“There have been several assaults on this conceit before in the Western world; the philosopher Slavoj Žižek directs our attention to three in particular.”
One of the paradoxes of human life, well-observed by David Foster Wallace is that despite often acknowledging or even embracing our fundamental finitude, we cannot experience any event where we, ourselves, are not at the absolute center. We are inherently the protagonists—or, in the case of the despairing the main antagonists—of our own stories. On occasion, there is a tendency to recognize that such myopia is inherently limiting—and that we must endeavor to look beyond ourselves to the wider world out there. But, for some, there is no escaping this fundamental self-centeredness. Perhaps that is why the Objectivist writer Ayn Rand apocryphally claimed that, “I will not die; it’s the world that will end.” Interestingly enough, this self-oriented sentiment is often reflected collectively as well. Many human mythologies have situated our species at the ontological and moral center of everything. This is particularly true for many of the great monotheistic faiths, which maintain that human beings are the favored creation of God. Consequently, we tend to regard the sweeping drama of existence as being, in one sense or another, largely for our benefit.
Self-Interest and Climate Change
I think both individual myopia and cultural anthropocentrism can partly explain why accepting the possibility of man-made climate change is exceptionally difficult for many of us. It directs our attention away from both ourselves as individuals (and even the species as a whole) and asks us, instead, to look at the planet as an entity that exists separate from our own needs. This would be yet another blow to the anthropocentric belief that we are the center of the universe, around which everything else revolves. There have been several assaults on this conceit before in the Western world; the philosopher Slavoj Žižek directs our attention to three in particular.
The first is the Copernican and then Galilean revolutions in cosmology. These broke from earlier astronomic models, which argued the earth was at the literal center of the universe. This was at least partly inspired by the Biblical claim that human beings were God’s favored creation. Given this auspicious place, why would He place us anywhere but the heart of creation? The Copernican and Galilean discovery that the earth, in fact, orbits around the Sun—and not the other way around—challenged this conceit. And later astronomical discoveries deepened the attack on our pretensions. It turned out that, far from being the center around which the cosmos revolved, we existed on a very small planet warmed by a rather average star. The solar system we belonged to was also but an infinitesimally small part of a single galaxy in a universe consisting of at least 100 billion such galaxies. This seriously undermined the belief in our divine worth.
The second blow to Western anthropocentrism came with the discoveries of Charles Darwin in the 19th century. Modern evolutionary theory suggested that, far from a hand-designed creation, human life emerged as the result of a series of fortunate accidents and happenstance. Our mammalian ancestors benefited at least in part from surviving the extinction of larger predators, which enabled our animal class to become dominant in many environments. Human beings evolved from earlier hominids in Africa, demonstrating an intelligence and ingenuity which enabled us to adapt to a wide variety of environments and contexts. Being bipedal and having the hands we do also proved to be advantages in tool development and use. Over time, these advantages allowed us to become one of the dominant species on the planet, along with various forms of insects and other adaptable creatures. But there is no reason to suppose that our evolutionary advantages emerged from some inherent moral virtues—or that we were much more than a highly intelligent and complex hominid.
If we are either individually or collectively the center of the universe, nothing profoundly negative can truly happen to us because we are too important.
The last blow came from the emergence of depth psychology as a specific discipline. While the previous two points tended to deconstruct our conceit as the dominant species, this final development was more damaging to the belief in our individual importance. Depth psychology gradually came to show that most of us have very little understanding of who we are. We are often driven by pathologies and unconscious drives which we pay little attention to. This is also because acts of self-reflection can be challenging and even traumatizing. This means we often go through our lives driven by desires we have little control over or grasp of. We are also the product of earlier traumas, social pressures, and biological processes. This means that even our passionate belief that we control who we are and can at least be masters of our own minds is often an illusion. If anything, following Spinoza, greater freedom often flows from recognizing the many ways we are determined by forces beyond our control and accepting this with quiet dignity. Reacting against these forces only cedes further control to them, given the futility of any attempts at rebellion.
Conclusion: Moving Away from Anthropocentrism
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
– William B. Yeats in “The Second Coming”
As Yeats brilliantly chronicles, the erosion of mythologies that place us at the center of the universe can be extremely traumatizing for many of us. There remains a concerted desire to resacralize the world and restore human beings to their formerly divine place. As pointed out here, I have a great deal of sympathy with the existential desire for meaning, and, by no means, do I wish to denigrate it. But I think one of the advantages of the decentering of human life is that it can enable us to better recognize the frailty of what we have—and, thus, reflect on how it might be preserved for both ourselves and other living species. Despite the prejudice, which suggested that we were at the center of the universe, the truth is that we are but a single species inhabiting a single tiny planet. There is no special reason why things must persist the way they have simply because it is convenient for human purposes.
This has bearing on the issue of climate change since I believe one of the reasons we are unwilling to accept it is, at least in part, due to an unwillingness to look outside of ourselves. If we are either individually or collectively the center of the universe, nothing profoundly negative can truly happen to us because we are too important. This impression is often given by figures like Rep. Tim Walberg of Michigan, who claimed that, “If there’s a real problem, [God] can take care of it.” This belief is misguided. There have been mass extinctions on this planet before which wiped out vast swathes of life. If we fail to act to ameliorate the worst impacts of man-made climate change, we run the risk of not only killing many other species but putting our own future at risk. While humanity may well survive, there is a growing evidence that the lot of future generations will be seriously compromised by inaction. Many of the worst effects will be felt in regions which are already poor. We must recognize that—whether a divine being exists or not—we can claim no special status. This undercuts the belief that the significance we attach to our existence is shared by the universe. Acknowledging this should, in turn, awaken us to the reality that life is very fragile. And, at least for the moment, its fate is in our hands. Rather than looking exclusively inward, we should take this responsibility seriously and consider carefully how to rectify the problems our species created. This is much preferable to ignoring them in the hope that the universe will look upon our mistakes with mercy and patience.
Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on Twitter via @MattPolProf.