Anthropocentrism and Nature Conservation

In the environmental debate the claim can be often heard that granting nature intrinsic value would solve our problems – in other words, the difficulties we have with protecting nature are due to our overly human-centred perspective. Instead of invoking anthropocentrism one should, so the argument goes, move towards some sort of physiocentrism, i.e., grant some non-human entities intrinsic value. According to this view, anthropocentrism necessarily leads to destruction of the natural world. It is pathocentrism or biocentrism or ecocentrism or holism that would “save the world”. I already once showed that anthropocentrism is not as bad as claimed by those self-proclaimed physiocentrists. Today I would like to go further and show that meaningful conservation of nature is not compatible with physiocentrism – i.e., physiocentrism cannot consistently justify attempts to protect the natural world.

When arguing from a physiocentrist point of view, one has first to make a decision about whether to include human beings in nature. If human beings are assumed to be “outside nature”, not a part of it, it is clear that every interference with the natural world is a bad thing and should thus be minimised. However, there is a problem with such a perspective, as both evolutionary biology and anthropology tell us that Man’s origin is in nature. It might be claimed that we “left” nature when we became so powerful as to shape it according to our needs. This is, however, a very arbitrary argument. First, in a sense every living organism shapes its environment according to its needs – there is no objective reason why there should be a degree of “shaping power” beyond which one slips out of nature. Second, even if we accept that argument, it is non-trivial to say when human beings actually “left” nature – the answer to that question is, however, highly important as it would provide a foundation for the definition of the state in which nature is to be conserved. Thus, it seems, excluding ourselves from nature is not sensible or even justifiable. Let’s then turn to the problems present even when Man is viewed as part of nature.

When a physiocentrist says that we should protect (or conserve) nature, the question to ask is: what nature? The natural world is by no means static, it is a highly complex, dynamic system. No matter whether we want to conserve or restore an ecosystem, we must define a state that we think is “desirable”. But if we are to protect nature for its own sake, no such specific state exists, as nature is constantly changing. It is, so to speak, nature’s very nature to change. And if we do not exclude ourselves from nature (see above), it may well be argued that our actions are just another set of evolutionary pressures that trigger further changes. Our actions do not change nature to the worse or to the better – change is, in this context, necessarily neutral (from the “point of view” of nature itself). Any attempt to evaluate the change would move us away from consistent physiocentrism. The only way to consistently justify a specific course of nature conservation is to invoke the needs and interests of humanity – which is equal to “falling back” to anthropocentrism.

I do not claim here that physiocentrism is a bad thing or that physiocentrists are irrational. What I do claim is that their attempts to justify attempts at conservation of nature are inconsistent and that anthropocentrism is both a necessary and a sufficient condition for any meaningful protection of the natural world. I refer those who think that anthropocentrism means doom for nature to my older posts on that issue (here and here).

Anthropocentrism is not evil. And it is consistent when it comes to justifying nature conservation programmes. This is much more than it is mostly granted by its critics. And this, actually, should be enough.

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