Open Journal of Philosophy
2012. Vol.2, No.4, 272-276
Published Online November 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
From Traditionalism to Modernism: A Study of the Problem of
Environment in Africa
Okoye A. Chu ka
Department of Philosophy, Universit y o f N i g e ria, Nsukka, Nigeria
Received February 16th, 2012; re vised March 24th, 2012; accepted April 5th, 2012
The history of the environmental philosophy carries with it the effort to overcome the medieval anthro-
pocentric morality. Here, nature is seen from the instrumental value which they give. The instrumental
value here shows the existence of things as important only as they are useful to man. The contemporary
environmental ethics bring a novelty showing these environmental bodies as possessing an intrinsic value
showing that they have an ethical value. The medieval ethical system which denies intrinsic value to the
environment and thus posits man as being at the center of any moral system leads to the over possession
of the environment by man. This over possession by man has led to the destruction of environment by
man who exploits the environment in his service. This work looks at the African scenario which seems to
be facing more environmental degradation in the contemporary times. The reason for this is surmised by
this paper as a damaging evolution of the African history from traditionalism which seems to respect the
environment to modernism which demystifies the mysteries accorded the environment and hence putting
the environment into excessive use through some actions like deforestation, burning of fossil fuels and so
on. This paper suggests a crusade against these damaging effects of modernism for a better preservation
of the environment.
Keywords: Traditionalism; Modernism; Africa; Environment
The grounds of People’s existence stem from their culture
which evidently shapes their lives and their perception of things.
One is whom one is by the grounds of one’s culture. It is perti-
nent here to note that one’s actions, altitude towards things and
indeed the whole of one’s world view is measured by how
much the culture of the person is able to influence him. Jurgen
Habermas (2008: p. 99) expressly categorized the human cul-
ture into two.
1) The capitalist/rational structured societies.
2) The mythically structured societies.
The African societies by the tenets of their culture belong to
the mythically structured societies. As such their belief systems
and their world view are based on some mythologically
founded theories. It must be important to immediately note here
that the mythological undertone of the African belief system
neither makes it weird or non factual. Present in these myths are
pragmatic issues that operate successfully according to the Af-
rican system.
Among these is their understanding of their environment.
The Africans see a lot tied to their environment. In fact the
Africans do not seem to believe that human beings exist alone
independent of those elements in their environment. This
amounts to the attachment and the respect which the African
man has for his environment. This respect for the environ-
mental is innate in the African culture and has helped save the
African environment from colossal damage. Nevertheless, the
wind of enlightenment and modernism seems to tear Africa
apart owing to the loss of identity by the mutilation of culture.
Today, it appears that Africa generally suffers many environ-
mental problems due to this loss. People make use of the envi-
ronmental endowments careless which leads to their destruction
and abuse. Africa is endangered environmentally by the amount
of man-made hazards that has occurred as a result of the care-
lessness put by the Africans over their environment. This article
attempts a study of the indigenous African concept of environ-
ment with a view to seeing how far the current environmental
problems can be tackled.
Explaining the African Cosmology
The African life is governed by their cosmological grounds
of existence. In the first place, the Africans believe that there
are two major worlds namely: the physical and the spiritual
worlds. These two worlds are further divided into parts by their
hierarchy in existence and values attached to them. They are
distinct but are always in constant interaction.
The spirit world is a world of a transcendent form. Here in
dwells some spiritualized beings including the sovereign God.
The abode of the sovereign God is inhabited, as Africans be-
lieve, by God Himself and the “angels”/messengers that wait on
Him, carryi ng out His decrees. The second part of this spiritual
world is the world of the ancestors. The ancestors are often
regarded as the living dead who still play active role in the pro-
tection of and the provision for the family. This position is a
sublime and exalted one hence not every dead person is ac-
knowledged as an ancestor.
These ancestors are closely united with the physical universe.
This physical universe is a universe of men and animals, plants
and other inanimate things. This world is very active to the
extent that the whole activities of the African cosmological
plane centre round it. This world is active, however, not be-
cause of the animals and plants but because of the human exis-
tence in it around which the whole world revolve. As such,
although things are oriented in some way or other to the world
about them, only man cultivates a world view and generates
action in the universe (Andah, 1988: p. 73).
This cosmological view of the Africans incorporates the Af-
rican ontology which centers on forces in existence. Based on
the religiosity of the Africans, they have a tendency to place
every existential authority of God. They see God as the creator
of the universe (both the visible and the invisible). But He en-
trusted the worldly administration on the lower gods, good
spirits and indirectly the ancestors. The Africans, as such, look
up to these intermediaries of God for provision and sustenance.
They offer prayers through the ancestors to god for fertility, of
their lands and their daughters, daily protection from woe, daily
bread and so on. This exchange, according to Andah, (1988: p.
81) preserves the balance of the world which is unstable.
By the ontological co-existence of these beings, the African
sees a subtle interaction among them. Dogbe (1988: p. 3) lists
five (5) categories of the ontologically interacting beings which
are ordered but fused together.
The being above all beings which is the ultimate explana-
tion of the genesis and sustainance of both man and all
Spirits made up of super human beings and spirits of men
who died long ago.
Man, including human beings who are alive and those about
to be born.
Animals and plants or the remainder of biological life; and
Phenomena and objects without biological life.
These must co-operate for harmony through rites, offerings,
sacrifices and invocations. This at times demands mystical rela-
tionship between man and other lower forces.
The traditional African preservation of her environment con-
sists in the way in which this hierarchical interaction is carried
out. Most of the natural things in Africa in the core-traditional
society are not carelessly tampered with. They are left follow-
ing in the belief in their possession of intrinsic value which
demonstrates the place of the traditional African environmental
ethics. These things that form the natural world are protected
from man by surrounding them with mysteries, and major and
mirror taboos which keep man and his destructive tendencies
away from them. Andah (1988: p. 81) argues further:
The African (Igbo) have the frightening possibility of over-
throwing their [environs] by violating the manifestation of the
sacred, which pervade their whole life, trees, market, rivers,
hills, shrines, and so on. Therefore, they are protected by nu-
merous major and minor taboos that can be broken even unin-
One does not dig too deep to discover that the structure of the
core-African society by the application of their rules embedded
in their tradition, save their world from some environmental
damage and ecological destruction. Any violation of the natural
order through an occurrence of any form of natural disaster is
seen further as a retribution from God either for misuse or re-
appraisal for a taboo. One sees among the Africans a collective
effort to pressure his environment by avoiding such environ-
mental property that will either destroy one or the entire com-
The African belief system seems to be mythologically bound
and conformist in its structure since everyone dread the out-
come of any mishap, from the gods. However, it seems re-
warding since in the practice of this there is an environmental
preservation and ecological equilibrium.
Environmental Philosophy: The African
Indigenous Perspective
Environmental philosophy studies the relationship between
human beings and the environment (here comprising of animals,
plants and other inanimate things with the world; and indeed
whole world). The African indigenous perspective comes to
mind in trying to study the various things in the world and how
they interact. In the Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958:
p. 105), the author brought out a seeing attitude of the average
African man to his environment by the reception given to the
“white man” (colonial missionaries) by the natives.
According to Achebe, when the white man came, the indi-
genes gave the “evil forest” for their settlement. This, the au-
thor stressed, is to make it impossible for them to survive since
the evil forest is specifically sacred and is believed to be an
abode of the wicked spirits. Similar account is rendered of the
Turkana people who mounted fierce resistance to the construc-
tion of Dade Dam and the subsequent flooding of the valley.
The belief of the indigenes of this Turkana is accounted for by
Lenana the medicine man. It is so believe d by these people that
there is a serious problem digging the valley—the graves of the
death. This is because the beliefs and the knowledge of the dead
which impacts on the knowledge of the living will be cost since
there is a link between the living and the dead, to destroy the
remains of the dead amounts to destroying the knowledge and
future of the living (Johnson, 1981: pp. 13-14).
The African perspective of environmental philosophy evi-
dently stems from their concept of interaction of forces. This
belief in interaction of forces is embellished by their attachment
to geneological bonds and their belongingness. The indigenous
responsibilities to and for the natural world are based on an
understanding of the relatedness, or affiliation, of the human
and non-human worlds (Jamieson, 2001: p. 22). One can con-
veniently call this a “fundamental genealogical drive to envi-
The genealogical study of the Africans presents a mytho-
logical history of the indwellers of a particular place. This
mythological history goes to inform one of one’s primogenital
decendence and the migration (if any) to the present settlement
over time. It is indeed a continuous unfolding of history. Ac-
cording to Jamieson (2001: p. 6):
Genealogical map affiliations spatially as well, placing indi-
viduals and families in relation to one another, and locating
them in—by connecting them to—the earth.
The above citation suggests that possession of origin is tan-
tamount to the possession of genealogy which gives its current
place within time (historically). This genealogy by its historical
attribution connects the individual in question with the place
and further with the other people who exist and others who
existed (but are dead) in that place at one time or another. This
genealogy equally accounts for the other aspects of existence
(non-living things in the world and their origin in the environ-
Genealogy identities a people and their relations and thereby
set them apart from the others. It explains the mode of the rela-
tionship between one person and the order and the extent of this
relationship. Thus, to recite a genealogy, to recall the ties of
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 273
affiliation, is to affirm a reciprocal bounding (Jamieson, 2001:
p. 5). Genealogy defines an individual and opens to the indi-
vidual the moral responsibilities and obligations which indi-
vidual owes to the environment. Genealogy is a valid source of
the knowledge about the past present and future. It cements the
bond between an individual and another and between one group
and the other.
This genealogy comes to the fore in explaining the African
interaction with the environment. The respect given to certain
water bodies, trees and even animals is a testimony to the at-
tachment the African has to his environment. The description of
the place given to the “Land” by the Africans is illustrative. The
Igbos of Africa, for instance, believe that “ala” (Land) is the
mother of all and it the strongest of any god. As such special
care is taken not to offend this earth god (ala). The issue here
lies in the fact that the African system by their ontology shows
the relevance and functionality of every form of being in the
African world.
The hierarchical structure of the African ontology as previ-
ously demonstrated opens up the interconnectivity between the
human entities and non-human entities. The Africans believe
that everything reserves within itself a value given to it by na-
ture/God. The grasses are given to a number of functions which
when put to use can either restore health or damage. This belief
of the Africans in the intrinsic functionality and relevance of
everything in the world, whether human or non-human, bring
up what we can label as “respect” in the African mode of exis-
The sense of respect as the African existential inquiry shows
is such that there is a demonstration, of the full significance of
every environmental object in nature and at the same tile a cap-
turing of the normative grounds of their existence in the world.
Respect, based on the above is further illustrated by Laurie
Whitt as a matter of appreciating the inherent value of some
entity or activity that has it by virtue of the fact that it inheres in,
or belongs to, the natural world (Whitt, 2001: p. 7). What this
entails is a conscious realization of the vital role of an object
towards the sustenance of the natural universe. This connotes
an avoidance of things that can work down on or a direct mis-
use of the particular thing in question.
This mutual respect by the Africans on these natural beings is
as a result of the role which gives them intrinsic value. Among
the Igbos of Nigeria, again, some crops and trees are not med-
dled with. Yam is a crop which is believed to be for men only.
The respect given to this crop is such that one is not allowed to
match on yams lest the crop will not grow for the person since
the individual has devalued it.
This practice also extends to some animals which are be-
lieved to be sacred. This sacredness may be historical in its
appreciation based on the role such animals played (often
mythological) in the establishment of the said society. This
tradition is handed down though generations. This historical
ground brings an epistemological angle to the African reaction
to the environment.
The epistemological angle to conceptualization of the Afri-
can environment comes through the mythological foundation of
the African culture and the traditional method of transmission
of knowledge through strong telling and folklores. In listening
to stories one learns. The source of the knowledge and respect
for the natural world is usually stories which promote indige-
nous knowledge and environmental value systems. Silko (1996:
pp. 94-95) talks about the place of stories generally in the
propagation of indigenous knowledge stating that:
[T]here is a story connected with every place, every object in
the landscape […] we are still in this place and language—the
story telling—is our way of passing through our past and fu-
Ekwenugo (2003: p. 48) corroborates what Silko tries to put
across while explaining the place of story telling in the African
culture stating that:
We find ourselves in a place where we do not know and
where we are not familiar with the world around US […] it is a
world of space structured by time. The familiarity we get from
this world stems from the knowledge we gather through our
tradition handed down to us by our ancestors through folktales
and cultural traditions.
One, evidently, learns about a place and the practice through
the stories surrounding the very place. As such the environ-
mental preservation which the Africans have is sustained by the
knowledge of the relationship between man and the natural
world handed down through many generations through stories.
Tribal understanding is thereby locked together… with the
entities themselves so that a place and its knowledge cannot be
separated (Whitt, 2001: p. 15). The Africans believe that man
by man’s place in the universe is a custodian of the environ-
ment and this function so given to man by nature is a result of
the belief in the intrinsic value possessed by every existent in
the environment both human and non human. This is handed
down to generations through the African cultural system ped-
dled through their stories.
The above grounds the African environmental ethics where
Africans are said to believe in the intrinsic value of every exis-
tent in the environment given to Him by their respective roles
in the sustenance of the world.
Cultural Crises and Environmental Problem in
Colonialism rings out to the average African mind as that
which has caused an untold menace to the African mind. A lot
of scholars who tried to trace he problem of under development
in African blames it mainly on colonialism, according S.
Amoah (2004: p. 36), the crises of development in Africa is
caused by the current mind set of the African who has been
brain washed and rendered inferior by the psychological trauma
infused on him by the westerner through the slave trade and the
dissolution of his culture through colonization. Evidently peo-
ple generally believe that the impact of colonization on the
Africans is so profound that Africans have constantly searched
in vain for the real foundation of their culture.
The colonization of the African man, no doubt, leaves him
embattled within himself about what the reality of his existence
is. This affects the various areas of the life of the African in-
cluding the human interaction with his environment. The colo-
nization of the African mind which is said affects equally the
human interaction with the environment comes as a form of
cultural alienation in which the African is seeks to strike a bal-
ance between his culture and a the culture of his colonized self.
The greatest effect here is seen in the religion of the African.
The ethical grounds of the African is worldview is generally
believed to be from their religion. Idowu (1962: p. 145) accepts
this view stating:
[That] morality is basically the fruit of religion and to begin,
it was dependent upon it. Mans concept of the Deity as every-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
thing to do with what is taken to be the norm of morality. God
made man, and it is He who implants in him the sense of right
and wrong. This is in fact the validity of which does not depend
upon whether man realized and acknowledges it or not.
Idowu’s point is also carried on by Ilogu (1997: p. 537) who
uses the Igbo culture to re-present the idea of religion the foun-
dation of morals among Africans. For Ilogu:
In Igbo traditional society, religion is the basis for morality
both through the beliefs of the people as well as through the
sanctions imposed by customs and prohibitions.
The religion of the Africans gives them the ethical disposi-
tion towards their environment. As was mentioned above, the
African system ensures that the African sees an intrinsic value
in every environmental element ranging from land, herbs, water
bodies, trees and animals, to human beings. As such in the tra-
ditional African society, there is hardly any report of environ-
mental abuse or d e g r a d a t ion.
But in the present times, there are cases of environmental
hazards being consequences of environmental abuse. This is
blamed on the hybrid of culture which comes with crises of
religiousity, between the traditional African religion and to
foreign religion.
The dominant western culture which reflects in the western
religion presents the natural world as a property of man which
man is free to handle any how man pleases irrespective of the
values attached to it. This is against the African traditional reli-
gious tenet where man is seen as a guardian of the natural world.
Nzeadigo (2004: p. 44) shows this his analysis of the African
anthropology stating that:
The Africans view man as force, which stands at the middle
of beingness. By the human position, he takes care of the natu-
ral world not as an owner but as a keeper. Man submits to God
who is the strongest force and keeps other lower forces as they
exist according to the capacity of their life force.
The western Nigerian strongly shows the strength of man
over his environment. This idea gives man the authority to ma-
nipulate the environment and as such is responsible for every-
thing that takes place in the environment. Among the Christians,
for instance, the base of the relationship between man and the
natural world stem from the biblical injunction (Genesis 1: 26-
28) where man is given to the control over the world. The
scriptures say:
And God said; let us create man in our image and likeness:
and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over
the birds of the air, and over the earth […] God created man in
his own image and likeness; male and female He created them.
And god blessed them, and said to them go into the world and
inherit it. Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it.
Have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air
and over every other thing that moves upon the earth.
By this Christian account (which represents the western ac-
count of human supposed relation with the environment), hu-
mans are the only morally necessary members of the world.
Nature lacks any form of intrinsic value. Thus no matter what
man does with anything in nature, he is not bound morally.
Evidently, natural world is supposed to be at the disposal of and
in service of man and the needs he has. The western tradition
possesses, by this account, a radical anthropocentricism in
which nature is viewed as “merely a resource for the satisfac-
tion of human interest wants and needs”. A statement attributed
to a Jewish Rabbi shows the strength of marginalization of the
environment. Ya’akov, the ancient Jewish Rabbi is noted to
have stated that:
One who while walking along the way, reviewing his studies,
breaks off from his study and says, How beautiful is the tree!
How beautiful is that ploughed field!” the scripture regards him
as if he has forfeited his soul (Pirkei Avot Ethics of the Fathers
Despite the varied interpretation of this statement attributed
to Rabbi Ya’akov. The fact remains that nature is regarded as a
secondary to human existence. There is a tendency of seeing
nature differently from man and the man’s development. Tak-
ing care of nature radically suggest mundanity and the relega-
tion of the human soul. Man should be paid great attention to
not the natural world.
This teaching from the western religion is what has infil-
trated the traditional African religion and leaving the African
with the tendency of viewing every aspect of the traditional
religion as fetish especially as it concerns the human relation-
ship with his environment. The result is simple’. The African is
alienated from his culture and the tenets of it but at the same
time not fitted into the new culture which we has been put into.
This problem abandons the African in a state of not under-
standing himself and his environment.
The colonized and Christianized African unveils the secrecy
of the tradition which keeps him in respect to his environment.
He throws away his concept of his environment and tries to
embrace the scriptural western teaching where the environment
is seen as that through which man’s needs, desires and wants
are satisfied. The natural world is often abused and handled
without any intrinsic value. This accounts for the number of the
environmental problems experienced today in Africa ranging
from the green house effects, erosion menace, and desert en-
croachment to flooding.
Africans seem to have lost the wealth of their tradition which
gives them the grounds for maintaining their environment.
There is more instrumentalism in the relationship with the en-
vironment. This instrumentation has two effects on the indi-
viduals name ly:
1) The inauthentic existence effect.
2) The environmental destability effect.
The inauthentic existence effect manifests itself on the indi-
viduals who are utilitarian in their relationship with their envi-
ronment. Here the individual claims to create an artificial envi-
ronment for oneself. This artificial environment replaces he
neutral which has been marginalized and destroyed by the use
of harsh equipments and chemicals. This inauthentic existence
is created by the individual to make one temporarily comfort-
able and have a feeling that there is the security of the “self”.
This first effect is on the immediate individual who suffers
directly and unexpectedly when the artificial structure, which
has been built to replace the natural environment, collapses.
The second one—the environmental destability effect has a
mediate effect on the individual but an immediate effect on the
environment. In this environmental destability effect, the envi-
ronment is depleted as a result of the destructive actions carried
out by the human elements. Such actions like extreme industri-
alization, bush burning, deforestation (through chemicalized
elements) and wanton ecological reduction, weigh down on the
environmental stability especially in Africa where there is great
level of ignorance about environmental preservation.
The trend of development seems to contribute seriously also
to the environmental degradation in Africa. The philosophy of
development in the African dimension focuses on the centrality
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 275
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
of the “self”. This self stands at the middle of the globaliza-
tional existence. The idea of personhood as conceived in the
African thought system carries with it a rational approach to
development. There is a tendency that the African conceives the
‘self’ through the Cartesian mode.1 In this dimension, the self
proceeds primarily through the metaphysical self and after-
wards the social and ecological self.
The structure here brings out the “I”-self as the central exis-
tential focus in the existential system. To identify the “I’-
mind” of cognition and existence defines the human structure.
The other levels of existential identification both social and
ecological are subservient. It is not a surprise seeing the Igbos
define the human being as Mma-ndu/i—there beauty or beauty
there.2 By the etymology of the nomenclature, the humans are
depicted as the being at the centre of existence that creates the
beauty to the world. This centralizes the existential mode of the
human being to the metaphysical self—a reality which exists as
This informs the instrumentalism of the human interactive
with the environment. While the human being exists first, he
understands his society as belonging to him (social mode) and
sees the world around him as an aid to develop and satisfy
himself (ecological mode). This understanding destroys the
environmental system and causes untold havoc to the nature.
The main reason for the African current environmental problem
is not far fetched. The problem lies in the way the African con-
ceives development. It is also lies in the alienation of the Afri-
can culture which is a result of the identity crises in Africa
handed down by colonialism. There is need for a readjustment
of the African value system and cultural grounds for a before
environmental development.
This solution is made perfect through de-ideologization and
re-orientation of the African mind. The way the ethics of envi-
ronment is put forward must be such that the people are duly
informed of their responsibilities to themselves through their
Taylor (1981: p. 117) emphasized that a life-centered ecosys-
tem is opposed to human-centered ones since the life-centered
one has moral obligations that are owed to both wild plants and
animal as members of the earths biotic community. One who
cares for the environment cares for oneself as these co-existen-
tial entities support the human life by ensuring the stability of
nature where man equally exists.
The Africans should care for the environment not just as la-
bour but as a beautiful act. This is achievable by a readjustment
of the inclination of the Africans not their morals (which is
basically anthropocentric). This does not just end in trying to
establish the inherent worth of nature but emphasize the com-
plementarity in the natural world.
The African environmental problem is basically more man-
made than natural. Most of the issues that come up in the envi-
ronmental problems of African come up as a result of ignorance
which is rooted in the effort to reconcile the evolved African
man from traditionalism to modernism. It is a problem of de-
velopment. The African combines the anthropocentrism and
rationalism embedded in their culture to face their environment.
This culminates in low care/abandonment of environment, en-
vironmental dilapidation and hazards.
Africans would need to revitalize the traditional system
which gives some respect to the environment and merge with it
a developmental structure which would help engender ecologi-
cal preservation to ensure a sustained environmental preserva-
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1The Cartesian understanding of the self is such that the self is limited to the
thinking personality—the res cogitans. The res cogitans by its explication
signifies the human being and naturally shuts off every other entity which
may not be said t o possess consciousness.
2See Okoye, Chuka On the Critique of John Ekei’s etymological Idea of the
human pers on. The mma-ndu etymology.