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Anthropocentrism , or “hu ma n centeredness,” has been a much-debated concept in environmental ethics and philosophy over the last few decades. It describes the belief that human concerns outweigh the needs of other species or that environmental preservation and conservation possess only instrumental value, meaning that no inherent demand for environmental protection exists beyond its potential to benefit human society. In opposition to such anthropocentric attitudes, early environmentalists such as John Muir and Aldo Leopold believed nature had intrinsic value, and they alternatively envisioned a biocentric ethics that would value the planetary biodiversity of flora and fauna equally with human civilization. Others have described the transition from anthropocentrism to a holistic ecocentrism, in which the totality of the ecosphere would have greater moral status than the part played by human society.
Elements of anthropocentrism can be discovered in many cultures. The philosophic origins of the idea in the West can be traced to Aristotle, who wrote in Politics, “Nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man.” However, many place the origins of anthropocentric thinking in Judaeo-Christian biblical scripture that emphasizes the divine role given to human existence, as well as the importance of human dominion and stewardship over all other life on earth.
In a modern scientific context, the proto-ecologist Ernst Haeckel was one of the first to inveigh against theological anthropocentrism during the 19th century, critiquing it along with anthropomorphism and anthropolatrism, as an antiscientific form of anthropism that fallaciously opposes humanity to the natural order. In his view, which accords with scientific beliefs today, humanity should not be understood as either divinely created or the end product of a directed evolutionary lineage, but rather as a contingent member of ongoing biological and ecological processes that share similar evolutionary promises and risks with many other species.
Yet, it has been claimed that modern science itself is anthropocentric. Environmentalists such as those involved in the Deep Ecology and Ecofeminist movements have argued that the scientific revolution developed out of the anthropocentric ideas of Early Modern figures such as Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes and Enlightenment thinkers, who were concerned with the mastery and instrumentality of nature as well as with the perfectibility of nature by human intervention, respectively.
The historian Lynn White made a more radical critique that linked the environmental destructiveness of modern science and technology to a Western ideology rooted in Judaeo-Christian anthropocentrism in his highly influential 1960s essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” White felt that Christianity should be described as the most anthropocentric of any religion, and that it negatively affected Westerner’s views of nature by ideologically legitimating exploitation of the environment and nonhuman animals. This provided the necessary conditions for the emergence of rapacious forms of science and technology that has resulted in the domination of the natural world.
White engendered a firestorm of criticism, however, and many have since argued that the Judeo-Christian tradition, when properly interpreted, offers a sound environmental ethic of stewardship. Ideas outlining human stewardship, it is claimed, are undeniably anthropocentric but do not result in granting moral license to be irresponsible with the environment. Rather, when humans act as stewards over divine creation, they are charged with its proper care and protection.
Types of anthropocentrism, then, may be outlined as “strong” and “weak.” Strong anthropocentrism believes that humanity can rightfully do with nature as it wishes, while weak anthropocentrism believes that human control of nature comes with additional responsibilities to ensure that environmental uses are sustainable over the long term. In this respect, some environmental ethicists now point out that, whether based in religious or scientific views, anthropocentrism is not a major cause of environmental destruction per se, but rather its sweepingly strong and absolute forms are the most problematic.
As ecological crises continue to mount in the present day, however, the biocentric and ecocentric challenges to anthropomorphic attitudes and values have been widely adopted by a variety of environmental groups and Green political organizations. Those supporting biocentrism and ecocentrism argue that weak anthropocentrism amounts to a reformist position that is incapable of mounting a significant critique of mainstream practices, and that new ethics are required to defend nonhuman species, the environment, and society from the catastrophic overuse of nature as a resource. Anthropocentric philosophies are therefore controversial; while they have defenders within the environmental community, those who seek to radically transform Western tradition toward environmental sustainability often target them for blame.
- James Connelly and Graham Smith, Politics and the Environment (Routledge, 2002);
- Bill Devall and George Sessions, Deep Ecology (Peregrine Smith, 1985);
- Tim Hayward, Political Theory and Ecological Values (Palgrave, 1999);
- Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (Routledge, 2002);
- Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science (v.155, 1967).