How Does Humanism Relate to Environmentalism?
The earth is currently suffering from the sum of human activity, particularly the activity we have undertaken over the past 200 years. Environmental degradation can be blamed for many problems we face currently, and given our thirst for more, I believe it will only get worse in the near future. Huge swathes of rainforest are cleared daily, tops of mountains are lopped to unearth ore, seas are gradually losing their inhabitants and may one day lose the ability to support life. Habitats for animals are disappearing, and the quality of the air we breathe is getting lower, in some places such as China so badly that it causes illness among those that live there. This is all undeniable fact, and is a topic that we all have to deal with, but how does this relate to humanist ideals, and what does it mean for you?
For me, environmentalism is more about the sustaining of the planet for future generations of plants and animals, and less about the protestations against corporations taking advantage of the planet for fiscal gain. Sure, there’s a crossover here, but my focus is on looking to a future where not only can we sustain the forests, the seas and the air, but also live long, fruitful and sustainable lives. And surely, when you think of it this way, this makes sense, because without an environment to sustain the planet, the planet ceases to sustain us.
Humanism means to do whatever is necessary to ensure that people are provided with basics in terms of food, water, shelter etc., and also that their emotional and educational needs are met. But humanism depends upon one thing only; Life. This should go without saying, but for so many, the focus seems to be on themselves rather than the planet as a whole, and if we lose track of the big picture, we cease to see what really matters to us all. Methodologically speaking, humanism, while at its core a secular standpoint, is one we can all grasp with both hands and embrace, because there is not a person among us for whom the wants and needs of humanity aren’t important, whether they acknowledge it or not.
Let’s talk about the basics of this situation. Whether you are a religious or non-religious person, whether you believe a god created humanity, or whether you believe that we evolved over millions of years, whether you believe in afterlife or that life’s finale means the end of each of us, we all have this in common: We live on earth, and without it, we perish. This is a pretty solid and undeniable standpoint from which to base this argument, and a good starting point from which to base any conversation about the environment and humanism.
We know that loss of habitat means the end of a species that depends upon it. Ecosystems are so complex and interdependent that in some cases the loss of a single insect species could mean the downfall of many interdependent species. For example, imagine a plant that is so specialised that it can only be pollinated by a particular moth with a very long proboscis. Over millennia the plant has evolved alongside the moth, adapted to only flower at night, and gone so far as to produce a pheromone that attracts the moth to it. It even creates its own nectar which the moths use as food. When the moth dips its proboscis deep into the flower of this plant, the plant in turn deposits pollen on the back of the moth, which the moth then passes to the next flower it encounters. This interconnectedness and interdependence means that the moth depends on the plant for survival, and the plant on the moth for reproduction.
Now imagine that the forest where the plant above lives borders upon agricultural land, in particular for something like strawberries. Commercial strawberries are grown using pesticides that target things like thrip and aphids, but are also fatal to other insects such as moths. Given the scale of the monoculture that borders this forest, imagine that a great deal of the pesticides spillover into the forest, carried by the air, and systematically kill off all of the specialised moths in that area. This spells doom for the moth, and in turn, takes away from the plant’s ability to reproduce. But there’s more at stake here. The plant not only feeds the moths, but also produces fruit, which is the only diet of a forest shrew. So the death of this plant species also spells the demise of the forest shrew. And so it goes, the shrew being food for a specific hawk, the hawk keeping rodents species numbers in check and so on. The balance is quite plain to see in this imaginary scenario, but this is an over simplification of what happens in environments worldwide. Plants and animals do not evolve over time by themselves, but within the web of a complex and interwoven neighborhood of other plants and animals.
Humans are an exception to this, but only to a degree. While we have evolved to be able to shape our environment, to muster tool use and bend plants and animals to our wants, one thing still remains, and that is our dependence upon the environment around us. It doesn’t matter that we have been able to build cities if we can’t feed the people that dwell within. We depend entirely on the environment around us for our survival. Some may say that surely, given how clever we are at inventing and innovating, if something disappears from our environment then we would be able to create something to replace it. For example, the humble honeybee, one of the largest-scale pollinators of the food we eat, is seen to be declining in numbers in the northern hemisphere. The causes of this are unknown, but the blame is being pointed mostly at pesticide usage. Remove the bee from the equation and we loose the ability to produce fruits and vegetables upon which we all depend. And while innovators are proposing miniature pollinating robot drones designed to pollinate the plants for us, the fact remains that, rather than us removing ourselves from the equation of nature, as so many would like to believe, we are actually so completely dependent upon nature that we are doomed without it, even despite the ability we have to bend it to our wants.
From the tiny scale of the bee, if we move outward to the larger picture of climate, we see that our activities are influencing the way the climate itself evolves.
But let’s make one thing clear here before I continue; Climate does not mean weather. Climate means the environment and how it interacts with itself, either on a local scale (microclimate) or on a global scale. So to say something like “This was the coldest winter in my lifetime, so climate change isn’t real” completely misses the point. What happens in your backyard is not a litmus test for the rest of the planet. Weather is the result of climatic actions and interactions. A weather event, such as a storm or drought or flood is not proof or disproof of climate change, but when taken as an event on a global scale, can be seen as a symptom. Just like a fever can make your skin cold to the touch, a cold winter does not mean the earth isn’t warming (it is). But the teachings about what climate change is and isn’t is beside the point here. And for the sake of this conversation, whether humans are causing warming to happen directly (we are) or not is not on debate here either.
The point, rather than the semantics of climate change is this; We are completely dependent upon this planet for survival. All of our food, whether farmed or not, depends upon other creatures to be able to grow successfully, and we need clean water and sunlight to farm them. We need fertile soil to grow them in. Our livestock require plants as food, and we in turn require the farmed plants and animals for our own sustenance. If, as models predict, sea levels rise, droughts worsen, and storms intensify, this will have an impact upon our ability to feed ourselves. And as the areas we now use for farming become barren dustbowls or are reclaimed by the sea, we move further into the forests, clearing more and more to provide land for use in farming, further disrupting the climate upon which we depend.
So it’s not a huge jump to align humanist values to the protection of the planet and its finite resources. We see, over time, that the destruction of our environment leads to disruptions in the way we interact with the planet, and if our interactions are hindered or hampered, then our ability to survive is compromised in a way from which there is no recourse. There is no second chance in this. There is no escape route. It is as simple as that.
Rather than humanists focusing myopically upon the rights of humanity, we must do so with the wider vision of what the planet requires from us in order that we can get what we require from it. It’s not some spiritual or new-age hippie notion of Gaia or mother earth. At its core it is simple economics, and the interconnectedness we have with the planet that sustains us. Humanism, therefore, is a matter of environment, and the struggle to move toward more equitable and sustainable ways of continuing our existence with the planet, rather than the assault we are currently waging against the planet. Environmentalism is a key part of humanism, for without the environment, there are no humans.