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Turning Anthropocentrism Up to 11


It's often pointed out that when we say “Save the Earth”, what we mean is “Save the Earth (for humans)”. There has been, and will be, an earth without humans. That earth apparently doesn't require saving. This has lead to a new trope in discourse about global warming and the sixth mass extinction. It's the “if you won't do it for the earth, do it for yourselves” argument. The earth will be fine either way, but humans will face a catastrophe in the biosphere and widespread extinction. When the dust settles, there will still be some form of the planet earth.

In a New York Times Op-Ed, Alan Lightman recently put it this way:

Mother Earth doesn't care about you at all. So save yourselves.

Lightman wants to disabuse us of the notion that nature is a sentient larger whole with which we humans can become one. He prefers this view of nature:

Nature is purposeless. Nature simply is. We may find nature beautiful or terrible, but those feelings are human constructions. Such utter and complete mindlessness is hard for us to accept. We feel such a strong connection to nature. But the relationship between nature and us is one-sided. There is no reciprocity. There is no mind on the other side of the wall.

Lightman is a physicist who teaches humanities at M.I.T., and here he seems to present us with a hard-headed realist position. Nature is an unraveling of mindless patterns and algorithms, it will not save us from our self-made catastrophe. Forget nature, save the humans. If we can't be made to care about the planet, perhaps we can spurred to action with the idea of saving ourselves.

Of course, the wealthy 1% will experience catastrophic climate change, due to global warming, much differently than the other 99%. When we say “humans,” and great deal depends on who is speaking and what groups they refer to when uttering that word.

Lightman's position is the ne plus ultra of nihilist idealism. Nothing exists but the human mind, its constructions and a purposeless chaos. It's an interesting position for a scientist to take. It also points to the reason that scientists could benefit from a dialogue with philosophers. Lightman seems unaware of the philosophical ideas he's enacting.

The physicist (who teaches humanities) sees our position in the universe as a lonely one. It's only us. A simple refutation of Lightman would be to look at anyone who has ever had a dog or a cat as a pet. We co-exist with a dog, and the dog is an other, not a mental construction.

This concept that there are only humans, or what is more commonly called anthropocentrism, is precisely the reason that we face a catastrophe in the biosphere. Lightman thinks we can escape our fate by turning our anthropocentrism from 10 up to 11. I suggest we wake from that nightmare to see the other entities all around us. It's not just us we will destroy.


Published in culture desire identity philosophy politics