To Chile and Back

Written by: 
Shan Gao ('12 Ph.D.)

Despite the fact that Chinese philosophy encompasses a spirit of what is called "harmony between nature and human beings," wilderness has long been considered negatively in Chinese culture -- an uncultivated place full of wild grass and of little value.

But when I began work on my doctoral degree in philosophy at UNT after graduating from Beijing Normal University, one trip left me with an altogether new viewpoint on wilderness.

In December 2007, I participated in a course on field environmental philosophy, also known as Tracing Darwin's Path. This was based in Punta Arenas, in the UNESCO Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve in southern Chile. It is an interdisciplinary study offered by the Sub-Antarctic Biocultural Conservation Program at UNT in partnership with the University of Magallanes and the Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity in Chile.

This was the first time in my life I encountered pristine wilderness. I hiked about eight hours a day with biology professor James Kennedy and a group of students from different disciplines and camped at night.

Despite my never having taken a biology class, this course had a lasting influence on me. I was totally conquered by the beauty of wilderness: the vastness, the tranquility, the diversity of life in the plants and animals, and the importance of conserving them.

Environmental aesthetics is a research area of my major advisor, Professor Eugene Hargrove. Before I went to Chile, I wrote an essay criticizing his view that the beauty of nature is the foundation for environmental ethics. I wrote: "For me, bread should be listed No. 1. It is difficult for people to appreciate the beauty of nature if their basic needs are not satisfied." However, my trip to Chile changed my view, and the title of my dissertation became: "Environmental Aesthetics as the Foundation of Environmental Ethics: China and the West."

While writing my dissertation, I spent the weekends visiting wilderness areas around Texas and organized a Friends of Nature Club. Before experiencing it firsthand, I had learned about environmental philosophers and conservationists such as Aldo Leopold, John Muir and Holmes Rolston. At that time, it was very difficult for me to understand why they loved wilderness so much. But after two years of personal exploration and appreciation with a group of my friends, I gained a deeper understanding of their theories and their passions.

In 2014, I was offered an associate professor position in the philosophy department of Soochow University in southeast China. My passion for wilderness drives my research and teaching on environmental philosophy. I am working on a book, Chinese Philosophy Goes Into Wilderness, in which I argue that China's effort to establish national parks is an important part of its strategy to implement "ecological civilization."

Promisingly, many academic societies and journals have started to focus on this topic. Each month, I invite professors or environmental conservationists to give talks through an online platform called International Forum on Environmental Humanities. Its mission is to foster academic communication and cooperation between China and the West and to support public participation in the conservation of wilderness areas.

I would like to thank Professor Ricardo Rozzi, the initiator of the Tracing Darwin's Path course, for having given me that unique opportunity.

Editor's note: This article is an edited version of one that originally appeared on The Chilean government has awarded the Sub-Antarctic Biocultural Conservation Program $20 million for a new center to promote sustainable development in the Cape Horn area.

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