Anthropocentrism in the Anthropocene

An unfortunate misunderstanding is that humans living in the Anthropocene inevitably are or should be ethically anthropocentric (centering ethical agency and value primarily or exclusively on humans). No doubt the use of the Greek word for “human” (anthropos) in both of those words is partly responsible for the confusion. The Anthropocene is a geological epoch in which anthropogenic effects have reached planetary proportions, shaping not only local ecosystems but whole planetary systems, acidifying the oceans, melting the polar ice caps, warming the global climate, facilitating a mass extinction of species…. If the Anthropocene is a period of time in which Earth systems are covered with anthropogenic effects, does that mean the Anthropocene is anthropocentric?

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APE: Actor-Partnership Ethics

Carolyn Merchant gives a good summary of the problems with anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric ethics in Reinventing Eden: the Fate of Nature in Western Culture (Routledge, 2003).  She proposes a “new ethic of human partnership with nature” in which humanity and nature are “considered as active agents.”

Self-interested, or egocentric ethics (what is good for the individual is good for society); social-interest, or homocentric ethics (the greatest good for the greatest number); and even earth-centered or ecocentric ethics (all living and nonliving things are morally considerable and have rights) all have problematical implications for a sustainable world.  The growth-oriented capitalistic economy from which the egocentric ethic arises and the anthropocentric focus of the utilitarian cost-benefit approach from which the homocentric ethic arises both have negative implications for the environment.  On the other hand, the idea that all nonhuman organisms have moral consideration equal to human beings—the ecocentric approach—undercuts the real struggles of the poor and of disadvantaged minorities for a better life.  What is called for is a new ethic that arises out of both the needs of nature and the needs of humanity.  Both must be considered as active agents.  A new ethic of human partnership with nature—is needed, one in which nature is an active subject, not a passive object. (p. 217)

I like that paragraph a lot, but the idea of human partnership with nature seems a little simplistic.  Treating nature as an active subject sounds good if you think that there’s something out there called nature with which we humans need to partner up.  What if we’ve never been human and nature has never been natural?

I like the idea of an ethics of actors or of active agents, but instead of focusing on a rather anthropocentric sounding partnership between two mega-categories (humans and nature), I would like to see the development of actor-partnership ethics (APE), which would focus on partnerships between any actors (nonhuman, human, and otherwise), so that a tobbaco-flame-pipe-mouth partnership is not occluded by the almighty correlate, human-nature.