I am really unsure that we have fully come to terms with Darwin’s analysis on common biological heritage, not only with primates, but with all life here on Earth. The theory of evolution via natural selection was a shocking revelation to Victorian society at the time and, despite evidence and consensus, it’s still resisted by extreme religious quarters. Science continues to shine new light on inter-species connectivity through genetics, paleontology and so on. But I think the general public, including many of our politicians, seem not to have yet processed the psychological and moral implications of this crucial step in eroding any notion that we are somehow separate and above all other life.
Some of us may have an explicit understanding of the current imbalances of our relationship with nature. Climate change and biodiversity decline, the twin flames of human/nature discordance, are impacting nearly all aspects of life, all places on the planet and motivating modern environmentalism. Earth’s planetary boundaries are being exceeded, and at some pace. We are in debt to nature and there will be consequences if we do not grasp the urgency of rethinking our self-centredness. There needs to be a shift away from human selfishness to selflessness in political, social and moral frameworks.
Ernst Haeckel first used the word ecology to define human knowledge of inter-species relationships and processes. Early studies focused on non-human life/habitats for the purpose of refining our knowledge of nature rather than for discovering increased human/nature harmony in ecosystems. Ecology itself has evolved, of course, to encompass human interactions and impacts. Rightly so, as our large and growing global population was evidently changing many of the ecosystems studied. The language of ‘ecology’ has evolved again, by philosophical thinkers like Mark J Smith, for instance, who in his book ‘Ecologism: Towards Ecological Citizenship’ (1998) urges ecological thinking as an emancipating philosophy, an act of rethinking our approach to ecosystems and our place within them.
Where has this idea of humans as central come from? Have we simply won ‘the competition’, is it an inherent selfishness rooted in the survival instinct? Archeological studies suggest quite the opposite, that early human success was in some way down to collective unselfishness and a spiritual regard for the power or ‘magic’ of nature. Remnants of prehistoric and indigenous cultures are still able to show us these strands of this compassion and fortitude.
Keith Thomas laid the origin of human-centredness, or the anthropocentric value system, on Christan Biblical teachings, developing Lynn White’s earlier emphasis on the role of Judeo-Christianity in the human/nature schism. In his fascinating book, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800, he argues that many of these religious texts assume humans as central to ‘Creation’, at the top of the hierarchical food chain, therefore giving license to an ethical foundation in which all natural things are part of a Divine plan by God to serve us. Human progress could be justified by our differences with ‘less superior’ life. However, as both he and Robin Attfield have suggested, Biblical text can also encourage a respect for nature, a nurturing rather than exploitative ethic, or stewardship. Attfield also finds this problematic, as I do. Religious stewards are answerable only to God should they fail. Thomas goes on to say, however, the perception of nature as ‘danger’ began to fall away with the rise of natural history and the sciences.
Perhaps another relevant view was that of Rene Descartes, often referred to as the father of modern philosophy, whose rationalist approach to the establishment of knowledge led him to value natural things as mere machines, moreover animals as only having simple impulses and reflexes with no capacity for sensation, language, rational thought and suffering. Non-human life is without our moral community. Keith Thomas argues these factors are why humans justified hunting, to domesticate, experiment, consume or destroy habitat for utilitarian purposes (e.g. mining, pasture, timber). Non-human life has no sense and no feeling so is, therefore, dispensable. Science has since revealed the contrary and continues to do so. Much of life on Earth has both sense and feeling but even today many seem not to be able to shake off these historical attitudes. Why?
‘There is no simple or neutral act of perception, for we see things as having value and a status. When we give things a label, we also give them a standing, a position in a pecking order, an estimate of moral worth.’ M J Smith
Human clearance of the post ice-age wildwood and prairie mosaic was well underway before industrialization but certainly accelerated with demand in timber for shipping, trade and war together with grazing pastures to feed a booming population. In our Western Civilization, we can combine this instrumental need with John Locke’s assertions on life, limb and Property as a God given natural ‘right.’ A simple equation emerges. Natural Resources (non-human nature) + human labour = Property. It is good to aspire to own property. What property we deem useless can then be thrown back into nature. Nature, plundered, becomes our dumping ground.
Crucial resistance occurred via the early protectionists; writers and artists motivated by aesthetics when witnessing a huge and rapid loss of natural environment, particularly in the US and in Britain. Individuals such as William Wordsworth and Thoreau called for a harmonious relationship with nature by humans drawing from rather than disturbing the natural order, perhaps not accounting for the fact that this ‘natural order’ had already been substantially altered by humans since the last ice-age, particularly in Britain. Aesthetics, of course, is an inherently anthropocentric view of nature, a human value which can be as misinformed and as prejudicial as any other form of extrinsic valuation. In the US, Thoreau and John Muir did challenge the values of property ownership in preserving areas from decimation as a shared commons, for the public good, but the conservationist arguments for a business-like management of natural ‘assets’ for the benefits of humans and their descendents (more anthropocentric values), championed by Gifford Pinchot in the fight over Hetch Hetchy has prevailed in the West due it’s more comforting fit with Capitalism and private ownership of land. Preservationists were forced to give way to Conservationists as populations expanded with huge pressures forced upon land for cities and agriculture. But in the end, wasn’t Pinchot’s conservationism just a firefight against a continuing human destabilisation of the natural environment with no altered set of values which might refrain from irretrievable damage and, ultimately, self destruction?
Other thoughtful voices were to follow of course…Leopold, Carson, and an entire academic field of study; environmental ethics, a breakaway from general moral philosophy, and I will write again on these contributions.
Back to today. Never more reality than now, with a continuing political preoccupation for economic growth and globalization, are we encouraged by the ones who profit to see natural things only as having value if they are of use or can be transformed into something useful. And this instrumental valuation of natural things is reenforced by Conservationists themselves now, in embracing economic valuation of Ecosystem Services (to humans) and Natural Capital as our assets.
Quite the opposite is needed; now is the time we should be valuing natural things so that they are NOT subordinate to the consumption patterns of an economic system which, judging by the growing divide between rich and poor, is also undemocratic and unfair. Even if placed in a Common fund, which I think will be unlikely, nature as commodity would always be vulnerable to political and social abuse.
Enter Darwin’s discoveries to the discussion once more and we find another simple equation: All life = kin.
To think ecologically, at the outset, lays bare the most fundamental conflicts between human beings and the rest of the natural world, moreover offering the greatest routes to resolution. Key to this will be in extending our moral community to include all life, developing a culture of ecological democracy for the benefit of all life, a new enlightenment through an educational movement. To displace ourselves as central in nature will not be an easy task but education is where it should all begin. It’s how we’ll collectively alter perceptions of nature in order to protect it, to see nature more as family once again rather than just an asset to be owned, offset and traded.
Let’s return to Thoreau, not for his appeals based on aesthetics and spiritually, but in his call for humans to draw just enough from nature for basic needs and comforts but not to destabilize ecosystems for our luxuries in life or for what is ‘cheaper’. Recognizing the true cost/value of green technology.
We’ll have to limit our number, not by force but by enlightenment.
We’ll have to make concessions in our personal choices and set limits to current economic freedoms.
We should resist commodification of nature.
Natural Capitalists: I listen to their voices, read their justifications. They say it’s quicker, more pragmatic, to work the existing economic and political system to make nature ‘visible’ on the accounts, at least to politicians and big business. Any personal reflections on the unworthiness of anthropocentrism as a disfunctional value system are set aside by either a sense of desperation that ecological thinking is no further down the line than in 1998 when Mark Smith wrote his book or that ‘time’ is running out, entire careers are proving futile.
Crucially however, ‘investment’ in ecological thinking, or as Mark Smith refers, ‘ecologism’, is so vital that it is absolutely beyond one person’s desperation or another’s career. To revalue nature as kin will take generations and is nothing short of revolution from contemporary neoliberal politics. Yet it’s worth the singlemindedness, beyond my lifetime, however long it takes. We can steer a course now into an ecoliterate future, across all generations and in all spheres of our culture and society.
Who knows, change may happen sooner and the long term risks of not setting this course now are simply too high.
For more on ecoliteracy ….