Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Anthropocentric and Proud of It

One of our regular readers, Pat J. has raised some interesting questions in the comments. I would like to respond to those questions by reproducing (unedited) an essay I wrote in 1998:

When it comes to environmental issues such as the destruction of wilderness, the preservation of species and climate change, my values are highly anthropocentric. I also consider myself an environmentalist. I contribute to environmental causes and belong to environmental organizations. I attend meetings, sign petitions, and write letters for environmental issues. A candidate’s record on environmental concerns influences my vote. I recycle and reuse, and reduce. As a sociologist, I do research on issues related to the environment, and I teach college students environmental awareness in sociology courses.

Environmentalists have warned us against the dangers of anthropocentricism for decades. Recently some environmentalists even coined a new term, “homocentricism,” to represent the set of values that they felt endangered our environment. Anthropocentricism or homocentricism is presented as the opposite of a biocentric ethic. This biocentric view point advocated by many environmentalists is one in which humans are viewed as but one species in many, with no privileged position or point of view. The biocentric individual believes that humans have no right to destroy the capacity of the earth’s ecosystems to support other species in the pursuit of human interests. Many environmentalists consider the development of a biocentric ethic as essential for the preservation of the planet.

Until recently, I too advocated a shift from anthropocentrism to biocentricism as essential to an environmentally sound society. But, I have come to see the error of my ways. Like most of my colleagues in the social sciences my education in the natural sciences was quite limited. This past summer I decided to rectify some of my deficiencies. This was timely, as I planned to teach a sociology course on environmental issues during the fall term. It was my first “free” summer in sixteen years of college teaching, and I set myself a reading program in evolution, paleontology, population dynamics and ecology.

From that summer course of study, I learned what a truly biocentric perspective implies. To be biocentric means that the human species has no special right to existence and survival. No more so, nor less so than other species with which we share the earth. Moreover, it also means that no species that exists on earth today has any greater (or lesser) claim to existence than any species that ever existed on earth. Whales have no greater claim on existence than the dinosaurs did. The snow leopard has no greater right to survival than the saber tooth tiger. True biocentricism would accord the AIDS or polio viruses the same rights to existence as the great snowy owl.

Extinction and replacement are the way in which the natural world functions. Species have always completed with each other for survival, some succeed, others do not, some evolve, some become extinct. Some would say that what humans are doing today is different, our actions are resulting in mass extinctions. However, mass extinctions are also part of the way in which the natural world functions. Indeed, mass extinctions may be a crucial element in increasing complexity of life on earth.

Mass extinctions have occurred five times that we know of in the 3.85 billion years of life on earth. Some 240 million years ago, nearly all species both on land and in the seas perished. It is only after this mass extinction that mammals appeared on the earth. The mass extinction of 65 million years ago spelled the demise of the dinosaurs. This may have cleared the field for the development of human kind. If we thoroughly embrace the biocentric view of life, we would have to admit that the current human instigated species extinction, though different in its mechanisms, is no better, nor worse for life on earth than any previous mass extinction. Many species will disappear from the earth’s surface, and, over time, they will be replaced with new species. Humans as we are today will probably be one of those that disappear. Humans are not an end product of evolution. We are a tiny blip in a multi-billion year process. From a truly biocentric perspective, no more deserving of survival than Australopithecus robustus or Neandertal.

Regardless of what we do, Homo Sapiens will someday either evolve into something different or become extinct, as will all the other species, plant and animal that we count as traveling companions in this life. If we take a biocentric perspective, what should it matter if it this occurs in a hundred years or two million years?

But I am anthropocentric. I care about the fate of humans as a species, and for the fate of the species I know and love: the wild cats, the eagles, the turtles and salamanders, the butterflies, the whales and many other species that have thrilled me with their beauty, grace and wildness. I do not believe that anything we humans do can halt the ultimate movement of evolution. However, I wish to ensure that human action does not result in too many more losses in my life time. I want the next several generations of humans to flourish and enjoy the beauty of the earth that I have cherished.

This summer as I learned more about the natural sciences, and about how the earth’s ecosystems and biosphere function, I realized that all environmental values spring from anthropocentricism. We wish to protect the environment because it is our environment; the environment that gave birth to and nurtured human beings, and our companion species.


Sue said...

Just as a follow up, Pat, what I'm saying is that all people who espouse environmentalism are really talking about human self interest even if they don't think so themselves, and even if it doesn't sound like it at first. Because if they were really focuses on "nature" they wouldn't care whether or not the spotted owl or bald eagle were "endangered" -- because nothing is more natural than extinction. It is only because "endangered" species are harbingers of problems in the ecosystems that we humans depend upon for our own survival that any of this matters at all.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Interesting, Sue. It fits with the Judeo-Christian ethic of "stewardship" of the earth as set forth in Genesis.

In the environmental rhetoric it is often difficult to sift the grain from the chaff. When the radical elements of environmentalism spout terms like "Mother Earth" and "Gaia" it is easy to get the wrong notion. However, if we look at the earth as our cradle of life, we look with selfish eyes. But that's a good thing because it nurtures the concept that we are responsible for its care. A healthy planet is in our interest as a species.

The issue often comes down to preservation versus conservation. The preservationists within the environmental movement seem to say that we should preserve a natural state at the expense of humanity. The conservationists however, see the earth as a vast storehouse full of good things just waiting to be utilized for our benefit. But they see that they must be used wisely.

Many times the apparent conflicts between environmentalists and business arise from a misunderstanding of this difference. Most business people realise that wise use of natural resources is in their self-interest because it is the source of their livlihood. You have a few villains however, who are merely exploiters. They would be equivalent to leeches or to mistletoe -- they are parasites. Even parasites have their role to play.

It is all about balance. We must balance our present needs against the long-term impact of our behavior and future survival. The rhetoric of radical extremeism needs to go away and be replaced by reasoned evaluation of what is true -- not the hyped garbage that fills the messages of many today.

Sue said...

Absolutely, Chris!! Well put!

Pat Jenkins said...

first off sue i love seeing my name in lights, so thanks for the top billing!! (though that has a good chance of killing readership!) i am kidding of course... thank you for publishing this piece, and amazing how ten years has passed and it still remains applicable! consider me in your "reformed" camp of enviromental work. and i like you, i will always try for the advancement of mankind. and if that means we find alternate sources of energy we need to take advantage of them. but it also means if what we are currently using is the best option, that should be advanced too!! great piece again!!!

E. R. Dunhill said...

Great essay. Environmentalists often fail to state the obvious: This is our home and we can't get by without it. Improving the way it works benefits people.

dan satterfield said...

Very thoughtful writing. I learned something new and I thank you!