Sunday, 15 April 2012


Today Chris T-T, a musician with a great twitter account, tweeted an article by Paul Kingsnorth from a few months ago in Orion magazine. The article is very long, and mostly eulogises lost nature - the standard romantic narrative about how machines, industry and general humanity are increasingly encroaching on and destroying beautiful and inspiring landscapes and wildernesses. It's beautifully written, very touching, and I basically agree that such destruction is a sad state of affairs.

However, the article also has a political point, namely an attack on the "environmental" and "green" agenda for caring too much about climate change, carbon, sustainability and so forth - all things that essentially try to improve the living conditions of humans with little concern for pure ecology and untouched nature, its beauty and wonder etc. In the name of carbon emissions, we wreck yet more land (and sea) with wind turbines, and deserts with solar panels. When Kingsnorth expressed concern about this, his "green" friends attacked him as a reactionary romantic. Clearly, Kingsnorth says, environmenatalism is no longer about the environment, but about human comfort. Thus, to differentiate himself, he adopts the label of "ecocentric", someone who puts ecology and nature at the centre of his philosophy and politics, as opposed to humans.

Christ T-T originally tweeted the article with this claim:

If you're remotely eco-friendly or green this  piece is important, challenging reading:

So the article is supposed to challenge me? I consider myself eco-friendly and green, in that climate-related issues are among the most important of any modern issue to me, I've spend a lot of time and effort volunteering with climate change NGOs and projects, I tend to vote green, and I follow green issues in the media very closely (etc). But I was not challenged by the article. If anything, I found the article very easy to dismiss. As far as I could tell, Kingsnorth cares a lot about the literal environment, about pure nature (whatever these things are), about flora and fauna you can genuinely touch. He thinks these things are more important than humans and society. Given that this is what he thinks and cares about, it's hardly surprising that he feels the "green" movement has betrayed itself.

But I do not think these things. I think that humans are more important than "nature". I am not ecocentric; I am avowedly anthropocentric. As far as I can see, this is a simple difference of opinion, that our subjective concerns, values, beliefs happen to be different. If anything, I'm a little insulted at Kingsnorth's insinuation that my position is somehow inferior or less worthy than his. Why should support for the environment over humanity be better than vice versa?

Similarly, I tweeted these points at Chris T-T and he responded, saying

aha. I'd be interested to read why you believe that [he's referring to a statement I made: "I prefer to save lives more than wildernesses"]

Now that's a challenging question. Why do I have the opinion I do? I'd never thought about it before. Let me do some introversion here.

I suspect a lot of the answer comes from my experiences, most significantly the fact that I am a student currently finishing a degree in anthropology. Now, I wouldn't say that anthropology defines everything I do, not by a long shot. I'm actually quite bored with it by this point - it's just the subject I have to do to get this godforsaken degree. Anthropology isn't my philosophy, it's not at the centre of my value system. But things I've read in studying it certainly have affected my beliefs and opinions. 

Most of all, anthropologists love to deconstruct things. Bring up any idea or notion that we cherish or live our lives by, and your typical anthropologist will chuckle gleefully and then tell you why said notion/idea is entirely contingent, nothing more than a transient product of the specific cultural context that happens to have shaped you. They love to show that big things we take for granted - gender, economics, science etc - are not essential, ahistorical or universal, but that different cultures, and the same culture at different points in history, actually have very different notions of what such things are. We assume that pink is naturally a girly colour, but - aha! - go back 150 years and we find that it was considered masculine. See! Everything you believe is just a product of your culture's ideology. There is no truth.

Unfortunately, the smug anthropologists are basically right. They have strong evidence to support their deconstructionism. "Nature" is a classic case. As soon as I started reading Kingsnorth's waxing lyrical about Wordsworth and Indonesian rainforests, my anthropology senses started tingling. What we have here is your bog standard reification of a contingent cultural concept. Western culture tends to essentialise "nature" as a pure, untouched space free of all human ills. Hence how our beloved nature documentaries purposely play up the pristine, isolated jungles and oceans where man is entirely absent, despite the fact that almost no such places exist. But anything that complicates the picture is excluded from the documentary. 

Real life does not consist of separate spheres of humanity and (vs?) nature. Not that Kingsnorth would deny this - his whole point is that these separate spheres should but do not exist. But more importantly, the term "nature" on its own is entirely meaningless. It means whatever we happen to think it means at a given point in time. Some cultures don't even have a conceptual divide between nature and society. It is also as important as we happen to think it is - it has no inherent importance of its own.

So that's why I don't belive in ecocentricism. But why do I believe in anthrocentricism? Surely all the same problems apply - "humanity" as a concept is just as vague and contingent as "nature". I don't deny this. There's all kind of philosophical justifications that I could invent to claim that humans, as the site and source of subjectivity, are inherently more significant than anything else they subjectively think about, but this is not what I particularly believe. 

The truth is, I don't have a good reason that I'm anthropocentric. I just don't like other humans to suffer. I'd much rather nature suffers than humans, if indeed we can separate the two. I don't believe nature can feel suffering the way a person can. I'm an atheist and I believe in science. I don't like like climate change purely because it might disrupt human lives in a negative way. This doesn't mean that I think "progress" or "human comfort" justify environmental destruction, it just means that I'm opposed to whatever makes people suffer, and I'm in favour of whatever stops them suffering. Mine is a basically negative value system, and I think this goes for the middle class West in general. I don't fight for freedom or equality or nature, I fight against climate change and poverty and discrimination.

Because of my desconstructionist training, I no longer believe in objective truth, so the question of why I believe in something like anthropocentricism is indeed extremely challenging. I can't give a full-proof answer, but then I don't think Kingsnorth is capable of justifying his ecocentricism with anything fool-proof either. But I'll end with some more concrete thoughts on the issue.

Why I am anthropocentric:

All of my friends are human. Silly, but....well, I like my friends.

Most of my interests are human or human-generated, such as arts of various forms, thinking, reading, sports, games, chatting, eating cooked food (raw food is less yummy).

I've been raised within a moral code that is essentially anthropocentric. I can't justify it as better than other moral codes, but that's the one I've got. Its main points are things like "be nice to others", "share with others", "don't harm or deceive others" etc. There's very little in my moral code that I've inherited about being nice to inanimate things like nature.

While my culture in general does tend to romanticise "nature" as a good thing, it also romanticises things like money, egocentric success and certain forms of death, so I don't really trust its romanticisations.

The subcultures I'm most involved with are not very concerned with nature; much more with being cool and having fun with your friends.

Frankly, nature bores me. It enchants some people, and bores others. I happen to be bored by it. I've seen a lot of nature, I go to national parks (especially in the US and Europe) and hike and so on. Sure, it's pretty but it's not got much else to hold the attention. If it disappeared, I'd be sad but not devastated. I'd be devastated if 100 million people die from climate change.

While looking at nature bores me, scientific investigation of it excites me. I love reading about neuroscience, space exploration and colliding particles. I think the excitement here comes from the fact that people are finally figuring out amazing secrets that seemed so impossible to discover in the past. It's a very anthropocentric kind of excitement. Plus then there's the other kind of more practical science where the excitement comes from its applications to humans - eg internet technology, cures for diseases or new forms of transport.

I'm also anthropocentric for the simple reason that I interact intimately with humans constantly every day. I love thinking about how these interactions work, how different people behave around me and each other, how I can influence these interactions for the better, how I can create a world with high quality interactions. These kinds of thoughts occupy about 90% of what I do and believe. I'm defined by society, a social animal. It would be bizarre for me to be ecocentric when I'm so social.

People live and have real lives and I care deeply about that. While I care about other things too, anything without a conscious mind is simply a much lower priority for me. I can't justify this, and I'm sorry if it offends any ecocentrics reading it, but that's my position. I really care about humans and their happiness and I care much less about non-sentient concepts like nature.

A final caveat, if it wasn't already clear: While I believe humans are the first priority, nature has a big impact on humans - so big that the two categories are not really separable when it comes to things like actual policy.

1 comment:

  1. Well, when it comes to priorities... can humans live without nature? No. Can nature live without humans? Yes.

    Ergo, it behooves humans to make sure that nature continues to thrive. Unless, of course, they are dedicated to cutting the branch they are sitting on.

    As for your interests, without nature, no food, raw or cooked. Some of us have quite a few nan-human friends... sounds like you are improverished in that department. And finally, who the heck told you that nature is inanimate?! They should be strung by their toes.

    Urban beffudleness in its glory.