot make it, have already apologized to the group. I mean, it’s not a matter of indicvidual choice at the ballot box (though that is there too) or individual lifestyle choices but rather in a huge collective focus– which in part without a doubt comes from a Confucian style mood (more on collective moods for those interested on my blog later)

    And yes, about “dismay at plants being broken.”

    I seem to recall you spent time in Taiwan. I spent a few months in Kaoshiung and honestly did not detect any of these things. I also did not detect the collective approach in Hong Kong where I lived for almost 2 years. I think it was because I could not speak the languages so was “out of the loop.” On the other hand, my Chinese friends in Japan tell me that Japan and Korea are the “great Confucian societies” and that customs that used to be a part of Chinese consciousness that they see in Japan or Korea have all but disappeared. I don’t know….

    And Manyul, I removed my comment to your latest FB posting because I started worrying you wouldn’t understand I was joking! My sense of humor often gets me in trouble so….plus I am turning into a real “LA lady who lunches” which doesn’t help either. sorry 哭泣~.

  23. I guess I should address everyone who addressed me separately. I don’t have much to insert elsewhere.

    Manyul, it think we are skeptical on different things for different reasons, though I think I agree with your cause for skepticism, as well.

    To address Peony’s disagreement, you and I are on opposite terrain. I posed the analogy to give a more quickly exposed objection in the hopes I wouldn’t have to go through all of the length of my objection. I really wanted to save that for my own blog.

    The fact is that I don’t think a cultural tradition of any sort, philosophical or otherwise, should be the cause for justification for certain action or policy. While there may be coincident instances of agreement between arguments for environmental policy and for, say, Confucian or Western arguments for the importance of offspring, I think the soundness for present arguments, themselves, rather than their (coincident) origins, are what are important.

    I don’t hold that the books don’t convey insight that bear on problems of various sorts. It would be hard to explain my motivation to read them and extract what I find to be unique (or at least comparatively interesting) truths from them if I thought that much. That’s not at issue with me, though. I want to be clear that my comparative interests and inquiries are historical, while my non-comparative interests are of universal and empirical facts.

    I object at what I believe to be a misuse of texts ancient and present. Hansen caught a first bit of it, when he remarks that we misuse statements like, “Confucius seems to think that x,” for, “Confucius’s work seems to imply that x.” The other big step in my interest is not to appeal to that at all, since the only propositional authority I want to grant to the issues that still haunt us are the ones that are true.

    That undoes my interest in what I (perhaps unfairly) judge as cultural relativism. Actually, I think there are strict truths and falsehoods, but that they are obscured by disparities between natural languages. Whether the source of some true statements are Eastern or Western doesn’t matter to me when I’m not doing comparative work. Truth should accommodate for falsehood, regardless of cultural (dis)favor.

    Confucius’s work simply wasn’t conceived with environmental problems in mind because its address is not on environmental problems. If we want to argue…

    1.) that present generations should not harm future generations, and
    2.) that environmental abuse harms future generations implies
    3.) that environmental abuse does something it should not do,

    I could accept it. From my reading, Confucius’s work doesn’t complete an inference of this sort. I only read Confucius giving an argument compounding and defending the first premise, but nothing for the second. The second premise may be relevant to Confucianism and a handful of other traditions, but that doesn’t constitute an assertion or interest relevant to the ethical argument.

    Just recently (and not to plug myself), I wanted to draw that distinction just as firmly when talking about the Turing machine thought experiment and the Lunyu. The comparative interest is in the coincidence despite and distinctiveness of propositions in light of temporal and cultural gaps.

  24. Hi Manyul and Patrick,

    I really enjoyed the conversation! If anyone is interested, I responded more over on my blog

    Green being my favorite color, I am hoping to talk more about this topic someday– maybe with Patrick in person over burritoes! 🙂

    best, Peony

    “I mentioned the conversation over at the Gialbo’s palace surrounding the CRM article by James Miller, How Confucianism Could Curb Global Warming. The article itself was unfortunately framed in a East (Confucian) versus West (Enlightenment) frame and that led to more of the same from everyone (myself included). In the end, I think the issue is not whether or not it is “valid” to suggest that Confucian thought informs/inspires East Asian ecological consciousness (this is absurd in fact as in the end a person would only be holding up what they hope or how they logically think things should be). Really, however, I think it only makes sense to approach the issue by examining the way this Confucian sensibility or mood continues (or not) to inform the background practices there on the ground. And, when it comes to something as fundamentally important as the environment, I think all efforts should be encouraged!

    As Drefus always encouraged his students: look at the phenomenon. All the answers can be found there. And, so when I look at green activities on the ground within a Japanese language context, I could only nod my head along with the author of the article– and extrapolating from there, I think well, why not for China?”

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