Attitudes to Nature are, shall we say, complicated. Many people seem to believe several contradictory things at once, or at least behave as if they do.
Some people including many in high places wholeheartedly embrace the hard-nosed notion that the natural world – the biosphere – is just a “resource”, an in situ cornucopia, which we (humanity) have a perfect right (and indeed a duty!) to exploit for our own purposes with all possible haste, and/or should turn all we can get our hands on into commodities for sale to the highest bidder on the global market. This, they call “progress”. At the other end of the scale a great many people from all cultures, including many from Eastern religions, believe that all nature is sacred and that our own interventions should and must be minimalist – no more than is needed to stay alive, at a very modest level.
In all public debates about the biosphere – the care or it, the exploitation of it – as in most public debates about everything, different kinds of argument are bundled together: political, economic, scientific, social, moral, religious/metaphysical, aesthetic; and the result is usually cacophonous, with most people convinced at the end that they were right all along.
This essay is an attempt to bring a little order to the discussions – to define attitudes to the biosphere that on the one hand would enable it to flourish; and on the other will enable us, human beings, to live harmoniously within it. That is what “progress” ought to mean. Always we come back to the grand goal: “To create convivial societies within a flourishing biosphere.”
Complications arise, I suggest, because attitudes to nature in practice divide along three axes – each one a spectrum of opinion. They are:
- Anthropocentric vs bio/eco/gaiacentric
- Material values vs non-material
- Transcendent vs positivist.
In more detail:
Anthropocentric vs bio/eco/gaiacentric
Anthropocentric means that we take human beings as the centre of all things, and as the measure of all things. Anthropocentrics take it for granted that of course we should look on all nature as a resource, and make use of it as we will. What else matters? Who is there, apart from us, to give a damn? Lions, for example, are all very nice to look at and perhaps to shoot, but what other purpose do they serve – and if creatures of any kind serve no purpose, meaning that they are of no obvious use to us – why should we spare them a second thought?
Bio-, eco-, or gaiacentric means that we care above all for life as a whole. We see ourselves as a part of the biosphere – and see our participation in it as a privilege. The attitude I like is that of the Tao: that nature, or the universe as a whole, has its own harmony, and that it is good to contribute to that harmony, and bad to detract from it. Gaiacentrics feel that nature must be valued and indeed treasured for its own sake; and although the concept of “rights” is very tricky and much abused (to be discussed elsewhere), they feel that we should certainly treat other creatures as if they have rights, and that rights, whether human or otherwise, must be respected.
Material values vs non-material
Some feel that nature should be valued insofar as it brings tangible benefits. Thus it is fashionable to speak of “natural capital”, including, say, wild-grown timber; and “ecosystem services”, including forests as a means to control drought, and pleasing landscapes and wildlife reserves for ecotourism. This is a form of materialism (though this alas is a word with many meanings). In truth, the material contributions that nature can make to human wellbeing should be spelled out – but by themselves they do not afford sufficient protection. Thus, if we conserve a mangrove purely because it is profitable – harbouring birds that attract tourists – then, logically, we should sweep it aside if it becomes more profitable to do something else, like building a casino. (For such reasons most of the world’s mangrove forests are endangered, if they haven’t already been built upon.)
Non-material values include the pleasure that many people feel in wild landscapes and/or in the presence of animals; pleasure which, as has often been shown, leads to better health. Non-material values may also be given a materialist twist, of course. Patients spend less time in hospital if they have a view of the great outdoors (a huge saving) and people pay a lot of money to swim with dolphins.
Transcendent vs positivist
The feeling for transcendence takes many forms. Some feel that nature is the work of God but is separate from God, and that it should be revered primarily or indeed only because God should be revered. Others, commonly known as animists and sometimes more generally classed as pagans, feel that nature is God, and should be seen to be sacred in its own right. Others feel that God is the Creator of nature but is not entirely separate from his own creation. The German theologian Rudolf Otto coined the term “numinous”, derived from the Latin numen, meaning “divine presence”. Some, known as panentheists, feel that God indeed imbues all nature but is greater than nature. That is, nature is a manifestation of God – but God also has an existence independent of nature. Some are polytheists – gods rather than “God” – although the Hindus for example regard all the many gods as manifestations of the one supreme godhead, Brahman. Mainstream Buddhists (if there is such a thing) specifically avoid any reference to God or the gods but they very clearly have a sense of transcendence nonetheless. To the outsider, the differences between the different schools of transcendence may seem trivial or obscurantist but they have given rise nevertheless to all manner of conflict. A great pity. We should always be looking for common ground in such matters, and there is plenty.
But the positivists have no truck with any such musing. As far as they are concerned, what we can see (or touch and preferably measure) is what there is, There are no driving forces behind the scenes (apart from the “laws” of physics), no underlying intelligence, no agenda, no purpose. Positivists tend to argue that this is the most “rational” way of looking at things. They take it to be self-evident that the most rational way is the best way, even though philosophers have been showing for many centuries that rationalism has its limits (it helps us to keep our ideas straight but it does not necessarily tell us what is actually true). Although many people in high places claim to be “religious” (George W Bush, like England’s Henry V, sought blessing from God before embarking on slaughter and mayhem), positivism rules in the world’s most powerful nations and international agencies, and of course in the corporates and banks. Treating the world as if its physical manifestations are all there is, and as if the rest were frippery, enables us to change the natural world at will, or indeed on whim, wholesale, with nothing more in mind than the creation of tangible wealth and the imposition of power. A positivist attitude is therefore said to be “realistic” – a sceptic would say precisely because it helps rich and powerful people to become richer and even more powerful, and the rich and powerful set the tone for all society. In a positivist world, references to the Tao or God or the numen are most safely written off as indulgences, to be actively suppressed if they really start getting in the way. But a show of transcendence, a little religiosity, on the one hand can be good PR, and on the other seems to imply what whatever we undertake to do, no matter how gross, is a fulfilment of some higher purpose. It is sad that clerics often go along with this just as it is sad that so many scientists are prepared to march to the corporate drum.
It seems to me too, as argued elsewhere (under Metaphysics, section VI.1.1) that the word “spiritual” should be reserved for those with a feeling for transcendence; a feeling that the world really is imbued with “spirit”, and that the things we can see, touch, and measure are just the surface. The word “spiritual” should not, I feel, be applied simply to emotional uplift, the feeling one gets from listening to nice music. The sense of beauty – aesthetics – is not the same as the sense of transcendence. Aesthetic response is a matter of sensibility, but not necessarily of spirituality. To look after the biosphere because we feel it to be sacred is truly to be gaiacentric. To look after favoured beauty spots because they make us feel good is essentially anthropocentric. As discussed above, it isn’t at all clear where the poets commonly called “Romantic” are truly spiritual, as they often appear to be, with a sense that nature is divine or imbued with divinity; or where they are merely aesthetes, excited by natural beauty. It is however the case (is it not?) that aesthetic sensibility can and often does lead us in to a sense of transcendence.
How do these generalizations work out in practice?
Any one individual’s attitude to nature is compounded from one item from each of the three ways of looking at things – giving eight in all. Thus:
Almost though perhaps not quite all combinations of the above are possible.
Thus it is easy to see how a person could be anthropocentric/materialist/positivist. This indeed is the standard “hard-headed” view which nowadays prevails in the western world. The hard-heads happily set up piggeries with many thousands of animals and tip their ordure into the nearest river, or mine for gold on mountains that other people consider sacred, and spike the sacred rivers with mercury, and so on. It’s easy to see too how someone could take an attitude that is gaiacentric/non-materialist and transcendent. Indeed that would take us into the realms of, for example, the Jains, who feel that all nature is sacred and live extremely frugally so as to avoid impinging on the world, and may sweep the ground in front of them to avoid treading on ants.
It’s harder to see how a person could be anthropocentric and materialist and yet have a strong sense of transcendence, but some members of the American Right achieve this. Thus they may be as devout as Thomas More (at least to all outward appearances) and yet take to be self-evident that God made the world specifically for our benefit. After all, in the words of Genesis 1:26:
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
This has often been taken to mean that God has given us the right to boss the world as we choose – and as good neoliberals the American Right takes it to be self-evident that benefit implies material gain. Others, though, interpret Genesis 1:26 quite differently. They argue in the spirit of noblesse oblige that “dominion” comes with responsibility – and that as the most powerful creatures on Earth we must act as Earth’ stewards. Yet this has sometimes – often – been taken to mean that it is our job as God’s appointed stewards to put the finishing touches to his creation: to turn wild places into gardens and banish, not to say destroy, any creature that does not seem to us to contribute to the harmony of the whole – everything from mosquitoes to birds of prey. Alas there is no idea, no matter how well thought out and well intentioned, that can’t be turned awry and used to justify whatever is convenient.
It is hard, though, to see how anyone could truly be gaiacentric – seeking to gear their lives to the wellbeing of the living world as a whole – and yet be strictly materialist, whether or not they have a sense of transcendence. Mining for gold or drilling for oil, or agriculture as a whole, are innately anthropocentric, and are bound to compromise the biosphere to some extent, however carefully we tread. We can, though, as miners or oil-drillers or farmers, contrive to be as gaiacentric as is possible. More to the point, we can always ask whether any particular activity is really necessary at all. Need we continue to mine for gold and diamonds? How much oil do we really want? How productive does agriculture really need to be, when we already produce more food than humanity should ever need?
In reality, of course, as this last example illustrates, we need to strike compromises. If we really care about the biosphere then we do need to be biocentric – but if we were all as fastidious as some Jains then we would not practise agriculture or mining or forestry at all and 99 per cent of the human race would perish. If we cared only about the non-material qualities of nature then the world might be full of beauty spots but largely devoid of smallholdings or power stations (including wind-powered power stations), which we need.
But there surely can be little doubt that although we need to do the things we need to do to keep human bodies and souls together and in good heart, we should always strive to be as gaiacentric as possible and give at least equal weight to the non-material values. In this endeavour, a sense of transcendence isn’t vital, perhaps, but in general it helps to reinforce non-material values. It is certainly worth cultivating.
Colin Tudge, 28 March 2017