Philosophy, Society

Humanism vs. Ecocentrism

I just read Confessions of a recovering environmentalist by Paul Kingsnorth, co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project. His writing style is great but there is one key point in which I beg to differ: I do not see humans solely as a plague that has befallen nature, I see them as a part of nature.

You can say what you want, but humans are at least very different from other animals. Maybe the difference between humans and other mammals is less than the difference between bacteria and mammals. But there is one thing humans have developed which no other animal has to such an extent: culture, an extensive set of knowledge, know-how, tools and artifacts that are relayed from generation to generation not through the genetic code but by language and observation. It is hard to argue against the fact that this is currently unique to humans.

Where opinions differ, however, is whether this development is mainly positive or mainly negative. If you focus on the environmental impact humans have made on the rest of the planet you might reach the conclusion that they are a plague destroying nature. And if they make the planet uninhabitable and go extinct that’s the just punishment and maybe after a while there will be room for other living beings on the planet again. Or if you don’t want to go that far you might say that at least the number of humans should be drastically reduced to lower their impact on the biosphere. But what if you were an alien, looking down on planet earth from your spaceship, what would you deem appropriate then? Would you add sterilizer to human drinking water supply to reduce their spreading if you had the power? Would an alien have the right to do that to safe the rest of the planet from human influence? Probably not. You might still argue however that we as humans have the responsibility to suppress our growing numbers. But what right do you as an individual have to ask another individual, a young woman maybe, not to have a child? What does have more value, a human being or a tree? Or what about a child and a blade of grass?

If you really stay true to the egalitarian argument that humans and the rest of nature have equal value and take the holistic stance that they all are simply part of a greater whole, then humans must be protected, too. Because it would be a real shame if all that culture (and even the raw capability to produce culture) just went the way of the dodo. And yes, of course it’s a shame too that the dodo went its way.

So to make my position clear, I neither subscribe to a radical ecocentrism that is in favour of killing all of humanity in order to save the rest of nature nor an anthropocentric view that proclaims that humans have more intrinsic value than other animals and plants. Instead, I feel that we humans are a part of nature and therefore need to be part of the solution. To make that work, I agree with Paul Kingsnorth, it is not enough to change our technologies to more efficient ones. Our values need to change, too. But it is unrealistic to believe that people will single-handedly descent back into caves to safe the planet. That’s why efficient technologies are still needed. This is not to say that any human being on the planet has a right to such an ultra-mobile and consumerist lifestyle as the majority of the people in industrialized nations are indulging in right now – we need to do away with cars, planes and a new smartphone and laptop every half a year – but I do think it’s possible with efficient technologies and a new, reasonable social-economic system for the human population to live a decent life without destroying nature in the process. And yes, for that to work we need a radical change of values and a radical change of the system. And you cannot change one without changing the other. So what we need to do is to work on both of them simultaneously.

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