Alternative Ethics in the Politics of Knowledge and Authority: Focusing on Human-Environment Relations in China, Tibet and South Korea

Title: 1299 | Alternative Ethics in the Politics of Knowledge and Authority: Focusing on Human-Environment Relations in China, Tibet and South Korea
Area: Border Crossing and Inter-Area
Stream: Anthropology
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Yeon-ju Bae, University of Michigan, United States (organizer, presenter, chair)
Xiao Ke, University of Pennsylvania, United States (presenter, chair)
Suvi Rautio, University of Helsinki, Finland (presenter)
Shuting Zhuang, University of Chicago, United States (presenter)
Jay Schutte, Colorado State University, United States (discussant)


We explore alternative ethics and their political work through ethnographic investigations in China, Tibet, and South Korea: contexts that have undergone drastic sociopolitical change accompanied by an increasingly complicated politics of ecological thinking. Recent scholarship has provided important insights into the emergence of alternative ethics in non-Western environmentalism (Cadena and Blaser 2018) – through interactions of different knowledge schemes, authorities, and environmental ideologies on human and nonhuman agents. Drawing on a wide-ranging set of methodologies, our panelists examine how practitioners relying on different authorizations and institutionalizations of knowledge come to create and alter ethical understandings of their own social and ecological worlds. We ask: What is the relationship between ethics and positionality, and in what ways emergent forms of ethics are motivated by and facilitate the political intricacy across humans and environment?

Drawing on local entanglements of myth and morality in Guizhou province (southwest China), Suvi Rautio criticizes the violence caused by China’s state-led reforestation projects. Juxtaposing state environmental campaign and lama’s teachings, Xiao Ke analyzes styles of persuasion and hierarchies of moral affects in Tibetan environmental and wildlife ethics. Shuting Zhuang explores the Tibetan Buddhist-activists’ initiative that scientifically and morally locates new non-human species in discussing what she calls “species-ization.” Investigating practitioners’ forms of knowledge and rhetorical strategies in a Korean Buddhist environmental village, Yeon-ju Bae illustrates the political and ethical interrelations of socio-ecological worlds. Sumin Myung discusses “emergent ethics” coming out of uncertainties in forests by examining Korean field scientists’ activities and navigations in the era of climate change.

Panel Abstracts:
Ways of Knowing and Relating: Politics and Ethics in a Korean Buddhist Return-to-the-farm Village
This paper explores locals and newcomers’ everyday agricultural practices and rhetorical strategies in a Korean Buddhist return-to-the-farm village, drawing on ethnographic fieldwork from 2018 to 2020. Located in one of the renowned spiritual mountains in South Korea, the village has attracted middle-class urbanites to move in through the activist efforts by a local Buddhist temple. As one of the pioneers leading the environmental movement in the nation since the Asian Financial Crisis, the temple has advocated for alternative organic farming based on the Buddhist teaching of interrelatedness among all beings. As local elders and newcomers may have different ideologies of agriculture, speech, and social relations, this paper examines the ways in which locals’ embodied experiences and newcomers’ abstract notions are manifested and practiced through agricultural measurement and verbal admonition. Since the two groups of people are interacting with each other in the same village, this paper analyzes an ethnographic case of annual hamlet meeting in which people argue over whether they have to allow a moved-in family to connect to the common water pipe. The two groups’ different rhetorical strategies of rationalization in negotiating authority that are aligned with their ways of knowledge contribute to misunderstanding and enhanced tension between them, which is evinced through people’s ethical and emotional evaluations on the other group afterwards. By investigating how the Korean Buddhist environmental movement is actually experienced and practiced in lay people’s everyday life, this paper illuminates the situatedness of the politics of ethics in recognizing and interrelating socio-ecological worlds.

An Inquiry into Affect and Persuasibility in Contemporary Tibetan Environmentalism
All Western and non-Western environmentalisms seem to entail an implicit question: how do we persuade others to protect the environment? In contemporary Tibet, on the one hand, Chinese state environmental campaign relies on their traditionally socialist propagation techniques like posters, banners, and conferencing. On the other, among conservation projects in Tibetan regions, the Tibetan tradition of Lamas’ teaching has become an integral and normal part of environmental advocacy. The appearance of their relative persuasibility – the state campaign is often seen as a burden on Tibetan social life while lama’s teaching is greatly endorsed – is often reduced to their respective positional authority under the rubrics of ‘China’ and ‘Tibet’ in the settler-colonial frontier. This paper, however, investigates styles of persuasion and persuasibility regarding environmental and wildlife ethics in Amdo Tibet. In it, I will analyse a wildly circulated excerpt from Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö’s (2003) gSal Ba’i Me Long, and a popular video persuading the audience to give up consuming wildlife, in relation to my ethnographic fieldwork in a few wildlife conservation groups in Amdo Tibet. Within the scope of persuasive relationships, I explore how a rank of persuasibility may reveal a linkage of dynamic political, ethical, and affective stratifications among monks, lay Tibetans, Chinese workers, Chinese officials, and nonhumans. More broadly, I aim to highlight the role of persuasion in the study of ethics and sociality, bringing together studies of causation and imperatives (Kockelman 2016) and transmitted affects (Green 1999).

Death, Violence and Morality: Reforestation of a Woodland Landscape in Rural Ethnic China
This paper takes an ethnographic lens to explore what lies beneath China’s contemporary state-led reforestation projects in Guizhou province (southwest China). Studying a landscape that gets transformed from a forest that connects trees as living entities to one of by-products, I explore how questions of morality arise in the process through myths and narratives to outline a violent landscape where human lives are deeply entangled with trees. These violent myths are removed from conservation efforts that carry their own hegemonic ordering and recognise trees as surviving artefacts that exist separate from human interaction gazed at from afar. Regardless of the imposing separation of human and environmental pasts and futures that authoritarian notions of a forest landscape carry, narratives of the past that communicate the moral warnings of state-led reforestation projects continue to circulate. In tracing the workings behind the reforestation of a woodland landscape in rural ethnic China, this paper unearths a locally built sense of place formed around loss and violence imposed by the institutional workings of China’s state-led campaigns.

New Species or New Speciesism?: Toward an Ethical Knowing of Non-Human Lives in Contemporary Tibet
The Buddhist answer to “can animal suffer?”, a question famously asked by Bentham and Derrida, moves away from the logo-centrism philosophical tradition concerned only with the capacity or the attributes of certain beings. Rather, it brings back the pathos through which a mutually sharing of suffering becomes the key to an experience of compassion. In recent decades, concerns with animal suffering have led to spades of vegetarian movements and conservational activities in contemporary Tibet. However, an equally noteworthy trend in these movements is what I call “species-ization”— the Buddhist-activists’ intensified involvements in conducting “scientific” identification, classification, and discoveries of new non-human species during their conservational activities. Given the Buddhist doctrine that all sentient beings should be treated equally, such activities raise debates on whether the significance of certain non-human lives relies on their belonging to some (rare) species, or their comprising a larger picture of multispecies eco-environment. Should one recognize such phenomenon as an emerging form of scientific speciesism? How do we understand the moral standing of non-human lives in such objective picture? I argue in this paper that to understand Tibetan Buddhist-activists’ speciesization activities we need a “wider conception of objectivity” (Crary 2016). Moreover, the fact that Buddhist-activists do not perceive an incommensurability between their scientific and moral/religious landscapes requires us to reconsider what counts as an ethical knowing practice, when non-human lives are no longer elements of a morally indifferent world.

Tarrying with Uncertainties: Forests, Field Sciences, and Emergent Ethics in South Korea
South Korea is known as one of the few postcolonial states that have successfully afforested territories after colonial extraction and civil war. These anthropogenic forests, however, are facing new runaway challenges such as climate change, aging forests, and environmental degradations that endanger the future of forests and human lives. To address these problems, the government has begun implementing the 6th National Forest Plan (2018-2037) with its public slogan “the Korean Peninsula within Forests.” The Plan initiates an array of science-based interventions in forests, but the unruly complexity of ecological change shakes the grounds not just for scientific knowledge but also ethical concerns. By presenting three ethnographic scenes in a forest, conference, and botanical garden, this paper demonstrates how field scientists navigate scientifically uncertain and ethically murky landscapes in their everyday life. Field scientists, often in contrast to lab scientists or “armchair” policymakers, mobilize different skills, strategies, and styles of argumentation that may deflect the dominant horizoning of forests as the silver bullet for environmental quandaries. These ethnographic scenes suggest “emergent ethics,” which is radically contingent yet potentially relevant to specific species, situations, sites, and histories that connect humans and nonhumans in South Korea. In the end, the paper discusses how emergent ethics, despite its elusive and precarious status under the climate regime, may have a say amid the recent modularizations of environmental ethics

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