NOTES – Environmental Ethics in Taiwan

Holmes Rolston Trip (October 1st – November 15th, 2008)

Holmes Rolston was in Taiwan for six weeks lecturing on environmental ethics. His primary host was National Cheng Kung University, in Tainan, a city on the coast in the south, and one of Taiwan’s major universities. Rolston was, interestingly, jointly invited as visiting distinguished professor by the departments of Chinese literature and environmental engineering. Lin, Tzao-chen, a specialist in Chinese literature, is much interested in environmental ethics. Rolston gave six major lectures there, to various audiences in this university.

Rolston also lectured at a number of other universities. At National Taiwan Normal University, Taipei, a teacher’s college with a Graduate Institute of Environmental Education, environmental education and ethics are components of all teacher education. National Taiwan University, Taiwan’s largest university (34,200 students), has environmental concern in the life sciences, agriculture, and forestry.

Rolston spoke at Providence University, a Roman Catholic School (Chinese name: Jing-Yi, named after a founder), near Taichung, where he gave the inaugural St. Francis of Assisi lecture. This university has a large program combining ecology and human ecology, with several dozen graduate students in what they call human ecology (related to development and sustainability issues). In Taichung, he also spoke at Tunghai University.

At TamKang University, in Tamsui, just north of Taipei, the interest in environmental ethics is primarily in the English Department (Hwang, Yi-ming, chair), under the theme of ecocriticism. The department has for ten years featured ecocriticism in the graduate program, including a Ph.D. Surprisingly they offer courses in literature of the environment, in Ecofeminist literature, in Buddhism and ecology, and even in Native Americans and the environment. They have had four international conferences on ecocriticism. There is also a philosopher there, Hsu, Tsui-Ming, who teaches environmental ethics.

Much of the interest in environmental ethics is in departments of Foreign Language and Literature (which often means US and UK) or in departments of English (eco-criticism is a trendy word), or cultural studies (which is often the Taiwanese equivalent of something like American studies), where they often do contemporary issues. Rolston met a few, but not that many, self-identified philosophers. Many universities do not have separate departments of philosophy. They put philosophy in cultural studies or in what they call liberal studies. The universities usually do have faculty that are identified as doing environmental education.

Rolston participated in an international conference at National Tsing Hua University, Hsinchu, said to be the MIT of Taiwan. Here there is a Science, Technology, and Society Institute, which sponsored the conference, and an emphasis there is the social and environmental responsibility of industry. Some participants were critical of the semiconductor industry on worker safety and environmental pollution, as being hypocritical, saying something politically correct and then in fact doing little or nothing.

Rolston spoke at National Dong Hua University. He also made a brief trip to Hong Kong, speaking at Hong Kong Baptist University.

The Taiwan Ecological Stewardship Association, a group associated with the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, was the major facilitator of Rolston’s trip. Nancy Tsu-Mei Chen has been the major force in this group for well over a decade. Her work was recently honored when she was named the alumnus of the year by National Tsing Hua University, interestingly because although she studied physics here, she did not continue in physics. Her concerns later turned to environmental conservation, and the colleges of science, where physics remains dominant, nevertheless honored her as their most distinguished alumnus in 2008.

Rolston’s most interesting nature trip was to the Cilan Forest Conservation area, in the Snow Mountain Range. There he visited a cloud rainforest, over 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) in elevation, with Taiwan cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) and Taiwan Red Cypress (Chamaecyparis formosensis), relict species of the Tertiary Period and endemic to Taiwan. About fifty of the oldest trees are named after Chinese sages and emperors who were born about the time that tree sprouted (as aged by trunk coring). The oldest was the Confucius tree, said to have sprouted in 551 B.C.E., and therefore some 2,500 years old. Dates varied, often in the 1,500-2,000 year range. One was named for Genghis Khan, sprouting in 1155 C.E. In this forest also is a quite sophisticated laboratory and monitoring site for measuring changes in the carbon dioxide levels and pollutants coming upslope from industry at lower elevations. There are hundreds of mountains over 3,000 meters in Taiwan.

Rolston visited Guandu National Park, a wetland park near Taipei, and a favorite for watching birds, with Lin, Mao Sing, founder of the leading wild bird club in Taiwan. The land was purchased and is owned by the Taipei City Government, but the sanctuary is operated by the Taipei Wild Bird Society.

Rolston visited Yang-Ming Shan National Park, with King, Hen-Bau, (former) director of Forestry Institute (who had Rolston’s Environmental Ethics translated into Chinese in Taiwan). This park is named for a philosopher, Weng Yang-Ming (1472-1529). The rainfall is 4,000 mm. per year = 160 inches/year. This is an active volcanic area with fumaroles and hot springs, the only such area on in Taiwan proper, though there are two others on small islands to the north. Yang-Ming Shan National Park has 12-14 million visitors a year, which is half the population of Taiwan (23 million), though of course many are repeat visitors. There is a free shuttle for senior citizens from Taipei, and many come here often. The park has 400 volunteer naturalists. Feral dogs are a problem, dozens of them, released by people who no longer want them as pets. They also release birds, turtles, fish, and any pets they don’t want. They seem to think they are freeing them to go wild.

Rolston visited the Wulai area in Fu Shan, south of Taipei, a fern trip arranged by the Taiwan Wilderness Society, where his naturalist interpreter (on weekends) was a venture capitalist (on weekdays). They identified two dozen different ferns, with many tree ferns. Taiwan has over 600 species of ferns, one of the highest densities of fern species in the world.

Rolston visited the Shan-Ping Nature Reserve, in southern Taiwan, a quite remote and wild area in very steep mountains.

Among other impressions: A marvelous bird photo exhibit by photographer K.K. Kuo, who sells Olympus camera and optics, wealthy, and got interested in doing the bird photography himself.

There is no logging allowed now in Taiwan and has not been for about ten years. About 60% of Taiwan is forested, and 20% of that is plantations. Plantations are not now being cut either as it is not economic. Taiwan imports hardwoods from Malaysia and pulp from Canada. There is very little wildfire in Taiwan. Human-started fire is very local, partly because of wet forests, and partly because of steep slopes, and fire does not spread over drainages.

Rolston received mixed accounts of Buddhism and environmental ethics in Taiwan. Some environmentalists complained that some Buddhist leaders have an emphasis to buy and release captive animals/birds, often quite inappropriately, and this can cause environmental problems. Buddhists, often vegetarians, consider this compassionate. Not all Buddhist schools do this. He also received mixed accounts of Confucian scholarship, with some, themselves Confucian scholars, complaining that Confucian scholars were not seriously interested in environmental ethics.

Rolston spoke in several churches. One of these was filmed and appeared on a national channel, NETV, New Eyes Television.

Taiwan has three nuclear plants, two near Taipei and one in the south. A fourth one is under construction. The plants all cool with sea water and with some concern about how much the warm water discharged from the plant affects the coral and fish in the ocean bay where it is discharged. In this connection, Rolston visited the Graduate Institute of Marine Biodiversity, near Kenting in the South, which monitors this discharge. The research institute grows coral used in research. Also here they care for rescued sea turtles, caught in fishermen’s nets that the fishermen bring to them. They keep them until they are back in good shape and then release them.

Here also is the National Museum of Marine Biodiversity and Aquarium, an award-winning and impressive aquarium, with thousands of fish, corals, and marine fauna and flora in display tanks. He also visited a wetland area, where marine aquaculture is combined with efforts to save a mangrove swamp, with notable “mudskippers,” fish that live much of their lives on mud flats out of water.

Taiwan has 20% of its land area protected. There are 7 National Parks, 21 coastal protected areas, 19 nature reserves, 17 wildlife refuges, 31 major wildlife habitats, and 6 forest reserves. Critics reply that this is less impressive than appears because 20% of the land of Taiwan is too steep for development or agriculture. Taiwan is of some interest because the Tropic of Cancer runs right through it, and at that latitude elsewhere in the world it is usually desert or semi-arid, never rainforest.

The last of Rolston’s lectures was held at the Tainan Science Park, 20 km. outside the city. This is an industrial park for science-based industries, mostly electronics. Here the CHIMEI Group, which specializes in LCD panels, as used in thin TV sets and also in LCD projectors (optoelectronics), has an emphasis on corporate social responsibility, and is developing a sizeable portion of the Science Park as the Tree Valley, and is to be “green.” They plan to plant 100,000 trees, and have already planted 35,000, using various community groups, including school children, community groups, as well as CHIMEI employees. The park will have lakes, an ecology area, hopefully wildlife, walking and riding paths, surrounding industry. Some 30,000 people are eventually supposed to work in the TV, Tree Valley Park.

Rolston spoke at the Taiwan Forestry Research Institute. Of interest here is the Taiwan Digital Archives Project, using computers in a research laboratory where entomologists are digitizing the insect collection, especially Taiwan moths. This involves digital scans of a mounted insect, wings widespread, several photos on account of the narrow depth of field, at slightly different layers. The software, combined with visual inspection of these photos compiled them for the clearest overall image. So Taiwan insects are going online: <;, in Chinese, also with an English version, Taiwan Digital Archives Expansion Project.

This gives some indication of concern for conservation biology in Taiwan. Taiwan is about the size of New Jersey and has a lot of both people and nature packed into a small area. There is much biodiversity, many endemics. The result is both challenges and opportunities on this “beautiful island” (=Formosa), as the Portuguese once named it. Many thanks to Holmes Rolston for this update!