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Environmentalism - Dissertation Sample

14 Mar 2017Dissertation Samples

Environmentalism are driven by the needs of people rather then the state of the natural world

There is no single, unambiguous, universally-agreed definition of environmentalism (Middleton, 2003). However, for the purposes of this essay and in its broadest terms, environmentalism can be understood as referring to texts in various media and actions undertaken by individuals or groups of a broadly political nature that are concerned in some way with conserving, improving, preserving, protecting or saving the ‘environment’ (Jones and Hollier, 1997).

However, just as there are competing definitions of environmentalism, so there is also disagreement as to what constitutes the ‘environment’, in addition to what it means to conserve, improve, preserve, protect or save it, and, naturally, the reasons advanced in support of such proposals and activity differ greatly from one organisation to another. Thus, what broadly referred to in the media and by the general public as ‘environmentalism’ can actually be seen as a collection of many different environmentalisms, such as Deep Ecology, eco-anarchism, eco-socialism, ecofeminism, and anthropocentric environmentalism.

Each definition displays its own inherent characteristics of assumptions about the nature and cause of environmental ‘problems’, and the most appropriate response to those problems. This interpretation of ‘environmentalism’ is deliberately all-encompassing, in an attempt to include, for example, activity associated with governmental and political organisations, including those not generally seen as being ‘green’ or ‘environmentally friendly’, as well as the more obvious activity of environmental pressure groups (Rowell, 1996). Consequently, whilst some of these environmentalisms can be seen as variations of one another, others appear to stand in more or less direct opposition the others (Nelissen et al., 1997).

As a result, more or less simple, often dichotomous, classification systems have been devised by various academics and specialists in an attempt to make sense of this diversity in definition. One of the most renowned, and most frequently cited, of these is Timothy O’Riordan’s division of environmentalism into the categories of technocentrism and ecocentrism (O’Riordan, 1981). However, while regularly referred to, discussions of this classification often remain uncritical and appear to assume the adequacy of the terms as a means of categorising the somewhat bewildering heterogeneity of contemporary environmentalism.

Deep and shallow ecology

In the 1960s, environmental concern arose in reaction to the increasing industrial pollution following World War Two, and the majority of this concern originated as a result of air and water pollution, and how this directly effected the human population, and therefore public health and welfare. As a result, the strain of initial environmentalism was broadly anthropocentric and urban-pollution-oriented (Nelissen et al., 1997), and therefore theory founded on the importance of the human. It is generically believed that human is more important than other living beings, discussed as anthropocentric environmentalism later, and the newly-found environmentalist movement of the 1960s appealed to the public as it attempted to preserve nature as a result of attempting to preserve the quality of human life.

Arne Naess, a Norwegian philosopher and linguist, coined the term "shallow ecology" in the early 1970s for this human-centered or "anthropocentric" way of viewing the world and its requirement for environmentalist concern (Naess, 1990). By its definition, shallow ecology implies that people view environmental concerns and issues from a subconsciously assumed, and often unexamined and unexplored, presumption that humans are the central species in the Earth's ecosystem, and that other species and parts of system are of less importance or value (Chambers et al., 2000). In its extreme manifestations, shallow ecology views any non-human features of the Earth as resources for human use, and fails to see their intrinsic value or their value to each other. Naess was of the opinion that the environmental movement, originating in the 1960s, was also approaching its efforts to protect the Earth from a shallow standpoint, focusing predominantly on human health and wellbeing, as opposed to observing the environment as a holistic and symbiotic system with inherent value throughout.

Despite criticisms of shallow ecological environmentalist movements originating more than three decades ago, it continues to apply to current environmental issues in the twenty-first century, and has specific implications as a result of governmental programmes to address environmentalist concerns. Mainstream political movements predominantly view humans as above or outside of nature, as the source of all value, and ascribes only instrumental, or 'use', value to nature (Hannigan, 1995). Simultaneously, the deep ecology movement emerged as a socio-political movement, and aims to revolutionise the traditional “environmental conservation” campaign, thereby redirecting from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism political and apolitical programmes of environmentalism.

Ecologists who subscribed to the deep ecology school of thought were convinced that the dominant environmental approach was shallow and seriously misguided (Pepper, 1996), and consequentially, the deep-rooted foundation for the advocates of shallow ecology was shaken fundamentally. In contrast, deep ecology does not separate humans, or any other species, from the natural environment; it differs from the shallow ecology methodology substantially as it does not observe the world not as a collection of isolated objects but, rather, as a network of phenomena that are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent (Smith, 1999). Deep ecology recognizes the intrinsic value of all living beings and views human beings as just one particular strand in the web of life.

The deep ecology school of thought intrinsically begins with the premise that life on Earth has entered its most precarious phase in history, and that environmental concerns are no longer founded in the realms of academia or political socialism, but are essential to the continuation of the world as a whole. Deep ecology speaks of threats not only to human life, but to the lives of all species of plants and animals, as well as the health and continued viability of the biosphere (O’Riordan, 1981). 
A philosophy is, among other things, a system of thought that governs conduct, however, in the original Greek it referred to a "love of wisdom". Several new philosophies have developed in response to the worsening environmental crisis, and, according to academics, among the most interesting is deep ecology (Zimmerman et al., 1993). Deep ecology calls for nothing less than a complete overhaul of the way humans live on the Earth.

Examples of the shallow ecology, anthropocentric view with regard to environmentalist issues are widespread, and are represented in virtually every environmental concern from modern history. In Hong Kong, for example, water quality control regarding Dongjiang water is frequently practiced, although the effectiveness is in question. Subsequently, the Hong Kong government injected 4.7 billion RMB to improve the quality of imported Dongjiang water (Rowell, 1996). Large amount of money spent is predominantly due to the fact that this water is used for the consumption of the Hong Kong public, and the motivation is wholly anthropocentric.

However, when the water is not directly in relation to Hong Kong people, its preservation is ignored (Pepper, 1996). Similarly, in East Sha Chau, massive volumes of dredged mud from sea operations are being dumped and disposed of at sea on a daily basis, and the Container Terminal 9 project involves dredging mud with at least 6 million cubic metres being contaminated with highly toxic heavy metals (Middleton, 2003). The Hong Kong’s Dumping at Sea Ordinance legalized the dumping in the so-called controlled disposal pit, however, it failed to safeguard the environment, thereby placing the marine environment and marine life at great risk. When conflicts between economic development and environmental preservation take place, human benefit virtually always comes first (Smith, 1999).


The shallow ecology school of environmental management can also be viewed as a technological and scientific approach to the various environmentalism issues currently experienced. However, this approach is now viewed by academics as a form of repair, not addressing the origin of each individual problem, and therefore technocentrism has only superficial, and short-range effect (Nelissen et al., 1997). With regard, once more, to the Far East, in Hong Kong over 18,000 tonne of waste is dumped into municipal landfills each day (Rowell, 1996). Following this rising trend for large-scale waste disposal, it is expected that the existing landfill sites will be full to capacity by 2015, and in view of this statistic, the SAR government has agreed to invest approximately 9.7 billion to build incinerators to handle this domestic waste. It was expected politically that the incineration project would successfully handle 6,000 tons of waste per day.

Seemingly, the project can solve the immediate problem of landfill exhaustion; in reality, however, the effectiveness is doubtful (Rowell, 1996). Though the incinerators remain very effective for the current waste produced, the ashes remain, and the waste the incinerator cannot dispose of still occupies landfill capacity. In addition, some reports discovered that incineration incurs its own pollution, such as carbon dioxide, lead and other toxic gas production. This case clearly reflects technical solution can only handle one side of the problem; the building of an incineration system can temporarily solve the exhaustion crisis but is not regarded as an effective system targeting at waste management from a holistic perspective.


Ecocentrism, or physiocentrism, is a synonym for biocentrism, but differs in that it does not principally distinguish between living and non-living forms of nature, for example biogeochemical cycles (O’Riordan, 1981). The move from an anthropocentric world view to an ecocentric one has been described by analogy to the move from a geocentric to a heliocentric cosmological view in the Copernican revolution (Chambers et al., 2000). By not focusing solely on human activity, and taking into account physical processes which support life, the aim of an ecocentric outlook is to be more consistent with the reality of life on earth as defined by ecology.

Biocentrism is the belief that all life, or even the whole universe living or otherwise taken as a whole, is equally valuable, and that humanity is not the centre of existence. Hence, humanity is no more valuable than, for example, bacteria. While this view is opposed by the majority of governments, and is considered extreme by the majority of the general public (Nelissen et al., 1997), in essence, the concepts of biocentrism and ecocentrism at least inspire a less anthropocentric management programme for the addressing of environmental concerns. Biocentrism has been proposed as an antonym of anthropocentrism, which is a conscious or subconscious belief that human beings and human society are, or should be, the central focus of existence (Pepper, 1996).

Anthropocentrism and Moral obligations

It is often claimed by public pressure groups that it is morally wrong for humans to pollute and destroy parts of the natural environment, and to consume a huge proportion of the planet's natural resources (Chambers et al., 2000). If that is ‘wrong’, the question remains whether it is simply because a sustainable environment is essential to present and future human wellbeing or whether such behaviour is misconstrued and amoral as the natural environment and its various components possess certain values in their own right that should be respected and protected regardless of their benefits or impacts on the human race.

Anthropocentrism has been posited by some environmentalists as the underlying, if subconscious and tacit, reason why humanity dominates and sees the need to "develop" most of the Earth. It has also been accused of viewing civilization, rather than wilderness, as the real world, and setting aside small wilderness preserves in the midst of large areas dominated by human activities. In this sense, anthropocentrism has been identified by various academics and anarchic environmentalists as a root cause of the ecological crisis, human overpopulation, and extinctions of many non-human species (Katz, 2000).

Anthropocentrism is widely acknowledged as a central problematic concept in environmental philosophy, where it is used to draw attention to a systematic bias in traditional Western attitudes to the non-human world (Naess, 1990). Plumwood (2001) has argued that anthropocentrism plays an analogous role in ‘green theory’ to androcentrism in feminist theory and ethnocentrism in anti-racist theory. Plumwood alleges that the human-centred view of life impinges on many concerns of social reform, including racism and sexism, and is in parallel to the current issues facing the environmental future.

When environmental ethics emerged as a new sub-discipline of philosophy in the early 1970s, it did so by posing a challenge to traditional anthropocentrism. In its initial stages, the movement away from anthropocentrism questioned the assumed moral superiority of humans in comparison to other species on earth. Furthermore, it investigated the possibility of rational arguments for assigning intrinsic value to the natural environment and its nonhuman contents (O’Riordan, 1981). It should be noted, however, that some theorists working in the field see no need to develop new, non-anthropocentric theories. Instead, they advocate what may be called enlightened anthropocentrism, or arguably more appropriately called, prudential anthropocentrism (Nelissen et al., 1997). Briefly, this school of thought purports the view that all moral duties towards the environment and its wellbeing are derived from our direct duties to its human inhabitants, thereby positively affecting all life and non-life on Earth.

The practical purpose of environmental ethics, the advocates of prudential anthropocentrism maintain, is to provide moral grounds for social policies aimed at protecting the Earth's environment and remedying environmental degradation (Jones and Hollier, 1997). Enlightened, prudential anthropocentrism, it is argued, is sufficient for that practical purpose, and perhaps even more effective in delivering pragmatic outcomes, in terms of policy-making, than non-anthropocentric theories given the theoretical burden on the latter to provide sound arguments for its more radical view that the nonhuman environment has intrinsic value (c.f. Katz, 2000). Furthermore, some prudential anthropocentrists may hold what might be called a cynical anthropocentrism view of environmentalism, which affirms that humanity possesses a higher-level anthropocentric reason to be non-anthropocentric with regard to generic, public thinking; according to this argument, a non-anthropocentrist tends to act more benignly towards the nonhuman environment on which human wellbeing depends (Katz, 2000).


This essay has attempted to address the questions investigated by environmental ethics, with particular regard to the popular view that environmentalism and environmental management are motivated by the needs of people rather then concern for the state of the natural world. Some of these are specific questions faced by individuals in particular circumstances, while others are more global questions faced by groups and communities, proposing several abstract issues concerning the value and moral standing of the natural environment and its nonhuman components.

Environmentalism and its associated ethical concerns, as addressed within the literature, reaffirms the distinction between instrumental value and intrinsic value and has been of considerable importance to the progress of environmentalist reform. An analogy explaining the difference between instrumental and intrinsic value can be given with regard to nature: certain fruits, for example, possess instrumental value for the animals who feed on them, since feeding on the fruits is a means to survival for the animals themselves. However, it is not widely agreed that fruits have value as ends in themselves. We can likewise think of a person who teaches others as having instrumental value for those who want to acquire knowledge. Yet, in addition to any such value, it is normally said that a person, as a member of the human race, possesses intrinsic value, a value in his or her own right independently of his or her prospects for serving the ends of others.

For another example, a certain wild plant may have instrumental value because it provides the ingredients for a medical application, or as an aesthetic object for human observers. But if the plant also has some value in itself independently of its prospects for furthering objectives, such as human health or the pleasure from aesthetic experience, then the plant also has intrinsic value (Wilson and Bryant, 1997). As the intrinsic value is that which is good as an end in itself, it is commonly agreed that a possession of intrinsic value generates a prima facie direct moral duty on the part of moral agents to protect it or at least refrain from damaging it (Bullard and Johnson, 2000).

Many traditional western ethical perspectives, however, are anthropocentric or human-centered in an absolute sense in that either they assign intrinsic value to human beings alone, or, alternatively, they assign a significantly greater amount of intrinsic value to human beings than to any nonhuman entities or matter such that the protection or promotion of human interests or wellbeing, often at the expense of nonhuman things, results to be virtually always justified (Pepper, 1996). Thomas Aquinas, in Summa Contra Gentiles, argues that, because nonhuman animals are ‘ordered to man's use’, he can kill them or use them in any way he wishes without any injustice. Similarly, Aristotle, in his text Politics, maintains that ‘nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man’ and that the value of nonhuman things in nature is merely instrumental.

Furthermore, the Bible, particularly Genesis 1:27-8, supports this view by proclaiming that: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over fish of the sea, and over fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” It can be generally asserted, therefore, that anthropocentric positions find it problematic to articulate what is wrong with the cruel treatment of nonhuman animals, except to the extent that such treatment may lead to bad consequences for human beings (Katz, 2000).

Immanuel Kant, in Lectures on Ethics, for instance, suggested that cruelty towards a dog might encourage a person to develop a character which would be desensitized to cruelty towards humans (Kant et al., 2001). From this standpoint, cruelty towards nonhuman animals can be viewed as instrumentally, rather than intrinsically, amoral. Likewise, anthropocentrism often recognizes some non-intrinsic amorality of anthropogenic environmental devastation. Such destruction might negatively affect the wellbeing of human beings, both current and in the future, as the wellbeing of humanity, regardless of geographical location, is essentially dependent on a sustainable environment (Rowell, 1996).

Connections between environmental destruction, unequal resource consumption, poverty and the global economic order have been discussed by political scientists, development theorists, geographers and economists in addition to the philosophical movement (reference) and relationships between economics and environmental ethics are particularly well established. Sagoff (1990), for example, argued convincingly against confusing values with matters of preference, and claimed that as citizens rather than consumers, humanity is predominantly concerned about values that cannot plausibly be monetized.

The potentially misleading appeal to economic reason used to justify the expansion of the corporate sector has also come under critical scrutiny (Plumwood, 2001), however, these critiques do not aim to eliminate economics from environmentalism; instead, they resist any reductive, and strongly anthropocentric, tendency to believe that all social problems are ‘fundamentally’ or ‘essentially’ economic. Fundamentally, many of the assessments of issues concerned with sustainability, biodiversity, poverty, and environmental welfare assess both human and environmental issues, distaining, in the process, commitment either to a purely anthropocentric or purely non-anthropocentric ethic (Bullard and Johnson, 2000).


  • Bullard, R.D. and Johnson, G.S. (2000) Environmental Justice: Grassroots Activism and Its Impact on Public Policy and Decision Making. Journal of Social Issues 56(3): 555- 578
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  • Hannigan, J. (1995) Environmental Sociology: A Social Constructionist Perspective. Oxford, Routledge
  • Jones, G. and Hollier, G. (1997) Resources, society and environmental management. London, Paul Chapman Publishing
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  • O'Riordan, T. (1981) Environmentalism. London, Pion
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  • Plumwood, V. (2001) Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. Oxford, Routledge
  • Rowell, A. (1996) Green Backlash: Global subversion of the environmental movement. Oxford, Routledge
  • Sagoff, M. (1990) The Economy of the Earth: Philosophy, Law and the Environment. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
  • Smith, M. J. (ed.) (1999) Thinking through the Environment: A Reader. Oxford, Routledge
  • Wilson, G. and Bryant, R. (1997) Environmental Management: New Directions for the Twenty First Century. Oxford, Routledge
  • Zimmerman, M. J., Callicott, B., Sessions, G., Warren, K. J. and Clark, J. P. (eds.) (1993). Environmental Philosophy: From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology. New Jersey, Prentice-Hall.

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