Going Back to the Origins: A Non-comprehensive Excursus from the Environmental Philosophies to Sustainability*

The environmental philosophies – born as thoughts about the relation between mankind and nature – have found an unconscious and involuntary application in the construction sector. In the following there is a brief and non-exhaustive description of some of the most significant environmental philosophies and their transposition to the building sector.

[…] Since Plato times philosophers started dealing with the environmental issues. However, just in the XIX century their role became crucial due to the necessity of a wise utilization of the natural resources. This new kind of awareness gave rise to “The Ethic of the Earth” and “The Principle of the Conservation” by Pinchot, and later, in 1960, to one of the environmental manifestos: “Silent Spring” by R. Carson. The rise of new theories, such as “The Gaia Hypothesis” by J. Lovelock, brought to a radical change of direction that, starting from a rigid anthropocentrism, reached a radical eco-centrism (Pagano, 2004).

The anthropocentric theories place human beings in the center of the universe and affirm that the universe has been created for the mankind and for fulfilling its needs. As a consequence, man is the scale of everything and can decide about nature. The thesis of the man ruler of the nature can be found in many medieval religious commentaries, in which Saints are described taming wild beasts and, in this way, affirming the supremacy of the human being on nature. Besides, for Francis Bacon, the work and the domain of nature elevate human beings to God. Carl Marx affirms that the success is based on the limitless creative capacities of men. For the homo sapiens, able to tame nature and to civilize the barbarian populations, the idea of the fight and conquer is deeply associated to the cult. Reality can be always controlled by responsible, wise and constructive choices. Nature can be always tamed and exploited (Bourdeau, 2004).

The transposition of the environmental philosophy in the building-architectural field considers, as core of the building design, the fulfillment of the human needs and the achievement of the highest wellness also at the expense of the nature. This philosophy has been widely applied in periods in which human being was not yet aware of the irreversible damages on nature but he was able to use techniques and technologies derived by the industrial revolution. In that period the human being plundered the natural environmental resources in order to take advantage by them.

The less extreme anthropocentric view is based on the concepts of conservation and sustainability. To the idea of sustainability is joint the principle of conservation by Pinchot. This principle is based on the concept that the human being can make cautious use of the natural resources.

The eco-centric philosophy is poles apart from the anthropocentric one. Eco-centrism, or deep ecology, is a movement that aims to make the society aware of the possibility of a new life style based on the ecological consciousness (Pagano, 2004).

The two most extreme philosophies (i.e., anthropocentrism and eco-centrism) are able to put the human being in the position of either dominator of nature or of being dominated by nature. The philosopher P. Rossi affirms that the human being has to deal with nature in a more conciliatory way receding from the ideology of the domain of the man on nature and from the submission of man to nature. The intermediate position, the one of the respect of nature, gives rise to the human sense of moral duty to proceed towards sustainable[1] design. This philosophy is based on the assumption of the volunteer limitation of our capacity of manipulation and alteration of nature. Because of the scientific and technical conquests, for the first time since the human being is on Earth, we are responsible of the destiny of our planet and of the other human beings. This implies respect towards nature. The idea of the respect is different by the idea of the domain because it implies the consciousness of the responsibility and of a conscious auto-limitation. The idea of the respect is different by the ideology of the submission because is based on the utilization of the modern science and not on its refuse. The philosophy of the respect can grow just on the ashes of the idea of uncontrolled and wild domain of nature and on the ashes of a blind and utopian submission of the human being to nature. The domain of nature can destroy nature itself and also human being. While, the blind submission to nature is based on the refuse of the presence of the human being on Earth, on a feeling of guilt for his presence that can make the human being impotence. Both the above cited philosophies destroy the possibility to live on Earth. The ideology of the uncontrolled domain can transform the human being into a sovereign sitting on a pile of debris waiting for a tragic final solution. The ideology of the submission can depredate the man of all that makes him human: his emersion by the world of the animals throughout the manufacture of tools, language, of complicate way of artificial social life.

According to the architect James Wine, the standing side by side of the anthropocentric theory and of the eco-centric philosophy, in other words, the convergence towards a milder position closer to the bio-centric philosophy produces a new approach that starting by the human being reaches – through the intermediate steps of the protection of the eco-systemic urban and regional environment – the terro-centric philosophy (Francese, 2007).

The terro-centric philosophy or the bio-centric philosophy can be divided into two macro genres: the individualistic and the holistic biocentrism. The fundamental principle of the individualistic biocentrism is the moral respectability; in other words, the respect for every human being and in particular for the most similar to the man. While, the holistic anthropocentrism gives dignity to animals, individuals and eco-systems, aiming to reach the wellbeing for most human beings. The two theories give rise to a theory that allows reaching the welfare for everybody instead of the utilitarianism or the principle of convenience (Pagano, 2004).

The biocentrism is the inspiring principle of most of the environmental evaluation methods that starting from the fulfillment of the human needs try to respect nature decreasing the harmful emissions in the eco-sphere and the use of natural resources.


Pagano, P. (2004, February). Antropocentrismo, biocentrismo, ecocentrismo: una paronamica di filosofia ambientale. Retrieved March 2008, from http://www.enea.it: http://wds.bologna.enea.it/

Bourdeau, P. (2004). The man-nature relationship and environmental ethics. Journal of Environmental Radioactivity, 72, 9-15.

United Nations General Assembly. (1987). Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. United Nations General Assembly.

Francese, D. (2007). Architettura e vivibilità. Modelli di verifica, principi di biocompatibilità, esempi di opere per il rispetto ambientale. Franco Angeli.

*Rearranged text from: Susca, T. (2011). Evaluation of the Surface Albedo in a LCA Multi-scale Approach. The Case Study of Green, White and Black Roofs in New York City. Ph.D. Thesis. Chapter 2 Environmental Philosophies and Assessment Methods. Section 2.1 The Environmental Philosophies.

[1] In 1987 the Bruntland Report, for the first time, introduced the concept of sustainability. The term sustainability is defined as sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (United Nations General Assembly, 1987).


About Tiziana Susca

Tiziana Susca is currently research assistant at Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing in Berlin (Germany). In 2013 she was a Dahrendorf postdoctoral fellow in the working group on Infrastructures and Climate Change. Her research joins the interest towards: Climate change, environmental assessment, urban studies, assessment of urban ecosystem services with a specific interest in broadening Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) application to the evaluation of the environmental and urban policies. In 2012 she was research fellow at the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA) in Bologna, Italy. On March 2011 Tiziana earned a Ph.D. in Engineering at Polytechnic University of Bari (Italy) with an inter-disciplinary thesis on LCA focused on the implementation of the LCA methodology to include the effect of variation in urban albedo on climate. During her Ph.D. Tiziana was visiting scholar at Columbia University’s Center for Climate and Systems Research, based at NASA-Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City a world leading institution in climate research. In 2012 Tiziana obtained from Urban Environmental Pollution 2012 (Elsevier) the Young Research Scientist Award for her research. In the same year she got a sponsorship from the European Space Agency (ESA) to present her research at NASA´s International Workshop on Environmental and Alternative Energy held in Greenbelt, Maryland (USA).
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2 Responses to Going Back to the Origins: A Non-comprehensive Excursus from the Environmental Philosophies to Sustainability*

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