I think it is worth reflecting on some of the terminology which surrounds both the global warming debate and environmental issues more generally. When I became aware that the human species needs to actively regulate the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere, and that this is a good thing for life on Earth, I wasn’t aware of much of the terminology that people have created when they debate such issues. For example, I hadn’t heard of the terms ‘geoengineering’, ‘anthropocentric’, ‘ecocentric’ and ‘the Anthropocene’. When I wrote my first book in 2010 – Is the Human Species Special?: Why human-induced global warming could be in the interests of life – I simply referred to ‘the need to technologically regulate the Earth’s atmospheric temperature’. I find most of the terms that have been created to be unhelpful. If the objective is to achieve a clear understanding of the situation we are in and how we need to respond to it through selecting appropriate environmental policy responses, then it might be best to use as little terminology as possible. Rather than talk of ‘the Anthropocene’, ‘geoengineering’, ‘anthropocentricism’ and ‘ecocentricism’, we could use simple language. If we are to use such terms, we need to be very clear about exactly what they mean, leaving little room for misinterpretation.
An unfortunate effect of the creation of such terms is that they provide a mechanism for causing division; once people associate themselves with a particular term, they typically become closed-minded to the realities inherent in alternative positions. For example, when one concludes that one must be ‘ecocentric’, then one will be naturally hostile to anyone who they believe to be ‘anthropocentric’; for, as these terms have come to be typically used they are thought of as opposites; you are one or the other. So, the task of the ‘ecocentric’ (as they see it) is to persuade the enemy – the ‘anthropocentric’ – that they should desert their associates and switch their allegiance to a more enlightened camp. But the terms, as standardly defined, aren’t actually even opposites! We would surely be a lot better off without all of this jargon. Here are standard definitions of ecocentricism and anthropocentricism:
Ecocentricism: A philosophy or perspective that places intrinsic value on all living organisms and their natural environment, regardless of their perceived usefulness or importance to human beings.
Anthropocentricism: A philosophy or perspective that sees human beings as the most important feature of the universe.
As I have already noted, these terms are typically used as opposites. I have been in debates with academic environmental philosophers who identify themselves as ‘ecocentric’. On the basis of some of the things that I say they quickly conclude that I am ‘enemy’, an ‘anthropocentric’, and that I therefore cannot be a fellow ‘ecocentric’. This causes them to say things such as “You anthropocentric, you don’t even care about any of the non-human life-forms on the Earth!” This really is quite ridiculous, but you can see that the term ‘anthropocentric’ is hurled around by some people as a term of abuse.
This is ridiculous because anyone can see that the terms, as standardly defined above, are not actually opposites. One can believe that the human species is the most important feature of the universe, whilst also believing that all living organisms and their natural environment have intrinsic value, regardless of their perceived usefulness or importance to human beings. This is my belief. I am an anthropocentric and an ecocentric. Those who see an inevitable duality have deluded themselves. The terms are only opposites if one believes that humans have intrinsic value and non-human life-forms are devoid of intrinsic value. In reality, all life-forms have intrinsic value, but the human species is the most valuable, most important, life-form on the Earth.
It is one thing having philosophies and perspectives (ecocentricism and anthropocentricism), but when it comes to global warming and the environmental crisis, what is important are actions. When we look at collective human actions (at the global scale) are these actions in the interests of humans? Are these actions in the interests of non-human life on Earth? These are the important questions.
Most people seem to assume that humans are opposed to non-human life on Earth in such a way that the vast majority of actions which are in the interests of humans are not in the interests of non-human life. For example, if humans chop down part of the Amazon rainforest for agriculture, this is in the interests of humans, but it is not in the interests of non-human life. Such a view is narrow and simplistic. This is because it focuses on one particular event at one particular time, whilst the human relation to the non-human life-forms of the Earth needs to be seen in a collective global way which spans large swathes of time. If one focuses solely on a single leaf, one will be blind to the larger reality of the tree, and one will be utterly ignorant of the wonderful forest. Let us give up the leaves and gaze upon the forest.
Anthropocentric actions = Collective humans actions (at the planetary level, over time) which are in the interests of the human species.
Ecocentric actions = Collective human actions (at the planetary level, over time) which are in the interests of the totality that is life on Earth.
Anthropocentric actions = Ecocentric actions.
This is the simple truth of the forest. In other words, the way that the human species has interacted with the planet is simultaneously in its own best interests and in the best interests of life on Earth.