Humanism and Environmentalism

By Passmore, John Arthur | Free Inquiry, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Humanism and Environmentalism


Passmore, John Arthur, Free Inquiry


Humanism and environmentalism both come in a variety of shapes and sizes. There is an extreme form of humanism that is incompatible with even the mildest form of environmentalism; there is an extreme form of environmentalism that is incompatible with even the mildest form of humanism. The interesting question is whether there is a modest form of environmentalism that is completely compatible with a modest form of humanism, and is, indeed, demanded by it.

What do I understand by an extreme form of humanism? One that thinks of human beings as confronting what it calls "the natural world" in the spirit of an antagonist, as something to be domesticated, exploited, reshaped so that in the end wherever human beings look they will see their own faces reflected, whether in manufactured goods, in farms, in parks, or gardens. Only then, it is argued, will human beings be totally free--when nothing else is free, when nature is wholly subdued, totally at the service of humankind. Such humanism is wholly inconsistent with even the minimum of environmentalism or, to use the now preferred word, ecologism. For that insists that human beings live, move, and have their being as members of complex, interacting, ecosystems; that since human beings are neither omnipotent nor omniscient any attempt at total control over such systems could only lead to total disaster and any major irreversible intervention should be undertaken only with caution.

What about extreme environmentalism? That is misanthropic. It sees human beings simply as destructive forces. Particularly now that human beings have discovered science and technology, they threaten, on this view, the continued existence of every form of life. At the very least, they should revert to the hunter-gatherer stage of human development, living as other animals do, but their total disappearance from the Earth's surface would be the ideal solution, provided that it could be accomplished without the loss of other species. Moderate humanism, responding to this, is not obliged to deny that many human beings have been, are, and will always be greedy, power-ridden, and destructive. But at the same time it points to the creativeness of human beings, to what they have added to the world by their presence, not as hunter-gatherers but in virtue of their development of civilization. Freud was a humanist even though he recognized the discontents of civilization; Gibbon even although he saw in history a record of the vices and follies of mankind. …

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