This is the third of a 6-part series. You can find Michael Dowd’s audio recording of his reading of the entire series here.
WHEN YOU TALK ABOUT ‘NATURE’, strange things happen in this culture. And by ‘this culture’, I mean the Westernised, post-Enlightenment world in which most reading this probably live. One of these strange things can be illustrated by quoting from a comment by “genfie” which appeared under the first article in this series, and which its writer liked so much that he or she repeated it almost verbatim under the second:
The notion of ‘wilderness’ is a human construct … There is no such thing as ‘wilderness’ and most areas we see as ‘wild’ have actually been managed actively by human populations for thousands of years … It’s nice that you get a great feeling by being in the ‘wild’. Somehow I don’t think that should dictate anyone’s policy on… anything. Particularly since whole Indigenous peoples were slaughtered for you to get it.
This is an increasingly fashionable view, and it’s one which fuels an offshoot of the green movement which I’ve elsewhere called neo-environmentalism. It combines a post-modern take on the non-human world with a dose of liberal guilt about the oppression of indigenous peoples (not much of which has happened in the English Lake District where I live, but never mind). While not entirely erroneous, it has the effect of providing a kind of intellectual carte blanche for developers. After all, if there’s no such thing as ‘wilderness’ – or even ‘nature’ – why should anything be off-limits to development?
Personally, I’ve found that an attitude which appreciates, or even venerates, wild, untamed places accords strongly with the worldview of every indigenous community I’ve ever spent time with; and offends most strongly those who confuse the progress of humanity with the progress of industrial society.
I mention this because what is going on here is a battle between stories. All cultures are based on stories. We like to believe that we are primarily thinking beings, using our rational minds to take an ‘objective’ look at the world around us. In reality, the way we see everything is emotionally loaded and culturally constructed.
Our belief in the inevitability of ‘progress’; our definitions of ‘development’ and ‘justice’; our understanding of what science reveals or seems to reveal; our ethics and our moralities – all of these are stories which we have come to believe are facts.
Towering over all of these is a single, overarching story which dominates our way of seeing the world: the story of human centrality.
Originally, it was a religious story: in the West it stems from the Christian notion that God created the world for humans, who in turn were created in His image. In Genesis, God specifically instructs Man to dominate, manage and act as stewards to the rest of nature. On our journey through the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, we have mostly dropped the belief in God, but we haven’t dropped the belief that Homo sapiens (our name for our own species tells us something about our stories) is the hub around which the world’s wheel revolves.
This worldview is often called ‘anthropocentric’: human-centred. It puts our own species at the pinnacle of the nature’s tree, and it sees the rest of the world through the lens of its needs or desires. Its most common political manifestation today is the often unquestioned assumption that humans have a right, a duty or simply a need to quell, tame and manage the rest of life on Earth; to behave, in the words of the American thinker Stewart Brand, “as gods”.
It seems to me that this way of seeing is at the root of our environmental crisis. It also seems to me that it is a way of seeing that is not challenged often enough – if at all – in the world of mainstream environmentalism. The reason for this is understandable – if you’re working to change policies or get corporations to behave themselves, you’re unlikely to impress them with this sort of talk.
Yet this surely has to change; this way of seeing is at the root of our belief that the rest of nature is a ‘resource’ for our use. If we can’t start to see the non-human world as intrinsically valuable – if we can’t start to see the Earth itself as a living community of which we are only one part – we will continue to treat it simply as a factory floor. We may aim to manage that factory ‘sustainably’, but it will be a poor and depressing world we are building.
What’s the alternative? It’s a worldview that many other human cultures, particularly, though not exclusively, tribal cultures, have held in the past and in some cases still do. It has been called ‘ecocentrism’. It sees humanity as part of a web rather than as the leader of a pack. The late environmental academic Stan Rowe explained it like this:
To switch Western culture from its present track … means finding a new and compelling belief-system to redirect our way of living. It must be a vital outgrowth from our science-based culture. It seems to me that the only promising universal belief-system is ecocentrism, defined as a value-shift from Homo sapiens to planet Earth.
A value shift: precisely. A shift to a different way of seeing which is not, as it is sometimes misrepresented, ‘anti-human’, but rather sees humans in perspective and denies us our egotistical need to claim the high ground. In other words, a new story – or perhaps simply the return of a very old one.