In recent years an important debate has emerged over the meaning of humanism in relation to ecological politics. Does stressing the specific qualities and needs of humans necessarily entail speciesism and the degradation of the environment? Or are the needs of humans compatible with a sustainable environment and the needs of other species? (Benton 1993, Soper 1995, Hayward 1995). The debate is important in a number of ways, not least that of whether, and if so precisely how, we can consider human beings to be a natural sort, one with continuities with other species. Humans, like all animals, eat, sexually reproduce and seek shelter and security. But what does that mean in terms of human practices and their demands on the environment?
Let us first briefly consider the question of human practices. Humans certainly engage in the same reproductive and life-giving activities as all other animals. But of course they engage in these activities in very specific ways, using all kinds of rituals and practices which are unique to human beings. In a very loose sense their specifically human qualities are founded on the biological needs which they share with other species. But perhaps the chief characteristic of human beings is that their behaviour is not determined by their biological needs. In this respect their powers of reflexivity, of conceptualising and constantly monitoring what they are doing, are especially important. The result is that there is a vast range of ways in which they fulfil these needs, what Marx called their ‘natural being’. Or, to put it another way, the same practice can be based on very different understandings as regards serving human needs. As regards security, for example, some humans believe that the manufacture of atomic weapons is the best way of ensuring that they remain safe. Others, of course, believe just the opposite.
This brings us to the question of the relation between these needs and the environment. There are again many possible relations here. The human species’ needs to survive and reproduce can take a number of forms. So far, the pursuit of human needs has indeed entailed widespread environmental degradation and the misuse of other species. These are the ways in which humans, by converting the powers of nature into the things they want, have attempted to achieve their