Monday, August 13, 2012


SecularAnimist @183 said:

The pathologically anthropocentric view that the world consists of (1) human beings and (2) “resources” for human consumption is really the root of all of our “environmental” problems (and indeed the very word “environment” embodies that view). I don’t think that “solutions” based on that view can solve the problems created by that view.

To be accused of anthropocentrism on a science blog is unexpected and almost comical. Nonetheless the charge is a serious one, and demands a response. The implication is that humanity should be less concerned with its own welfare, and should make sacrifices for the long-term health of the biosphere. This position is not without justification, but also faces several criticisms.

1) Any sacrifices we make for the biosphere will ultimately be futile, because it isn't savable in the long term, due to astronomical factors entirely beyond our control. The biosphere is also totally indifferent to our fate, and would recover with astonishing rapidity were we to exit, voluntarily or otherwise. This scenario has been analyzed in detail, for example by Alan Weisman in "The World Without Us."

2) If humanity was primarily devoted to the welfare of non-humans, we would long since have abandoned sedentary agriculture, civilization and industrialization, and returned to our tribal hunter-gatherer roots. Our treatment of non-humans thus far is instructive: the lucky ones have been domesticated, marginalized, genetically modified, imprisoned and enslaved, while less fortunate species have been starved or hunted to extinction, or willfully exterminated, in some cases for no rational reason. Many subgroups of humanity have received similar treatment, and the trend is uncertain at best. Most ethical problems weren't seriously addressed or even identified until very recently, and we're currently struggling to define and consistently implement universal rights and values for humans, never mind for non-humans or the biosphere.

3) Humanity's anthropocentrism can only be meaningfully debated within the context of our civilization, which is unmistakably anthropocentric in origin. Without civilization there would be no science blogs, and no science to discuss. Science coevolved with civil society, through many stages, including antiquity, scholasticism, and the Enlightenment. The humanistic traditions of rational inquiry, reasoned debate, literacy and democracy are often taken for granted, but without them there's little worth saving. Science not only requires explanations to be testable, but also expects them to improve over time. Science is thus fundamentally progressive, and inextricably bound to the progressivism of civil society.

If people can be persuaded to make sacrifices at all, it will be because they correctly perceive that the welfare of their own descendents--not to mention civilization--depends on such sacrifices. Even this is apparently a long shot, particularly in the United States, where the current leadership seems determined to maximize irrationality, and inflict privation and despair on all but the wealthiest. If civilization survives its present challenges, it may in the distant future attempt to extend civil rights to include the entire biosphere, but in the meantime we should concentrate on more urgent problems, of which there's obviously no shortage.

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