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Getting Right with Nature:
Anthropocentrism, Ecocentrism and Theocentrism
Andrew J. Hoffman
Stephen M. Ross School of Business
at the University of Michigan
Lloyd E. Sandelands
Stephen M. Ross School of Business
at the University of Michigan
Ross School of Business Working Paper Series
Working Paper No. 903
Under review with Organization & Environment
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Getting Right with Nature:
Anthropocentrism, Ecocentrism and Theocentrism Andrew J. Hoffman Lloyd E. Sandelands University of Michigan 701 Tappan Street Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109 Email: email@example.com October 2004 Under review with Organization & Environment.
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An early version of this paper was presented by the first author at the Inaugural Conference on Theology, Technology and the Environment, Kuyper Center for Public Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary, February 2, 2002. The authors thank Keeva Kase for help in refining some of the arguments in this paper, and acknowledge Max Stackhouse, Jennifer HowardGrenville, Michael Johnson-Cramer, Candida Brush, John Jermier and two anonymous O&E reviewers for helpful suggestions and feedback.
Getting Right with Nature:
Anthropocentrism, Ecocentrism and Theocentrism Abstract We are uneasy with nature. The past century has witnessed unprecedented economic growth and prosperity. It has witnessed also unprecedented depredations upon nature. Today there is debate between two moral postures to reconcile these developments. One takes a human-centered, or anthropocentric, view of our relationship to nature, to emphasize the value of securing the resources we need for further development. The other takes an environmentcentered, or ecocentric, view of our relationship to nature, to emphasize the value of conserving her integrity and beauty. This paper explores tensions underling these two views and finds that neither view adequately reconciles us to nature. This paper offers an alternative, theocentric, view of our relationship to nature that reconciles in God our value for resources and our value for nature. This alternative view is founded upon the Catholic Christianity that preceded the Protestant Reformation and the Cartesian metaphysic; one which establishes a divine order of man and nature apart from human egoism and intentions. This paper concludes with a discussion of the implications of this theocentric view for environmental policy and practice.
The past century has witnessed unprecedented economic growth and human prosperity.
World population increased by a factor of four; the world economy increased by a factor of fourteen (Thomas, 2002); global per capita income tripled (World Business Council on Sustainable Development, 1997); and average life expectancy increased by almost two-thirds (World Resources Institute, 1994).1 But at the same time, the past century has witnessed unprecedented human impacts on the natural environment. The United Nations lists 816 species that have become extinct and 11,046 species that are threatened with extinction (United Nations, 2001). Nearly 25 percent of the world’s most important marine fish stocks are depleted, over harvested, or just beginning to recover from over harvesting. Another 44 percent are being fished at their biological limit and are, therefore, vulnerable to depletion (World Resources Institute, 2000a). In 2003, one out of five people in the developing world did not have “reasonable access” to safe drinking water (as defined by the United Nations) and roughly two out of every five did not have basic sanitation (Starke, 2004). The global rate of deforestation averaged nine million hectares per year in the 1990s (World Resources Institute, 2001). Soil degradation has become a major issue on as much as 65 percent of agricultural land worldwide (World Resources Institute, 2000a). Issues such as species extinction, industrial pollution, forest loss, ecosystem degradation, over-fishing and degraded fresh water supplies are all a part of our contemporary world (Thomas, 2002). In short, our human development is ruinous and cannot be sustained.
Although these advances are notable, widening income disparities mean that not all people share in the material and economic progress of the past century (Crosette, 1998a; 1998b).
These environmental problems are not primarily technological or economic, but behavioral and cultural (Bazerman & Hoffman, 1999). While technological and economic activity may be the direct cause of environmentally destructive behavior, it is our values, both cultural (Schien, 1992) and institutional (Scott, 1995), that guide development of that activity (David, 1985; Barley, 1986; Arthur, 1988). Technologies are born of social values that guide identification of environmental problems in relation to human needs. Social values define what is right, good and appropriate. And in relation to the environment, social values define how we view nature and how we view our place within it. What is a forest, mountain or river? Is it a stand of timber, a quarry of rock, or a source of power? (Dreyfus, 1991). Or, are these parts of broader ecosystems of life, human and non-human? Social values define rival environmentalisms.
Rival environmentalisms can be distinguished by the depth and the reach of their values (see Schein, 1992; Scott, 1995). They are most easily distinguished by surface-level values visible in artifacts (recycling containers, hybrid automobiles, wind and solar energy generators) and gleaned from statements of belief (“green” politics, EPA policies, international treaties and protocols). But rival environmentalisms are more fundamentally and importantly distinguished by their metaphysics, by their taken-for-granted assumptions about man and nature and God (Sandelands, 2004). Who is man? What is nature? And is there a God? We believe that it is only by reaching to this deepest level of metaphysics that we can begin to reckon effectively with our current environmental dilemma.
We argue in this paper that two distinct environmentalisms dominate thinking about nature today. One, which we label anthropocentric, centers on the needs of man and views nature in the light of these needs. The other, which we label ecocentric, centers on the needs of nature and views man in light of these needs (Catton & Dunlap, 1980). Behind both of these environmentalisms we find a common metaphysic that renders both inadequate for meeting our needs in the world today. We argue instead for a third environmentalism, which we label theocentric, that we believe is uniquely fitted to the task of meeting our needs. This third alternative rests upon a different metaphysic that turns out not to be new at all, but is very old, very familiar, and very much hiding in plain sight. This is the metaphysic of Catholic Christianity as it has been extended and preserved for millenia.
We begin our examination with a well-known case that illustrates the dominant chords of anthropocentric and ecocentric environmentalism in the modern era: the debate between John Muir and Gifford Pinchot over planned construction of the Hetch-Hetchy Dam in California in
1906. We continue our examination by tracing how, in virtue of their common metaphysic, these rival environmentalisms have come to both dominate and distort our thinking about man and nature today—including even a great deal of contemporary religious thinking on the topic. We then turn to an alternative theocentric environmentalism founded upon the metaphysic of Roman Catholic Christianity. We find in this Divine metaphysic, unlike the metaphysic that dominates secular science and much religious thinking today, grounds for conceiving our true and proper relation to nature. Upon these grounds we suggest the canonical virtues of a healthy and constructive contemporary environmentalism.
The Hetch-Hetchy Dam Debate The question of how to value nature became a political issue in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, as a war of words, values and ideals emerged over the water needs of the city of San Francisco and the sanctity of one of the country's most beautiful national parks, Yosemite. The ensuing debate took seven years to resolve and involved newspapers, politicians, public debate and the invocation of God. In 1906, San Francisco suffered the worst earthquake in its history. But, worse than the earthquake were the fires that followed. As water supplies ran dry, the fires consumed much of the city. In their smoldering ruin, the Mayor made a secure public water supply for the safety of the city's inhabitants one of his most important priorities.
Lying east of the city was the Hetch-Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. With its steep cliffs, narrow entrance and abundant water flow, the valley was an ideal site for a dam.
At the same time, the country was rediscovering the value of nature as something important to its identity. An avid hunter and fisherman, President Theodore Roosevelt tripled the amount of National Forest land, named five new National Parks and established the National Forest Service. While it was clear that National Forests were to be used for natural resource extraction as well as conservation purposes, the status of the National Parks had not yet been established or tested. Between 1906 and 1913, eight Congressional hearings were held on the issue. Representing the two sides of the debate were John Muir, the naturalist writer, and Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the US Forest Service. Both had the ear of the President and, while both had extremely complex personalities and views on nature, their words can be used to highlight opposite views.
To John Muir, the idea of damming the Hetch-Hetchy was a sacrilege against God. He wrote, “Hetch-Hetchy valley is a grand landscaped garden, one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples. Dam Hetch-Hetchy, as well dam for water tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches. For no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man" (Hott & Garey, 1989). He railed against dam supporters (which he called “Satan and company”) writing, “These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for nature. And instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the Mountain, lift them to the almighty dollar" (Hott & Garey, 1989). With words and sentiments like these, Muir appealed to the moral conscience of Americans and mobilized support for the idea that this wilderness should be conserved because it possessed, if not embodied, spiritual value beyond what humans could comprehend.
For Gifford Pinchot, on the other hand, nature represented material resources for human needs. He argued that “The fundamental idea of forestry is the perpetuation of forest by use.
Forest protection is a means to protect and sustain resources.” Pinchot believed that you could have “multiple use” of the National Parks, allowing for hunting, fishing, grazing, forestry, watershed protection and the preservation of wilderness values. In fact, he could not fathom the idea that utilitarian values should not drive land-use policies. He wrote, “As for me, I have always regarded the sentimental horror of some good citizens at the idea of using natural resources as unintelligent, misdirected and short-sighted. The question is so clear that I cannot understand why there’s been so much fuss about it. The turning of the Hetch-Hetchy into a lake will not be a calamity. In fact, it will be a blessing. It is simply a question of the greatest good to the greatest number of people" (Hott & Garey, 1989).
In resolving the debate, Roosevelt sided with Pinchot. While most of the nation’s newspapers condemned the Hetch-Hetchy dam, Congress granted final approval for its construction in 1913. However, while the valley now lies submerged, this event had important bearing upon moral values and environmental protection. First, it marked the beginning of a formal acknowledgement in society that there is value to nature in what was seen as a primal state (Hott & Garey, 1989). Designated wild places have become a part of the American psyche such that no comparable intrusion into a National Parks has occurred since Hetch-Hetchy. In 1916, the National Park Service Act granted measures of protection for the rest of the system.
And second, it personified a fundamental struggle of ideals over how to view nature and man’s place within it. In this debate, Muir and Pinchot represent two contrasting views of nature that have been articulated in several domains since then: anthropocentric and ecocentric (Catton & Dunlap, 1980). Gifford Pinchot’s ideas represented the anthropocentric, or human-centered, view which holds that unlimited human progress is possible through the exploitation of nature's infinite resources. Keeping with Francis Bacon's assertion that that we must "torture nature's secrets from her," this view considers man separate from and superior to nature and it considers nature as an inert machine, infinitely divisible and moved by external rather than internal forces (Merchant, 1980; Gladwin, Kennelly & Krause, 1995). Of this view, C.S. Lewis observed "We reduce things to mere Nature in order that we may 'conquer' them. We are always conquering Nature, because 'Nature' is the name for what we have, to some extent, conquered" (Lewis, 1953: 44).
John Muir’s ideas represented the ecocentric, or nature-centered, view that non-human nature has intrinsic value apart from its contributions to human development (Devall & Sessions, 1985). On this view, man is not separate or superior to nature, but takes his place in nature’s system. On this view, man’s development should be sought only in so far as it does not infringe on the integrity of natural ecosystems (Egri & Pinfield, 1994).