6/30/2015 Peter Durantine

Is There Danger in Radical Western and Japanese Ecological Views?

From nuclear power accidents to oil spills, activists are responding to the degradation around the world by adopting radical environmental views -- without an understanding of their historical context.

This concerns Franklin & Marshall Associate Professor of History Richard Reitan, who is researching two of these views -- deep ecology, a European-American philosophy that pertains to the individual and nature, and a similar neo-conservative Japanese view.

"What I want to do is put them in historical context and show how they emerged," the Japanese historian said. 

  • Hackman Scholar Xinyu Liu, who speaks fluent Japanese, translates text to understand the status of deep ecology in Japan. Hackman Scholar Xinyu Liu, who speaks fluent Japanese, translates text to understand the status of deep ecology in Japan. Image Credit: Peter Durantine

With help from rising senior Xinyu Liu, a history major and Hackman Scholar, Reitan has studied various environmental disasters including Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant catastrophe in 2011 and BP's Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2012.

"When I started to learn about deep ecology, I was struck by how similar it is in many ways to neo-conservative thinking about nature in Japan," Reitan said.

The project launched a few weeks ago. Liu, who speaks fluent Japanese, has been culling and translating text to understand the status of deep ecology in Japan, a level of research he enjoys because it pertains to his major.

"I'm a history major with a Japanese minor and I've completed all of my required courses," Liu said, a resident of Ware College House. "Now, I want to see how these three years of education work."

Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, influential in the latter half of the 20th century's environmental movement, developed deep ecology. His views were influenced by American environmentalist Rachel Carson, author of the seminal "Silent Spring," and by India's Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolence protests, according to Retian.

"Deep ecology is critical of the view that we are detached from nature; that nature is a lifeless object, that it's there for us to exploit and derive what benefit we can from it," Reitan said. "That, deep ecologists say, leads to the problem of environmental destruction."

Drawing on Japanese religious and philosophical traditions, deep ecology seeks to combat this perspective and cultivate an alternative view of the person as one with nature. "If we see nature as ourselves why would we harm it?" Reitan said. "This focuses on the view of the person and how we might change it."

Reitan and Liu found the neo-conservative Japanese viewpoint very similar to that of deep ecology. The neo-conservative view blames Western attitudes for Japan's environmental problems.

"They say the problem is Japan's Western-style industrial society, and the Western view of the person as detached from nature, exploiting nature," Reitan said. "They say the only way to overcome it is to turn to Japan's past."

The religious as well as cultural views that once dominated Japan's past imply that nature -- trees, grass, rivers, mountains, waterfalls, etc. -- have deities residing in them. Therefore it is all sanctified.

"Neo-conservative views in Japan say what deep ecology says -- what we need to do is have this unified view of the person and nature as one," Reitan said. "If we can cultivate that, they say, maybe we can address the environmental problems."

Instead, Japan's response to the environment today is not unlike Japanese responses to the West in the 1920s and '30s, which, under the flag of nationalism, led Japan into war with the West in the 1940s, Reitan said. 

"It's tied in with the emerging nationalist movement back then so I'm a little concerned about this," he said. "This concept of the person that exploits the environment, exploits other people to produce, this is what Japan had become by the '20s and '30s. What people in that era were critiquing was not only the West, but what they had become."

Without context on their views, adherents to neo-conservative Japanese views and deep ecology miss the actual cause of degradation, Reitan said. "It's the economic order that is creating these environmental problems, not merely a certain view of the person."

"If deep ecology and this conservative view in Japan don't focus on capitalism, the real root of the problem, which they don't see because they haven't looked at the history of these concepts, they won't be able to adequately address the problems that we are facing," Reitan said. 

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