Life

Our human-centred worldview is exactly what led us into the climate crisis

The moment humanity decided it was superior to other life on earth led to our uncertain future

climate crisis

We ask if we're alone in the universe when we're not even alone on this planet. Image: Shutterstock

In an article published last year in the Scientific American, contemplating developments in our search for extraterrestrial life, Andrea Gawrylewski writes: “Given the math, it seems impossible that we humans would be the only living things in the cosmos.”

At first glance, this comment may seem perfectly innocuous – even profound. But at a time when humans are orchestrating the sixth mass extinction on our planet, the fact that we could casually refer to ourselves as the “only living things in the cosmos” is alarming. We needn’t step outside of the circles of our world to find other forms of life – after all, Homo sapiens are only one of millions of species who inhabit this planet. We are not, and have never been, alone. 

But this is no mere oversight. For thousands of years, our dominant historical, legal, social, political and philosophical paradigms have framed our world as intrinsically human-centred. Even though other beings unavoidably exist, humans are often seen as the only ones who actually matter – the only beings with consciousness, agency, and intrinsic value. Other beings were, at best, relegated to the background as props and set pieces on our human-centred stage; at worst, they were reduced to freely exploitable resources whose very existence revolves around their usefulness to humans. This idea is known as anthropocentrism. 

For the vast majority of human history, questions like ‘are we alone?’ would have been seen as ridiculous. For hundreds of thousands of years, we have known our world to be an interconnected web of countless different kinds of ‘persons’ – be they animal or vegetal, seen or unseen. To be human was to understand how to be in relationship with our non-human kin. 

So how did we forget that we aren’t alone? In Unseen Beings: How We Forgot the World is More Than Human, I argue that our ‘un-seeing’ of non-human beings is the oft-overlooked root cause of our most pressing existential crisis – the climate crisis. Our pursuit of dominion has led us directly into the perils of the so-called Anthropocene (the ‘Epoch of Humans’). 

Anthropocentrism is not a scientific notion, but a philosophical one – rooted in the Classical world, when philosophers Plato and Aristotle presented the concept of the ‘rational human soul’ as the defining feature of humankind, placing us above and apart from everybody else. This hierarchical approach to ‘natural philosophy,’ popular in the centuries leading into the Common Era, paved the way for powerful new religious movements that established humanity’s centrality in the universe as a sacred truth. 

Over the millennia, European thinkers like Thomas Aquinas and René Descartes expanded upon these ideas to establish a solid existential divide between the base ‘natural’ world and the divine human mind. Descartes, often renowned as the father of modern philosophy, perpetuated Aristotle’s theory that animals and plants are mere biological automata lacking any degree of agency, subjectivity or intrinsic value. As such, their exploitation was deemed to be a purely economic concern, rather than a moral one.

We find anthropocentrism everywhere today, not because it is scientifically true, nor because it made our lives better or more fulfilling, but strictly because the same societies that imagined a fiercely hierarchical world also took it upon themselves to dominate, exploit, enslave, colonise, and indoctrinate everyone and everything within their reach. The human-centred world was imposed upon us by force.

For the powerful, ‘master identity’ constructs like anthropocentrism and white supremacy conferred many advantages, allowing certain ‘in-groups’ to construct societies and systems that operate primarily for their own benefit. Through such paradigms, even the most atrocious cruelties were made morally justifiable. To exploit is human, to dominate is divine. 

Given our infatuation with progressive modernity, it is somewhat perplexing that even our most rational human institutions remain deeply conditioned by antiquated and nonsensical philosophies established thousands of years ago. But these are indeed the worldviews that birthed our modern world – wielded by the powerful in the pursuit of planetary dominance. Our current climate crisis is ultimately a function of these very ideologies. We concern ourselves solely with the ‘sustainability’ of our systems, but rarely do we stop to question what it is that we are actually seeking to sustain. We don’t really seem to want meaningful change – we simply want to prolong our exploitative systems for as long as possible with minimal consequences. 

To find our way through the Anthropocene, we first need to deconstruct the very worldviews that lead us to ponder whether we’re ‘alone’. We need to understand how we got here, where we’re heading, and the paths that lie before us. We need to learn to see our world with new eyes – to re-evaluate what it means to live in a more-than-human world. Only then will we recover a sense of what it means to be human.

@ErikJampa

Unseen Beings: How We Forgot the World Is More Than Human is out now (Hay House, £12.99)

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