Why ecocentrism is the key pathway to sustainability

Cryer, Paul, Kopnina, Helen, Piccolo, John J., Taylor, Bron, Washington, Haydn | July 4, 2017 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Econcentrism

The Earth’s biodiversity and ecological integrity is being lost at an ever-increasing rate due to human impacts. The traditional, post-enlightenment Western anthropocentric worldview has failed to halt this (and is almost certainly responsible for it). Changing our worldview to ecocentrism however offers hope for solving the environmental crisis.

What is ecocentrism?

Ecocentrism finds inherent (intrinsic) value in all of nature. It takes a much wider view of the world than does anthropocentrism, which sees individual humans and the human species as more valuable than all other organisms. Ecocentrism is the broadest of worldviews, but there are related worldviews. Ecocentrism goes beyond biocentrism (ethics that sees inherent value to all living things) by including environmental systems as wholes, and their abiotic aspects. It also goes beyond zoocentrism (seeing value in animals) on account of explicitly including flora and the ecological contexts for organisms. Ecocentrism is thus the umbrella that includes biocentrism and zoocentrism, because all three of these worldviews value the nonhuman, with ecocentrism having the widest vision. Given that life relies on geological processes and geomorphology to sustain it, and that ‘geodiversity’ also has intrinsic value, the broader term ‘ecocentrism’ seems most appropriate.

Historical roots of ecocentrism

Ecocentrism as a worldview has been with humanity since we evolved. Many indigenous cultures around the world speak of lore and (in Australia) ‘law’ that reflects an ecocentric view of the world. Ecologist Aldo Leopold in Sand County Almanac wrote the classic evocation of ecocentrism in ‘The Land Ethic’, which expanded the ‘community’ to include animals, plants and the land itself. Philosopher Arne Naess in 1973 coined the term ‘deep ecology’ for similar sentiments, later articulating the notion in Principle 1 of the Deep Ecology Platform:

The well-being of non-human life on Earth has value in itself. This value is independent of any instrumental usefulness for limited human purposes.

In terms of ecocentrism helping to solve the environmental crisis, ecologist John Stanley Rowe has argued:

It seems to me that the only promising universal belief-system is ecocentrism, defined as a value-shift from Homo sapiens to planet earth. A scientific rationale backs the value-shift. All organisms are evolved from Earth, sustained by Earth. Thus Earth, not organism, is the metaphor for Life. Earth not humanity is the Life-center, the creativity-center. Earth is the whole of which we are subservient parts. Such a fundamental philosophy gives ecological awareness and sensitivity an enfolding, material focus.

Acknowledgment of intrinsic value internationally

The intrinsic value of nature has had a mixed history in terms of international recognition. The 1972 Stockholm Declaration was anthropocentric, as was the World Conservation Strategy in 1980. In contrast, the World Charter for Nature in 1982 was underpinned by strong ecocentric principles, stipulating that humanity and culture are part of nature. In 1987, the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future argued that development: “must not endanger the natural systems that support life on Earth: the atmosphere, the waters, soils, and living beings.” It also (in a little-noticed passage) expressed the view that nature has intrinsic value. However, the Tokyo Declaration that accompanied this was anthropocentric, as was the later Rio Declaration in 1992.

The visionary Earth Charter in 2000 (http://earthcharter.org/) strongly advanced an ecocentric worldview, urging in Principle 1a that we:

Recognize that all beings are interdependent and every form of life has value regardless of its worth to human beings.

The Johannesburg Declaration in 2002 however did not endorse the Earth Charter. Likewise, The UN Rio +20 Summit The Future We Want failed to endorse the intrinsic value of nature. However, in 2008, Ecuador enshrined Rights for Nature as a part of its new Constitution. In 2010 Bolivia also passed the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth. In contrast, the UN Sustainable Development Goals passed in 2015 failed to mention ecocentrism, the intrinsic value of nature, or acknowledge the rights of nature. This mixed history likely reflects the problem presented by the dominance of anthropocentrism in government, academia and indeed, the world’s religious traditions. It highlights the need for academics to speak out in support of ecocentrism.

Intrinsic value free from human valuation

We maintain that nature, and life on Earth is inherently good. That is to say nature has intrinsic value, irrespective of whether humans are the ones valuing it. Environmental philosopher Holmes Rolston argues, “Some values are already there, discovered not generated by the valuer …” It is true that, as far as we know at present, we humans are the only species that reflects on and applies moral values. However, we can also understand that life has co-evolved to form the wondrous complexity of the web of life – and contend nature has value, whether humans perceive this or not. The theory of autonomous intrinsic value of nature frees humanity from its anthropocentric obsession that it is all about our valuing. It states clearly that nature has intrinsic value, whether or not humans perceive and acknowledge this.

Is ecocentrism anti-human?

Ecocentrism has been labelled ‘anti-human’, or as contrary to concerns for social justice. We reject this contention. Ecocentrists overwhelmingly support inter-human social justice, however they also support inter-species justice, or ecojustice, for the nonhuman world. Just as environmental systems involve many interrelationships, we think environmental and social systems are entwined, and so social and ecojustice concerns are (and must be) as well.

Anthropocentrism strong in academia

Anthropocentrism is the prevalent ideology in most societies around the world, and also permeates academia and domestic and international governance. Four examples of this are: ‘ecosystem services’; ‘strong sustainability’; ‘education for sustainable development’; and the so-called ‘new conservation’ approach. Anthropocentrism continues to be dominant, even in venues where ecological sustainability is a stated goal. We contend, however, that a fully sustainable future is highly unlikely without an ecocentric value shift that recognizes the intrinsic value of nature and a corresponding Earth jurisprudence. Hence the need for academics to speak out in support of ecocentrism.

Why ecocentrism is an essential solution

We believe that ecocentrism, through its recognition of humanity’s duties towards nature, is central to solving our unprecedented environmental crisis. Its importance is for multiple reasons:

In ethical terms: ecocentrism expands the moral community (and ethics) from being just about ourselves. It means we are not concerned only with humanity; we extend respect and care to all life, and indeed to terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems themselves.

In evolutionary terms: ecocentrism reflects the fact Homo sapiens evolved out of the rich web of life on Earth – a legacy stretching back an almost unimaginable 3.5 billion years. Other species literally are our cousins and relatives (close and distant), recognition of a biological kinship that many have recognized confers moral responsibilities toward all species.

In spiritual terms: Many people and some societies have developed ecocentric moral sentiments. There is increasing evidence that ecocentric values are being fused into nature-based, ecocentric spiritualities, many of which are innovative and new. With such spiritualities, even people who are entirely naturalistic in their worldviews, often speak of the Earth and its ecosystems as ‘sacred’ and thus worthy of reverent care and defense.

In ecological terms: ecocentrism reminds us that all life is interdependent and that both humans and nonhumans are absolutely dependent on the ecosystem processes that nature provides. An anthropocentric conservation ethic alone is wholly inadequate for conserving biodiversity. Ecocentrism is rooted in an evolutionary understanding that reminds us that we are latecomers to what Leopold evocatively called “the odyssey of evolution”. This logically leads both to empathy for our fellow inhabitants; and also to humility, because in this process we are no different from other species. And ecology teaches humility in another way, as we do not know everything about the world’s ecosystems, and never will.

Western scientific thought corroborates an ecocentric worldview through an understanding of eco-evolutionary processes, hence the science of ecocentricity corresponds closely to belief systems of those indigenous peoples (and others) who have in various ways come to see themselves as part of a sacred world. We conclude that an ecocentric worldview follows naturally from our evolution-derived, empathetic and aesthetic capacities, which when combined with our rational abilities, have enabled us over time to increasingly understand the way we (and the rest of the living world) came to be. And this has enabled us to see that indeed, we are part of nature, embedded in a beautiful and wondrous living world. Surely, if anything is worthy of respect, even reverence, it is life itself on our own home planet. We maintain that a transformation toward an ecocentric worldview, and corresponding value systems, is a necessary path toward the flourishing of life on Earth, including that of our own species.

Accordingly, we suggest you sign the ecocentrism statement.

More information about econcentrism can be found in our recently published article in The Ecological Citizen, Issue I 2017


The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

MAHB Blog: https://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/statement-ecocentrism/

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  • César Valdivieso

    Hi there! This is an idea that you might like:

    A VIRTUAL DEEP ECO-CITY TO SAVE THE REAL WORLD
    Despite the high quality of life that some of the so-called developed nations have achieved, the truth is that the world, considered as a group of countries located in a fragile and geographically limited biosphere, is threatened with extinction due to human conflicts and the depredation of the environment.
    Notwithstanding the good and very important actions taken by groups and individuals in favor of a better world, deterioration at all levels continues to increase dangerously.
    After more than thirty years dedicated to these matters, and since “an image is worth a thousand words” we have come up with a novel idea of designing a model city that has all the characteristics of infrastructure and organization inherent to the peaceful and sustainable society that we want for ourselves and our descendants, whose representation in the form of scale models, animated series, feature films, video games and theme parks, would constitute a model to follow to generate the necessary changes.
    The prototype that we present has some characteristics that are opposed, sometimes in a radical way, to the religious, economic, political and educational traditions and customs that have been transmitted from generation to generation, yet are the causes of the aforementioned problems, and therefore must be transformed.
    If you are interested in knowing about this project, or even participating in it, we invite you to visit our website https://elmundofelizdelfuturo.blogspot.com/ (written in Spanish and English), where we are working in that sense.

  • JohnTaves

    If we average more than 2, we ensure the death of (x-2)/x children where x is how many babies we average. If we are not consuming resources faster than they renew, but are averaging 3 babies and thus 1/3rd of the children are dying, are we being ecocentric?

    Human history is dominated by periods of no subsistence growth where the population is relatively stable and (x-2)/x children were being snuffed out. Only when we discovered how to dig up and burn fossil fuels, which of course is highly useful because it allows the population to grow and thus children do not have to die at the rate of (x-2)/x, did we become unsustainable.The author cites other civilizations as being ecocentric, but do we know they would not have burned fossil fuels if they had the opportunity to do so? Would they have passed on creating fertilizer, and packaging, and refrigeration to extract and store food so that their child would not die of starvation?

    Keep in mind that these wonderful civilizations that lived in harmony with the environment were not the only civilizations in the environment. In general there were always more than 1 tribe in an area. If you study one tribe for say a 100 year span, you might discover they had zero starvation related child mortality. But that means they were growing in size. They were doing this at the expense of another tribe that you did not study. That other, weaker, tribe took the brunt of the child mortality. The scientist will conclude that the other tribe had some inferior technology or values, instead of simply the bad luck of the worst real estate in the situation where births are relentlessly attempting to grow the population to infinity.

    If we average 2 or fewer for long enough, we won’t be able to consume resources faster than they renew. Isn’t that being ecocentric without even knowing the term “ecocentrism”?

    What is the point of ignoring how many babies we average?

  • trilemmaman

    I’m guessing most who are endorsing ecocentrism don’t worry about getting enough to eat, finding a safe place to sleep, or their children dying from an easily preventable infection, war, or genocide. Once these basic needs are ensured for all people, universal education on the survival imperative of ecocentrism should be the highest global priority. Until then, there are a growing number of other threats to our security than an unsustainable biofilm. The fact is, earth itself will is toast in a few billion years..and the ONLY way of any earthly life surviving beyond that expiration date is if we humans take on the task of meeting human needs first…(see Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals will do more to prevent us from being the cause of our own extinction than some new faith based movement worshiping live on earth without an equally high value for the welfare of all people. Hopefully we will achieve this before some asteroid prematurely kills all the planet. Chances are our own technology (in the form of AI) will remove humans from the equation long before our abuse of nature does.

    • JohnTaves

      Sorry, I have not read the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. Does it state that we must not average more than 2? If it does not, then no amount of declaring this or that will ensure everyone gets enough to eat. Averaging more than 2 attempts exponential growth in this finite space and ensures that (x-2)/x children must die. The groups of people suffering starvation related child mortality throughout the world are proof that we average too many babies world wide. Declaring universal human rights will do nothing to stop that starvation, only averaging 2 or fewer will.

      • trilemmaman

        John, You obviously haven’t read Paul Ehrlich’s second book. The most effective means of reducing birth rates is 1) ensure child survival. 2) Female education. 3) Female economic empowerment. 4) Female political empowerment. 5) I don’t remember what it was but it was NOT family planning. Making human health and education the highest priority (something the UDHR does) is the most effective means of getting the birth rate below 2 children per family. Look up “Demographic Transition” and what happens in countries where economic development is successful. . But here’s much more important point that your mindset will most likely have difficulty grasping. Population size is NOT the problem. Consumption patterns are! We could reduce the global population to just 1 billion and if they consumed the same way most Americans do…the planet would still get trashed. If humanity made protection and restoration of natural systems and environments our highest priority using existing technologies the earth could probably sustain 20 to 30 billion people. I”m not advocating that number…I’m just saying your focus on numbers is the problem…not the solution. The UDHR or the 17 Sustainable Development goals would do most to reduce birth rates, total population numbers AND enable more people like you and me to protect the environment instead of abusing it (FYI: I Life in a house made of recycled materials and a 1000 sq ft roof garden in addition to about 400 sq ft of solar panels and 600 gallon rain catchment system.) And I only had two kids. That I know of.

        • JohnTaves

          Trilemmaman, I did not state anything about population, so your response “Population size is NOT the problem” is rather odd. I did not state any recipe for how to ensure we reduce the birth rate, so I don’t see why you felt the need to tell me my focus is a problem. I was stating a simple fact of nature. Are you attempting to tell me we don’t need to know this sort of fundamental fact of nature?

          However, I know exactly where you are coming from and while I have not read Ehrlich’s second book, you’ve stated nothing in your reply that is new to my understanding. I am trying to convey some fundamental concepts that population experts, like Ehrlich, are not comprehending. I am trying to teach. I need help.

          Let’s look at “Population size is NOT the problem” using an analogy. Imagine if the building you are in had a machine at every entrance that shoves another person into the building every second. Averaging more than 2 is analogous to that machine. The building is analogous to Earth. In my first reply to you, I essentially stated that unless the machine is stopped, no amount of Universal Declaration of Human Rights will do anything to prevent people from being crushed to death. I also pointed out that people are being crushed to death right now, thus the machine is killing. Your reply stated that the building is not full, to show me that the machine is not killing. Your argument is that there is plenty of space in the building, so we just need to allow the new inhabitants to spread out to all the spaces in the building to ensure there are no suffocation/crush deaths caused by the machine. The concept that more could have been fit into the building is entirely irrelevant. If people died of suffocation, the machine killed. Imagine if this building and machine has existed forever. Why would we evolve to allow the building to get completely packed? The machine is going to kill whether we allow people to be totally stuffed into every nook or not, so why would we evolve to allow the stuffing? Of course we shut the door to our room. Of course tribes don’t sacrifice their sustenance to ensure other tribes do not suffer. Of course billions are well fed, at the same time that millions are dying of starvation related causes.

          The purpose of this analogy is to show that population size, population growth, environmental quality, and generally all the factors that population experts, like Paul Ehrlich, use to judge “overpopulation” are dead wrong. Notice, I have not mentioned population size. I don’t argue anything about population size, or even growth. I discuss how many babies we average. This is analogous to discussing the machine and not discussing how many are in the building. Averaging more than 2 kills only children and only kills children. This is a fundamental fact of sexual reproduction in a finite space. The formula (x-2)/x should be as well known to population experts as the formula for gravity is to physicists. If you think about what happens when the population cannot grow and births are attempting more. You’d expect that starvation will be the swing producer of the required amount of death, if the other forms of death are not killing children fast enough to ensure the population does not grow past the limit. Because we group ourselves, like all mobile species do, you’d expect the child mortality to be disproportionately suffered by the weakest groups. We have exactly those symptoms; groups of people suffering starvation related child mortality. It makes no difference that you can run some engineering calculation that shows 20-30 b can be stuffed into Earth. Just like it makes no difference that you can show spaces where more people could have been stuffed into the building. If people died of suffocation in that building, regardless of the empty space that you think is available, they were killed by the machine.

          Let’s look at the other claims that population experts make. For example, “The most effective means of reducing birth rates is…”. Population experts have not determined what birth rate will result if everyone in the study comprehends that averaging too many babies kills children, and that we have always averaged too many babies and are killing children right now. In other words, the statement should be “The most effective means of reducing birth rates that population experts have found so far is…”

          But, notice the statement was “reducing birth rates”. It was not “ensuring we do not average too many babies”. There’s a huge difference. Population scientists have no clue what averaging too many babies causes, so they have no studies that relate to what ensures we do not average too many. They only have studies that relate to what ensures we have less babies than more babies.

          Further, these studies are nothing more than correlations. I am sure that every single one of the researchers that have published the studies you and Ehrlich are referring to will tell you that they are reporting correlations and that correlations are not causality. Yet here you are telling me in unambiguous terms what causes “reduced fertility”.

          Most importantly, the demographic transition has no capability of predicting the future. Nobody has shown that the number of children you have is totally unrelated to how many children your parents had. If there is a way for parents to affect how many children their children have, then all the methods or beliefs that result in less than 2 offspring will be marginalized by the beliefs that result in more than 2 offspring. Think of it this way. If your descendants average more than 2, they will cause child mortality by averaging too many babies, even if everyone else on the planet has zero babies.

          Finally, I think it is very nice that you have attempted to live your life sustainably. Unfortunately you are deluding yourself if you think you are not consuming fossil fuels. There’s no way you can converse with me via the internet without consuming resources faster than they renew. If you had a patch of land and worked it without trading anything with others, only then would you be able to make the case that you are living sustainably. If you then ran the calculation to see how many can be kept alive using those methods, you’d conclude that billions would have to die for us to keep our numbers alive using only sustainable means. The last time humans did this, our numbers were below 1 billion.

        • JohnTaves


          trilemmaman, thanks for replying. I have not read Paul Ehrlich’s second book, however nothing you have stated regarding the beliefs of population experts, like Ehrlich, is new to me. I’m trying to correct those beliefs.

          I suspect you interpreted my comment incorrectly. It should be interpreted as a simple mathematical fact of nature. (x-2)/x children must die when we average x babies. This is not really debatable unless you are going to tell me that Earth is not finite. I can’t explain why people, like Ehrlich do not comprehend this. His I=PAT formula is the most useless well known formula I have ever seen. I would expect this sort of formula from a politician, not someone that is supposed to be a scientist. This joke of a formula is taught to my high schooler but (x-2)/x is not.

          Notice what (x-2)/x tells us. Averaging too many babies kills only children and only kills children. It does not cause environmental destruction. It does not cause misery, or wars, or anything else. Those might happen in order to keep specific children alive, which is to say that misery, wars, and environmental destruction are caused by ignorance of the fact that averaging too many babies kills.

          Let’s compare this to what population experts believe. You ignored my statements of fact and instead decided that they are some sort of recipe to reduce fertility, so you stated the best ways of reducing fertility that are known to population scientists. Notice however, that the population scientists have never studied the fertility rate of the set of people that comprehend the (x-2)/x formula. In other words, your statement “the most effective” should have been “the most effective that population scientists have thought of so far”.

          Further, notice that you said “reduce fertility”, not something like “ensure we do not average too many babies”. The formula shows us that dead children is the consequence of averaging too many. There is a threshold that we should be concerned about, yet all that population scientists have delivered are studies that tell us about “reduced fertility” whatever that is. “reduced fertility” is less fertility than more fertility, how useless.

          Also, these studies are nothing more than correlations. (x-2)/x is a mechanism. (x-2)/x is the obvious formula to describe the cause and effect of a simple mechanism. That mechanism is finite space and sexual reproduction. The whole point of finding correlations is to discover the underlying mechanism. In spite of the fact that population scientists have nothing more than correlations, and that they all know that correlations are not mechanisms, they make statements like “the best way to reduce fertility”. This is a bad, but very common, mistake that scientists make.

          Finally, and most importantly, the demographic transition should not be used to predict the future. Nobody has ever shown that parents cannot affect how many babies their children have. If there is a way for parents to affect how many babies their children have, then the behaviors that result in lower fertility will be out bred by the behaviors that result in higher fertility. For example, if your descendants average more than 2, they will run the population up to the limit and will cause child mortality even if everyone else on the planet has zero babies. Notice what this example shows. Imagine if there is a group of people that have a belief that is successfully passed on to the next generation to an average of more than 2, and there are say 1000 people in this group, and all the other 7.3b people on the planet have zero babies. Ehrlich and the other population experts would sample and extrapolate and conclude that humans are going extinct within about 100 years. They would be perfectly wrong. Instead of extinction humans will be at the population limit in about 1000 years.

          In short, the mathematical techniques population scientists are using are dead wrong. The conclusions they draw from those poor techniques are further distorted by failure to comprehend the difference between a correlation and a mechanism.

          I am not sure what this means: “I’m just saying your focus on numbers is the problem”. We should not comprehend the fundamental principles of reproduction in a finite space? We should ignore reality? Reality is a problem?

        • JohnTaves

          I have not read Ehrlich’s second book, but I am totally aware of the conventional wisdom of population scientists that you have restated in your comment. There are fundamental flaws with that thinking.

          I tried twice to point out those flaws, but both times the MAHB did not publish the comment. It seems that the MAHB cannot handle criticism of their beliefs. They are not interested in facts, science, or knowledge if it shows flaws with Ehrlich’s thinking.

        • JohnTaves

          I don’t know what you mean by “not the solution”. My comment pointed out a simple fact of nature. I did not propose a solution. Sexual reproduction in a finite space results in (x-2)/x dead children where x is how many babies the species average. This is knowledge. We must know this. We must not let our emotions trick us into avoiding this fact of nature. This has profound implications for your UDHR. It seems that you want to believe that we will not kill children by averaging too many babies, and it seems that you manage to use the demographic transition theory as some sort of proof that we magically manage to not average too many babies.

          Notice that all the evidence from our population scientists regarding the DTT are nothing but correlations to “low fertility”. They never report on whether that low fertility is sufficiently low to ensure that death is not being caused by averaging too many babies. They don’t even acknowledge the possibility.

          Most importantly nobody has proven that the number of babies one makes is totally independent of their parents. If parents can affect how many babies their children make, then the beliefs/behaviors that result in more than 2 will out breed and marginalize all the beliefs/behaviors that result in an average less than 2. This is simple. This tells us that the DTT cannot be used to predict the future. The DTT is the result of studying the exact wrong groups of people. We need to know what groups are NOT averaging less than 2. They will determine the future fertility rate even if all other groups have zero babies.

  • Jason G. Brent

    There is no such thing as “sustainability” and anyone who uses that word in the title of an essay has no understanding of the real world.The concept of “sustainable development” was created by fools and cowards who are afraid to advise all of humanity that both economic and population growth must and must cease in the very near future. Not only must both cease, but both will reach peaks and then start to decline. And that decline will be very violent unless humanity plans for it today. Jbrent6179@aol.com

    • Haydn Washington

      Hi – while I agree sustainable development IS an oxymoron (as ‘development’ has been taken over to mean ‘growth’, let’s not through the baby out of the bathwater! Humanity continues to need a sustainable future which is why we have to demystify the term and focus on the key drivers of unsustainability – overpopulation, overconsumption and the endless growth economy. I detail this in my 2015 book ‘Demystifying Sustainability’ https://www.routledge.com/Demystifying-Sustainability-Towards-Real-Solutions/Washington/p/book/9781138812697
      Cheers Haydn

      • JohnTaves

        Consuming resources faster than they renew, unsustainability, is not driven by overpopulation, overconsuming or the endless growth economy.

        Overpopulation is defined as the situation where the species exceeds the carrying capacity and the carrying capacity is the maximum that can be sustained indefinitely. If the species is using resources faster than they renew to keep their numbers alive, the species is overpopulated because this cannot happen indefinitely. Overpopulation does not cause this situation, it is the term used to indicate that we are in this situation.

        Overconsuming cannot be defined. It cannot be the cause of anything because it means something different to everyone. It is an utterly useless word and concept. It will convince nobody of anything.

        I suspect you meant that averaging more than 2 babies causes us to consume resources faster than they renew. If the subsistence supply is steady, then (x-2)/x children must die when we average x babies. Nobody knows this, so we don’t limit the number of babies we make and thus we fight like hell to keep them alive. We will gladly dig up fossil fuels and burn them if it will provide more food to keep children alive.

        If we average less than 2 for long enough, we will be unable to consume resources faster than they renew. If we average less than 2, we cannot grow the economy. If we average more than 2, we relentlessly attempt to grow the economy.

        Averaging more than 2 is the root cause of the woes you speak of. This needs to be stated unambiguously or nobody will have a clue how to behave to prevent these woes.

    • JohnTaves

      I agree, but let’s be more precise with our words.

      Sustainability is trivial to achieve. We can behave any way we want and eventually the resources that we are consuming faster than they renew (fossil fuels, uranium, etc), will become scarce, leaving only renewable resources. Those resources might not be able to keep alive today’s population. This dependence on non-renewables is exactly the definition of “overpopulation” and it represents a potential for premature death. The decline might be violet, or it might not. If we average less than 2, the decline might be a peaceful one that precedes the required decline that the lack of resources demands.

      Population growth will cease no matter how we behave. I assume you mean that we must average 2 or fewer. We must state this because the difference between no growth caused by no subsistence growth vs no growth caused by averaging 2, differs by dead children. If we average x babies when the subsistence cannot grow, we ensure that (x-2)/x children must die. We must also state this because knowing the goal, averaging 2 or fewer, causes us to think about how that can be achieved, which hopefully causes us to realize that if your, or my descendants average more than 2, they will attempt to grow the population to infinity even if everyone else has zero babies.

      In other words, everyone must know that their descendants must not average more than 2. This is pure math. This is not ill-defined concept like ecocentrism.

  • My thanks to the authors of this piece for bringing the issues of anthropomorphism, ecocentrism, biodiversity and normativity together in one discussion. The whole world needs to look at these issues in depth, because because they involve the moral problem of the highest priority – how to prevent the degradation and destruction of biodiversity and ecosystems. It is vital that we share a general understanding of how ecosystems work, how they support our existence, and how we could work together to avoid ecosystem collapse, but sharing that understanding is not sufficient as the authors point out. The reason I emphasize that this is a moral problem goes to the heart of my disagreement with the authors’s case. Right now we have the means and the understanding to live sustainably and avoid collapse but we are failing to effectively cooperate. The reason is a moral one. We have no agreed means of punishing violators. In our Global Capitalist System, actions that imperil our future are rewarded and actions towards sustainability are discouraged. A moral system exists to protect us from internal predation, from people benefiting at the expense of others. When this system fails human civilization fails. No human society exists outside of a moral system.

    I sympathize with the authors and appreciate that they have recognized that it boils down to a question of values, but I reject their solution of exporting the center of evaluation to ecosystems. History is littered with the discarded attempts to found human values on a transcendent source. This is what you are trying to do. Morality has always been a way of protecting the human group from exploitation from within. It has made human cooperation possible. Founding morality on transcendent sources is always a rationalization after-the-fact. What makes morality work is not dependence on an external authority. It is the creation of a set of moral rules, the collective committment to follow the rules, to monitor for rule-breaking, and for collective punishment of rule-breakers. Hobbes was right to argue that morality required enforcement, but wrong to impose a political solution. It is morality that makes human politics possible, not the other way around. Morality creates authority by agreement, that is where the power lies, not somewhere outside of humanity.

    Life is of the Earth and wholly dependent on Earth, but it is only the wise use of human morality that will allow us to survive and prosper.

    • Haydn Washington

      Hi – ecocentrism is not a transcendent solution but its opposite, seeing the sacred in the immanence of the land, of which we are a part. It is fully in line with ecological and evolutionary reality, we are one species that evolved from nonhuman nature and hence other species are our cousins. And yes humans have ethics and rationality (at times) so we can choose an ethics that reflects that eco-evolutionary reality or we can choose a solipsistic anthropocentric ethics that argues all value is confined to just humanity. The latter has been dominant for 200 years and has led to the environmental crisis and approaching collapse. A change to ecocentric ethics however lets us widen our moral circle to embrace the rest of nature. Then we can become what Leopold called a ‘plain member of the Earth community’ and abandon the self-defeating dream of Mastery of Nature. Time for a change!

      • Thanks for replying Haydn. You are right about our being in an environmental crisis but wrong on the diagnosis. For the last two hundred years we thought that the environment was infinite, so it didn’t matter if we trashed it. Now, at seven billion and counting we are overshooting the biosphere. But, in the mean time, our understanding of ecosystems and ecosystem supports has grown tremendously. So too has our understanding of how to live sustainably. Some of the pieces of the puzzle now fit together, but we are still missing something vital. That something is to see this problem in a moral light. Continuing to use fossil fuels, and to consume ever more stuff will lead to our destruction. To not phase out fossil fuels and reduce consumption levels is immoral. To impede this phase out is immoral in the same way as to allow someone to harm or kill innocent people with impunity. Allowing anyone to get away with immoral acts that harm others undermines all of society. That is what is happening right now. We are allowing the Capitalist system to run amuck, leading to the destruction of biodiversity, because it is not generally seen as a moral problem that needs fixing. We are still stuck in the old way of seeing Nature as infinitely big and inexhaustible.

        It is a mistake to think that we can get ethics off the ground by changing people’s values to be more ecocentric. This is related to the mistake of thinking that morality can be built up by getting people to be more altruistic. This puts the cart before the horse. Altruism is made possible by morality, because morality is a system that protects us from internal predation. Without it, altruists lose out to the selfish, with it, altruism is favoured and selfishness is discouraged. It’s the same argument for ecocentrism. As long as we let Capitalism reward the greedy and don’t punish polluters and exploiters we undermine our own future. This is true, even if the majority of us were ecocentric. Because, in this case, those who were ecocentric will just be crowded out by the financial rewards that the selfish anthropocentric minority gets from destroying the environment. You can have a society of mostly altruistic people. But if just one person can get away with doing whatever he likes with no consequences, it undermines the entire society. Enforcement is absolutely necessary in order for a moral system to get off the ground. What changes is our scientific knowledge. We know more about what is good and bad, what sustains us and what will destroys us. Thus it is our duty to incorporate this knowledge into our moral system and change the rules accordingly. This has not been done and needs to be done.

      • Morality is not the same as Religion. The difference being that morality is an agreement among equals, whereas Religion is an appeal to a transcendent authority. You write: ” a fully sustainable future is highly unlikely without an ecocentric value shift that recognizes the intrinsic value of nature and a corresponding Earth jurisprudence. ” You are appealing to a source that transcends humans. This is a religious move, not an ethical move. “We believe that ecocentrism, through its recognition of humanity’s duties towards nature, is central to solving our unprecedented environmental crisis.” Our “duty” is to survive and to help ensure our continued survival. If we don’t survive then we cannot execute any other duties. Based on our duty to survive, it is vital that we see the connection between ourselves and the rest of nature. What you are saying goes beyond this to call for submission to a transcendent authority (eg., “Earth Jurisprudence.”) Otherwise you would not be appealing to Indigenous religions, etc. The problem with religion is this: no religion has universal appeal. Morality has universal appeal, and Science is close behind.

    • JohnTaves

      Regarding human morality, how about recognizing that when we average x babies where x > 2, we ensure that (x-2)/x children will die.

      If we average less than 2, we cannot grow the economy forever. If we average less than 2 for long enough we cannot consume resources faster than they renew. Isn’t how many babies we average at the root of all of this discussion?

      • No, how many babies we average is not at the root of this discussion. Understanding how we can live sustainably is. Overpopulation will take care of itself, as it did in the middle ages. The problem is for us to continue surviving, and part of surviving is always going to be raising children.

        • JohnTaves

          It is impossible to consume resources faster than they renew forever. We can behave any way we damn well please and the non-renewables will run out. Only sustainable existence will be possible after that. The bulk of human history is characterized by living sustainably. The times or groups of people that did not live sustainably are the rare exceptions. Those times ended, and those groups disappeared. No special knowledge or belief system is required to live sustainably. Every species does this. Not because they have read this article, but because they simply don’t know how to consume resources faster than they renew.

          We humans figured out how to dig up and burn fossil fuels, and uranium and many other resources faster than they renew, and that is what enabled unsustainable existence.

          So what is the real concern that prompted this article? Is the author thinking that we have a choice between X billion living in horrible conditions or X billion living in excellent conditions? Is the author saying that regardless of how many people our births attempt to create, all will be able to get sustenance thus sustainable vs non-sustainable methods only differ by how lousy the quality of life is? Is the author oblivious to the fact that millions die of starvation related causes every year? Is the author under the delusion that lions herded the unfortunate groups of people that suffered starvation deaths into areas that had insufficient resources? Maybe the author thinks that those people needed to behave sustainably and that would have freed up the clean water they needed.

          Premature death is entirely at the root of this discussion. We are able to keep more alive at one time using non-renewable resources than we are capable of keeping alive using only renewable means. The difference between the two is exactly premature death, (failure to reach old age death). Averaging too many babies attempts to grow the population to infinity at an exponential rate. It kills only children and only kills children. There’s a formula that dictates how many children have to die. (x-2)/x, where x is how many babies we average.

          So, yes, how many babies we average is entirely at the root of this discussion. The knowledge problem we have to solve is not how to live sustainably, it is that how may babies we average makes all the difference in the world.

        • JohnTaves

          How many babies we average is at the root of this discussion. Nobody seems to know that.

          We can behave anyway we please and we will live sustainably. Just wait until the resources that are being consumed run out, and there will be no choice. We don’t need to learn anything. The bulk of human history humans lived sustainably and all other species live sustainably, not because they have any special knowledge. It happens because they don’t know how to burn resources faster than they renew. It is incredibly rare to be able to do this, because it happens once and the resources are gone. You are concerned about “ecosystem collapse”. What does that mean, if not a collapse in population numbers. Isn’t that premature death? Isn’t that the whole concern about living sustainably? When the resources that we are consuming faster than they renew run out, the population will killed down to the level that can be kept alive using the remaining resources. Isn’t that the whole concern?

          Does the author have some nonsense belief that the question is not one of premature death, but of quality of life? Does the author think that somehow we will all reduce our subsistence and resource consumption to ensure nobody dies of starvation as those non-renewables become scarce, in spite of the fact that millions die of starvation every year? Does the author think this is just about an ugly environment and somehow premature death does not factor in?

          Averaging more than 2 causes children to die at the rate of (x-2)/x. Child mortality is obviously a moral issue. If we average less than 2 for long enough, we won’t be able to burn all the fossil fuels or uranium and our numbers can decrease to the point where if the environment does collapse, our numbers are not killed down with that collapse.

          Stating that this conversation has nothing to do with how many babies we average is like stating that distance has nothing to do with gravity. It is fundamentally wrong.

          • China had a one-child policy and it did not work as plan. They now have a severe shortage of females. I just flat out disagree that this is a problem of numbers John.

          • JohnTaves

            I’m not sure what numbers you are talking about. Are you disagreeing that children must die at the rate of (x-2)/x where is is how many babies we average? Are you trying to say that the population numbers are not too high so we don’t have to worry about people dying prematurely when the non-renewables run out? I asked a bunch of questions about the author in my previous post that you could answer for yourself to to clarify what you mean by a “problem of numbers”.

            I also don’t understand why faulty expectations (“not work out as plan”) have anything to
            do with this?

            Are you trying to say that if the general population knows that averaging too many babies kills and that the current situation of requiring non-renewables to feed our numbers is an horrific potential for premature death such that we realize that the moral way to proceed is to ensure we average less than 2, we might respond by limiting the number of babies we make, and we might respond by killing baby girls to get a boy? Are you saying that we can comprehend the morality of averaging too many babies, and can act accordingly to prevent child mortality, but will kill baby girls?

          • No, I’m not saying any of those things. Numbers are not reality.

  • Max Kummerow

    Statements like this might also mention limits to growth imposed by laws of thermodynamics. Ecocentrism requires recognition of planetary limits or “boundaries” to further growth of human population and economies. And, as an optimistic note, we have Martin Luther King’s statement that “unlike the plagues of the past”….we know how to solve overpopulation problems. With low cost currently available technologies for contraception, abortion and sterilization. What is lacking, Dr. King pointed out, is the will to stop or reverse growth that ignores limits. based on the anthropocentric assumption that humans can continue to extract more from the planet without limit.

    • Haydn Washington

      Hi – this statement was about ecocentrism but I totally agree with your comments on the unsustainabilty of endless growth. I am a Co-Director of a chapter of CASSE that advocates a steady state economy and edited the book ‘A Future Beyond Growth’ (Routledge 2016) and also the recent book ‘Positive Steps to a Steady State Economy’ you can download from https://steadystatensw.files.wordpress.com/2017/06/posstepsroyal11ptjustheaderfinaljune12thebooklowres.pdf
      cheers Haydn

    • JohnTaves

      I will argue that what we lack is knowledge. We are not taught the simple truth that (x-2)/x children must die when we average x babies. We are not taught that if the subsistence is growing, like it has for the past few hundred years, then fewer than (x-2)/x children must die. We are not taught that in spite of all those amazing discoveries that increased subsistence production, we never managed to grow that subsistence availability as fast as our births attempted to grow our numbers. The groups of people suffering starvation related child mortality are proof of that failure.

      We are not taught that if my descendants average more than 2, my descendants will cause child mortality even if everyone else on the planet has zero babies.

      We don’t need to waste time discussing thermodynamics. All that will do is produce some idiotic theoretical maximums and in the process fail to recognize that we have always been at the maximum that can be kept alive. We must recognize that the maximum can be changing, and is, and that the theoretical maximum is utterly useless. We have managed to increase the maximum dramatically in the past few hundred years, but again, the groups of people suffering starvation related child mortality prove our births have been attempting to grow past that maximum.