Ecocentrism is an ethical worldview that recognizes the inherent value of all lifeforms and ecosystems themselves which are in turn to be considered morally (Washington, Taylor, Kopnina, Cryer, & Piccolo, 2017).
It breaks from anthropocentrism, which places humans at the top of a value hierarchy, and instead proposes a more holistic worldview. Similarly, it goes further than biocentrism (which sees all living things as having moral value) because it attempts to look at the balance of ecosystems as a whole as a key aim.
Examples of ecocentrism include Janism, a religion that embraces an ecocentric worldview, and deep concern for the climate change crisis based on a belief that it is upending the balance of the world ecosystem.
Definition of Ecocentrism
The ecocentric perspective considers both biotic and abiotic components; it can therefore be seen as the broadest or most holistic of moral worldviews.
“…its borders beyond all forms of life to populations and species and from life itself to habitats and ecosystems. It also includes all elements such as soil and water.” (ten Have, & Patrão Neves, 2021)
Rather than seeing individual humans and the human species as superior to all other organisms, as does anthropocentrism, ecocentrism values non-human nature.
By taking into consideration ecosystems as wholes, including their abiotic components, ecocentrism surpasses biocentrism which focuses strictly on living things (ten Have, & Patrão Neves, 2021; Washington, Taylor, Kopnina, Cryer, & Piccolo, 2017).
10 Ecocentrism Examples
- Environmental Law – Various new legal instruments incorporate nature by granting legal rights to the natural world and enforcement rights to affected communities. Prominent examples include the Ecuadorian Constitution and certain Bolivian laws. These instruments that serve to protect for example rivers and mountains prove that there is a transition from an anthropocentric to an ecocentric approach in environmental law (Borràs, 2016).
- Jainism – According to the Jain definition of life, the four elements; earth, wind, water and fire, are alive and should, like all things alive, therefore be considered morally. Jainism is considered a natural religion. Some of the most important principles include non-violence towards and interdependence with nature (Mitra, 2019).
- UNESCO Natural World Heritage Convention – Natural places and phenomena are recognized and protected by UNESCO in an attempt to preserve their biodiversity, ecosystems and geology. The list includes terrestrial and marine sites, containing both biotic and abiotic components.
- Wildlife Conservation – The premise of wildlife conservation is the protection of both animals and their natural habitats with the aim of reparation or improvement of the natural ecosystem.
- Native American Attitude towards Nature – Native Americans do not consider themselves to be separate from nature. They aim to live in harmony with nature and generally refrain from over-exploitation. Many indigenous cultures around the world rely on an ecocentric perspective (Washington, Taylor, Kopnina, Cryer, & Piccolo, 2017).
- Climate Change Mitigation – More and more people recognize and condemn the anthropogenic nature of climate change and see it as their duty to mitigate climate change in any way possible. Their attitude thereby shifts from an anthropocentric; the exploitation of natural resources for humanity’s benefit, to a more ecocentric viewpoint; valuing the ecosystem as a whole and assessing the environment and nature as an integrated community of which humanity forms part (Salinger, 2010).
- Recycling – Recycling is an act that showcases an ecocentric attitude in the sense that people who recycle are most likely concerned with the reparation and preservation of the ecosystem as a whole.
- Vegetarianism and Veganism – Refraining from the consumption of animal products can have diverging moral grounds depending on the individual and can thus subscribe to either a biocentric or an ecocentric attitude. Acting out of a concern for the lives of animals and to counter animal suffering is rather biocentric, whereas acting out of concern with the impact of the food industry on the ecosphere is rather ecocentric.
- Saving Bees – Dedication to saving bees tends to be based upon the realisation of their vital importance for biodiversity and thus the ecosystem as a whole.
- Deep ecotourism – Ecotourism broadly refers to an effort at environmentally sustainable tourism. Deep ecotourism “encapsulates a range of ideas which include the importance of intrinsic value in nature, emphasis on small-scale and community identity, the importance of community participation, a lack of faith in modern large scale technology and an underlying assumption that materialism for its own sake is wrong.” In that sense deep-ecotourism is considered to rely on the theory of ecocentrism. (Acott, Trobe, & Howard, 1998)
Anthropocentrism vs Biocentrism vs Ecocentrism
|Central concern||Human beings||Living organisms||The ecosystem as a whole|
|Inherent value||Individual humans and the human species are seen as the most valuable||All living things carry inherent value||Environmental systems as wholes carry inherent value|
|Consideration||Human beings||Biotic factors||Both biotic and abiotic factors|
(Washington, Taylor, Kopnina, Cryer, & Piccolo, 2017)
Origin of Ecocentrism
Ecocentrism could, in a sense, be considered to have been with humanity since the beginning of time.
Many indigenous cultures around the world relied or rely on an ecocentric perspective to establish their epistemology. Scholars such as Stan Rowe argue that it is, regarding the future, the only promising universal belief-system in terms of helping to solve the environmental crisis (Washington, Taylor, Kopnina, Cryer, & Piccolo, 2017).
The Limits of Ecocentrism
An analysis of the shift from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism in environmental law has led Vito De Lucia to denote the shortcomings of both the concept of anthropocentrism and ecocentrism (2017).
The focus will be on his conclusions with regards to the latter.
Firstly, analysing environmental law through the binary narrative of anthropocentrism/ ecocentrism fails to capture the complexity of the discourse and practice of environmental law. It portrays it as a linear and dichotomous evolution from ‘traditional’, ‘bad’ anthropocentrism to ‘modern’, ‘good’ ecocentrism (De Lucia, 2017).
Secondly, both anthropocentrism and ecocentrism conceal more than they reveal. They are semantic container terms.
Ecocentrism in particular holds “a number of articulations of the relation between ecology as a science and ecology as an ethical framework.” (De Lucia, 2017)
Finally, both concepts reveal modernity’s obsession with the centre. And ecocentrism in particular thereby fails to challenge the paradigm of modernity in the sense that it denies the existence of an alternative epistemology than that of knowledge coming from the centre (De Lucia, 2017).
Ecocentrism is an ethical worldview that dedicates inherent value to the ecosphere as a whole. It thereby encompasses biocentrism in the sense that it considers biotic as well as abiotic factors to be of relevance in moral reflection. This worldview can be traced back to the beginning of time through examination of indigenous cultures’ epistemologies.
Concerning environmental law, the ecocentric perspective is said to have come to replace the ‘traditionally’ anthropocentric approach. Both have, in that context, however, been criticised by scholars such as De Lucia for portraying the evolution from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism as linear and dichotomous, for being too concealing and for relying on modernist centrism rather than challenging it.
Acott, T. G., Trobe, H. L. L., & Howard, S. H. (1998). An Evaluation of Deep Ecotourism and Shallow Ecotourism. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 6(3), 238–253. doi:10.1080/09669589808667314
Borràs, S. (2016). New Transitions from Human Rights to the Environment to the Rights of Nature. Transnational Environmental Law, 5(1), 113–143. doi:10.1017/s204710251500028x
De Lucia, V. (2017). Beyond Anthropocentrism and Ecocentrism: a Biopolitical Reading of Environmental Law. Journal of Human Rights and the Environment, 8(2), 181–202. doi:10.4337/jhre.2017.02.01
Mitra, P. (2019). Jainism and Environmental Ethics: An Exploration. Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 36, 3-22. doi:10.1007/s40961-018-0158-6
Salinger, J. (2010). The Climate Journey over Three Decades: from Childhood to Maturity, Innocence to Knowing, from Anthropocentrism to Ecocentrism…. Climatic Change, 100, 49–57. doi:10.1007/s10584-010-9844-3
Have, H., & Patrão Neves, M. (2021). Ecocentrism (See Anthropocentrism; Biocentrism; Environmental Ethics; Zoocentrism). In Dictionary of Global Bioethics (p. 449). Springer, Cham. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-54161-3_76
Washington, H., Taylor, B., Kopnina, H., Cryer, P., & Piccolo, J. J. (2017). Why Ecocentrism Is the Key Pathway to Sustainability. The Ecological Citizen, 1(1), 35-41.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]