Magazine article Free Inquiry

Environmentalism as a Humanism

Magazine article Free Inquiry

Environmentalism as a Humanism

Article excerpt

Like all noble causes, environmentalism invites--no, seems to require--self-righteousness. There is the predictable insistence on self-sacrifice. There is the familiar attitude problem: Greener if not more Tao than thou. But where aspiring religious saints and pundits compete to see who can be higher, the appropriate metaphor for the Green Competition is rather "depth" and "deep." And so we have "deep ecology," and the seemingly interminable question, "How deep is deep?" How far down can environmentalists go, in order to escape humanism and speciesism? Perhaps the ultimate depth, proclaimed by at least a few Earth Firsters and some of their counterparts (in Europe and Australia, for instance) is the extreme anti-humanist stance that fully embraces the view that humanity is the problem. Accordingly, humanity would best be eliminated. And so we hear praise for the AIDS virus and hosannas for the reappearance of smallpox or anything else that threatens the survival of the most ecologically troublesome species in the history of the planet.

Against such virulent anti-humanism, there are the predictable reactionary responses from those who would defend less than global thinking: the right to own an RV, the supposedly traditional family, the consumer society in general, perhaps (in the abstract) the human species (which usually means, on even the most superficial analysis, "folks like us"). Speciesism emerges in such confrontations not as a species of humanism, but as an a priori dismissal of the rights and interests of the nonhuman in favor of often vulgar conveniences and self-interest. But against virulent anti-humanism, there is no easy, rational reply. The common ground of most ethical arguments--compassion and concern for other human beings, some sense of justice and mutual well-being--is undermined, "dug under" by the anti-humanists. The premises have disappeared, and ordinary humanists and utilitarians find themselves in the same impossible position in which they once found themselves when arguing with the apocalypse-minded prophets of imminent doom and selective salvation. What can you say to someone for whom the death of billions of people is a fair trade, whether for Heaven or for the integrity of the Planet?

Such virulent anti-humanism is extreme, of course, but it builds on ways of thinking that are all too common in the environmental debate. The charge of speciesism is, I think, a specious one. As I suggested above, it is rarely a humanism--an enthusiastic defense of humanity and human values as such--but a belligerent dismissal of the rights and interests of "useful" animals and the nonhuman world in general in the name of convenience and "utility." In the Scriptures, our ancestral humans are famously promised "dominion" over the Earth, and in a vulgar version of evolutionary biology, it is pointed out that, naturally, "each looks after its own." "The Peaceable Kingdom"--where the lion lies down with the lamb--only succeeds until dinner time. Nature is "red in tooth and claw," and why, the skeptics and cynics ask, should we pretend otherwise? The rational response, "because we are rational," just doesn't seem to be persuasive enough. What, the skeptics and cynics ask, is the motive? Apart from questions of utility, long-term self-interest, and some sense of aesthetics or sentimentality, why should we do anything else than look after "our own?"

The problem in environmental debates, as in so many real-life practical philosophical disputes, is an excess of polarization of the key ethical terms. There is the harsh distinction between altruism and self-interest--yielding some fascinating sociobiological arguments but clouding the issue. There is the self-righteous rejection of all "utilitarian" arguments for the environment in favor of what one might call "reverence" arguments. And there are two competing conceptions of nature, as a mere resource "out there" for the taking, albeit to be conserved as any finite necessity, and as precious in-itself, filled with the wisdom of homeostasis and a "balance" of nature that is invisible only to the short-sighted and the aesthetically deprived. …

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