Environmental Consciousness

Have you come across that meme that compares the structure of the human brain to a cauliflower? Or a picture of the universe with pictures of a mouse's brain's neuron connections? If you haven't, I suggest you do a quick google image search. As humans, we don't necessarily know why those similarities are there, but their existence is surely fascinating and has been generating whole philosophies about our interconnectedness with the natural world.

Environmental Consciousness Environmental Consciousness

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    An essential part of some of these philosophies is the concept of environmental consciousness. So let's look at the meaning of environmental consciousness, why it's important, some of the problems it raises and a few examples of it.

    Environmental consciousness definition

    One way to unpack the meaning of big terms such as environmental consciousness is to consider one word at a time. What does environmental mean? It refers to anything related to the natural world and the impact human activities have on it. What is consciousness? It's the state of being aware and able to respond to our surroundings.

    So, If we combine the two definitions we can deduce that environmental consciousness is being aware of, and being able to respond to, the natural world and the impact humans have on it.

    However, the concept of environmental awareness goes beyond this. Environmental consciousness is a concept that emerges from the philosophy of deep ecology.

    Deep ecology is an environmental philosophy that values all nature independently of its usefulness to human needs. It stands in opposition to shallow ecology, which cares for nature only to the extent it serves humans.

    Check out our explanation of Deep Ecology for more information.

    A core idea of deep ecology is the need to re-evaluate the idea of self, or who humans are in relation to nature. It questions the anthropocentric perspective and criticises it for considering humans as separate from nature. Instead, it suggests that humans are part of nature, and nature is part of humans. Deep ecologists argued that this re-consideration of humanity as deeply interconnected with nature is essential to overcome the environmental issues facing humanity today. Humans would no longer approach them from an anthropocentric perspective but from an ecocentric one.

    Anthropocentrism is the perspective that considers humans as the most important entity. From the Greek anthropos-human beings, and kentron-centre.

    Ecocentrism, from the Greek oikos-house and kentron-centre. It's the perspective that puts nature at the centre.

    Importance of environmental consciousness

    The environmental issues facing humanity today are indisputable, and the news is talking daily about deforestation, air pollution, waste disposal and the loss of habitat and climate change.

    Climate change refers to the long-term changes in temperature and weather patterns, generally referring to human-caused climate change. The problems climate change is causing are becoming so severe, that it is recently been named the climate crisis.

    Environmental consciousness offers us a different approach to tackling these big problems. It's an approach based on the principles of holism that attempts to be sustainable and long-lasting.

    Deep ecology and environmental consciousness emerged in the 1960s, when humanity was first able to see pictures of the earth from space. This different perspective fed into the philosophy of holism. Holism tells us that the whole is made of many interdependent, interconnected parts, which cannot survive in isolation. Exactly like humans cannot consider themselves as separate from the rest of the planet.

    For more information about Holism check out our explanation on it.

    Environmental consciousness earth from space StudySmarterFig. 1 Earth from space

    This approach shows us that whenever we act in a damaging, disrespectful way towards the environment, we are actually damaging ourselves and our home.

    The World Economic Forum, published an article in 20201 discussing how we can move from an Egocentric to an Ecocentric perspective to tackle the environmental issues discussed above.

    In the article, they suggest the following ecocentric solutions for world leaders steering society through the environmental challenges:

    • Building a relationship with nature-spending time in nature to experience the interconnectedness and the physical and mental well-being this brings.

    • Walking the talk-leading by example

    • Giving nature a voice-employing experts to accurately represent the interest of the natural world.

    • Bringing nature into reporting and governance mechanisms-making government and corporation policies accountable for their environmental impact.

    Egocentric means putting oneself first and not thinking about the needs of others.

    Problems of environmental consciousness

    Both the Enlightenment and the Judeo-Christian religions, place humans, arguably male humans, as rulers of nature.

    The Enlightenment does this by seeing humans as the only life form possessing reason and celebrating the human achievements of science and technology.

    The main branches of the Judeo-Christian religions, in their creation myths, describe how humans were made in the image of God and placed on earth to rule over all living things.

    This anthropocentric perspective is still a strong current in societies of the Global North.

    We can see this by looking at how all aspects of nature are treated to benefit humans. The oceans are overfished, the land, through intensive agriculture, is drained of nutrients, and animals are selectively bred to produce the most meat for human consumption.

    The Global North are the most industrially developed countries that have developed in line with western philosophical trends, namely the Enlightenment. It's crucial to make this distinction, as anthropocentrism isn't a global perspective. Some non-western cultures and indigenous populations have a different, more ecocentric perspective, for example, a central idea of Taoism, the religion and philosophy from ancient China, is the unity between “heaven and man2”.

    One of the main problems created by the concept of environmental consciousness is that it asks for a radical change to this perspective. Even though this could be seen as a necessary step for humans' survival, it's such a big ask that it clashes with the text of the Stockholm Declaration.

    The Stockholm Declaration of 1972 is officially called the Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. It represents the first attempt to tackle environmental issues on a global scale. Its text contains this anthropocentric wording: “Of all things in the world, people are the most precious”.

    Environmental Consciousness Environmental Protest StudySmarterFig. 2 Environmental protest

    There's a second main problem that comes with the concept of environmental consciousness. Other, less radical branches of Ecologism, see it as utopian, based on mysticism rather than science and therefore unable to deal with the practical environmental concerns humanity is facing.

    In Minnesota, the Church of Deep ecology was founded in 1991 to teach the world's traditions that are based on respect for the natural world. This was used by critics of deep ecology and environmental consciousness to justify their accusations.

    Examples of environmental consciousness

    Let's now have a look at some examples of environmental consciousness that are already around us. First, many religions, such as Jainism, advocate for environmental consciousness.

    Jainism is an ancient Indian religion that was revived in the 6th century BC. Jainism teaches its followers about a symbiosis between not just all living things, but also the elements. These elements are space, earth, fire, water, and air. There is a responsibility to protect these things through non-violent means.

    Secondly, you might have seen in the news how in Aotearoa New Zealand, over the last few years, the Whanganui River, the Te Urewera National Park and Mt. Taranaki have been given the same legal rights as people. This is an official acknowledgement of the relationship the local iwi have, and have had, with these natural entities which are seen as their ancestors and as members of their families. Under this new legal status, anyone found harming them, can be prosecuted as if they harmed you or me.

    Iwi is the Te Reo Māori term for Māori communities.

    Environmental Consciousness Mt Taranaki StudySmarterFig. 3 Mt. Taranaki

    In 2010, Bolivia passed the Law for the Defence of Mother Earth. It gives rights to the earth and paved the way for the 2012 Framework Law on Mother Earth and Integral Development to Live Well. Both these developments represent the country's effort to balance environmental preservation with sustainable human life.

    Lastly, the preamble to Ecuador's 2008 Constitution, names Pachamama, the indigenous concept of Mother Earth. It extends human rights to Mother Earth, including the right to be restored, and the right to be represented in court. By doing this, it challenges anthropocentrism by negating any previously existing legal differences between humans and non-humans3.

    It is crucial to note that Aotearoa New Zealand, Bolivia, and Ecuador all have relatively large indigenous communities with traditionally ecocentric cultures. Their participation in their countries' politics has been key to bringing about these legal changes.

    What is eco-consciousness or eco-awareness?

    Eco-consciousness or eco-awareness are parts of environmental consciousness.

    Eco is an abbreviation for ecological. Ecological means related to ecology, the study of the relationship between living beings, including humans.

    It means being informed about the environmental issues we have been discussing and the human impact on them. It also implies the awareness of our personal actions. And, if necessary, the knowledge, and willingness to change our habits to reflect what's best from an ecocentric perspective.

    Eco-consciousness or awareness can be cultivated on a personal basis, through educating ourselves. However, schools are also including elements of eco-awareness in their programme to teach children from a young age how to think and act responsibly towards our environment.

    Environmental consciousness - Key takeaways

    • Environment consciousness means shifting our perspective from an anthropocentric to an ecocentric one.
    • Environmental consciousness emerges from the philosophy of deep ecology, which sees humans and nature as deeply interconnected parts of one whole.
    • Environmental consciousness is important as it can offer holistic, sustainable solutions to today's environmental problems.
    • The problems raised by environmental consciousness are the need for a radical change in perspective which is in opposition to current western culture and the fact that it's seen as utopian.
    • Examples of environmental consciousness are the religions like Jainism and the recent legal development towards giving nature and natural entities legal rights.

    References

    1. Shruthi Vijayakumar Robyn Seetal, We must move from egocentric to ecocentric leadership to safeguard our planet, World Economic Forum Website 2020
    2. Pu Jingxin and Guo Song, Abandon selfish Western anthropocentrism to solve pandemic with Chinese man-nature philosophy, Global Times website, 2021
    3. Edda Sundström, The ‘Rights of Nature’ Movement: Potential for an Ecocentric Reorientation of Environmental Law?, CYIS website, 2021
    4. Fig. 1 Earth from space (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Earth_from_Space_with_Stars_(6143809369).jpg) by DonkeyHotey (https://www.flickr.com/people/47422005@N04) licenced by CC-BY-2.0 (https://spdx.org/licenses/CC-BY-2.0.html) on Wikimedia Commons
    5. Fig. 2 Environmental protest (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Protester_holding_a_banner_with_the_message_%22System_change,_not_climate_change%22_(51525653745).jpg) by Ivan Radic (https://www.flickr.com/people/26344495@N05) CC-BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en) on Wikimedia Commons
    6. Fig. 3 Mt Taranaki (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mt_Taranaki,_NZ.jpg) ITravelNZ (https://www.flickr.com/photos/itravelnz/6381261983/) CC-BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en) on Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Environmental Consciousness

    What is environmental consciousness?

    Environment consciousness means shifting our perspective from an anthropocentric to an ecocentric one, and to see humans and nature as deeply interconnected parts of one whole. 

    Why environmental consciousness is important?

    Environmental consciousness is important as it can offer holistic, sustainable solutions to today's environmental problems.

    How can environmental consciousness be improved?

    Environmental consciousness can be improved by building a relationship with nature and including nature's interests in government and corporate policies.

    What are the examples of environmental awareness?

    Examples of environmental consciousness are religions like Jainism and recent legal development towards giving nature and natural entities legal rights.

    What are the five major environmental problems?

    Deforestation, air pollution, waste disposal, loss of habitats, and climate change are some major environmental problems. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is the name of the perspective that puts the natural world at the centre?

    Which of these isn't an example of environmental consciousness?

    What are the problems with environmental consciousness?

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