What are People For?
I’ve been meaning to write a few (!) words about this article since I came across it in The Globe and Mail several days ago. It’s a review of a book called The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, and while I’ve not read the book yet, I find the premise of the book to be a curious one—one that I’m not sure is best suited for what it is trying to accomplish.
Weisman wants us to imagine a world without human beings—a world where we are no longer around to contaminate, destroy, and deface the world we live in. In this world without humans, nature’s indomitable character, awesome power, and adaptability come to the fore. What is preventing us from realizing this is our persistent anthropocentrism—we simply can’t help but consider ourselves to be the center of it all. Here’s a quote from the review which gives some sense of what the book is on about:
Still, believing we’re at the centre of it all, we find it hard, if not logically impossible, to contemplate a world without us: Some of us deny our special genius for self-destruction, some of us wallow in fear—and some of us persist in thinking that salvation, when and if it comes, will be our achievement as well. Anthropocentric to the last, we can’t conceive of a happy ending that doesn’t include us as both the agent and the beneficiary, the giver and the taker.
Well I’m going to go out on a limb and say something extremely unfashionable, especially given the current cultural anxiety about the state of the world and the apocalyptic warnings about our role in its destruction (and I’m going to resist the temptation to heavily qualify what I say—at least for now): I think that human beings really are at the center of it all. And I really can’t conceive of a happy ending that doesn’t include human beings as beneficiaries and agents of a very limited sort. Speaking as a Christian, I suppose that isn’t too surprising. Human beings are described in the book of Genesis as the pinnacle of God’s creation, the one in whom his image is said to rest. Human beings are described as being a part of creation, but a very unique and special part.
But leaving the Bible out the picture entirely, I wonder about “curing” us of our anthropocentrism as a strategy for encouraging better care for the environment. Is convincing people that they are just an insignificant part of the natural world—a curious “mammal with an oversized brain” that has no special role to play and is in no way set apart from the rest of creation—the best way to promote more responsible behaviour in the world?
From a strictly utilitarian perspective, it seems to me we ought to be arguing that human beings are more, not less significant in the grand scheme of things. The belief that human beings are nothing more than a momentary blip on the cosmic map, ultimately destined for nothing but “uninteresting” extinction and futility, could lead to the view that raping and pillaging the environment to extract whatever pleasures and conveniences can be secured in the present actually makes sense. At the very least, there doesn’t seem to be an obvious straight line between the conviction that human beings are no more or less significant than any other mammal and the firm, almost religious conviction that we ought to be doing more to preserve the environment.
There’s obviously much more that could be said about this issue, but I’ve been getting many “suggestions” to make my posts shorter, so I’m doing my best. I’d be curious to know, however, if others sense any incongruity between this double condemnation of environmentally irresponsible behaviour on the hand, and arrogant anthropocentrism on the other. For my part, I think they make an awkward pair.