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This article is written by Tarannum Vashisht, from Rajiv Gandhi National University Of Law, Punjab. This article is aimed at making the reader understand the anthropocentric and ecocentric approach to the environment and the reasons behind the change in inclination towards the latter.


Environment law can be looked upon from two perspectives- anthropocentric and ecocentric, The former is essentially human-centric, while the latter is nature-centric. The former gives prime importance to mankind, while the latter gives equal importance to all the components of nature. It is this difference in view, that this article aims to study.

This article also aims at studying different aspects of these approaches and also the changing trends, especially in India. Drawing from these sources it attempts concluding which approach is better suited.

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Environmental ethics

This is a branch of study which deals with the relationship that humankind shares with the environment. The subject matter of this field comprises the different constituents of nature and their dealings with one another. Humans and other organisms are treated as a part of nature and are expected to live harmoniously with one another. The peaceful co-existence of these species is possible only if each of these species respects the rights of the other.

There are majorly two branches of thought in this respect. One is of the view that nature primarily exists for humans. Humans have intrinsic value, however, all other species acquire value only when they are successfully utilized by humans for fulfilling their personal needs. This concept is called Anthropocentrism.

Contrary to the Anthropocentric approach is the eco-centric approach. This concept is based on a nature-centric value system. It believes that human species is a mere component of the ecosystem. The former exists as a constituent of the latter and hence exists at the behest of the latter. Humans have a responsibility to protect and preserve the environment and exist in harmony with the other elements of nature.

These concepts have been explained in detail in the following subtopics. 

Anthropocentric approach to environmental law

Anthropocentrism is a branch of philosophy and jurisprudence that treats man as the most important being in the world. Everything that exists in this world, has the prime purpose to serve humankind. Nature exists for the welfare of humankind and humans are supposed to be above all of nature’s organisms.

Various stories are related to the inception of anthropocentrism. One of the most famous ones is written in the Judeo Christian Bible. According to this story, human beings represent the image of God on earth and are supposed to subdue all other forms of nature, for fulfilling their own needs. 

This text has often been interpreted to establish the superiority of humans over all living creatures on this planet. Value is accredited to nature only when it is utilised for the benefit of mankind. This implies that nature exists instrumentally to serve mankind.  

Jurists with an anthropocentric approach never admit that an increase in the population of humans or any human activity is the reason for the depletion of natural resources. Therefore, they feel that there is no need for any legal measures to curb environmental exploitation by humans.

Cornucopian approach

Cornucopians are those people who simply deny environmental exploitation, or are of the view that this can be curbed following a very simple approach of technology or the free market. These people have an anthropocentric view of the environment. They reject the idea that there is any need to protect the finite resources of Earth. In fact, they question the very existence of the idea that Earth has finite resources.

It has also been noted that Cornucopians have a liberalist point of view, that is, they are in favour of capitalism. According to the adoption of a free market, the economy is imperative for human progress and empowerment. Thus, human growth for them is of prime importance.

These thinkers are of the view that the continuously increasing demand for material resources can be met only if it is met with technological advancements of similar vigour. This is a futurist approach to philosophy which believes that there are sufficient resources on this planet for everyone, which can be exploited unconditionally for human utilization.  

Ecocentric approach to environmental law

Ecocentrism is a branch of thought that finds intrinsic value in all living organisms. It takes a holistic view of the Earth, as opposed to the narrower approach adopted by anthropocentrism.

Ecocentrism has a larger view than even biocentrism and zoocentrism. Biocentrism sees intrinsic value in all living beings, on the other hand, Ecocentrism in addition to this gives due weightage to abiotic aspects and perceives environmental systems as wholes. Similarly, Zoocentrism sees intrinsic value in animals only.

The Indian approach to ecocentrism

The Indian judiciary earlier was inclined towards anthropocentrism. But gradually, it has shifted more towards ecocentrism. This aspect would be dealt with later in this article. Coming to the ancient approach towards the environment, let’s take a look at the Upanishads.

Isa Upanishad elaborates on the ancient Indian roots of ecocentrism. It clearly says that all the living and non-living organisms in this universe belong to God alone. There should be harmony between different species with no one above the other. Human beings, in the same manner, are not superior to any species. Therefore, neither humans nor any other species have a legitimate right to encroach upon the rights of any other species.

This philosophy has been treated as the base for many important international conventions and treaties, like Convention for Conservation of Antarctic Living Resources, 1980, The Berne-Convention on Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats,1982, The Protocol to Antarctic Treaty on Environmental Protection, 1998, etc. India is a signatory to all these treaties and hence respects them. These treaties give importance to different species of flora and fauna for their intrinsic value. 

Indian judiciary : from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism

It is evident that in the changing times’ ecocentric approach has gained more support. Various reasons can be ascribed to the same. The foremost being, the knowledge that the preservation of flora and fauna is the only key to the preservation of mankind. Practically speaking, without the former the latter cannot exist. 

Secondly, it has been realised that the legislations that protect flora and fauna are to a large extent generic in nature. Some species are on the verge of extinction, as due to their increasing demand, they have been overused. Hence, these specific species require specific attention. Let us take a look at the changing trends in the Indian Judiciary. 

The judiciary of India, like that of most other countries, was initially more inclined towards Anthropocentrism than Ecocentrism. Following are the landmark cases which explain this point-

Initial inclination towards anthropocentrism

The earliest international declarations on environment protection, like the Stockholm Declaration of 1972, the Rio Declaration of 1992, Johannesburg Declaration of 2002, etc were essentially anthropocentric. Take, for example, the definition of sustainable development as given by the Brundtland Commission Report Of 1987. It was defined as the fulfilment of the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to fulfil their needs. This definition gives prime importance to the fulfilment of the needs of human civilization for achieving sustainable development. The rights of other species find no place in this definition. 

Initially, the reasonings of these conventions were adopted by Indian judges to give their judgments. Some important cases propagating this view are:

M.C. Mehta v. Kamal Nath, 1977 

In the case of M.C. Mehta c. Kamal Nath, reliance was made on the Brundtland Commission Report and Stockholm Declaration, 1972 and it was pronounced that sustainable development and polluter pays principle are a part of the Indian environmental jurisprudence. These concepts are heavily anthropocentric.

Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India, 1996 

In Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India, it was observed that the above-mentioned principles can be invoked only when it is proved that they cause harm to humans. Additionally, the concept of intergenerational equity, that is environmental exploitation of nature should be equitably divided between the present and future generations.

This approach was reiterated in various other cases as well, till a change was brought about by the Indian judiciary in its jurisprudence.

Indian judicial system adopts ecocentrism

The Indian judiciary has over time made a radical shift to ecocentrism from anthropocentrism. This noted change has been made from the following landmark judgments:

T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad case of 2012

In the case of T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad, the animal in question was Asiatic wild Buffalo, which are found exclusively in the western and easter ghats of India. The court while explaining the ecocentric approach, elaborated on the necessity of application of the same. 

Godavarman Thirumulpad v. Union of India, 2012

The subject matter of Godavarman Thirumulpad v. Union of India was the preservation of the endangered species of ‘Red Sandalwood’, which is found in Andhra Pradesh. In this case, like the previous one, the court elaborated on the importance of an ecocentric approach.

Centre for Environment Law, WWFI v. Union of India, 2013 

In Centre for Environment Law, WWFI v. Union of India, the court initiated the judgment with the application of the ecocentric principle. The court threw light on the intrinsic value of all living beings, although the case was filed for saving the Asiatic wild lion. This judgment was rooted in ecocentric principles because it gave importance to all species of animals, especially those who were endangered, irrespective of the fact that they were instrumental for human survival or not. Basing its judgment on the reports of experts, the court held that Asiatic white lions constitute an endangered species. Keeping this into consideration, the construction of a second home for them to ensure their survival becomes necessary.

In addition to this, the court recommended separate legislation to be made by the parliament of India for the protection and perseverance of endangered species. It also ordered the preservation of Asiatic wild lions of the Gir forest located in Gujarat. Directions were also issued for the protection of other endangered species. This would be based on a nature-centric and life centric approach, rather than a human-centric approach. The “Species Best Standard” was to be applied from then on.

Clarifications regarding the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 were made. It was clarified that wildlife comprises all types of flora and fauna, be it wild or domesticated. It was also highlighted that all possible efforts should be made to implement this act in letter and spirit. It was also issued that all acts and schemes that would be made by the Indian government should be ecocentric rather than anthropocentric. 

It was also noted that “Scientific reasoning” has to surpass any other factor when it comes to reallocation or any other welfare scheme for these endangered species. 

These cases are considered as milestones because these cases denote a major change in the Indian environmental jurisprudence. Now, the Indian judiciary gave importance to the intrinsic value of all living organisms like humans as vital components of nature. Thus establishing ecocentrism in India. 

Which is the better approach

By now, both anthropocentric and ecocentric approaches to the environment would be clear to you. This article elaborates on the subject matter of both of these approaches and also the notable shift from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism. This marked shift is indicative of the factor that a change was imperative. The human-centric approach which forms the core of anthropocentrism is essentially flawed. All-natural organisms are supposed to exist in harmonious coexistence. It is, according to me, completely against the laws of nature to propagate to the superior nature of man. If anything, man has the most developed brain out of all the species and hence has a responsibility to protect and preserve nature and all of its components. Therefore, by all means, an ecocentric approach is better than an anthropocentric approach. 


Every school of thought, be it sciences or social sciences, evolves and enriches itself with time. It can be concluded that this shift from anthropocentric to ecocentric approach is an important milestone in the evolution of environmental law and environment ethics. The ecocentric approach aligns with the laws of nature and hence is bound to thrive over the anthropocentric approach. 

It is the responsibility of mankind to protect and preserve nature, especially in times of increasing environmental depletion. Therefore, instead of treating oneself as superior and selfishly exploiting natural resources, we should put in our efforts to serve the environment. 


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