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Dilemmas - exploring some thorny areas for processing or action

Musings on my difficulty of having to choose - are you pro nature or pro human?

deerI want to be both in favour of nature and humanity and I am someone who does feel that human beings are unique and special in some kind of way. Here are my thoughts.

Looming behind my discomforting ‘choice’ lurk two abstract concepts, eco-centrism and anthropocentrism. There are many ways of distinguishing between the two. One distinction that I have no problem with refers to whether we see nature as having an intrinsic value (eco-centrism) or whether we see it essentially as something put here for human purposes (anthropocentrism). So one could be ‘green’ and yet still anthropocentric – the religious notion of ‘stewardship’ is a good example. If this was the only difference between the two orientations then I would put myself firmly in the ecocentric camp.

Nor do I have a problem with a notion of subjectivity that includes both the human and non-human. Stephen Duguid illustrates this perspective with a beautiful extract from Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac:

It is in midwinter that I sometimes glean from my pines something more important than woodlot politics, and the news of the wind and the weather. This is especially likely to happen on some gloomy evening when the snow has buried all irrelevant detail, and the hush of elemental sadness lies heavy upon every living thing. Nevertheless, my pines, each with his burden of snow, are standing ramrod straight, rank upon rank, and in the dusk beyond I sense the presence of hundreds more. At such times I feel a curious transfusion of courage.

Here then is nature as subject, speaking to us if only we have the ears to listen. And with this status of subject surely the other-than-human must also be a rights bearing subject with all the implications this entails for the rights of domesticated and wild animals, indeed for whole ecosystems such as coral reefs, the Arctic ocean, etc.

But on the side of anthropocentrism I do believe that there is something about ‘being human’ which sets us apart from the non-human. In philosophy this kind of difference in ‘being’ is called an ontological difference. I believe there is an ontological difference (but not divide) between the human and the non-human. Whilst we are all subjects the human is a particular kind of subject.

I am convinced by the evidence that higher animals including apes, whales and dolphins have language and culture, have the capacity to identify with others and have feelings such as sorrow and compassion. But it would be a giant leap from here to say that they also are aware of their own mortality, or have symbolic universes (their own equivalent of science, religion and the arts) through which they can develop understanding of the nature of their own existence (self understanding) and of the world in which they live. I am aware that to a lesser extent these limitations also apply to many ancient human cultures, including the few that still exist today. So the difference is not all or nothing, the particular form of subjectivity in question here, that is human subjectivity, is something that has emerged through millions of years of evolution.

Quite rightly the anthropocentric worldview has been blamed for many things. It supports the view that we are somehow or another a ‘chosen’ and special species, superior to all others, entitled through our wisdom to harness the earth (and increasingly what lies beyond this earth) in our pursuit of progress, perhaps even the only ‘intelligent’ species in the universe.

But perhaps, far from being necessarily hubristic and triumphalist, an anthropocentric perspective can also be deeply tragic. What if subjectivity, manifest in its human form, is a strange outgrowth of nature through which one part of nature has developed the capacity to become self aware, take itself as an object of contemplation and shape itself in a conscious way? And yet it is still of nature - human subjectivity remains trapped within the confines of the body, a body which dies. Perhaps one day will come when it will finally break free, when the replicants will take our place. But until that day we have to live this contradiction.

This means that our subjectivity is both the source of our liberation and a curse. Our curse, because to be human means to have to bear loss. Every second passing, every sound fading, every smile received and embrace offered, every plan put into action, every sight and sound and smell and touch of our lives is transient. And we know it. And the very beauty of life lies in its transience, and we know this too and so we also know of our own passing and the passing of those that we love. We bear these losses every day and on good days because of this we are uplifted by a love of life and its beauty whilst on bad days we feel despair and terror, as if there is no meaning to anything and the search for meaning is pointless and absurd.

We are fallen beings in denial of our fallen-ness. As Christopher Lasch said in his book The Minimal Self, “self-consciousness – the capacity to see the self from a point of view outside the self – distinguishes humanity from other forms of life and leads both to a sense of power over nature and to a sense of alienation from nature” (256). Our drive to master the universe is simply flight, flight from loss and lack. We will become Gods.

We know that if this carries on in the same way it will end in tears. The crying has already begun. Today we seem to be sitting on the knife edge of this contradiction. By chance I reread Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents yesterday. Reflecting on humankind’s drive towards self-destruction this is how the book ends:

Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man. They know this, and hence comes a large part of their current unrest, their unhappiness and their mood of anxiety. And now it is to be expected that the other of the two ‘Heavenly Powers’. eternal Eros, will make an effort to assert himself in the struggle with his equally immortal adversary. But who can foresee with what success and what result?