Anthropocentrism versus ecocentrism: notes on a false dichotomy

Issue: 171

Ian Angus

In the 1840s, in the manuscripts later published as The German Ideology, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels set out the first comprehensive statement of the approach to understanding history and society that underlay their writing and political activity for the rest of their lives. They did this in the form of a series of critiques of philosophers who were then influential in radical circles in Germany.

They began with a fable:

Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful results all statistics brought him new and manifold evidence. This valiant fellow was the type of the new revolutionary philosophers in Germany.1

The philosophers that Marx and Engels criticised are all but forgotten today, but their mode of thinking is present in much modern environmental writing. It is usually expressed in more subtle and sophisticated terms than the fellow who thought drowning was caused by an irrational belief in gravity. Nevertheless, the idea that environmental destruction is caused by wrong ideas, by a false conception of humanity’s relationship to nature, can be found right across the broad green spectrum. In more formal terms, it is the view that saving Earth requires general adoption of an ecocentric philosophy that is nature-centered rather than human-centered. Among radical environmentalists, it is often coupled with the charge that Marxism is anthropocentric—that it is only concerned with, or gives inappropriate priority to, human needs.

For example, the late David Orton, who called himself a “left biocentrist”, refused to sign the 2011 Belem Ecosocialist Declaration on the grounds that it was “people-centered, not Earth-centered”.2 Similarly, Australian environmentalist Robyn Eckersley writes that Karl Marx had “an instrumentalist and anthropocentric orientation toward the non-human world”, with the result that “eco-Marxists regard ecocentrism as putting an unnecessary restraint on human development”.3

Joel Kovel, long-time editor of the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism, argued that ecosocialism must be “motivated by an ecocentric ethic”, and that “the ‘intrinsic value of nature’ is the defining concept that differentiates ecosocialism from the various socialisms of the 19th and 20th centuries”.4 Similarly, the Ecosocialist Horizons group declares: “We believe in the intrinsic value of nature, and believe that the highest expression of this is the global reclamation of the commons, which we call ecosocialism”.5

Such arguments express what have been called the “two dogmas of ecologism”—that anthropocentrism is the root cause of anti-environmental behavior, and that real support for environmental protection and restoration requires recognising the intrinsic value of non-human nature.6 For half a century, these arguments have been central to the academic discipline called environmental ethics.

No ecosocialist questions the importance of non-human nature, and we all condemn the rapacious, anti-ecological actions that characterise capitalism. However, “ecocentrism” and “intrinsic value of nature” are not just words—they are concepts that embody a particular view of the relationship between human and non-human nature, and of how environmental destruction can be stopped. Before adopting them, ecosocialists should have a clear understanding of what they mean, and consider carefully whether they are compatible with our fight against capitalist ecocide.

In my view, the “anthropocentrism versus ecocentrism” debate was misconceived from the beginning, and has directed the attention of people who are sincerely concerned about the environment away from real problems and real solutions. The related concept of the “intrinsic value of nature” has never been clearly defined and only promotes confusion. Both ideas detract from the clear and scientific understanding of the relationship between humanity and the rest of nature that we must have in order to interpret and change the world.

In view of the unfortunate tendency of the left to treat every disagreement as grounds for ostracism, I must stress that this is a disagreement among environmental activists, and I raise it with the goal of advancing our common project, which can only be strengthened by open discussion of our differences.

A war of green ideas

To understand the issues, we must look back to the beginnings of the modern environmental movement in the 1960s.

Rachel Carson’s wonderful book Silent Spring, published in 1962, was the first major statement of modern environmentalism. Before Carson, concern for protecting nature was usually called conservationism, and environmentalism was a word used by psychologists for the idea that personality is formed by life conditions rather than biology. By the mid-1960s, the word had a new meaning, and public concern was reaching mass proportions. This led up to April 1970, when over 20 million people across the United States turned out for rallies and teach-ins on the first Earth Day. The 1970s saw the emergence of a wide range of green activist groups on campuses.

That first decade of environmentalism was marked by a war of ideas. This conflict played out between writers who focused on the socio-economic causes of environmental destruction and those who thought the crisis was driven by human beings as such.

Carson was in the first group. The chief obstacle to sustainability, she wrote, lay in the fact that we live “in an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at any cost is seldom challenged.” Science was being misused to serve “the gods of profit and production”.7 Others with similar views included Murray Bookchin, who attributed air and water pollution to the fact that “the most pernicious laws of the market place are given precedence over the most compelling laws of biology”, and Barry Commoner, who wrote that environmentally destructive technologies were “deeply embedded in our economic, social and political structure”.8

This new kind of environmentalism, rooted in a radical social critique, won a wide hearing on US university campuses in the late 1960s, but as student radicalism waned, views that were less challenging to capitalism prevailed, particularly in academic circles. Between March 1967 and December 1968, two widely reprinted articles and a best-selling book set out a conservative social ideology that has ever since strongly influenced mainstream environmentalism and academic environmental philosophy.

In “The Tragedy of the Commons”, Garrett Hardin blamed over-exploitation of natural resources on human nature, the supposed desire of every man to take more than his fair share of Earth’s resources. In The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich argued that the prime cause of all environmental problems was human overpopulation, especially in the Third World. I have written about both of those works elsewhere.9

The third document, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”, appeared in the influential journal Science in 1967. In it, historian Lynn White blamed the environmental crisis on mistaken ideas—specifically, on “distinctive attitudes toward nature which are deeply grounded in Christian dogma”.10 Humanity’s “ruthlessness toward nature”, he said, originated with the Judeo-Christian view that “God planned all of this explicitly for man’s benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes.” This led to “the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen”. For millennia, working the land involved placating and honoring the spirits and sprites that inhabited and guarded all of nature—but now the church taught that it was acceptable to “exploit nature in a mood of indifference.”

“The victory of Christianity over paganism”, White wrote, “was the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture.” The effects of that revolution continue to this day, deeply affecting even people who believe they have no religious views. “We shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.”

Three decades later, the president of the International Society for Environmental Ethics wrote:

In that paper, White, whether he intended to do so or not, set a two-stage agenda for a future environmental philosophy. First, identify and criticise those aspects of our inherited worldview that have led us to a dysfunctional relationship with the natural environment; and second, identify and articulate a new worldview, pragmatically validated—a worldview, that is, that will enable us to live sustainably and symbiotically with non-human entities and nature as a whole.11

White’s article was reprinted in Time Magazine, Horizon, The New York Times, The Boy Scout Handbook, The Whole Earth Catalog and the Sierra Club Bulletin, as well as other publications, including the guidebook distributed at the hugely successful Earth Day teach-ins in 1970. “Almost immediately…it became a standard feature of anthologies and textbooks for use in college courses in environmental studies, the history of technology, and science, society, and technology”.12

Philosophers in full gallop

White’s specific account of anti-nature Christianity overthrowing pro-nature paganism was rejected by most historians, and White himself eventually abandoned it. However, his general claim that anti-nature ideas are to blame for environmental destruction survived. In 1973, philosopher Richard Sylvan secularised the argument by replacing Christianity with generic “Western ethical systems” that supposedly justified such crimes as the hunting of blue whales to extinction. A new ethical system is needed, he wrote, because “human interests and preferences are far too parochial to provide a satisfactory basis for deciding on what is environmentally desirable”.13 Sylvan’s paper joined White’s as a staple of anthologies and textbooks.

When White and Sylvan wrote their articles on anthropocentrism, colleges and universities in the US were in the midst of a growth spurt: the arrival of the baby boom generation caused total registrations to more than double between 1964 and 1974. That, in turn, created an unprecedented number of teaching positions in specialties that could be marketed as relevant to socially conscious students. One such specialty was Environmental Ethics, a field that did not exist in 1970, but which was a recognised subdiscipline in many university philosophy departments by the end of the decade.

As historian Roderick Nash comments, “the growing perception of an environmental crisis in the 1970s spurred the philosophers into full intellectual gallop”.14 White’s article offered the kind of ideological framework that careers are built on. It was, in the words of one of the founders of the new field, “the catalyst that generated the subdiscipline of environmental ethics.

It has profoundly shaped the philosophical debate about environmental values ever since… Most environmental ethicists took White’s criticism to be compelling and proceeded to propose “non-anthropocentric” ethical positions as an antidote.15

With few exceptions, green philosophers agreed that the environmental crisis was a moral issue. It could thus only be resolved by adoption of environmental ethics based on a non-anthropocentric philosophy that extended moral consideration to non-human nature. In Eckersley’s words:

An ecocentric approach has been shown to be more consistent with ecological reality, more likely to lead us toward psychological maturity, and more likely to allow the greatest diversity of beings (human and non-human) to unfold in their own ways. Indeed, ecocentrism may be seen as representing the cumulative wisdom of the various currents of modern environmental thought.16

The argument, simply put, was that the dominant worldview in modern society considers the needs of humans to be more important than the needs of non-human nature. This viewpoint—variously labeled anthropocentrism, human racism or speciesism—allows humans to harm non-humans in order to benefit humans. “Concern for ourselves at the expense of concern for the non-human world is held to be a basic cause of environmental degradation and potential disaster”.17 So long as anthropocentric ethics predominate, the destruction of the natural world will continue unabated.

If humans are taken to be more valuable beings than other species, then it would always follow that any human need, want or desire must necessarily take priority over the need or interests of non-human nature, no matter how critical or essential the latter needs may be.18

What was needed, therefore, was a new system of ethics that recognised the moral right of non-human nature to exist and develop without human interference and regardless of human needs. In short, we must replace our anthropocentrism with ecocentrism.

That argument triggered the birth and rapid expansion of environmental ethics as a subdiscipline in academic philosophy. By the end of the 1970s, it had its own quarterly journal (always a necessity in the “publish or perish” academic world) and frequent conferences. By 2000, there were at least four journals and two professional associations. An incomplete bibliography lists 166 books on environmental ethics published between 1970 and 2002.19 If volume is the measure, this was a successful endeavor.

Dancing on the head of a pin

The founders of ecocentric philosophy were convinced that they were making fundamentally important major advances in philosophy and ethics. Nash grandiosely described the conclusions of environmental ethics as “revolutionary” and “arguably the most dramatic expansion of morality in the course of human thought”:

The emergence of this idea that the human-nature relationship should be treated as a moral issue conditioned or restrained by ethics is one of the most extraordinary developments in recent intellectual history. Some believe it holds the potential for fundamental and far-reaching change in both thought and behavior comparable to that which the ideal of human rights and justice held at the time of the democratic revolutions in the 17th and 18th centuries.20

That sounds radical, but in practice evolutionary ethics has proven very difficult to pin down. Conflicting interpretations of non-anthropocentrism and intrinsic value have multiplied.

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says that in our time, “in moral argument, the apparent assertion of principles functions as a mask for expressions of personal preference.” The result is “simulacra of morality” characterised by interminable debates in which there is no rational way to choose between the various positions.21 That is certainly true of the debates among environmental ethicists. After decades of discussion, there is no agreement on what terms such as ecocentrism, biocentrism and intrinsic value actually mean.

In the place of such agreement, we are left instead with a set of unresolved philosophical questions:

  • Does rejecting anthropocentrism mean extending moral consideration only to other living things or to all of nature?
  • Does moral concern apply to every individual animal, river and tree? Or does it refer only to species and ecosystems?
  • Are we talking about all living things or just some? All animals or only those we judge to be sentient? What about insects? What about bacteria, the most numerous living things by a huge margin? Are viruses included?
  • What exactly is intrinsic value? Is it somehow inherent in things just because they exist, or is it something that human beings attribute to things? If the latter, is that not anthropocentric?
  • Is intrinsic value absolute or relative? Are there levels and degrees of intrinsic value? If the latter, who decides, and how? Does a sleeping child have more or less intrinsic value than a malaria-carrying mosquito? Is it moral to kill mosquitoes before they infect children, or must we respect all living beings equally and let nature take its deadly course?

The questions go on and on, reminiscent of the possibly apocryphal debates among medieval scholastics about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Bizarre and nitpicky as they seem, discussions of such questions have occupied uncounted hours in academic conferences and filled thousands of pages in books and scholarly journals. Environmental ethicists have taken every conceivable position on them—and some that are inconceivable. Rutgers University professor David Ehrenfeld, for example, endorsed a claim that the smallpox virus has a moral right to continue existing.22 That’s an extreme position, but it is also entirely consistent with insistence that all natural things have a moral right to continue without human interference.

The most notable feature of these debates is how abstract they are. Book after book discusses environmental ethics while making few concrete references to actual environmental problems. Instead we are presented with “social/moral theories which presuppose a world radically different from the one we occupy, thereby rendering them irrelevant as solutions to the problems that face us in the real, non-fantasy world”.23

A major case in point is Richard Sylvan’s widely cited and discussed “last man” argument for a new environmental ethic. Sylvan wrote that under the dominant Western ethical systems, it would be morally acceptable for the last man on Earth to systematically and deliberately destroy every other living thing on the planet.24

This fantasy is, as some of Sylvan’s critics have mildly observed, “radically under-described”.25 What happened to all the other people? Did they all die at once or was this a long process? Could one man actually destroy every living thing? Why would the last man destroy everything? Is it wanton destruction, an act of despair or some bizarre religious rite? Even if we willingly suspend disbelief in Sylvan’s Twilight Zone scenario, why would the existence (or not) of ecocentric ethics have any effect whatsoever on the behavior of the last human being on Earth—or of anyone else, for that matter?

It is tempting to enter into these debates and to participate in what Marx and Engels described as “theoretical bubble-blowing”.26 However, although bubbles can be fun, they do not lead us anywhere. MacIntyre’s account of never-ending moral discussions that “apparently can find no terminus” has rarely been better illustrated.27

These are not casual discussions. The participants are professional academic philosophers using the most sophisticated tools of argument and analysis their field has developed. The fact that they cannot agree strongly suggests, as MacIntyre says, that there is something fundamentally wrong:

If those who claim to be able to formulate principles on which rational moral agents ought to agree cannot secure agreement on the formulation of those principles from their colleagues, who share their basic philosophical purpose and method, there is once again prima facie evidence that their project has failed.28

This project has failed because it was misconceived from the beginning. Anthropocentrism is not the problem, and ecocentrism is not the solution.

In the first place, all the participants in the debate are human beings, offering human judgments about human actions. A human cannot think like a mountain, because mountains do not think. We cannot defend the moral interests of fish; we can only defend a human judgment about what we think the moral interests of fish might be. Ecocentric ethics can only be created, defended and acted on by humans. No one suggests that bears or coyotes should be persuaded to accept that rabbits and squirrels have a moral right to live—only humans can make such judgments and behave accordingly. In that practical sense, humans can only be anthropocentric.

But equally, humans are not separate from nature: we are part of and embedded in the natural world, and we cannot act or even exist without it. A person who cuts down a tree or digs a mine uses tools made with an understanding of natural laws, and does so while breathing the air and being held in place by the laws of gravity. In short, human activity changes nature from within, and in that practical sense, we cannot escape being ecocentric.

So-called anthropocentric morality is not the cause of environmental destruction—it is a justification for practices that inevitably occur in a society based on capital accumulation. As Michael Parenti explains:

The essence of capitalism, its raison d’être, is to convert nature into commodities and commodities into capital, transforming the living Earth into inanimate wealth. This capital accumulation process wreaks havoc upon the global ecological system.29

This is why capitalism has not responded to decades of lectures about the immorality of environmental destruction.

Morality versus moralism

In the 1990s, several writers tried to formulate a political theory they called ecologism, which would be based on ecocentric ethics. The effort initially appeared successful: Andrew Dobson, whose 1990 textbook Green Political Thought did most to popularise the concept of ecologism, noted in 1995 that when the first edition was published, “I knew of no textbook…that included a chapter on ecological political thought, but now there are several”.30 Nevertheless, ecologism failed to go beyond defining basic principles and criticising other political views as insufficiently green.

The number of new books on ecologism dropped off sharply after 2000. Dobson recently said that by the time the fourth edition of Green Political Thought was published in 2007, “I was no longer so sure that ecocentrism was at the non-negotiable heart of ecologism… The sound of ecocentrism has been drowned out by the sound of pragmatic environmentalism”.31

That is certainly true of most Green parties, which found no practical (that is, electoral) use for philosophy. However, the view that Earth can only be saved by adoption of an ecocentric moral code is still common in environmental movements, including among some ecosocialists. The online journal Ecological Citizen, for example, recently gathered over 1,000 signatures from activists and academics for a “Statement of Commitment to Ecocentrism”, which argues that “the recognition of the intrinsic value of nature and strong support for ecocentrism” are “a necessary path for the flourishing of life on Earth”.32

One of the first to sign was prominent environmental philosopher J Baird Callicott, who has argued that “environmental philosophy IS environmental activism of the most radical and effective kind” and that non-anthropocentric ethics has direct practical application:

If all environmental values are anthropocentric and instrumental, then they have to compete head to head with the economic values derived from converting rain forests to lumber and pulp, savannas to cattle pasture, and so on. Environmentalists, in other words, must show that preserving biological diversity is of greater instrumental value to present and future generations than lucrative timber extraction, agricultural conversion, hydroelectric impoundment, mining and so on. For this simple reason, a persuasive philosophical case for the intrinsic value of non-human natural entities and nature as a whole would make a huge practical difference.33

To take this seriously, we have to believe that only the absence of a “persuasive philosophical case” has allowed giant corporations to continue destroying forests and savannas. Imagine the CEOs of giant fossil fuel and agribusiness corporations such as Exxon Mobil and Monsanto explaining to shareholders that profits are down because a professor had alerted them to the intrinsic value of non-human natural entities. Imagine the shareholders applauding vigorously and approving big bonuses to executives who extend moral consideration to ecosystems.

In the real world, a mountain of hard scientific evidence, including detailed accounts of the impact of global warming on both human and non-human nature, has made no practical difference to greenhouse gas emissions. The power and profits of the fossil fuel industry and its allies determine the environmental agenda, not science or ethics.

As Marx and Engels put it, “liberation is a historical and not a mental act.” For that reason, “communists do not oppose egoism to selflessness or selflessness to egoism, nor do they express this contradiction theoretically, either in its sentimental or in its high-flown ideological form; they rather demonstrate its material source”.34

Human assaults on nature—“lucrative timber extraction, agricultural conversion, hydroelectric impoundment, mining” and many others—do not continue because of bad philosophy, but precisely because they are lucrative. Morality has nothing to do with the plunderers’ decisions. So long as it is profitable to destroy Earth, and there is no counterforce to stop them, they will continue to do so, even if they undermine the sources of their own wealth and the conditions that make our planet livable.

That is not to say that anti-ecological behavior should not be condemned on moral grounds—rather, it is to insist that morality is not the same as moralism. As Perry Anderson writes, that distinction helps to overcome the tendency of moral judgments “to become substitutes for explanatory accounts of history”:

Moral consciousness is certainly indispensable to the very idea of socialism. Engels himself emphasised that “a really human morality” would be one of the hallmarks of communism, the finest product of its conquest of the age-old social divisions and antagonisms rooted in scarcity. Moralism, on the other hand, denotes the vain intrusion of moral judgments in lieu of causal understanding… Its end result is to devalue the writ of moral judgement altogether.35

Outrage at capitalism’s devastation of the natural world is entirely appropriate, but only concrete analysis of the social, economic and political causes of that destruction can identify solutions. The view that environmental problems and crises are caused by false ideas, and so can be overcome by promoting an alternative philosophy, can only lead to political perspectives that are built on sand—or worse, have no foundation at all.

Ian Angus is editor of the online journal Climate and Capitalism, author of Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System (Monthly Review Press), and a member of the Global Ecosocialist Network.


1 Marx and Engels, 1976, p24.

2 Orton, 2011.

3 Eckersley, 1992, pp82-85.

4 Kovel, 2011; Kovel, 2013.

5 Ecosocialist Horizons, 2013.

6 Hayward, 1998, p12.

7 Carson, 2002, p13; Carson, 1998, p210.

8 Bookchin, 1962, p26; Commoner, 1966, p124.

9 Angus and Butler, 2011; Angus, 2008.

10 White, 1967.

11 Callicott, 1999a, pp301-302.

12 Whitney, 1993.

13 Sylvan, 1993.

14 Nash, 1989, p123.

15 Norton, 2005, pp163-164.

16 Eckersley, 1992, p179.

17 Eckersley, 1992, p42.

18 Eckersley, 1998, p174.

19 Hargrove, 2011.

20 Nash, 1989, pp4, 7.

21 MacIntyre, 1995, pp8-10, 19. MacIntyre is not a Marxist, but no other contemporary philosopher has written so clearly and insightfully about moral philosophy.

22 Ehrenfeld, 1981, 209.

23 Hayward, 1990, p3; Lee, 1989, p9.

24 Sylvan, 1973.

25 O’Neill, Holland, and Light, 2008, p108.

26 Marx and Engels, 1976, p56.

27 MacIntyre, 1995, p6.

28 MacIntyre, 1995, p21.

29 Parenti, 1997, pp154-155.

30 Dobson, 1995, pviii.

31 Dobson, 2010.

32 Washington and others, 2017.

33 Callicott, 1999b, p31.

34 Marx and Engels, 1976, p38, 247.

35 Anderson, 1980, p86.


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