Apr. 15, 2017

Transforming perspectives

I want to discuss the continuum of perspectives regarding environmental values. Ecocentrism holds that humans are only a part of the complicated earth system. From this perspective, everything has intrinsic value in the interconnectedness web of life. It is a nonhierarchical view which gives priority to the natural world rather than to humankind exclusively. In other words, human beings are not inherently superior to other living things. Anthropocentrism is a view that the earth and its resources exists for the benefit of human beings-that only humanity has value and is uniquely privileged. This point of view looks at conservation as a way to protect resources for future generations. Human beings are seen as rational self-interested individuals working to ensure their material well-being. Natural resources are considered as a means to an end in achieving this well-being. Anthropocentrism focuses on fixing problems of limited resources through the use of technology rather than a reduction in consumption. Many seem to feel that if it is properly used, technology is a useful tool for human society. This can be a big conflict when seen from an ecocentric view, whether it is beneficial for the natural habitat of a certain species, or even for the earth as a whole.

The Brundtland Report defined sustainable development as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Development and growth, which are constructions of the market economy, are being offered, under the banner of sustainable development, as a cure for the very ecological crisis that they have served to bring about. Although this perspective offers a rationale for conservation, it is still an anthropocentric view. It ignores the reality that with limited resources, at some point, there needs to be a limit to growth. It is ethically important to raise the awareness of every person to what the consequences of their actions will be. 

Is anthropocentrism bad? I would like to argue that the present situation on earth has been caused by anthropocentrism and human ego, to pursue human convenience and materialistic richness. Consider that the richest 1% of adults in the world own 40% of the planet’s financial wealth, in conjunction with another fact: the human species constitutes about 0.5% of the world’s total biomass, yet – exactly like some bloated ruling-class which lives by exploiting those ‘below’ – it currently expropriates between 20 and 25% of the total net terrestrial photosynthetic energy, not to mention about 50% of its accessible fresh-water run-off. This hierarchal pattern is disconcerting.

We haven’t fully neglected the fact that human life itself depends on other living organisms as well as abiotic elements and cycles upon the earth. We have started to realize that the human future will not be too bright, if we continue to use up whatever material is available. But we have been complicit in the hierarchal view that the earth exists for our needs alone. Because we are part of an ecosystem, any actions which negatively affect the living systems of which we are a part adversely affect us as well, whether or not we maintain an ecocentric worldview. Beyond human needs for a quality environment, we need to adopt a realistic ecocentric perspective that reminds us of our place in the system. Ecocentric ethics calls for a rethinking of the relationship between humans and nature. Just like the Copernican Revolution, when humans realized they are not the center of the universe, we need an ecocentric revolution to realize we are just one of many species on this planet and are part of a larger relational system.

An ecocentric perspective develops experientially- with active participation in relationship with the natural world because relationships must continually be tended to and nourished. Emotions are stirred through relational experience, which can generate love. I know it sounds sappy, but love is vital to an ecocentric perspective. To paraphrase Stephan Gould, without the emotional bond of relationship, we will not strive to preserve what we do not love. We are rejuvinated and transformed when we connect with the wonder of it all. So connect with nature, it is good for the soul and good for the planet. And your participation will contribute to an ecocentric revolution.