Toward an Agathocentric Ecology

Erazim Kohák
I should like to submit to you a simple, basic thesis--that what we are accustomed to calling the "ecological crisis" is not a product of a conflict between human needs and the needs of nature but of a flawed perception of what our needs in truth are. It is, I believe, a crisis of our humanity rather than one of nature or technology, and so requires not only technological but also humanistic answers.


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Toward an Agathocentric Ecology

2011-12-05 20:26:18

Erazim Kohák

I should like to submit to you a simple, basic thesis--that what we are accustomed to calling the "ecological crisis" is not a product of a conflict between human needs and the needs of nature but of a flawed perception of what our needs in truth are. It is, I believe, a crisis of our humanity rather than one of nature or technology, and so requires not only technological but also humanistic answers.

In saying that, I do not in the least mean to question the crucial and urgent ecological importance of technology. It seems to me beyond question that we need urgently to address the question of the most effective use of raw materials, of the most effective means of conservation and recycling as well as of environmentally friendly ways of purifying and disposing of our waste.

However, noble as such efforts are, I believe they will prove futile if the overall orientation of our civilization bears within it the destructive contradiction of infinite expansion and finite resources. Thus it seems to me no less important for those charged with caring for humankind's long-range dwelling on this earth to raise the question of our goals--what is really important for us as humans, what is the aim of our civilization and what is our place in the economy of nature. Or, in time honoured philosophical terminology, I believe we need also to raise the question of what is the place of humans in the cosmos.

Since we have used the word philosophy, perhaps a small methodological excursus may be in order. Traditional philosophy--as well as much of contemporary moral ecology--treats the question of the place of humans in the cosmos as one of fact and sees its efforts as a quest for "truth" in the sense of an accurate description of that fact: what in fact, what in truth is the place of humans in the cosmos? Ecological writers tend to speak as if Europe, at least since the days of Descartes and Galileo, had operated with an erroneous description of the place of humans in nature while they themselves are re-discovering humanity's "true" nature and its "true" place.

I am not sure, though, that such a conception is tenable. Unlike other animal species, humans, it seems to me, have no place in nature. There is no "natural human environment." Humans are equally at home everywhere--and nowhere. Biologically speaking, homo sapiens sapiens is an "exotic" species, one displaced from any specific natural environment and incapable of "returning" to one. In raising the question of the place of humans in the cosmos we are not asking what that place in fact is. We are generating metaphors that would enable us to find and to make a place for ourselves.

Such metaphors, though, are not arbitrary. Some are capable of assuring long term welfare of nature and our kind, others are distinctly destructive. We are looking for the appropriate metaphor, one that would provide reliable guidance. In that sense, though we are describing no "fact," we are yet looking for truth--for the metaphor that would enable us to live with ourselves and with nature in creative and sustainable ways.

Even a superficial survey of current ecological thinking, especially on governmental level, makes it clear that the dominant metaphor is the anthropocentric one of "Man /sic/ as the Master of Nature." More precisely, it is the metaphor that envisions humans as the sole locus and source of both meaning and value. Non-human reality here appears as intrinsically devoid of any meaning or value of its own--or, so to speak, as devoid of any agenda of its own. It has value and it needs to be taken into consideration only insofar as it serves or hinders the satisfaction of human needs.

That metaphor, to be sure, need not be simply crudely egotistic. If we recognize that human needs include not only ever increasing production, but also recreational and aesthetic opportunities in a healthy and pleasing environment, the anthropocentric metaphor can become the basis for a significant ecological effort. However, as long as our thought is shaped by that root metaphor, there can be no thought of modifying or limiting human needs in the interest of nature as such.

Concretely, within the limits of the anthropocentric metaphor we might well insist on stringent regulation of factory farming practices if it can be shown that such practices lead to contaminated meat. However, we could not call for such regulations in the name of the interest of farm animals or of the incredible suffering imposed on them by our factory farming. Animals--and all non-human nature--appear, within this metaphor, as having no agenda and so no interest of their own.

Over the years, numerous writers have pointed out that the metaphor bears within it an immensely destructive potential. If technologies can be found which to the very limited knowledge of a given age appear to satisfy human needs equally or more efficiently, that age will not hesitate to inflict wholesale destruction upon all non-human world. The indiscriminate use of pesticides in the years following the second world war is a case in point. The metaphors of struggle with and conquest of nature, always problematic, become destructive as human ability to inflict damage increases.

I would, though, point to the destructive impact of the Master metaphor on humans themselves. In effect, the metaphor places humans in the predicament of all masters whom all around them serve. That master's own existence then becomes meaningless. As the source of all value and meaning, humans have nothing to serve, no purpose other than their own self-gratification. When we deny the value of anything but ourselves, we ourselves become absurd.

That is no abstract philosophical speculation. It is as concrete as the experience of the masters of all ages, of all the idle rich who have nothing to live for but their own amusement and self-indulgence. The psychological effect has always been devastating. Nor is there any reason to suppose that it becomes less so when the image of the master is projected onto an entire civilization or an entire species. A civilization which recognises no locus or source of value other than itself is condemned to mindless expansion: consuming ever more, inventing "needs" to justify ever greater production and fostering ever greater consumption and producing ever greater waste. The metaphor which elevates "Man" to the role of master at the same reduces him to a consuming and eliminating biomechanism. In a very real sense, the anthropocentric metaphor is at the very root of our environmental crisis.

The "biocentric" metaphor arose in great part as a response to the dehumanizing effect of anthropocentrism. Its core is the recognition that all life, all purposive being--and not only humans--generate value. Grass is not meaningless matter if there is a woodchuck grazing on it, sunlight is not just energy but deeply good as the sunflower turns to it. Non-human nature--wolves, bears, porpoises--has its own agenda, independent of human want or need, and so its own value, worthy of respect. Humans, the animal species h. sapiens sapiens, is only one species among many. It has as legitimate a claim to life as any other species, but no more so. Like all other species to draw upon the whole of nature for its sustenance, but no right to devastate the world for its amusement, only because, like all self-proclaimed masters, it has nothing but its self-indulgence to live for.

The biocentric model can seem as immensely attractive to us as the humble, purposeful life of the peasant appeared to the aristocrat bored with his own self-indulgence. It restores to humans the sense of living amid a meaningful nature, a part of its harmony. Ecology here no longer appears simply as sustainable management of raw materials and waste. It becomes a quest for reintegration of the alienated exotic species in the great green peace of nature. Anyone who, like Henry David Thoreau, had the privilege of living out the seasons close to the land knows how healing it can be, restoring peace to the soul.

Numerous writers have pointed out that, however noble, the biocentric metaphor provides little practical guidance in our time. For one, there are simply too many of us to return to a "natural" simplicity, even if we thought it desirable. North America was able to sustain a population of some three and a half million on that basis. Today it has to feed a hundred times that many. And again, as Ghandi found out when he tried to return India to the spinning wheel, our very numbers have made us dependent on high technology.

I would, though, point out that the biocentric metaphor is problematic in its implications for humans as well. The image of humans as dwellers at peace is immensely attractive and morally far more appealing than the image of humans as the rapacious conquerors fostered by the metaphor of "Man the Master." But while appealing in its recognition of the basic equality and kinship of all creatures, it overlooks the specificity of humankind. The simple life of the dweller in the harmony of nature once again reduces humanity to a cycle of consumption and elimination. Undoubtedly, it does so on a much less destructive level than the rapacity of the master, far more considerate of non-human nature and so morally far more acceptable. Still, its effect is disturbingly analogous. Once more, h. sapiens sapiens appears as a being whose being is wholly absorbed in the cycle of self-maintenance.

For philosophic as much as for practical reasons, I believe that ecological thought--and humankind--need to reach beyond biocentrism, to a metaphor which, for the want of a better term, I would call agathocentric, because humans are the animal species capable of doing good.

By no means would I want to deny the basic insight of biocentrism, that all life and not human life only has an agenda and generates value. It seems to me crucial that ecology and all humanity recognise that all human relations--and not those to members of our own species only--need to be governed by moral as well as practical considerations, by a respect for the integrity of non-human life. Metaphorically speaking, the agenda of the forest, the integrity of its life, must be one of the factors in our decisions about it. No less would I wish to deny the basic insight that humans have a legitimate claim to draw on the whole of nature for their sustenance, but not for waste or idle folly. It seems to me crucial, though, that we raise also the question of our specificity: what is the distinctive calling of being human?

That again is not a matter of a factual description. As a matter of fact, human ability to destroy the earth is as real and as distinctive as the human ability to destroy it. It is once more a quest for metaphors, a choice of vision of ourselves that would enable us to live creatively and sustainably in the Earth. Yet once again the choice is not arbitrary. There are visions that heal--and visions that destroy, and it is not the same.

Our vaunted ability to increase our consumption--and the amount of waste we generate--seventy times or more is hardly a reason for pride. Overeating is a pathology throughout the animal kingdom, and so is overconsumption. Whether a community capable of using seventy times the energy required by other humans has a reason for pride depends on the use to which it puts that ability. If it can think of no other use than over-indulgence, its productivity is a sign of decadence, not of progress.

If there are traits worthy of being chosen as distinctively human, they are of a different order. In our tradition, the ability to appreciate beauty has figured as one such trait. All animals are capable of appreciating the utility of the world, humans are the beings capable of taking the world out of the chain of utility and cherishing it in itself, in its distinctness--or, in the metaphor so familiar that we are no longer aware of it as a metaphor--in its beauty.

Cherishing the world in its goodness may well be simply another metaphor for the same experience--for the moment when we set aside our concern with need and its satisfaction and confront what is simply in the deep goodness of its being--spoken with Leibnitz, in the wonder that it is rather than is not. It is the moment when we step back and see a tree not as so many board feet, a porcupine not simply as game, but in the wonder of their being--or spoken with Buber, as I and Thou.

Perhaps truth, too, is another such metaphor for the experience of the autonomy and integrity of all that is. To see the truth of another, whether human or non-human, is not a matter of uttering true propositions about it. It is a matter of encountering it in respect and humility, as kin and yet with its own integrity, as something in whose being we can rejoice and whose passing we can mourn.

Perhaps that is why Western philosophy traditionally spoke of being as true, good, and beautiful, not as raw material for the satisfaction of human needs. For our purposes, though, it may be more to the point to note what that ancient dictum tells us about humans--that we are the beings capable of cherishing and mourning the beauty, goodness, truth of what is in its integrity. Or, in the metaphor of another age, we are the beings capable of respect, empathy and care.

All of that, to be sure, may well sound hopelessly removed from the concerns of practical ecology and hopelessly abstract. Yet it is neither. To say that humans are the beings who find their self-realization in self-transcendence is no more than to recognise that the most profoundly satisfying experiences of our lives come not from self-indulgence but from being able to love and care for something. Humans quickly tire of having--and in vain seek to conquer the boredom by amassing more. The things, the people whom we find most enriching are those to whom we have given most, the things we have loved and cared for.

The implication of that for ecology are no less direct. The strategy of "conquering Nature" is self-defeating. It is the strategy of possession, of having more and more. Yet the strategy of "return to nature" is flawed as well: we have stood out of nature, we have become distinct. We are the species whose fulfilment is in its ability to do good.

Hence the awkward term for the metaphor I would propose, agathocentric, focused on doing good. It is not the task of humans to conquer and posses nature, nor to merge within it. The distinctive human calling is to do good within it--to reduce suffering when it can be reduced, not to add to it, and to grieve it when it resists our efforts, to add to the joy and the beauty and goodness there can be, whether it is the joy of otters at play or of humans at their labour.

Agathontrically conceived, ecology cannot be blind to the suffering of the masses of humans living out their lives on the brink of survival, the ferral children of Brazilian cities or the bewildered multitudes of Africans caught up amid wars fought with Western weapons bought on Western credit. It can be no less blind to the agony of African elephants brutalized to extinction, the plight of dophins caught in tuna-fishing nets, the suffering of animals in factory farming or the dying of European forests.

The point, finally, is not simply to minimize the damage we cause in producing ever greater surpluses for a privileged segment of humanity. It is, rather, to decide how we shall use that surplus. If we use it only to generate ever greater surpluses, ever greater production, consumption and waste, our ecological efforts are doomed to failure. If we use it to care for all nature, human and non-human, we might yet succeed, not just in saving the earth but in saving ourselves. Because, ultimately, humans are the beings whose great need is not to have but to love and to care, called out of nature not to conquer but to serve--to do good.


Erazim KOHÁK, Prof., PhDr., DrSc.,
Charles University, Prague, Czechoslovakia,
and Boston University, Mass., USA,

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