For my own clarity of thought, I like to find ideas which are both simple and have lot of explanatory power. The notion of the trio of interacting problems, population growth, per capita consumption growth, and economic growth, is an example. It’s a relatively concise construct which helps us understand the causes of the ecological crisis we face. (Perhaps that is to galmorize what is merely a list of three exceptionally important, related phenomena. Still, it’s an important list.)
An idea to guide our actions?
Are there any similarly simple yet powerful ideas which can help us find ways to overcome the ecological mess we’re in? I believe one might be the concept of biocentrism. Tonight I attended a talk given by ethologist Marc Bekoff. He’s done a great deal of important work on animal cognition and emotion, and spoke engagingly about the mounting evidence that animals feel a range of emotions little different from our own. This is of course part of the larger body of evidence which is fast erasing whatever qualitative differences we thought existed to separate humans from other species.
Though he did not use the term, Dr. Bekoff made a good case, I thought, for the biocentric view. It holds that humans do not have a special place in the animal kingdom, that we’re just one more species, all of which have value. The implication is that we humans have no special privileges. As the late environmental activist Judi Bari put it, “Biocentrism, is the belief that nature does not exist to serve humans. Rather, humans are part of nature, one species among many. All species have a right to exist for their own sake, regardless of their usefulness to humans. And biodiversity is a value in itself, essential for the flourishing of both human and nonhuman life.”
This view makes sense both scientifically and in logical, common sense terms. Science is indeed telling us that our long held vision that we are “special” or “different” among living creatures is false. We are one of the great apes, not some unique, qualitatively different creature. (I might add, however, that our activities have driven every one of the other great apes to the brink of extinction. How will we humans feel if our actions cause any of them actually to cease to exist?) Using simple logic we can ask as well, how, even if we were qualitatively different, that would give us some special privilege among species. It wouldn’t, of course.
No special privileges
It follows that we have no special right to plunder and degrade the environment. Simply put, it is not ours to destroy! What would be the expected human response if, somehow, some other species began seriously damaging the ecosystem, killing us, and eliminating our towns and cities to populate the same spaces? I suspect humans would destroy that species in short order. Yet we feel we have a right to disregard and even eliminate other species in that very way. Why?
I hope that in just these few paragraphs I’ve begun to make a case that the biocentric view is both more sensible and more ethical than an anthropocentric (human-centered) view. Given the reasoning I’ve presented, it is surprising the biocentric view is not more widely held. For some, no doubt, religion stands in the way. That’s too big a topic for this post, though it’s worth a mention that some people of devout religious belief are able successfully to reconcile such a view with their religious practice. But it may also be that some people shy away from biocentrism because of its association with groups such as Earth First!, activists whose tactics they view as extreme or destructive and unwarranted, and who are known for their biocentirc philosophy. If so, that’s a shame. For regardless of one’s opinion of Earth First! or similar groups, I do not believe the biocentric view dictates any particular course of action. It does not specifically dictate Earth First!’s tactics. Though they obviously see their actions as consistent with biocentrism, different actions could be consistent with it as well. A far less confrontational group could as easily hold a biocentric view.
Biocentrism does dictate many things we shouldn’t do — such as kill other species, destroy their habitat, or destroy the ecosystem on which they (and we) depend for life. If policy decisions were made with such a view in mind, it would go a long way toward ensuring decisions which better preserve our ecosystem, thus benefiting ourselves and other species.
So I’d like to suggest the reader consider that we humans are one of the great apes, with no special privileges on this planet. In that spirit, I present the following video from Ernie Cline. I first bumped into it on The Solemn Monkey, and couldn’t resist: