The shape and meaning given to physical bodies constitutes the primary way that Western societies organize themselves socially. Although in Western thought, one may understand the body to be inessential compared to the importance placed on the rational, disembodied subject; physical bodies, as Nigerian feminist philosopher Oyeronke Oyewumi (1997) says, “are always social bodies” (p. xii). What she means by this phrase is that society in the West tends to be organized by a hierarchy that differentiates between the kind of bodies present so that biology is thought to equal social destiny. Difference from the standard male subject is expressed as degeneration or “a deviation from the original type” (p. 1) because women/females are defined as the Other: the antithesis to men/males who represent the norm. In this self/other distinction, which is central to Western metaphysics, there is a lack of space for women to articulate themselves as subjects. Luce Irigaray (1985), for example, stated that “I am a being sexualized as feminine” (p. 148) is not able to be articulated because women are socialized to accept the subordinate positions offered to them within patriarchal discourse.
A key aspect to this system of organization is the emphasis placed on Cartesian dualism or the mind/body difference, which categorically separates material and mental substances as two separate things. Certain valuational schemas are encouraged by this difference, namely, that the body, often linked to the female/maternal/natural, is thought to be inferior to reason and the mind, a domain that has been traditionally reserved for males. One outcome from such a schema is that gender becomes an oppressive hierarchical dichotomy in which women cannot be anything other than the material negative to the rational man (Coetzee & Halsema, 2018). Another outcome is that with the body devalued and associated with death and deception, patriarchy is cut off from nature so that the universe of language and symbols “has no roots in the flesh” (Irigaray, 1993, p. 16). With humans (man) sitting at the top of the natural hierarchy, nature and the environment have long been considered to be outside of moral consideration. The result has been an unsustainable relationship with nature as environmental destruction from Western-centric development policies are accepted as inevitable for the price of progress and modernity, even if this has meant excessive exploitation of natural resources, deforestation, the loss of biodiversity, freshwater shortages, and damage to the ozone layer.
Examples of Alternative Value Systems
For Confucian scholar Tu Wei-Ming (1992), the dialectic of Enlightenment that started with the celebration of rationality before moving to the Faustian drive to seek total dominion over nature and other human beings is what eventually led to our current situation, impelling us to “raise the agonizing question: Are human beings a viable species?” (p. 88). However, it should be noted that gender and body as a system based on division and hierarchy between man/reason and woman/nature is not a concept that is indigenous to many cultures and was generally imposed on societies through Western colonial rule. In Nigeria, for instance, bodily differences were not hierarchical in precolonial Yoruba culture (Oyewumi, 1997; Dogo, 2014). Instead of putting women in a single group characterized by shared interests, desires, and social positions, people were classified into social groups depending on the roles they chose and the kind of people they were. Thus, a subject in Yorubaland was not primarily thought of as a man or a woman, but rather a trader, hunter, cook, farmer, or ruler—all of which were equally accessible to every citizen. Oyewumi (2002) further describes the traditional Yoruba family as non-gendered since power within the family was diffused and not gender-specific. The main organizing principle within the family was seniority. Unlike sex, seniority as an organizing principle is context-dependent as “no one is permanently in a senior or junior position; it all depends on who is present in any given situation” (Oyewumi, 1997, p. 42). As a result, identity in Yoruba culture was understood as fluid, relational, contextual, and shifting. Seniority is only comprehensible as part of relationships and is not “rigidly fixated on the body nor dichotomized” (p. 42), whereas gender as it is featured in Western culture fixes power relations by confining certain categories of people (women) to limited roles and spaces.
Although there are many different interpretations concerning the status of women in China depending on which aspect of Chinese culture one is studying (see Ortner, 1974), the differentiation between reason and nature is not indigenous to the Chinese-world view. Without simplifying Chinese ideas of non-dualistic thinking and dynamic processes, Chinese cultural heritage has a lot to say about physical nature. For instance, self-cultivation as a form of mental and physical catering that involves exercises such as rhythmic bodily movements and breathing techniques in the form of Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese art form. Chinese medicine is also not only concerned with curing diseases and preventing sickness, but with restoring vital energy (qi) that is essential for maintaining the body in a healthy state. As Tu (1992) notes, because the level of qi required for each individual is dependent on sex, age, weight, height, occupation, time, and circumstances, the wholeness of the body is a situational and dynamic process rather than a static structure.
Values about undifferentiated wholeness and completeness are foundational to Chinese philosophy. On the surface, philosophy in China seems to be exclusively concerned with issues of correct behaviour, familial obedience, political order, and world peace, but as Wing-tsit Chan (1963) suggests, a more comprehensive characterization of Chinese philosophy and humanism is “not the humanism that denies or slights a Supreme Power, but one that professes the unity of man and Heaven” (p. 3). In contrast to Western humanism, which is based on secularism and devalues things that are associated with nature, the spiritual and naturalist dimensions in Chinese thought are incorporated into a comprehensive vision of the relationship between human beings and the natural world. Even the aesthetic components of music and dance that Confucius included in his curriculum are intimately linked with the ritualised aspect of human-nature relatedness. Kim (2006) highlights that the noble person (junzi) is one that is awakened to the beauty of humanness and the universe, and “it is because of this awareness that he ‘sets his mind on the Way [dao, 到], depends on virtue [de, 德], relies on ren [人] and enjoys the arts [you yu yi]’” (p. 111; Analects, 7.6).
Moreover, the Confucian and Daoist emphasis on spontaneity and living in harmony and natural ease is highlighted by both the life story of Confucius, who at seventy followed his heart’s desire without overstepping his bounds (Analects, 2.4), and the Daoist notion of following the Way. In chapter 25 of the Dao De Jing, it states that “Human follows the way of the earth; the earth follows the way of the heaven; the heaven follows Dao; Dao follows the way of nature” (translation by Wang, 2013, p. 70). Spontaneity and following the way of nature means to seek the growth of the whole and cultivate one’s relationship with animate and inanimate things. To do so is to maintain the underlying harmony that interfuses between man and man, and between man and things (Chang, 1963). For modern Confucianism, attempts to revitalise the tradition of human-nature relatedness can be seen through the concept of ‘heart-mind compassion’ (buren ren zhixin, 不忍人之 心) and ‘unity with all things under Heaven’ (yu wanwu yiti, 與萬物一體). Just like one’s responsibility towards filial relationships and society, humans are believed to have a moral duty to recognise the independent value of nourishing the Heaven and Earth in order to maintain nature, an essential component to living in a healthy human community. Thus, rather than domination, caring for ‘all things under Heaven’ is a moral demand that humans are required to respond to.
The Problem with ‘Sustainability’
However, applying these theories to contemporary life is difficult. The concept of ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’ is subject to many interpretations and takes on different meanings depending on the interest group and society involved. Traditionally, the definition provided by the United Nations, which states that sustainability is the ability to meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, is used without critically examining the meaning of ‘needs’. For instance, it is unclear if needs refer to maintaining quality harvests over time or improving human living standards in which case protecting natural resources and the environment is only part of the story. From an anthropological point of view, sustainability should concern maintaining social and cultural systems (aboriginal skills and knowledges) and applying these skills to solve real world problems.
Combining all of these under the term ‘intergenerational equity’, American lawyer Edith Brown Weiss (1989) argued that sustainability should be understood as a holistic term that involves the human species passing on the natural and cultural environment in an at least comparable condition to that in which it was received. But with short-term thinking that characterises political and development decision-making, there has been a widening gap between necessary measures to protect the natural and cultural environment and policy. International law has struggled to respond effectively as most environmental agreements either fall into non-binding declarations or preambles of multilateral environmental agreements. Governments like the United States have shown how easy it is for states to pull out of such agreements without any serious ramifications. Furthermore, the idea of passing on the current environment in ‘an at least comparable condition’ has been interpreted by some to mean that all that matters in the end is that the aggregate gains outweigh the aggregate losses. So, if a project generates more wealth than the monetary costs of environmental damage, then the project should be able to go ahead since the loss of the environmental is made up for by the wealth that is generated (Beder, 2000). For utilitarian philosopher David Pearce (1991), the equivalent of this principle in practice would be to allow the Amazon forest to be removed so long as the proceeds from removing it “are reinvested to build up some other form of capital” (p. 2).
These are not equitable solutions for local communities or the environment. Such ‘sustainable’ development policies are strongly influenced by economists of the neoclassical school and only reinforce existing inequalities. Robert Bullard (1993), professor of sociology at the University of California, claims that people of colour in the United States “are disproportionately affected by industrial toxins, dirty air and drinking water, and the location of noxious facilities” (p. 25) since polluting facilities are often placed in working class areas. Women and girls are also disproportionately impacted by climate change. By constituting two-thirds of the world’s poor, women are more reliant on natural resources which means that the scarcity of these resources makes it more difficult for women to support their families and communities. The estimation that in Africa alone, women walk forty billion hours a year to bring water home puts this considerable toll into perspective (Zoloth, 2017). Despite being disproportionately affected, government programs and financing mechanisms that are aimed at environmental sustainability are often not gender-informed. A 2012 assessment of the Climate Development Mechanism found that only five of 3,864 projects had gender considerations within their programming, which shows that there is a clear inconsistency between the ethic of sustainable development put forward by intergovernmental agreements, and the way that economists and policy-makers are achieving these goals.
Western religious and cultural discourses have been pointed to as a reason for current environmental problems. Oyewumi’s writings point out that the reason over nature hierarchy and the repression of the female/maternal is neither inevitable nor universal. The fact that development policies that are directed at environmental sustainability continue to negatively impact the lower class, women, and people of colour highlights that what is needed is a cross-continental dialogue between scholars and philosophers who can put forward alternative perspectives to Western culture’s oppositional logic in order to produce enriching and original insights. There is also a need to put these principles into action through enforceable policies by both communities and states. In part two of this article series, sustainability from a Confucian perspective will be discussed as well as a critical overview of China’s recent environmental projects.