Will arrogance lead to our own extinction?


A sense of entitlement and supremacy is stopping humanity from taking action on climate change, argues a US academic. Lauren Fuge reports.


As climate change and mass extinction threaten the survival of our species, humanity's response is to offer more technology and the dubious wisdom of capitalism.

As climate change and mass extinction threaten the survival of our species, humanity's response is to offer more technology and the dubious wisdom of capitalism.

Peter Zelei Images/Getty Images

Humans are sending the planet hurtling towards catastrophe and our own blind self-centredness is to blame, says researcher Eileen Crist from Virginia Tech in the US.

Human activity has undeniably thrust the Earth into a period of mass extinction and climate change, pushing us to the brink of a potentially apocalyptic planetary shift that threatens societal stability – and all complex life.

And yet, instead of dramatically reducing its impact on the planet, humanity keeps pushing for growth at all costs.

“The rational response to the present-day ecological emergency would be to pursue actions that will downscale the human factor and contract our presence in the realm of nature,” says Crist in an opinion piece published in the journal Science.

“Yet in mainstream institutional arenas, economic, demographic, and infrastructural growth are framed as inevitable, while technological and management solutions to adverse impacts are pursued single-mindedly.”

These techno-fixes include climate geoengineering, desalination, de-extinction and the colonisation of other planets.

While useful to explore, such solutions do not address the root of the problem; more logical paths include decreasing pollution, reducing climate change, and addressing poverty, food insecurity, and forced migration. This would involve reducing overall consumption, shifting the types of food, energy and materials being consumed, and removing ourselves from natural ecosystems.

So why are these more effective solutions ignored?

The answer, Crist proposes, is the pervasive worldview that holds humans “as a distinguished entity that is superior to all other life forms”.

This worldview of human supremacy is not, of course, universal across cultures, but Crist suggests it has spread along with the expansion of western civilisation.

She claims that this perspective is the reason we are blind to both the consequences of our actions and the solutions, and presents several reasons why this might be the case.

For example, by valuing human life above non-human life, this worldview prevents us from recognising that animals, plants and habitats have intrinsic value. Instead of viewing the living planet with a sense of awe and appreciation, we view it as a container of natural resources – not something to be saved when threatened, but something to be used to exhaustion.

The idea that the planet is a resource for human consumption is so pervasive that mainstream media is generally mute in response to current crises, preventing humans from seeing or reacting to the violence enacted by our insatiable desire for growth.

Crist further contends that this worldview “fosters the belief that humans are resourceful, intelligent, and resilient enough to face any challenges that may come.

“This tacit missive bolsters societal torpor and political inaction, because it is widely assumed that technological innovations and interventions will overcome problems.”

By operating on all these levels, she argues that this anthropogenic worldview prevents us from questioning human supremacy, and therefore prevents us from scaling down our impacts in pursuit of a more sustainable and equitable world.

This exploration of an anthropocentric worldview is not new; scientists, academics and journalists have been exploring the links between anthropocentrism, capitalism and climate change for years.

Some have even proposed alternative worldviews such as ecocentrism, which accepts humanity’s place in a larger web of life and promotes our responsibility to repair the damage done by the ideological dominance of anthropocentrism.

Although Crist’s arguments are not ground-breaking, they certainly offer an intriguing perspective and put out a much-needed call to “re-imagine the human in a register that no longer identifies human greatness with dominance within the ecosphere and domination over nonhumans”.

  1. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1810141115
  2. http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aau602
  3. https://doi.org/10.1111/misp.12055
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/22/this-changes-everything-review-naomi-klein-john-gray
  5. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10806-018-9711-1
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