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Is the biosphere a luxury?

Whereever did we get the idea that we are no kin to the earth's other inhabitants, and that we can therefore deal with them as we please? Several strains of thought converged to produce this way of thinking, which must now be unlearned.

Everybody who can read at all is now quite used to words like 'environmentalist' and 'environmentalism.' Thirty years ago, many people would not even have been sure what talk of 'the environment' meant. This cause is now in a state rather like that of Christianity in the age of Constantine: quite recently, more or less suppressed; now, more or less compulsory.

Such situations inevitably confuse us and make for a certain amount of humbug. Having lifted our heads finally from the sand, most of us are now sure that the environment is in real trouble, and that this does matter. But--because all our concepts were framed in the sandy epoch--we are still far less clear about why.

Why, then, does the environment matter? This is surely a very odd question. It seems to mean, Why does anything matter except ourselves, except human beings? In most cultures that question could scarcely arise. People take it for granted that they are part of a world that has its own meaning, a world that existed before them and has ways of working which they must respect. But in our culture, a terrific effort has been made in the last few centuries to deny this, to free people from any sense of being part of anything, any sense of subordination to a wider scheme. We have worked hard to convince ourselves that there are no limits to our possible achievements, that human life can simply expand indefinitely into an empty space around it. In our own age, so little attention has been paid to the things that fill that space that we now have to drag out this long and technical-sounding word--environment--when we want to describe them.

We shan't find it easy to change our concepts. We are a very articulate civilization. We don't just quietly make mistakes and get over them; we carefully preserve them by building them into theories. So we cannot just drift to a more sensible position without mentioning it. We have to do some philosophy, to reshape our ideas. We must grasp and spell out the existing, unconscious habits of thought. We have to ask how it comes about that, in our civilization, responsible people who wear business suits and digital watches still often regard concern for the state of the biosphere as something frivolous, eccentric, and childish. Why do they think the biosphere is a luxury?

Campaigners for environmental causes are so used to this response that they tend to take it for granted. But it deserves notice. I could easily cite a hundred instances, but I will mention just two. A few years back, the chairman of the British Central Electricity Generating Board, explaining the absolute necessity of nuclear power, came, at the end of his speech, to the possibility that some people might raise environmental objections. "That sort of idea," he said, "is quite all right if you want to pay for it. But it might add 5 percent to the costs, so probably you won't want to." To him, 'the environment' meant, not Chernobyl and the problem of nuclear waste, but sprucing up power-stations and planting tulips in the forecourts.(1) Similarly, a Minister of Lands in New Zealand asked, after a Conservation Week in the mid-1970s, "How can we in New Zealand justify the luxury of conservation, while people are starving in Ethiopia?"

It didn't, evidently, enter this minister's head that the Ethiopian famine itself results from a failure of conservation, nor that destroying forests in New Zealand for a quick profit would not actually help the Ethiopians. What he saw was a simple, black-and-white conflict between human and nonhuman interests, a conflict that human interests must at all costs win. The ideology in which he had been brought up romanticizes competition, ignores all nonhuman life, and absurdly exaggerates human freedom. The idea that all human beings, even those with business suits and digital watches, exist only as tiny dependent parts of an immensely complex natural system and must treat its workings with respect, is so alien to that ideology that it could not reach him.

As I say, we tend to take this kind of attitude for granted. But it may be worthwhile sometimes to ask a few questions about its source and its meaning. To deal properly with our concepts, we need to understand what lies behind ideologies--not just the official arguments, but also in the deeper moods and attitudes, the assumptions that form their hidden premises.

Those attitudes are not fixed and unchangeable. We have seen so many startling and unpredicted changes in the last few years--and not only in communist countries--that we ought to know attitudes do change. (What price fur coats or nuclear power stations today?) Fatalism is quite out of place in such matters. Attitudes shift gradually all the time, and we can play a much better part in helping them to change if we understand them better.

The awkward point about ideologies like the one just mentioned is indeed partly that we are so used to them we don't notice them. This familiarity can make them seem much more unchangeable to the young, who haven't seen many changes in fashion, than to the old, who have. But another difficulty is that large ideologies are usually not entirely bad. There are decent elements mixed up with the vicious ones. Those decent elements need to be somehow prized away and preserved, if people who have been living on the mixture are to move on to something a bit saner and more useful.

Freedom, Independence, and Exploitation

So we ask, how did we get here? What were the good reasons for the bad move? Undoubtedly, these excessive claims for human dignity all started from an honorable quest for personal freedom. The aim was to release individuals from illicit claims on them, and this eventually came to mean from all claims whatever. Since we all want our own way, calling for freedom for oneself can often mean demanding the right to overrule other people, as in the plaintive comment reported by Frances Trollope from the Southern States in the 1830s: "What's freedom for if we can't do what we like with our own born slaves?"(2)

Thus the search for independence, for activity, and for freedom easily spreads into arrogance and meaningless hyperactivity. This makes it hard for Europeans and Americans to do justice to the receptive, accepting, contemplative side of life. Eastern religions, notably Buddhism and Taoism, have lately become popular among us as part of an attempt to redress this lopsidedness. But it is hard for them to do this effectively. It is no use importing Eastern belief-systems merely to set up a division of labor where competitive individualism still handles all practical affairs, and Eastern harmoniousness is only invoked, so to speak, on Sundays, for purposes of the spiritual life.

We need to understand more fully the kind of appeal that individualism currently has for our imaginations, if we are to reshape it. We need to examine how we feel about such topics as independence, so as to understand the ambivalence that distorts our traditional attitudes to these matters. Changing attitudes means changing our concepts, the ideas by which we live, and that is always terribly hard.

We might start from a brief reflection on the word 'develop.' In English, and I think in other languages too, this word is now ambiguous, bridging two radically different meanings. To say that a seed develops is to say that it is growing according to the principles of its own being. But somebody who develops a hypothesis, or a district, or an industry, takes that thing as an object and changes it on principles chosen by himself.

This difference is constantly being blurred in common speech, because, when we change things, we very often do officially mean to give them the shape we think their own innate tendencies demand. It is remarkably easy to deceive ourselves about this. In the familiar case of our own children, we easily think that the child's nature calls for something that in fact arises from a quirk of our own. And this happens still more readily in large-scale, political cases, where it is even easier for us not to notice how our actions look to those at the receiving end. The notion of 'developing nations' was surely meant in the first place to signify that they were growing according to their own needs and laws, preserving their own independence of choice. Officially it means that still. But in practice, as we know, this is not how it works.

This kind of self-deception has made it possible for people who are heirs to the main European tradition to run together two ideals, two quite distinct sources of self-satisfaction. On the one hand, when we 'develop' something as an object, we can feel that we are forwarding a natural, cosmic movement of progress or evolution--that we are on the side of a preset improvement. And on the other, we can also feel that we ourselves are free, autonomous agents, interfering by our individual choice and initiative to shape the world according to our own ideals.

We cannot really combine these two kinds of satisfactions. We need to distinguish them in order to choose between them. But once we do this, we can see a great deal wrong with the way in which we have thought of both these aims. Our notion of evolution has been framed far too much as a projection of our own wishes, a kind of illicit substitute religion guaranteeing ever-increasing success for our own schemes.(3) And on the other side, our notion of freedom or autonomy has often been allowed to swell into arrogance, exalting us unrealistically as rulers over the rest of nature.

The Greater Glory of Man

These points are tricky, because the two sets of ideals are in themselves valuable ones that we still genuinely live by. Obviously, Enlightenment notions of freedom and autonomy still have great political and social value. But when they are used by people who are not themselves currently being oppressed--when freedom begins to be seen as an end in itself rather than as the correction of a gross evil--such ideas become paradoxically capable of licensing aggression. In particular, in our dealings with the nonhuman world they can inflate our natural arrogance into a kind of worship of the human race--humanolatry rather than just humanism--degrading all other creatures into mere material for our free activity. The Rights of Man can then appear, no longer as shields protecting the meanest of humans against oppression, but as privileges justifying unlimited exploitation of the nonhuman. And the separation of individuals from the community around them, which was meant to set them free for political revolt, can also work to kill their sense of unity and fellowship, both with each other and with the wider world of nature.

These abuses aren't a necessary part of Enlightenment thinking. Rousseau, who shaped the central myth of individualism dividualism in The Social Contract, also championed a proper love and respect for nature. But in later thought individualism and love for nature have become fatally divided, a separation that I think is a prime source of our present confusions. Later intellectuals have often taken a somewhat sneering tone towards the reverence for nature shown by writers such as Rousseau and Wordsworth--a tone that has, I think, prevented the more obvious word 'nature' from being used to fill the slot now taken by 'environment.' These sneers undoubtedly grew out of an earlier attack on reverence for nature, designed to make possible the dawn of modern science.

In the seventeenth century, Bacon, Descartes, and other champions of science tried strenuously to demythologize the idea of Nature, to show the physical world as a mere mass of inert, soulless matter rather than as a tremendous ordered complex of living and nonliving beings, deserving of awe, respect, and love. Thus Descartes wrote, "Know that by nature I do not mean some goddess or other, or some sort of imaginary power. I employ the word to signify matter itself."(4) And for him this matter was totally inert, lifeless stuff; it was set in motion only from outside, by being pushed by God. (This is, of course, a concept of matter radically opposed to that of modern physics, and it is one that proved scientifically barren.)

Again, Robert Boyle complained in his Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature that men are taught "to attribute stupendous unaccountable effects to sympathy, antipathy, fuga vacui, substantial forms, and especially to a certain being . . . which they call Nature; for this is represented as a kind of goddess, whose power may be little less than boundless." Accordingly, Boyle complained, "the veneration wherewith men are imbued for what they call nature has been a discouraging impediment to the empire of man over the inferior creatures of God."

Boyle and other members of the Royal Society were not just theorizing here. They were considerably interested in the practical applications of this attitude. (To be crude, they had money in it, but they also believed in it morally.) As governor of the New England Company, Boyle wrote of the need to eliminate from the minds of the Indians in New England "their ridiculous notions about the workings of Nature" and "the fond and superstitious practices those errors engaged them to."(5)

And indeed, two hundred years later the Indian chief Smohalla had not yet been weaned from these notions and practices. He said,

You ask me to plough the ground; shall I take a knife and tear my mother's bosom? Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest. You ask me to dig for stones; shall I dig beneath her skin for her bones? Then when I die I cannot enter her body to be born again. You ask me to cut grass and make hay and sell and be rich like white men; but how dare I cut off my mother's hair?(6)

The seventeenth-century attempt to depersonalize and demythologize attitudes to nature went badly wrong. People like Descartes and Boyle and Bacon did not actually manage to kill the element of myth in these attitudes, they merely shifted it to a new object. The veneration that was removed from nature was transferred to the human race. These thinkers produced a startling idea of Man Himself as in effect a supernatural being, far more powerful and far more distinct from the rest of the universe than he had so far seemed, since he now stood out as the only active element in a world that was otherwise completely inert. In so far as this idea prevailed, the notion of respect for other natural beings or processes was as inevitably lost as was the notion of a God who might stand as a limit to human power and freedom.

Stated in its full absurdity, this humanolatry of course goes beyond even the wilder reaches of Enlightenment thought. All the same, it is a terminus toward which serious thinkers have constantly been drawn, and toward which the general populace has insensibly drifted. The notion of 'Man' as a being so far separate from the rest of nature that he can be described as independently waging and winning a war against it, and the idea that such a war was a proper and central activity for all human beings, was an accepted theme with later Enlightenment thinkers.

Bacon called on mankind to use science, not just to "exert a gentle guidance of nature's course," but to "conquer and subdue nature, to shake her to her foundations." Men, Bacon added, ought to make peace among themselves so that they could turn, "with united forces against the Nature of things, to storm and occupy her castles and strongholds." In this way, scientists would bring about the "truly masculine birth of time," subduing "Nature with all her children, to bind her to your service and make her your slave."(7)

In this same tradition, Freud wrote that what we ought to be doing was "combining with the rest of the human community and taking up the attack on nature, thus forcing it to obey human will, under the guidance of science."(8) Similarly Marx wrote that capitalism was right to reject "the deification of nature . . . thus nature becomes for the first time simply an object for mankind, purely a matter of utility."(9)

As the Industrial Revolution took hold, this ideal of Man as above all a technologist, an active operator transforming passive matter, was increasingly exalted. To put it another way, just at the point when the rise of modern science might have led the human race to notice ecological dangers, and to become conscious of the damage that it had long been doing, a series of dramatic short-term successes in tool-use distracted public attention from those dangers, and fortified ancient, traditional human arrogance to a new and unparalleled degree. That is the psychological background against which we are now living. Grotesque exaggeration of human power and of human superiority to the rest of creation has been habitual in our culture for much of this century. It is (as I've said): a strong addictive drug, and those who have become dependent on it need a lot of help if they are to come off it.

Fatalism, Enterprise, and the Role of Science

Of course, human damage to the environment is not just a feature of the modern age. We haven't invented a new sin. We have merely become far more efficient at committing old sins, and far more determined to justify them. People have been turning forests into deserts since the dawn of agriculture, and they seem to have caused big extinctions by hunting even before that time. This frightening habit is indeed in a sense an effect of our virtues--it does follow from our enterprising tendency to find new ways of life--but it is not an unavoidable effect of them. It follows only when people don't understand what they are doing.

Many peoples have understood the need for restraint in using the resources on which they depended. Very often, however, human beings have not understood this, because the changes involved were so large and so slow that they did not grasp them. When much of North Africa was turned from a cropgrowing district that fed the Roman Empire into a desert region, or when the Greek islands were largely denuded by goats, contemporaries seem either not to have really taken in what was happening, or to have thought it was unavoidable. Even in relatively rapid cases like these, people often didn't notice what they were doing. Fatalistic acceptance is of course a very natural reaction to large, slow processes. But fatalism is quite contrary to the modern ideals of autonomy and free activity for which we are now supposed to be signed up.

If we really do think of humans as intelligent free beings, able to study what is happening and adapt their conduct to the facts, then their proper response is surely to become aware of ecological factors, as they are now beginning to do, and to use them for directing their new proceedings. Modern science makes this change possible, and the truly scientific spirit demands it. This need and this possibility were indeed not widely grasped till this century, when the emergency became glaring. But then, it was only during the preceding century that modern medicine framed its effective understanding of disease. The scientific spirit isn't an unchangeable monolith, stuck for ever in the first stages of modern physics. It is something that grows and adapts itself to the new problems that keep arising before it.

The practice of science, however, has itself often been permeated by humanolatrous concepts, and it will need to be purged of them as much as the rest of our thought.(10) There is not, then (as people sometimes think), a flat, unavoidable conflict here between human and nonhuman interests, nor between the free, enterprising spirit that produces science and the interests of the natural world. That conflict only seems to arise if we conceive of both science and freedom wrongly. Bacon's and Descartes' idea of Man as a kind of alien, supernatural ruler over inert matter was actually a profoundly unscientific one. It was a dramatic model that had its uses for a time in making modern physics possible. But when biology began to catch up with physics its unreality should have become clear. In the nineteenth century Darwin showed that human beings are not strangers here, but are genuine paid-up natives of this planet and true kin to its other inhabitants.

Many people, however, apparently still find this idea very painful. They cannot, it seems, accept that we can have a much more satisfying role here as responsible fellow-creatures than we could ever have had it we had been merely imported, alien conquistadors. Imaginative pictures that are still current are absurdly misleading here. We do not need the crazy prospect of endless technological "progress" culminating in a world that would be totally under human control. This dream, first mooted by H.G. Wells in his Modern Utopia, then elaborated by science-fiction writers, and now ludicrously extended to the whole universe by some physicists under the aegis of the Strong Anthropic Principle,(11) is thoroughly disreputable both scientifically and morally. It is quite out of tune with the far more realistic ideas of our place in the natural world developed more lately by ecologists, ethologists, and other life scientists. It was a childish power fantasy, and because it is misleading, it can only do damage to our real power of acting effectively in the world. There is nothing dignified or scientific about self-delusion.

Humanolatry and the Christian Tradition

So far, I have not touched on the relation between these notions and Christianity. I have been discussing a largely secular dream, a fantasy that has expanded the notion of 'humanism' from a modest, honorable respect for what is good in humanity into a disreputable quasi-religion, exalting us into substitute gods. I have been tracing the links between this strange development and the ideas of the Enlightenment, which was of course essentially a secular movement and in part actually an atheistical one. Christianity, however, has had its part in this pedigree.

Christian attitudes to the physical world have always contained in them strong hostile and dismissive elements. Being a religion addressed in the first place largely to the poor and powerless, and offering salvation in the afterlife, it often treated the present world as a vale of tears. In its formative years it was seldom called on to dwell on the responsibilities of power and the duties of stewardship. Being resolutely monotheistic, it needed to attack nature-worship, which presumably accounts for the hostility of writers like Augustine and Aquinas to any consideration for nonhuman animals.(12) Similarly Charlemagne, when he set about converting his subjects to Christianity, took it as the chief test of proper conversion that they must get over their pagan unwillingness to cut down trees.

Again, Christianity, being concerned about the sins of the flesh, often stressed the opposition between soul and body. And (unlike Buddhism) it held that no terrestrial being except humans had a soul. All this gave plentiful material for direct contempt of the natural world--a on which writers like Bacon, Descartes, and Boyle (themselves sincere Christians) could draw to justify unbridled exploitation of it.

But of course this is not the whole story. From the earliest times Christian writers saw two sides to this question. They sharply rejected the uncompromising hatred of the physical world preached by Gnostics and Manichees, who dismissed physical matter altogether as the creation of the Evil One. Christians replied that, on the contrary, God had created it and had made it good. This left them (as it did the Neoplatonists) the hard task of reconciling an essentially otherworldly message with due respect for the present dispensation. This was not primarily a matter of argument, but of bringing together two very different tempers: world-accepting and world-denying. They never really succeed in doing this. Elements of Gnostic and Manichaean feeling constantly resurfaced in these disputes, alternating with more Aristotelian, holistic ones, but not brought together into a clear synthesis. Ambivalence always reigned.

The main battlefieds of these controversies did not, of course, usually involve our present question about the right treatment of the nonhuman world. Until lately that question was seldom recognized as urgent. At first, disputes centered on the relation between the divine and human nature of Christ--later, on that between the human soul and body. Concentrating on these two knotty questions, the debate tended to narrow itself in a way that sometimes pushed the rest of the physical world to a back place. Theologians could then declare, as Karl Barth did, that the whole of creation was simply a theatre of the covenant [between God and man] radically incapable of serving any other purpose ... It is the divine will and accomplishment in relation to man--and nothing else--which really stands at the beginning of all things. It was in this way--and no other--that heaven and earth originated.(13)

This habit of dismissing all natural life as pagan was what made many religious authorities reject the humanitarian concern that arose in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries about the fearful ill-treatment of nonhuman animals as unchristian and merely "sentimenal." Lately, this narrowing has begun to seem much less acceptable. Some theologians are certainly beginning to suspect that neglect of the non-human creation has been an error, springing from the same sources as the contemporary secular overexaltation of the human race. Important though human destiny is to us, it cannot be understood alone. It needs to be put in context. Its relation to that context is now seriously discussed under the heading of 'creation theology' (which has nothing, incidentally, to do with Creationism).

It has always been hard to find enough room in our thoughts for that context. That difficulty can be seen already in the books of the Old Testament. When we take the center of the stage ourselves, we do not easily admit how vast is the background of other beings who may be involved. So we belittle our God by forgetting about most of his creation. Notoriously, Jehovah was treated at times by the Jews themselves as a merely tribal god, busy guaranteeing their success in war and advising genocide to produce it. Yet at other times very different thoughts appear in the Old Testament, thoughts that go far beyond the interests of the species as well as the tribe. Thus, in the Book of Job, for instance, God is said

To cause it to rain on the earth, where no man is, on the wilderness, wherein is no man, To satisfy the desolate and waste ground, and to cause the bud of the tender herb to spring forth ... (Job 38:26-27)

In such passages, and wherever the Creation as a whole is celebrated--as it is in Genesis, and often in the Psalms--a background way of thinking emerges that plainly puts to shame the excesses of recent humanolatry. These writers do not conceive of the nonhuman world merely as a means to our ends--as as a set of neutral gadgets or devices, valueless in themselves, provided simply to facilitate human success. They rightly see it as glorious in itself, and as an expression of God's glory. As people have lately pointed out, this means that the "dominion" that Man is granted over nature in Genesis cannot be a mere exploitative despotism, as Bacon and his followers supposed. It has to be a fully responsible stewardship.(14) It also follows, or so I should suppose, that callous, uncontrolled destruction of these created beings is blasphemy. The Christian tradition cannot honestly be used as they used it, to justify destruction. It contains plenty of material that demands a deeply respectful attitude toward the biosphere of which we are a part. And it would still do so even if our own interests were not--as they certainly are--so fully bound up in it that to go on destroying it would be suicide for our species.

The Limits of Prudence

Is there any need to make this point? Does it seem a waste of time to trace the windings of these imaginative and ideological patterns, when sheer hard prudence already makes the ecological case irresistible? When the house is on fire, can there be a stronger motive for putting out the flames than self-interest?

Obviously, I find the prudential arguments entirely compelling myself. But it is very hard for prudence to move people when their imaginative set conceals a particular danger from them, however imminent it may be. Moreover, it is also hard to admit the existence of large dangers that one has so far denied, because one will then be put to a great deal of trouble in thinking out how to meet them. In this case, as over disarmament, merely frightening people is not enough. It's undoubtedly necessary, but it has only a limited use, because it produces cognitive disonance. People need also to be shown a way out, a way to think their background thoughts differently. The way in which most of us today have been brough up to regard the relation between humanity and the rest of the biosphere has been a faulty one, and we need to think hard to make sure that a better one succeeds it.


A considerably shorter version of this article appeared in The Philosopher 1 (1991), under the title "Why It All Matters."


(1.) The remark was made a couple of years before this same chairman (Lord Marshall) was finally cornered by the Thatcher government on the question of costs, and admitted freely that nuclear power had never been economically viable anyway.

(2.) See JohannaJohnston, The Life, Manners and Travels of Fanny Trollope (London and New York: Quartet Books, 1978), p. 178.

(3.) A point developed in my Evolution as a Religion (1985; New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1986).

(4.) Descartes, Le Monde, in Oeuvres Philosophiques de Descartes, ed. F. Alquie, vol. 1 (Paris: Garnier Freres, 1973), p. 349, quoted in a most interesting discussion by Brian Easlea in Science and Sexual Oppression (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981), p. 72.

(5.) Quoted by J. R. Jacob, "The New England Company, the Royal Society and the Indians," Social Studies of Science 5 (1975): 453; Thomas Birch, ed., The Works of Robert Boyle, 6 vols. (London, 1772), 5: 532, 165.

(6.) Quoted in T.C. McLuhan, ed., Touch the Earth (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Abacus, 1972), p. 56. See very good further discussion by Brian Easlea in Science and Sexual Oppression and in his Witch-Hunting, Magic and the New Philosophy (New York: Humanities Press, 1980), p. 140.

(7.) Benjamin Farrington, The Philosophy of Francis Bacon (New York: Haskell, 1970), pp. 83, 130, 129, 92, 62, 93; J. Spedding et al., eds., Works of Francis Bacon, 14 vols. (Evanston, Ill.: Adler's Foreign Books, 1858-74), 4: 42, 373.

(8.) Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, section 11.

(9.) Karl Marx, Grundrisse, section 9.

(10.) I have tried to discuss this need in a book now in press, Salvation Through Science (New York: Routledge, 1992).

(11.) See for example John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), especially the last chapter. I have considered these suggestions in Salvation Through Science.

(12.) See John Passmore, Man's Responsibility for Nature (London: Duckworth, 1974), pp. 111-13.

(13.) Deplorably, I have lost the reference for this startling quotation. I acquired it, however, many years ago at a large conference of professional theologians, where somebody present would certainly have queried it had it not been genuine. If any reader can now trace it for me, I shall be very grateful.

(14.) The complexity of Christian tradition on this point is well discussed in Passmore, Man's Responsibility for Nature, chs. 1 and 2.
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Author:Midgely, Mary
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Date:May 1, 1992
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