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What is ecocentrism, and is it as important for green politics as some of its supporters claim?

‘Humans are like any other plague animal. They cannot destroy the Earth, but they can easily wreck the environment that sustains them[1]’.

The question of how humankind relates to the planet has existed since our evolution into conscious beings. This relationship to the planet was the source of many a tribe and civilisations identities, from the Aborigines to the Ancient Greeks[2]. Quite clearly, the question has always been with humankind, but with recent knowledge of how humans negatively affect the planet now accepted, this relationship could become the most important political issue of the 21st century. In response to this many within the environmental movement and green politics adopt what they call an ecocentric outlook. This essay aims to define and analyse this ecocentric outlook while trying to understand why its proponents attach such significance to it. The ideas of ecocentrism will be discussed in relation to the scientist James Lovelock with specific reference to Gaia theory. This is due to ecocentrism being a complex and varied concept, as such focusing attention on one area or in this case one person makes the task easier for clarity and analytical purposes. The essay will present its understanding of Lovelocks ecocentrism showing the tenets of the theory while noting some criticisms of it to further help the analysis. Having done this the importance of ecocentrism will be noted in relation to green politics and the essay will conclude noting that it is of the utmost importance for green politics.

Though numerous definitions exist, simply put ecocentrism can be viewed as a world outlook where humankind is part of a global ecosystem[3]. This understanding can vary, but at its heart is a specific world outlook and philosophy. The main themes tend to relate around ideas of trying to understand humankinds place and role within the world. With reference to Lovelock the idea mainly takes form in his language and scientific method of understanding. The Gaia hypothesis or theory, constructs such an ecocentric viewpoint. Gaia refers to the idea of the Earth being a self-regulating system made up of the biosphere, atmosphere and hydrosphere[4]. It is as such a self-regulating entity and should be viewed as a living being, Lovelock himself insists on referring to Gaia in such a manner as it helps people understand the damage they do to the Earth better[5]. It brings about a personal resonance that does not exist when viewing the Earth merely as the place where they live, but as an existing entity. The implications of Gaia are thus clearly meant as a way of redefining the way humans view things such as nature. Indeed Lovelock is very clear in noting that humankind must rid itself of the humanist view of being separate from nature and thus from Gaia, as he notes ‘the human species is as much a part of Gaia as any other species[6]. This viewpoint can be presented in both scientific and philosophical interpretations, Lovelock presents Gaia as a scientific fact and through this a philosophy and world view is created. It is not simply a case of accepting a fact but adapting to this and understanding the importance of its implications.

Therefore, the perceived centrality of humankind has to be rejected as a scientific falsehood and an incorrect worldview. Humans must be viewed as making up one of the numerous species of Gaia and not the central component. It is this rejection of humanist centrality or anthropocentrism that determines alot of green thinking as ecocentric, humans are but one part of Gaia and are subject to her laws[7]. Such a view tends to fly in the face of central understandings of humanity, specifically regarding control and importance. Ecocentrism is thus clearly anti-humanist as it rejects the centrality of humankind to life on Earth. Such a view is often critiqued as misanthropic and along with Neo-Malthusian tendencies within the green movement can be seen as being somewhat reactionary[8]. Critics like Pepper argue that there is a clear strain of misanthropy running through the works of Lovelock and others; this is personified through a ‘seething distaste for urban humanity’.[9]  Pepper along with other critics note that in their anti-humanist approach ecocentrics tend to overlook the vast differences and inequalities amongst humankind[10]. Humanity is seen as one and the same, no attempt is made to point out the differentiations among the world’s populace, and as such an ecocentric view can be seen as simplistic in its understanding of human relations. This is especially true when one is seeking to understand the relationship people have with their environment, it would be unfair and unwise to assume that all people can be judged in the same vein when dealing with ecological destruction. Some in the green movement have noted such ideas and have construed that ecology can mean different things to different people depending on geographical location, wealth and gender[11]. In being ecocentric one must reject humanist ideologies but to what extent one understands inequalities amongst humankind vary. Lovelock’s perceived misanthropy could also be seen as being merely a scientific realist approach as opposed to an actual distaste for humankind. Indeed within the writings of Lovelock there seems to be little implied regarding an actual hatred of humankind and he seemingly takes little pleasure in the ecological situation it has created. Indeed he talks of the importance of not infringing anymore upon Gaia as being salient for the preservation of civilisation[12]. As he notes ‘I see the Earth’s declining health as our most important concern, our very lives depending upon a healthy Earth’[13]. Such a view is only misanthropic in acknowledging humankind’s shortcomings in relation to the environment; it is certainly not taking pleasure in it. One can still claim this distrust is misanthropic but the point here is to distinguish Lovelock from other schools within the green movement such as the Deep Ecology movement whose views can be less scientific and more spiritual[14]. Lovelock is first a scientist and his ideas are based around a scientific understanding of the planet rather than any specific spiritual relationship humans should have with it.  It is a realist understanding of humankind and its position in relation to Gaia; it is this relation and its implications that is the central pillar of Lovelock’s ecocentrism. The essay therefore accepts that while Lovelock’s ecocentrism is anti-humanist, it is one borne out of a scientific reality rather than spiritual and mystical ideas regarding the planet.

The importance of ecocentrism can be viewed from two interrelated ideas, one is the originality of the approach and the second is through this the implications it has for an understanding of the planet. The importance of ecocentrism lies with what many in the green movement would claim is the originality of its approach; all other ideologies see humans as central and are thus anthropocentric. As Dobson puts it ‘what sets ecologism apart from other political ideologies is its focus on the relationship between human beings and the non-human world’[15]. Though Dobson applies different terminology here using it is clear that Lovelocks ecocentrism is part of such a world view. A good example is to note the emphasis of other ideologies such as Liberalism and Marxism. Despite there being a wealth of difference between the two, Liberalism emphasising the centrality of the individual and Marxism with its class based approach, both are anthropocentric in their analysis and approach; they are global ideologies but only in a human sense not an ecological sense. They are primarily concerned with humankind, not nature, nor do they claim to see humans as anything other than central to their outlook. Marxism is not committed to the emancipation of nature but the working classes; liberalism is not committed to the individual rights of nature, but of people. The importance of this would be central to any ecocentric viewpoint and many would as Dobson does claim its significance is paramount for any understanding of green politics. Quite clearly then ecocentrism can claim originality in relation to a world view, but the real importance of ecocentrism lies in the benefits of viewing the world in such a way.

Lovelock is quite clear in noting that Gaia has little in relation to consciousness or meaning in how she operates, there are no conscious goals to her actions[16]. It does however seem to have the unconscious aim of regulating the climate at a comfortable state for life including our own[17]. The discovery of this is in itself is a major one in relation to scientific understandings of the Earth, but more importantly are the implications it has for humankind. Ecocentrism is not the first outlook or philosophy to advocate an anti – humanist approach, 19th century theorists and philosophers dealt with the topic as well as some in the modern era[18]. However, its importance is seen by many within green politics as massive in relation to the preservation of humankind on the planet. As was noted Lovelock is quite clear that what is at stake is the future of human civilisation. In continuing with the mass use of fossil fuels and population growth we are threatening the future of humankind. As Lovelock bluntly notes, ‘In the end, as always, Gaia will do the culling and eliminate those that break her rules’[19]. It is easy to see why some see a strain of misanthropy in Lovelocks work, however if one analyses it carefully it is clear to see that the importance of ecocentrism is paramount for humankinds own survival. By putting Gaia first and rejecting our humanist centrality we effectively secure our immediate future. This is the most important aspect to Lovelocks ideas and is at heart of its importance for green politics. The practicalities are of course debatable, how can one in a human centred world actually act in relation to favouring Gaia, and is such an approach possible in an anthropocentric world? These are some of the points that critics of ecocentrism would highlight, and there is no doubting they have some credibility. The practical elements remain very open to debate specifically regarding population and Nuclear energy with reference to Lovelock. His views on Nuclear energy have left him ostracised within the green movement and he believes that population reduction must be voluntary which again could be viewed as being impractical given the scale of the problem[20]. That said ecocentrism is concerned with Gaia’s welfare as a means of subsisting our own existence, in essence it is a case of looking at the bigger picture, ecological devastation could dwarf the inequalities amongst humankind making Gaia inhabitable. The quote by the philosopher John Gray used at the start of this essay clearly states what ecocentrics would see as the dilemma facing humankind; it is a case of accepting our insignificance in relation to Gaia’s future but accepting that our actions could lead to our own destruction.

The importance of ecocentrism for green politics is paramount, it is not merely a case of it being a novel political ideology but instead its real value lies in its implications. The acceptance of ecocentrism would be the first step towards avoiding ecological disaster and preserving humankind’s future, such an approach is not only important for green politics but may well be the most significant political issue of the near future.

Bibliography

Althusser, L. (1969/2005) For Marx (London, Verso).

Biehl, J. (1991) Finding our way, Rethinking Ecofeminist Politics (Montreal, Black Rose books).

Dobson, A. (2007) Green Political thought 4th edition (London, Routledge).

Drengson, A. And Devall, B. (eds) (2008) The Ecology of wisdom; writings by Arne Naess (Berkeley, Counterpoint).

Gray, J. (2003) Straw dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals (London, Granta).

Lovelock, J. (2007) The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is fighting back – and how we can still save Humanity (London, Penguin).

Lovelock, J. (1982/2000) Gaia: a new look at life on Earth, 3rd edition (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Martinez-Allier, J. (2003) The environmentalism of the poor (Cheltenham, Edward Elgar).

Marx, K. (1844/1963) Early writings (London, Watts).

Nietchze, F. (1887/1994) On the Genealogy of morals (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Pepper, D. (1986) The roots of modern Environmentalism (London, Routledge).

Pepper, D. (1994) Eco-socialism: from deep ecology to social justice (London, Routledge).

Porritt, J. (1984) Seeing green; the politics of ecology explained (Oxford, Basil Blackwell).


[1] Gray, J. p.12 2003

[2] Lovelock, J. p.8 1982/2000

[3] Pepper, D. p.33 1994

[4] Lovelock, J. p.19-20 2007

[5]  Lovelock, J. p.2 2007

[6]  Lovelock, J. p.119 1982/2000

[7] Lovelock,  J. P. 181 2007

[8] Pepper, D. p.44 1994

[9] Pepper, D. p.148 1994

[10] Pepper, D. p.147 1994

[11] See Martinez-Allier 2003 and Biehl, J. 1991.

[12] Lovelock, J. P.   2007

[13] Lovelock, J. p.2 2007.

[14] See Drengson, A. and Devall, B. 2008.

[15] Dobson, A. p.28 1990/2007

[16] Lovelock, J. p.20 2007.

[17] Lovelock, J. p.19 2007.

[18] See Nietchze 1887/1994, Marx 1844/1963 and Althusser 1969/2005.

[19] Lovelock, J. p.181 2007.

[20] Lovelock, J. P.173-191 2007.

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