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January 04, 2022

When pride comes before the fall: the problem of anthropocentric hubris

My name is Haydn Washington. I have been a wilderness conservationist since 1974 when I became  a leader in the campaign to protect Wollemi. I am an environmental scientist and writer  and am currently an adjunct lecturer at UNSW, Sydney.   

During much of my academic career I have explored the problems of anthropocentrism – that is, humanity’s excessive hubris, that is pride and arrogance when interacting with the rest of life. Recently I co-authored a paper with four other academics called ‘The trouble with anthropocentric hubris, with examples from conservation’, which summarises much of my thinking, research and writing about anthropocentrism over four decades. It is the most important paper I have written and is available free of charge here:

Most traditional, indigenous societies were not anthropocentric and instead observed a kinship ethics. For example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people describe kinship systems which encompass sophisticated relations to other humans and to Country.  

By contrast, anthropocentrism is a dominant characteristic of the culture of modern, industrial society, whereby human values and needs take priority above those of the natural world. According to this world view, nature is little more than a resource for mankind to exploit. As such, anthropocentrism is an affirmation of ‘human supremacy’ and a way of life that, I would argue, is fuelling the environmental crisis and accelerating species extinction.  It is certainly not an ecologically sustainable or practical way to live on Earth.

Some of the key troubles with anthropocentrism are:

  • Worldview and ethics: Non-human Nature is commonly seen as having no agency, rights or need to be respected.
  • Dualisms, valuation and values: Because they have culture, humans are often seen as separate from Nature. And the egoism in modern industrial society assumes that humans have greater intrinsic value than Nature.
  • Ownership: Anthropocentrism portrays humanity philosophically as ‘owners’ of Nature. Yet, several scholars argue that ownership of land is largely a Western idea, not an Indigenous one historically.
  • Impracticality: humanity has obligate dependence on Nature to survive. For all our vaunted intelligence, the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe—all come to us from Nature, which also cycles the nutrients in our crops and provides all the other myriad gifts that society needs.
  • A psychology of fear and denial: Humanity has a serious problem—we deny a reality we do not like, as, for example, catastrophic climate change. We deny some things as they force us to ‘confront change’, or are just too painful, or make us afraid.

So, what is the alternative? I would say that it is time to for western society to adopt an ecocentric worldview and an ecological ethics. The last century has seen massive loss of habitat, populations and species. These phenomena have become so acute that some have argued that our current epoch is ‘the Anthropocene’, though a more correct term is the ‘era of ecocide’. If humanity is to have any hope of halting this disastrous trend, concepts of fairness and justice cannot continue to be limited purely to humanity, but must explicitly be foregrounded to extend to non-human Nature.  





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