Each person on the planet, regardless of how officially religious or ideological they might claim to be, lives according to an implicit or explicit narrative that offers answers to big questions like the origin and destiny of the world, the nature and role of human beings, and how it all fits together. The dominant narrative in Western culture—the one taught in our universities and in books and articles and many other public forums—is that human beings are nothing more (or less) than another animal. We are the most highly evolved, perhaps, even the most sophisticated of the animals, but still nothing more than the product of a long and amoral process of time and chance.
On this view, human beings are not in any way special or deserving of any unique status. We have no privileged role to play, and no right to impose ourselves and our needs upon the rest of creation.
This is narrative enjoys a lot of traction in postmodern Western culture. It is a narrative that whirs around in the background of our cultural consciousness, mostly on an implicit level. Every once in a while, though, this narrative is expressed more explicitly. A few years ago, Alan Wesiman wrote a book called The World Without Us. As per the title, Weisman asks us to imagine a world without human beings—a world where we are no longer around to contaminate, destroy, and deface the world we live in. In this world without humans, nature’s indomitable character, awesome power, and adaptability come to the fore. It is a vision of nature finally putting human beings in our rightful, insignificant place, curing us of our persistent anthropocentrism.
One review, from The Globe and Mail, summarizes our difficulties with the book’s main idea like this:
Still, believing we’re at the centre of it all, we find it hard, if not logically impossible, to contemplate a world without us: Some of us deny our special genius for self-destruction, some of us wallow in fear—and some of us persist in thinking that salvation, when and if it comes, will be our achievement as well. Anthropocentric to the last, we can’t conceive of a happy ending that doesn’t include us as both the agent and the beneficiary, the giver and the taker.
From a biblical perspective, of course, human beings really are the centre of it all. Humans are described in the book of Genesis as the pinnacle of God’s creation, the one in whom his image is said to rest. Human beings are described as being a part of creation, but a very unique and special part. And the telos of God’s project of redemption (described in the book of Revelation and elsewhere) involves a human community finally living in peace and harmony with all of creation.
But leaving the Bible out the picture entirely, I wonder about “curing” us of our anthropocentrism as a strategy for encouraging better care for the environment. Is convincing people that they are just an insignificant part of the natural world—a curious “mammal with an oversized brain” that has no special role to play and is in no way set apart from the rest of creation—the best way to promote more responsible behaviour in the world?
From a strictly utilitarian perspective, we ought to be arguing that human beings are more, not less significant in the grand scheme of things. The belief that human beings are nothing more than a momentary blip on the cosmic map, ultimately destined for nothing but “uninteresting” extinction and futility, could lead to the view that raping and pillaging the environment to extract whatever pleasures and conveniences can be secured in the present actually makes sense. At the very least, there doesn’t seem to be an obvious straight line between the conviction that human beings are no more or less significant than any other mammal and the firm, almost religious conviction that we ought to be doing more to preserve the environment.
Additionally, the bare imperative to adjust human behaviour for the sake of the planet already assumes that human beings are unique among all of the creatures thrown up by nature’s clay. The very idea that human beings have anything resembling a moral duty to preserve the planet, whether in protecting endangered species or attempting to control emissions levels, requires the prior acceptance of human beings as utterly unique in their capacity both to achieve these ends and to accept and understand moral obligations that go far beyond themselves. The imperative to “save the earth” is not typically an obligation presented to chimpanzees or turtles.
The irony is rich indeed. Some of the most strident and moralistic language about “saving the earth” or “protecting the planet” frequently comes from those who, while officially claiming to be agnostics or atheists, are more committed to the biblical model of human beings as uniquely gifted stewards of a good and beautiful creation than are many people of faith (who ought to be among creation care’s most enthusiastic advocates!).
It seems to me that all of us—religious or otherwise—would profit from an examination of the narratives we embrace and if/how these narratives fit with the ways in which we understand ourselves in this world and inspire us to work toward the world we want.