In politics we often see the terms “environment” and “ecosystem” used interchangeably. Same with “environmentalism” and “ecology”, and their derivatives. While the political process does not always require precision of statement, it must be noted that the underlying values of these terms differ profoundly.
Environmentalism is, in essence, a variant of anthropocentrism (human-centrism). Everything environs us. Human is at the epicentre, conceived as something different or somehow special compared to the rest of nature. This is an age-old tradition that has been reformulated and embellished with new ideas throughout history from ancient mythology to Humanism.
Even if only indirectly and despite whatever positives, anthropocentrism has driven humanity’s incessant drive to exploit nature without restraint. Animals are raised in the equivalent of death camps, to be slaughtered en masse, because they are “just animals”. Plants are being over-engineered to yield ever greater quantities of crops, with numerous downsides to their own well-being and the sustainability of the other species (economic oligopolies and the feudalism of the patent holders notwithstanding), the health of the soil, as well as that of consumers.
In terms of first principles, the environmentalist does not want to change the dynamic between humanity and the rest of nature. Rather, the focus is on some narrowly defined targets, secondary issues, such as carbon emissions and the accompanying financial markets (carbon emission trading). In the same spirit, there is growing emphasis on economic incentives to adapt to new methods of doing business, such as relying on renewable energy, without changing the underlying assumptions and aspirations of industrial production at large. The entire system covering everything from production-consumption-ownership is not considered at fault, nor is it seen with suspicion. Just keep track of the carbon dioxide and similarly marketable snippets of ‘green thinking’.
In contradistinction, the ecosystem includes humanity as yet another factor of a broader whole. Humans are no more special than grass, rats, bees… The uniqueness we want to attach to ourselves, such as our relative intellectual superiority is, in truth, a difference of degree, not category.
I guess a good analogy for understanding variations of this sort is to think of life as akin to the output of the sound mixing console. All those sliders and rotary controls have to be fine tuned to produce a specific sound. A minor change modifies the output. The more one tinkers with the controls, the greater the degree of the change. In the same spirit, every instance of life can be conceived as the end product of a specific set of combinations between an array of interrelated factors. Hence the differences in degree.
In the ecosystem everything is connected, for that is what “system” means: a set of interlinked variables whose joint operation produces local as well as emergent phenomena, which is governed by system-wide and topical rules, and which sustains its operations endogenously. Humanity cannot be without plants or other animals, or the kind of weather equilibrium it has survived in, the specific arrangements of the Earth’s and Moon’s orbits in relation to themselves and towards the Sun, and so on.
Note here that “ecosystem” should be qualified as a set of subsystems, each of which can be discernible in its own right. So that we can speak of the Earth’s ecosystem, or the ecosystem of a swamp, without having to talk about the universe. In the same way we can think of the human organism—a human being—as such, without having to explain each time that we are, in fact, referring to a set of subsystems all the way from the atomic and molecular levels to the organs and to their interlinked presence thereof. Perhaps then, it is appropriate we find the correct terms for each order of abstraction, though that might mean that we run out of words depending on the degree of precision. Or maybe we just use qualifiers, such as the “Earth’s ecosystem”, “Europe’s ecosystem”, etc. But I digress.
Humanity is nothing without the rest of the ecosystem. The dichotomy posited by environmentalists can only be entertained as one of perspective, not ontology. Which would, however, imply that the meta-narratives of anthropocentrism are altogether dismissed, or at least thoroughly reconsidered.
Let us entertain the latter possibility. What would a revised self image of humanity look like? I think it should start by explicitly making the environmentalist binary an arbitrary subject/object divide based on our vantage point. The ecosystem environs us in a literal sense, without implications of any [mystical] difference of category. Then, and even if we only care about ourselves, we must acknowledge the fact that our very existence is contingent on there being a robust ecosystem suitable to our presence and that of every life form that flourishes together with, or alongside, us. Which entails a whole host of action programmes and necessary adaptations.
This, by the by, is not the same as deifying “mother nature”, prohibiting any kind of interference out of some prejudice that me might be disturbing the balance, or even expecting the rest of the species to conform to human conventions (such as animal “rights”, which in truth are human “obligations”).
While seemingly secular, the vision of the ecosystem as a superior being, as the mother of all existence, rests on all sorts of baseless assumptions. As concerns the evident personification, we have no means of knowing whether the ecosystem is just an aggregation of sub-systems with emergent phenomena resulting from their interplay, or if it also is a greater conscience or being whose inner mechanics we only experience on the micro scale as seemingly inanimate systems (same with how atoms do not exhibit consciousness—as far as we know—but humans, who are made of atoms, do).
Such speculation does not really change the parameters of the debate on which anthropocentrism rests. It just shifts the focus, or reformulates the narrative. Instead of an extra-cosmic god qua grand architect, as in biblical tradition, we have an ever-present, yet still anthropomorphic or animal-like, ubiquitous source of life.
These theories are not mutually exclusive and do not prejudice the possibility that we develop an anthropocentric worldview that is consistent with them, such as humanity being the chosen child of mother nature, whereby the human soul has a transcendent presence that is not found in the rest of the species in order to fulfil some higher objective, etc.
The specifics will take us on a tangent. Our imagination is the only limit here and it can keep us writing for the rest of our life. The point is that anthropocentrism is, at its root, a theological account. Whether the theology is of one kind or another does not change this basic fact.
The problem with all theology is what I alluded to in the chapter about Godlessness, namely that its claims cannot be verified in an objective manner. Theology is like a game of luck where all numbers win. Everyone can have their own theory and they may all claim to be correct, as none can ever be proven right or wrong.
Overcoming anthropocentrism is about grounding human’s sense of self in a narrower set of principles. While the task may seem daunting, it is surprisingly simple and boils down to this: stick to the facts. The humanity/environment distinction is one of perspective. Human presence is contingent on there being an ecosystem. Beyond those, the problem with anthropocentrism is not about the way it is framed, but its political implications.
The human world is inherently complex. International economics, finance, and monetary affairs are too much for one person to grasp in the fullness of their scale. Let alone the interplay between the multitude of decentralised actors, the implications of diverging cultural-historical path dependencies of the various peoples, the unique features of each society, both in terms of social structures and political institutions, and so on.
Amid this bewildering complexity, one can be excused of forgetting that principles are always simple. It is their implementation or particularisation that introduces complexity.
For instance, the entire world could function within a single, overarching constraint, which we may call the principle of sustainability. Whether it is finance, or fiscal policy, or the conduct of war, everything has to be gauged in terms of its capacity to remain contained to its subject matter before it creates deleterious, spill-over effects that would prevent a return to the previous state of affairs. If any one of human’s fields of endeavour becomes unsustainable, it produces a cascade of catastrophic consequences which can, at the extreme, lead to our annihilation or, at the very least, to its discontinuation.
Think of sustainable warfare, as tasteless as that term may be. We cannot nuke each other into oblivion. That guarantees the destruction of the planet and our annihilation. In this sense, the end of war is only brought about by absolutely total war.
What about sustainable finance? The only reason the global economic system remains in place is because it has yet to reach peak saturation. It still finds outlets to release the pressure, as it were, and thus survives its cyclical shocks/crises. It survives by identifying new areas to exploit and to rollover the problem; a problem that is incrementally aggrandised, yet whose burden continues to be shifted around so that it remains less obvious. Whatever calamities, poverty, austerity, precarity, mass economic migration, are contained to various segments of human society or geographic locales that seem to change periodically. The system as such is yet to reach a terminus, at which point it will no longer be sustainable in the sense of merely being capable of continuing (so not “sustainable” in the normative sense of desirability for society—it is well beyond that, though that is an issue of extractive classes exploiting the masses of people the world over, which is a major political challenge, though not necessarily one that concerns ecology as such).
And so on for every other human activity.
To this end, the ‘green’ themes are in need of a rethink. For it is not the underlying theology that is at stake here. Nor is the problem about turning “black industry” (production powered by fossil fuel) into “green industry” (production powered by renewable energy), or conforming to a target for carbon emissions. While important in their own right, these are secondary issues in the grand scheme of things. This is about refactoring the entire framework of values pertaining to production-consumption-ownership. And that involves everything from the distribution of resources, the way costs and the externalities of waste are handled, the degree to which private property is considered untouchable, the narrowing of the scope of intellectual property and patents, the decentralisation of economic activity and the concomitant devolution of political authority to the local level.
As such, ecology is only tangentially about reformulating the narrative about human’s self worth. This is a matter of deciding between a political order that, by and large, satisfies the interests of the few more than those of the many, or a new order that does not produce winners and losers in accordance with the self perpetuating “winner takes it all” mentality.
What ‘green’ themes introduce is another aspect to this ever pertinent debate. That the power balance within human society also depends on actions or phenomena that seem to have no direct effect on humanity.
Couched in those terms, revaluing our self image, so that we are no longer some unique ‘essence’ that is distinct from the rest of the ecosystem, may just be the first step in the long road of reviewing our politics and the deep seated assumptions that fuel them.