SHIFTING FROM EGO-CENTRICISM TO ECO-CENTRICISM, Part I
By Jim Harding
World-renowned biologist, Rene DuBos, coined the now familiar phrase “Think globally, Act locally”. In Wooing of Earth he suggested that “Humanized environments give us confidence because nature has been reduced to the human scale…” He continued “…but the wilderness in whatever form almost compels us to measure ourselves against the cosmos.”
Perhaps this is why anthropocentric religion was so influential in the emergence of industrial society, with its naive attempt to “tame” nature. Seeing natural systems in human terms means that natural systems simply aren’t seen. And it ensures that the unknowability and unpredictability of nature remains threatening to us. Yet, we arise out of natural systems, are sustained by them, and return “to them” when our individual fire goes out. We never really leave nature, not even when we fly out of the biosphere on a spacecraft.
Our natural makeup may create resentment. Today’s reversion of various religions to fundamentalist forms may be an attempt to reinvent certainty, as uncertainties about our ecological viability grow. Sects waiting for their privileged trip to a higher order reserved for special believers, is much more common in religious history than we first realized.
This reversion isn’t a realistic option, except, perhaps, as a way to avert emotional breakdown. Nor is it viable, either in terms of what we now know of ourselves on this planet, or in terms of the challenges of sustainability. Advancing to an eco-centric outlook is more realistic and advantageous.
A HARD SHIFT
Past advances in human knowledge about our place in the universe have not, however, assured such a shift in perspective. Galileo challenged the Church’s view that the earth was at the centre of the universe, and this helped bring about the scientific enlightenment. Humans, as socially organized, nevertheless continued to act as though we were the centre of the universe. The technological prowess of industrialization threatens “creation” far more than did the feudal, theocratic system; though, as Max Weber showed, there’s a historical link between “the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism”.
Darwin’s evolutionary views fundamentally questioned our anthropocentrism, yet backlashes to evolution are embraced by some contemporary politicians, including within Canada’s Conservative government. Freud’s great discovery of the unconscious undermined our naive faith in rationalism and instrumentalism. Yet we haven’t accepted that an ego-centric approach to life is not the complete picture; that we are far more than our goals, desires, excuses and self-identity. Nor have we accepted that we deceive ourselves personally and collectively on an ongoing basis, or that compassion is more important than self-interest.
Marx’s articulation that ideology is shaped by our modes of survival and production shook our naive and self-centred views of human nature. Yet we continue to reproduce systems of stratification – from caste, gender, race and slavery to status and class – that don’t serve us or the planet well. Are we, perhaps now in some internet-driven transition to “know and know-nots” which will create “know-not-have-nots’? Or will the recognition of our common ecological home expose these new, superficial identities?
Einstein’s discoveries led to insights into the interconnectedness of all life forms within energy fields. The knowledge from this enables us to transform sunlight into electricity, yet we continue to build nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants that threaten the web of life.
KNOWLEDGE ISN’T WISDOM
Our laxity suggests that discovery and knowledge alone can’t guarantee the necessary shift. It suggests that this shift to eco-centricism will take a change in perception and experience, what might be called a collective revelation, or epiphany. Changes that liberate us from the harsher aspects of “natural” existence seem necessary for this shift; however, they aren’t sufficient. The persistence of fundamentalist religion in the midst of modern science shows that “progress” in itself doesn’t liberate us from self-annihilating belief. Consciousness has to evolve to a new form, a non-dualistic form, whereby we accept where we are, and accept that we are a part of a larger whole, the biosphere. Where we accept that we aren’t a special species in the sense of being able to ignore or escape our ecological home.
In his 1965 book The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard de Chardin argued that the biosphere included an interconnected layer of consciousness and spirit. His view was immediately denounced by his Church superiors. The ban on some of Teilhard’s writings showed that the Theistic view had led to seeing “God” as “an outsider”. And if our “God” is an outsider, so are we. This view doesn’t encourage us to experience and celebrate ourselves in the web of life.
Instrumentalism and otherworldly religion are barriers to us accepting our basic “oneness”. The human ego, which goes hand in hand with instrumentalism and sectarianism, and the notion that only we are “soulful” creatures, may have helped humanity get this far. But we are now on the edge of ecocide. And the human ego and our belief that creation is made in our image isn’t going to get us on to the path to becoming a sustainable creature.
It’s rather ironic that we are facing the kind of challenges of personal and collective transformation that are reminiscent of the call to equanimity, serenity and surrender to a higher power that has been emphasized by various religions. It’s doubly ironic that entrenched anthropomorphic versions of religion, politics and economics stand in the way of humans becoming at one with “creation”, viewed from our present state of consciousness and evolution.