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The Dualism that Produces Our Attitudes Towards the Environment

The humanistic and moralistic value types described by Kellert involve a bonding with nature and a faculty of altruism or kinship toward her. Religions have formed the basis of many of our attitudes and have contributed to our primary ethos towards nature. Religions that consider "man" as a supreme creation, the noblest, or "made in the image of God," have defined an environmental ethic that sees nature and indeed all of creation beneath man and different from man, rather than man as a part of nature. Ancient religions and traditions, on the other hand, see nature as our guardians, and humans as part of nature. These ancient "religions" are mostly philosophies of life—wisdom about life and living on earth—which derive their tenets from considering man as part of nature. They accord to nature a power and a role as our benefactor and our sustenance, and in turn, prescribes our obligations towards nature and the consequent values and attitudes. Thus Hinduism and native American "religions" considered pantheistic in the western worldview accord a sacred quality to all of nature, often by defining each element of nature as a deity.

Judeo-Christian and other man-centered religions believe in a single, all-powerful God who made man in his image and gave him "dominion over the earth." Historian Lynn White's essay "The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis" attributes the modern exploitation of nature arising from the abuse of this "dominion," writing that "Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen." This line of belief also engenders dualism, a separation between man and nature, even man versus nature.

Dualism, separatism, and reductionism are all paradigms or working principles that have come under question as we begin to recognize more and more how intertwined and interdependent all entities and processes are. Dualism and separatism have long been convenient constructs used by civilizations in justifying domination of one group over another. While our topic here is the environment, and the dualism that defines man and nature as separate, with one superior to the other, dualism has been the principle behind other types of domination—man over woman, one race over another, invaders over the invaded "native" or "indigenous" groups, humans over animals, even one religion over another.

Dualism is used to separate the dominating group as the "real," "genuine," or normal, and the rest as the "Other." Val Plumwood has described the attitudes and value judgments, even psychological justifications that keep the Other separate and inferior and the dominant group in charge. [Notecard: The literature on these themes developed particularly as women, and oppressed groups found ways to voice what was going on. This has since been adapted to the situation of the environment. This environmental movement is generally called "eco-feminism," and is discussed later.]
Dualisms, Plumwood writes, have characteristics that stereotypes the Other and is used to justify exclusion. The following list of characteristics are from Plumwood's essay "Paths Beyond Human-Centeredness" in the book An Invitation to Environmental Philosophy.

  1. Radical exclusion: marking the other as inferior and radically different in nature. It is not only recognizing a difference, but differentiation by considering the other as different in nature and therefore "primitive," "uncivilized," "less able," etc.
  2. Homogenization/Stereotyping: The Other is seen as "all the same" in their deficiency, and their social, cultural, religious, and personal diversity is discounted.
  3. Denial, backgrounding: Once the Other is defined as inferior, it can be ignored. There is no recognition of how the dominant group depends on the Other for any important or vital aspect of its existence.
  4. Incorporation: The dominant group is defined a s the one with the "universal" and "normal" attributes. The difference(s) in the Other is represented not as diversity but as lack. This becomes the basis for hierarchy and exclusion. The distinct qualities of the Other are seen as backward and in need of refinement or civilization. An example of this characteristic is the special position we accord Western sciences as based on reason, and reason as the predominant human characteristic.
  5. Instrumentation: The Other is seen as not being independent, and in need of protection, refining, not having (or not being worthy of) rights because she does not have the intellectual ability and agency needed for independence.

These characteristics can be said to apply to the way industrialized societies have come to treat nature.


Consider each of the above characteristics in the human-environment relation. Give an example of each or a composite example to illustrate "anthropocentrism" (or human-centeredness), which places humans as superior, and the norm and nature/environment as Other.

In each case, how would you attempt to overcome and remove this prejudice? Consider both words/rhetoric and action that would be useful in this respect.


Reductionism is the other line of thinking that has indirectly led to harm of the environment. The progress of science and technology has gone hand in hand, and even owed its rapid rate to this mode of thinking. Reductionism, or reducing a system into its components and treating the interactions later or ignoring them altogether, has been a result of scientific, analytical modes of thought. It has made possible our knowing large amounts of details bout individual pieces of systems, with little knowledge about how they fit together. Even realms of knowledge have been reduced to disciplines as we found the advantages of specialization—that we can know more, and that we can use and exploit that knowledge more effectively. Thus what was "natural philosophy" to Aristotle became specialized as science and philosophy further divided into physics, chemistry, biology, and so forth. Philosophy in turn was divided into logic, analysis, hermeneutics and other divisions. Two types of schisms developed as a result. First, knowledge as represented by science (derived from the Greek "scientia," meaning "to know") separated from philosophy, the love of wisdom. Philosophy itself became more analytical and "scientific." Second, knowledge and the practice of getting at knowledge through reductionist methods, got separated from ethics, which provided for reflective practice of linking impacts and standards of behavior with the doing of science.

More recently, there has been an attempt at the understanding of interrelationships. Systems science, chaos theory, and ecology are all examples of integrative science that try to understand nature including humans and our technology as a coherent whole. Industrial ecology is a particularly relevant example of systems thinking where industry and economy are viewed as systems interacting with the environmental systems.




  ©Copyright 2003 Carnegie Mellon University
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 9653194. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.