November 28, 2008


A Philosophical Approach to Addressing Global Environmental Issues

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.74 (October 2008)

Takashi Umehara, born March 20, 1925, is one of Japan's most prominent philosophers. He graduated from the Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Letters, at Kyoto University, majoring in western philosophy, and he has studied the depth of Japanese culture, centering on Japanese Buddhism.

He is now a professor emeritus at the Kyoto City University of Art, and also serves as an adviser to the International Research Center for Japanese Studies. He is also a recipient of Japan's Order of Culture.

About Takeshi Umehara

Umehara has been vocal on environmental issues. This essay is a summary of his remarks at a lecture in Osaka in September 2008.

(Note that this summary is based on the author's own notes taken during the lecture, and the author takes responsibility for its content.)


"This summer was hot, wasn't it? The ice caps in both the Arctic and Antarctic are melting, and polar bears are on the verge of extinction.

It has become absolutely clear that the global environment itself is now endangered. Environmental issues have been talked about for some time, but we are being forced to realize that humanity itself is at risk.

"Books like 'Silent Spring' by Rachel Carson and 'An Inconvenient Truth' by Al Gore have warned us and made us aware of environmental issues, but humanity has so far failed to take adequate action. Japan and other countries could not exactly be described as being proactive, and they don't seem to be taking these things seriously enough.

"The situation reminds me of an expression described in one of the sutras taught by the Buddhist Saint Nichiren, called 'kataku' in Japanese, which means 'a house on fire.' This is a metaphorical expression for children playing in a burning house, not realizing that it's on fire. The bulk of humanity is acting like these children, playing in a house, unaware that it's burning.

"In their books, both Carson and Gore issued warnings about environmental issues, but I don't think they touched upon the real roots of the problem. We need to cure the problem, not just treat the symptoms.

This is the only way to solve things.

"In my view, it is our modern, science-and-technology-based civilization that is the root cause of the whole problem. Prior to the modern era, there were no major environmental issues in any civilization. Although it is true that modern Western civilization has brought about significant benefits to the world, it has also destroyed much of the environment at the same time. In modern Western civilization, human beings have developed a culture of affluence and convenience by controlling any part of nature thought to confront us. Although nature is our mother, we have exploited her like a slave.

"I do not mean to reject science and technology per se. Rather, I think that modern Western philosophy that has promoted science and technology has been mistaken.

"Descartes said, 'I think, therefore I am.' He placed the rational self, which doubts its own thoughts, at the center of the universe, as he doubted everything to identify something absolute. With this line of thought, the individual self confronts the natural world or anything other than the self, while the natural world exists outside of the self and can be described by a mathematical formula.

"Recently, I have come to think that such Cartesian philosophy might be wrong. In fact, it is only for a few hours a day that we humans actually think. It seems to me that eating, sleeping, and bearing offspring are more human actions than thinking.

"I don't believe it is right put only the 'human being as a thinking being' at the center of our universe. We exist in the dynamic realm of life forms that begins with amoebas. Modern philosophy, however, has portrayed the world as 'humans' rational nature and impersonal nature.'

"Descartes is not the only human-centered philosopher. When we trace back the idea of the rational nature of humans being at the center of the universe, we end up with Plato. Plato thought about the 'confrontation of rational humans and nature,' while Heidegger concluded that 'reason based on a will to control' is the fate of the West.

"Before Socrates, the Ionian thinkers, including Thales, believed that all matter is made up of water, fire, and air. But I thought that modern Western philosophy might be wrong and switched my study to Japanese philosophy when I was around 40 years old. I had a feeling that I could learn more about the fallacies of Western philosophy this way.

"The central idea in Japanese culture, starting in the Jomon era (about 12,000 years ago), can be expressed as 'Somoku kokudo shikkai jobutsu,' which means all things, such as mountains, rivers, plants, and minerals, are living and intrinsically exist as deities. This is a traditional Japanese way of thinking, which I think is becoming more and more important worldwide. Human beings have to coexist with all living things.

"I visited Egypt, a source of Greek and Israeli civilization, in January and February 2008. The sun god, Ra, is at the center of natural philosophy in Egypt. In Japanese traditional thought, the divinity of plants, trees and land exists thanks to the Sun. In fact, Japan also has a sun god, called Amaterasu-oomikami. After this trip, I strongly felt that we need to go back to a sun god.

"Since ancient centers of Greek and Israeli civilizations developed as city-states far beyond from their start as farmland communities, perhaps we could say they have become disconnected from the land. Apollo (the Greek god of sunlight) became a god of prophesy and philosophy. Humanity must return to the god of the Sun.

"I believe that Western philosophy is still based on Ptolemaic theory, which, in short, means everything centers around human beings. Instead, I think we need to return to a philosophy that places the Sun and nature at the center."

(Written by Junko Edahiro)