Follow Us:

Universalism and Environmental Values

Rai, Jasdev Singh; Thorheim, Celia; Dorjderem, Amarbayasgalan; Macer, Darryl. Universalism and Ethical Values for the Environment. Bangkok, UNESCO  2010.

ISBN 978-92-9223-301-3 (print);
ISBN 978-92-9223-302-0 (electronic)  

Climate changes may be the defining issue of the 21st century, as humankind faces responsibilities for its actions upon the global community. Universalism was one of the most significant social trends of the 20th century. How can we address ethical issues of climate change through the lens of universalism? The volume on Universalism and Ethical Values for the Environment is the first in a series of working group reports under the Ethics and Climate Change in Asia and the Pacific project, discusses a variety of world views that we can find to human relationships with the environment, and the underlying values in them.

Meetings of the Working Group were held on 13-14 December 2008, Kumamoto, Japan; 19-22 January 2009, Bangkok, Thailand; 30 April 2009, Tehran, Iran; 16-19 June 2009, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Further discussion for future reports on Ethical principles and the environment, and human responsibilities to the environment is ongoing.

The following is a list of current working group participants

Dr. Jasdev Rai: jsrai100[at]
Dr. Alireza Bagheri: ali.bagherichimeh[at]
Mr. Amarbayasgalan Dorjderem: a.dorjderem[at] 
Dr. Alastair Gunn: alastair[at]
Ms. Celia Helen Thorheim: celiathorheim[at] 
Professor Shui Chuen Lee: shuiclee[at]
Dr. Darryl Macer: d.macer[at]
Dr. Engelbert C. Pasag: engelmo[at]
Dr. John Weckert: jweckert[at]
Dr. Islam Sirajul: siraj_tuli[at]
Ms. Lea Ivy O. Manzanero: leaivymanzanero[at]
Professor D. Nesy: nesy.daniel[at]
Dr. Minakshi Bhardwaj: bhardwajm[at]
Dr. Morgan Pollard: morganpollard[at]
Dr. Naoshi Yamawaki: nao-hiro[at]

If you are interested in joining the working group, or participating in a meeting, please send an email to: and


Executive Summary  

The report discusses the extent to which universal values can be agreed upon, exemplified by an empirical analysis of values contained implicitly and explicitly in UN treaties and international statements on the environment. The texts examined include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (WHC), United Nation’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), The Kyoto Protocol, The Earth Charter, The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights (UDBHR). Some of the ethical values found in the texts include: human rights, sustainability, equity, common but differentiated responsibilities, precaution, participation, vulnerability, state sovereignty, peace and solidarity.

This report also examines whether there are universal environmental values, and how interpretations of the concept of "universalism" affect future policy options for addressing common environmental challenges. This question is central to current discussions on the ethics of climate change and of alternative energy technologies, as well as to environmental ethics. If we can agree upon international values such as principles of environmental ethics, then we can include these principles into economic models in order to develop policy that may better protect these values.

Several views on the human-environment relationship are explored in this report, including anthropocentrism, biocentrism, ecocentrism and cosmocentrism. There are also descriptions of different approaches to human relationships with the environment, such as apathy, apocalyptic, symbiotic and integrationalist approaches. Universalism is a concept most widely derived from monotheistic Abrahamic and Western post-Enlightenment ideologies. Among some Eastern traditions there is resistance to the ideas of divinely revealed universal truths and universal principles based on human reason. For many people in the world, the concept of universal ideas marks a fundamental departure from traditional outlooks. There is need for further reflection on biocentric and ecocentric viewpoints, and on wider cultural perspectives. This does not mean that alleviating adverse human impact on the environment should in any way be delayed. There is broad global agreement that environmental destruction is a crisis for immediate action. However, further reflection on values will assist in conceptualizing environmental values shared by those from all communities of the world, allowing for wider global action by all.

There is also debate over policy options, including how varying worldviews influence treaty discussions, and the need for a more in-depth debate within and between societies. Also discussed are the possibilities of using alternative worldviews to resolving conflicts between global and national interests. The Amazon Rainforest is one such example in which the economic interests of Brazil are in conflict with the environmental interests of the rest of the world. One of the options suggested is to focus international treaties on harmonised goals, rather than universal values generated from predominant traditions, and to encourage a depository of value systems from different worldviews that will best strengthen commitment to goals within a community, a region or a people.

Several case studies using diverse frameworks for resolving conflicting interests are described, including ownership and rights language (river diversion and tribal homes), and conflicts between national and local interest (religious tradition and sacred trees). More case studies are invited for future work of the working group. A call for further reflection on these issues by UNESCO and other forums is made, to further scholarship of this area and action to mitigate and adapt to the global burden of climate change.


This page was last updated on 30 June 2011