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Part 1: Ecosophy - Deep Ecology, Anthropocentrism, and Intrinsic Value

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Part 1: Ecosophy - Deep Ecology, Anthropocentrism, and Intrinsic Value

So this post will be part one in my series "Ideology in Progress" where I, as the name suggests, try to formulate and explain my ethical-political ideology. These writings are as much for me as for you and as such I will try to be clear and concise, but considering my brain works by jumping around, the "parts" may not be in the most logical order and may be re-arranged later.

Additionally, in my meta post, "Part 0: What Am I (Politically)?" I created a bulleted list of aphorisms/things that I believe and these posts will be where I flesh them out.

Finally, the post titles will be an attempt at stating which aphorisms or ideas that run around my head so you know what to expect. So without further ado, it's time to discuss nature.

I: What is Life?

“Why is defining life so frustratingly difficult?... Life is a concept that we invented.” – Ferris Jabr
I would like to start off with a two part rhetorical question: what is life and why is it sacred? For me: life is not sacred. Life is not holy or special or magical. In fact, the concept of life is so arbitrary it's almost laughable and holding it up upon a pedestal of grace makes no sense.

So allow me to explain: as of right now, there is no comprehensive definition of what "life" actually is. In fact, there are many different definitions that conflict with each other. For example, Campbell's famous biology textbook lists 7 characteristics of life:

  1. Order
  2. Regulation
  3. Energy Processing
  4. Evolutionary Adaptation
  5. Response to the Environment
  6. Reproduction
  7. Growth and Development

(Reece) whereas NASA's working definition of life in their search for extra-terrestrials, written by Gerald Joyce[1] among others, is that "life is a self-sustaining system capable of Darwinian evolution" (Mullen). Clearly the latter doesn't inherently include all 7 characteristics of the former. This is a problem because, if there is no concrete or stable definition of life, then there is nothing to hold sacred. For example, if I were to say "art is sacred", one would rightly ask "what is art?". For some reactionaries, modern art is not art at all, for others, it is. This conflict will then lead to competing claims of the sanctity of art (this was most prominently shown during the Third Reich). Until there is a stable definition, it's hard to take any claims of absolute sanctity seriously.

But it gets more problematic.The arbitrary definition of life as "a self-sustaining system capable of Darwinian evolution" opens the door to tons of claims of life that most people would think "no, that's not life". Example: programs have been created to test the theory of evolution. These programs are simulations, similar to Conway's Game of Life, in which bits evolve and change according to changes in their environment (Zimmer). Programs like these actually fall under NASA's own definition of life. Robert Pennock[2] explains:
“All the core parts of the Darwinian process are there. These things replicate, they mutate, they are competing with one another. The very process of natural selection is happening there. If that’s central to the definition of life, then these things count.” (Jabr)
So if a computer simulation would be considered life, where is the sanctity? That means that everytime this simulation is shut down, mass genocide is occurring and is morally repugnant. Or maybe, just maybe, we have the wrong conception of life.

But let's ignore all that, let's ignore the fact that there is no stable definition of life and discuss why there is no sanctity. Sanctity implies that something is special, unique, rare. For something to be sacred, it has to (from an iconic religious perspective) be rare or hard to re-create. That's the entire reason people care about preserving historical artifacts, because they are rare and provide some insight into the past. While maybe not "sacred" in the traditional sense, there is uproar when people destroy ancient artifacts. To further hammer this home, let me give an example: you have two axes, a handaxe from India (over 1 million years old) (Smithsonian), and a handaxe from Lowe's (Lowe’s).

If I were to walk into the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and smash the first axe, I would be arrested and likely serve jail time. But if were to go into Lowe's and break their axe, I would probably get slapped with a fine (the price of the axe) and then be kicked out of the store. Why the difference, they're both axes right? The reason we value one axe above another is because one is rare. The Lowe's axe is common, easy to replace - the handaxe from India is one of a kind and thus we value it more.

So in order for something to have some special treatment or value, it must have some characteristic that makes it worth saving. That characteristic can't be based on some ambiguous definition of "life", rather, it needs to be something external. In the case of something sacred, that external factor is rareness/uniqueness. So to determine whether or not life is sacred, one must honestly answer the following question: is life really all that rare? Hell, one human body is home to over 100 trillion bacteria... (Pollan) (For those keeping score at home, that's over 14,000 times more people than currently exist)

In other words, every time you wash your hands, you're committing genocide on an unimaginable scale.

But wait...the life a germ doesn't matter now does it, for if it did, humans would have died out long ago trying to not kill germs. So what is it that makes human lives sacred? Is it some arbitrary level of complexity? Because if it is, all that does is beg the question of where the line is drawn. Until one knows where the line is drawn, there can be no clear claims of the "sanctity of life".

But let’s ignore all of that as well. Let’s ignore the fact that rareness often determines value and look at some of the arguments made by “pro-life” people.

Charles Choi, a writer for LiveScience, has been kind enough to provide a list of the “Top 10 Things that Make Humans Special” and I think it’s fitting that each of those 10 are replied to and refuted. According to Choi the 10 things are:

Speech: The larynx, or voice box, sits lower in the throat in humans than in chimps, one of several features that enable human speech. Human ancestors evolved a descended larynx roughly 350,000 years ago. We also possess a descended hyoid bone — this horseshoe-shaped bone below the tongue, unique in that it is not attached to any other bones in the body, allows us to articulate words when speaking.

Upright Posture: Humans are unique among the primates in how walking fully upright is our chief mode of locomotion. This frees our hands up for using tools. Unfortunately, the changes made in our pelvis for moving on two legs, in combination with babies with large brains, makes human childbirth unusually dangerous compared with the rest of the animal kingdom. A century ago, childbirth was a leading cause of death for women. The lumbar curve in the lower back, which helps us maintain our balance as we stand and walk, also leaves us vulnerable to lower back pain and strain.

Nakedness: We look naked compared to our hairier ape cousins. Surprisingly, however, a square inch of human skin on average possesses as much hair-producing follicles as other primates, or more — humans often just have thinner, shorter, lighter hairs.

Hands: Contrary to popular misconceptions, humans are not the only animals to possess opposable thumbs — most primates do. (Unlike the rest of the great apes, we don't have opposable big toes on our feet.) What makes humans unique is how we can bring our thumbs all the way across the hand to our ring and little fingers. We can also flex the ring and little fingers toward the base of our thumb. This gives humans a powerful grip and exceptional dexterity to hold and manipulate tools with.

Extraordinary Brains: Without a doubt, the human trait that sets us apart the most from the animal kingdom is our extraordinary brain. Humans don't have the largest brains in the world — those belong to sperm whales. We don't even have the largest brains relative to body size — many birds have brains that make up more than 8 percent of their body weight, compared to only 2.5 percent for humans. Yet the human brain, weighing only about 3 pounds when fully grown, give us the ability to reason and think on our feet beyond the capabilities of the rest of the animal kingdom, and provided the works of Mozart, Einstein and many other geniuses.

Clothing: Humans may be called "naked apes," but most of us wear clothing, a fact that makes us unique in the animal kingdom, save for the clothing we make for other animals. The development of clothing has even influenced the evolution of other species — the body louse, unlike all other kinds, clings to clothing, not hair.

Fire: The human ability to control fire would have brought a semblance of day to night, helping our ancestors to see in an otherwise dark world and keep nocturnal predators at bay. The warmth of the flames also helped people stay warm in cold weather, enabling us to live in cooler areas. And of course it gave us cooking, which some researchers suggest influenced human evolution — cooked foods are easier to chew and digest, perhaps contributing to human reductions in tooth and gut size.

Blushing: Humans are the only species known to blush, a behavior Darwin called "the most peculiar and the most human of all expressions." It remains uncertain why people blush, involuntarily revealing our innermost emotions. The most common idea is that blushing helps keep people honest, benefiting the group as a whole.

Long Childhoods: Humans must remain in the care of their parents for much longer than other living primates. The question then becomes why, when it might make more evolutionary sense to grow as fast as possible to have more offspring. The explanation may be our large brains, which presumably require a long time to grow and learn.

Life after Children: Most animals reproduce until they die, but in humans, females can survive long after ceasing reproduction. This might be due to the social bonds seen in humans — in extended families, grandparents can help ensure the success of their families long after they themselves can have children. (Choi)

Now not only is Choi incorrect about many of his facts, but there is also no analysis as to why these traits are inherently special. But regardless, let’s answer each one.

First Choi mentions the fact that humans have speech, or the ability to communicate with one another, as a reason for humans being special but this is absurd. There is no stable articulation of what “speech” actually is much less why it must be confined to some “hierarchical” language system. Additionally, it is extraordinarily well documented that chimps possess many of the same abilities speech wise as humans. Chimps are not only able to communicate with one another, but they are able to communicate through multiple different mediums as well as utilizing different types of speech. Specifically, Dr. Jane Goodall[3] isolated two distinct patterns of speech – “intraparty” and “distance” calls. These are two fundamentally different patterns of chimp interaction and chimp communication that shows not only is there another species that possess an ability akin to speech, but they possess an ability akin to speech that is hierarchical like human languages (Communication).

But that’s not all, a study coming out of Georgia State University found that chimps are able to communicate the location of food to one another with hand gestures and work as a team to find the food (Roberts). This is significantly more advanced than most toddlers can do and, as one of the researchers Dr. Anna Roberts says, “The use of gestures to coordinate joint activities such as finding food may have been an important building block in the evolution of language,” (GSU). This means that chimps have demonstrated a fundamental piece of what Choi asserts is uniquely human. 

And how could one forgot “man’s best friend”? Ignoring the obvious barking to communicate with other dogs, a 2012 study found that dogs are “as receptive to human communication as pre-verbal infants” (Castro). So I suppose, if one adopts Choi’s framework, pre-verbal infants aren’t really that special…or at the least equivalent to dogs.

Next Choi asserts that our ability to walk upright makes us special but in his analysis he includes some points which show that the change to purely upright walking was in fact a devolution. This is indicated when Choi says “the changes made in our pelvis for moving on two legs…makes human childbirth unusually dangerous…A century ago, childbirth was a leading cause of death for women” (Choi). That’s not sounding too good to me. But regardless, Choi does make the positive claim that upright posture has allowed humans to utilize tools and that makes us special. But either out of neglect or denial, Choi ignores the abundance of evidence that indicates that chimps can do the exact same thing. In fact, as early as 2004, evidence has come to light that chimps not only utilize one tool, but utilize many tools for many different jobs (Trivedi). This is quite literally the epitome of what Choi tries to assert as being uniquely human.

What’s more, a study coming out of the University of Zurich found that not only were chimps able to utilize tools, but they were able to make and combine multiple tools and tool uses to “get access to one food item” (Boesch). I don’t know about you, but I’m beginning to see a trend.

Following that, Choi asserts that our “nakedness” or apparent lack of hair makes us special. Not only is there no analysis as to why this makes us special, it ignores the fact that if “nakedness” were somehow special, the Sphynx cat (hairless cat) would be far more special because it lacks hair entirely. It isn’t “apparently” naked, it is naked![4]

Choi then asserts that our hands, specifically the dexterity of them, makes humans special because we can utilize tools. Since the only analysis regarding dexterity is tool use, I would like to point out again that chimps have been found to do exactly the same thing (Trivedi) (Boesch).

Fifth, and potentially most importantly, Choi asserts that the human brain is “extraordinary” because it allows us to reason and think and create. Now ignoring the obvious flaws in Choi’s claims, namely the lack of definitions, there is also the ignorance of the animal intelligence. Choi’s argument rests on the “fact” that humans are significantly more intelligent than other animals yet this ignores recent findings. Specifically, a study from 2009 found that pigs are able to utilize mirrors and “reflected images to scope out their surroundings and find their food” (Angier). Not only that, professor Stanley Curtis of Penn State was able to teach pigs to play video games (Shaker)! And those are just a few examples. Not only do scientists argue that dolphins should have the same rights as humans due to their intellect (BBC), but India has officially classified dolphins as “non-human persons” thus giving them legal protection (Ketler). What’s more, recent studies have also found that chickens, an animal often thought of as dumb, are smarter than 4 year olds (Friedrich). This puts Choi in a tricky spot, because either chickens and 4 year olds are both equivalent in terms of specialness, or a 4 year old human can’t be considered special.

Sixth, Choi argues that humans are unique because we are the only animals to have developed clothing. Ignoring the fact that there are no warrants as to why this is means anything, this is probably a reason why we are have devolved. So I want to say a few things here – if having some “cool trick” makes a species of more worth, then dolphin’s, with their ability to balance balls on their noses, are super talented. But regardless, it’s ironic isn’t it? Clothes were developed as a means to protect us from the elements and nature around because…we lost our fur. Yep. Clothing was developed as a means to stay safe because we evolved without fur and thus had no natural protection.

Following this, Choi asserts that the human ability to control fire is a uniquely human activity which represents something unique about our species because it allowed us mastery over nature. This would be pretty convincing and all if it weren’t for the fact that chimps have been shown to be able to do the same thing. Specifically, an article published on Livescience entitled “Chimps Master First Step in Controlling Fire” indicates that chimps have already evolved to the point where they are no longer intrinsically afraid of fire (which is the first step to mastering fire, and is a good deal better than many humans, ie. my mother) and actually see the value in it. But I think the ultimate irony here is the authorship of the last article. It was written by none other than the one and only Charles Choi (Choi)! But that’s not all, anthropologist Jill Pruetz’s study of chimps found that are able to predict when yearly fires occur and they understand the outcome of brush fires and can utilize them (Ferlazzo).

Subsequently, Choi asserts that the ability for humans to blush is something special and unique to humans but, as usual, Choi doesn’t explain why this makes humans special. Even if blushing is unique, that doesn’t mean that humans are inherently special. Regardless, Choi argues that blushing keeps humans honest and that benefits a group dynamic but the only reason that the issue of “dishonesty” arises is because we have an arbitrary level of development and have so called “consciousness”. Animals with a different level of consciousness don’t necessarily need to display this. Even so, there are other methods of maintaining a strong group dynamic that we see everyday in the animal kingdom.

Following this, Choi argues that a lengthy childhood is a unique characteristic to human because other primates usually develop faster. Again, there is no analysis as to why this supposedly unique characteristic makes humans special. Regardless however, from a pure utilitarian stand point this is a negative thing because there is less time for reproduction (Choi).

And finally, after a long and arduous list, we get to the last point. Here, Choi asserts that the fact that humans are able to stop having children and develop parental relationships is something that makes us special because we can build strong community bonds. But this ignores the fact that animal relationships are often just as strong, if not stronger than human relationships regardless of the rate of breeding. Specifically, there are a few interesting examples. Both orca whales as well as elephants have shown a strong knit family and group dynamic that look out for their young (OSA) (JP). An odd 2006 study from Rice University studied the microbe Dictyostelium purpureum and, surprisingly, found that in times of “danger” they favor their kin and stick together in tight knit microbial communities. The study found that “when food runs short, D. purpureum aggregate together by the thousands, forming first into long narrow slugs and then into hair-like fruiting bodies” and are able to capture food more easily (Boyd). Even more interesting however is a 2012 study from Oxford which studied bird behavior and interaction and found that birds create “clique-like” structures similar to the structures we see in high school group dynamics (Smith).

Thus, keeping all this in mind – that is the arbitrariness of life as well as a lack of a special characteristic that makes us, as humans, better than other creatures – I cannot believe that human life is inherently worth more than the lives of other creatures.



II: Goodbye Biosphere!

“The human species may look to some people outside the planet as though it's more of a planetary disease.” – Dr. Warren Hern

Despite the amazing strides by Greenpeace and the likes in the past few decades, there is still much to do and a lot of what we have done is past the point of irreversibility. Although we might have successfully stopped the humpback whale trade, we have just created more problems that are a far more serious threat to the environment than overfishing. Specifically right now I’m speaking of climate change[5] and its dramatic implications for the health of the planet as a whole.

Now before continuing, I must address the ever lingering and, unfortunately, still debated issue of whether climate change is anthropogenic or not. If you’re a person who enjoys the Kochs or believes everything the CATO Institute tells you, this section is directed towards you. In 2013 a study was completed by and authored by nine different scientists ranging from climate scientists at the University of Queensland to geological scientists at Memorial University of Newfoundland. The article, titled, “Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature”, apart from being one of the best articles on climate science I have ever seen, without a doubt proves the human influence on the environment. Specifically, the authors, Cook et al., took over 10,000 peer-reviewed scientific articles published in journals examining climate science over the past 20 years and found that “papers rejecting the consensus on AGW[6]…[make up]…a vanishingly small proportion of the published research” (Cook et al.). Specifically, the study found that literally less than 1%[7] of all the papers published and studied rejected the anthropogenic thesis. When one churns the math (.007 * 11,944 papers = 83.6, rounded to 84), 84 out of the over 10,000 papers rejected the thesis that climate change is anthropogenic and, as per the study, that already amazingly small percentage is shrinking (Cook et al.).

Here, the “smart” climate denier[8] will be quick to say “but wait, CO2 isn’t actually a greenhouse gas and CO2 doesn’t contribute to climate change!”. However, that is patently false. Although technically not the largest greenhouse gas, multiple studies prove that CO2 is the most important. Specifically, a recent study by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies found that although CO2 only accounts for 20% of the greenhouse effect, there is a large amount of CO2 that is not condensed and ultimate leads accounts for about 80% of the greenhouse affect (Lacis et al.). But, as John Cook[9] says on his site Skeptical Science, “CO2 may be one of the most misunderstood subjects in climate science” and thus further elaboration and examination is needed.

So let’s begin. The way temperature increases on the Earth work are very interesting. What happens is the sun bombards the Earth with radiation (ultraviolet, infrared, etc.) and this radiation is bounced off the Earth (via. the oceans and ice caps) and is absorbed by particles in the atmosphere and then re-emitted in all directions. Greenhouse gases (GHGs) are especially good at this because they absorb and re-emit thermal energy in the form of infrared radiation. Now the re-emission of thermal energy occurs in all directions, but for the most part, it is emitted back down towards the Earth and the process repeats. This overtime has a very real effect on the temperature of the Earth because the heat from the sun is literally trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere as if the atmosphere were the glass of a greenhouse. Measurements of the change in wavelength of light re-emitted shows that GHGs are especially good at re-emitting infrared light and studies on Earth show that the amount of infrared light (which is converted into thermal energy) coming back to the Earth is massive.

Specifically, a paper presented at the 18th Conference on Climate Variability and Change featured the following graph which shows just how much infrared light is being re-emitted towards the Earth with its associated GHG (Evans):

This shows just how much energy is returning to Earth. We also know the climate sensitivity, that is how sensitive the Earth is to changes in radiation, and are thus able to compare the change in temperature over time vs. the change in CO2 emissions. This allows us to understand exactly what the affect CO2 has on temperature and, when plugging in the climate sensitivity values, changes in CO2, and temperature values[10], we find that “even under [the] ultra-conservative unrealistic low climate sensitivity scenario, the increase in atmospheric CO2 over the past 150 years would account for over half of the observed 0.8°C increase in surface temperature”(SS).

Thus, data from the IPCC as well as spectrographic readings of radiation and CO2 emissions conclusively show that CO2 causes warming.

Finally, to cover all the bases that skeptics might try to steal, one lingering question remains and that is “how can humans be causing this if our CO2 output is so small?”. There are a few ways to explain this but the most obvious is the fact that humans are introducing excess CO2. The Earth is a fragile system and is well regulated naturally, but humans pumping CO2 into the atmosphere messes with that system and, over time, adds up. This is most clearly seen in the fact that 60% of human CO2 emissions remain in the atmosphere and have led to the highest atmospheric concentration of CO2 in over 15 million years (Tripati).

So there is no excuse to be ignorant anymore, the most comprehensive study preformed to date clearly shows what almost everyone is already aware: climate change is real and human caused, and the all the data point to the fact that CO2 contributes to the warming of the planet. (If you don’t believe me, please see the giant footnote right above this) 

So with that out of the way, a discussion of the impact of climate change on the Earth is going to be important.

Climate change is a net bad thing for the entire environment for tons of reasons but most importantly for this paper will be the affect it has biodiversity and the survival of non-human species. There are a few main ways that climate change harms biodiversity, the first of which being something called ocean acidification. For most people, the threat of climate change is “oh, the Earth gets hotter” but that is far from the only impact. In fact, merely the release of CO2 causes tons of problems for marine life. Once CO2 is released, some of it is absorbed by plants, some stays in the atmosphere contributing to the greenhouse effect, and some gets dissolved into the oceans. This occurs much the same way oxygen gets into the water, but CO2 directly affects the acidity of water. Now on a small scale this would be fine, but on a large scale and over time, we see a downward trend in the pH of the oceans because more and more CO2 is getting dissolved. This drop in pH leads to the oceans being slightly more acidic in what scientists call “ocean acidification”. Ocean acidification isn’t some “oh, the water is slighty more sour” type of thing, rather it affects organisms at the bottom of the food chain and the impacts reverberate upwards. Specifically, the acidifying of the oceans leads to a decrease in coral growth, some types of snails that are crucial first level food sources are unable to construct their calcium shells and thus die before being a food source, and ultimately sensitive fish like salmon die as well (Romm).

This is a net bad thing for biodiversity because species of fish that live amidst coral are deprived of protection and thus die off. Organisms that feed on the small snails (called sea butterflies) are unable to eat because their food source, the sea butterflies, are dying (Whitty). And obviously, organisms that depend on salmon and the habitats they create will die.

What’s worse, we don’t fully understand the complex relationships of oceanic organisms and thus far too often, our predictions of “it won’t be that bad” are dead wrong. By continuing to pour CO2 into the atmosphere, subsequently acidifying the oceans, we are quite literally playing Russian Roulette with nature (Hendriks et al.).

But I wish that were all. Climate change has drastic implications for creatures living on land as well. Specifically, as the Earth warms, diseases mutate and grow more easily and we see an increase in the number of new diseases that are killing off animals and plants currently (Schnackenberg). And at risk of sounding like an alarmist, although the threat is very real, there is one other implication and that is habitat destruction. As the temperature increases and water becomes more acidic, increased pressures are placed on animals in their habitats and those with already fragile ecosystems due to human intrusion will suffer the most. Scientists predict that with the loss of one species, another will go, and another, and another in a cascade effect. This will be detrimental obviously not only to human life, but to all life because organisms will no longer have food or a place to survive (Hansen).

Now of course, I wish this were just a surface issue, one that could be rectified with tighter regulations or smarter leaders but alas, it’s much deeper than that. For these destructive actions don’t make sense in vacuum but when viewed through the lens of what humans really are, the destructive tendencies of our “species” becomes painfully clear.

Examination of city growth, population growth, and resource consumption all lead to one to conclusion, that humans are a cancer to Earth.

You see, there are four key traits of a malignant tumor, four characteristics that define it. They are as follows:
  1. Rapid, uncontrolled growth;
  2. Invasion and destruction of adjacent normal tissue;
  3. De-differentiation (loss of distinctiveness of individual components); and
  4. Metastasis to different sites (Hern) 
These characteristics, characteristics that are endemic of one of the most destructive things know to life, apply to human growth and expansion over the course of our tenure on this planet. Humans are being born at an unprecedented rate. In fact, over the past century, the human population has more than quadrupled. From the period of 1953-1993, more humans were born than over the past three million years (Hern).

There is really no dispute over whether we are overpopulated (although more will be said on this later). Resources are scarce, land is running out, and ethnic tensions are increasing in frequency. According to the US Census, one human is born every 8 seconds whereas one dies every 12. This means that we are constantly growing exponentially and there seems to be no end in sight. Additionally, when compared with the first characteristic of a malignant tumor, the similarities are terrifying. As tumors grow, they expand outward rapidly and without boundaries and control and consume all tissue around them.

The following is an image of three different simulations of malignant tumor growth and I ask that you note the shape and pattern (Jiao): 

(Notice the expansion akin to a drop of water creating a ripple spreading outwards)

Back in 1972, James Johnson looked at the growth of cities over the course of 100+ years and he published his findings. Specifically, he published an image that shows that growth of London from 1800-1955 and that image is below. I ask that, again, you note the shape and pattern (Hern):

At this point, the astute observer will see the frightening similarities between the three different models of malignant tumor growth, and the growth of London over a 155 year period. The tumors are seen branching out in all directions with no boundaries or limits, and the people of London are seen doing the same (even overcoming and taking control of a potential natural boundary, what I would assume is the River Thames).

But that is not all, in fact all the other characteristics of malignant tumors can be view as descriptors of humans just as easily. No matter how good I think my writing may be, I think A. Kent MacDougall explains this phenomena best he says the following:
Cancer cells proliferate rapidly and uncontrollably in the body; humans continue to proliferate rapidly and uncontrollably in the world. Crowded cancer cells harden into tumors; humans crowd into cities. Cancer cells infiltrate and destroy adjacent normal tissues; urban sprawl devours open land. Malignant tumors shed cells that migrate to distant parts of the body and set up secondary tumors; humans have colonized just about every habitable part of the globe. Cancer cells lose their natural appearance and distinctive functions; humans homogenize diverse natural ecosystems into artificial monocultures. Malignant tumors excrete enzymes and other chemicals that adversely affect remote parts of the body; humans' motor vehicles, power plants, factories and farms emit toxins that pollute environments far from the point of origin (MacDougall).
Now some, after reading this, might dismiss it as just a hypothetical for viewing the environmental movement, but the implications are real and disturbing. The Earth has been viewed many ways, but the most interesting hypothesis, and probably the most correct, would the Gaia Hypothesis. The Gaia Hypothesis, originally devised by James Lovelock, posits that the Earth functions much like a living organism in that it self regulates and stays in a homeostatic state naturally. This view of the Earth aids us in understanding how humans can be viewed as a cancer because we can see human interaction with the environment as disrupting the natural balance of self-regulation and order.

Specifically, humans are amazingly efficient at destroying the world around them until there is no more land to live on. Historically, humans exploit the land they live on until the resources run out and then they leave the desolate and destroyed landscape in search of new plunder.

And this isn’t a cry made by just a few people, many prominent Gaia Hypothesizers have made their opinions abundantly clear from both a medical perspective as well as an environmental one. Jerold Lowenstein[11] spoke about this issue when he said "[i]f you picture Earth and its inhabitants as a single self-sustaining organism, along the lines of the popular Gaia concept, then we humans might ourselves be seen as pathogenic…[w]e are infecting the planet, growing recklessly as cancer cells do, destroying Gaia's other specialized cells (that is, extinguishing other species), and poisoning our air supply....From a Gaian perspective... the main disease to be eliminated is us"(Lowenstein).

Thus, keeping the following facts in mind, namely that
  • Humans cause lasting damage to the biosphere through the effects of climate change;
  • Humans are especially keen and adept at destroying biodiversity around us; and
  • Human growth and the expansion of cities when compared to the growth of malignant tumors are almost indistinguishable,
I must agree with Dr. Warren Hern’s diagnoses that humans should be rightfully re-named Homo ecophagus, or one who devours the environment (MacDougall).

 III: Anthropocentrism and the Intrinsic Value of Nature

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” – Thought experiment often associated with George Berkeley

So, keeping all that has been discussed in mind, I ask a semi-rhetorical question of “what is value”? This is an important question that must be addressed because, absent a proper understanding of what value actually is, the previous issues of human destruction of biodiversity and the biosphere are moot because there is no reason to care about them.

So I revisit the question, what is value? Well according to the Google definition, value is “the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something”[12]. But this definition is grossly incomplete and ignores that there is deeper meaning to word. In philosophy and economics there are two types of value (primarily), extrinsic and intrinsic. Despite sounding similar, they are two very different forms and the distinction must be mad.

Extrinsic value is the value that something has in relation to something else – that is, its usefulness. Things that have extrinsic value are good/desirable/valuable insofar as they lead to something else that is desirable, an end goal. (One can almost think of extrinsic value as the “utilitarianism of value”) Conversely, intrinsic value is the value that something has independent of any external factors – that is, its inherent worth. Two examples to solidify the distinction are money and happiness. Money is something that has extrinsic value because the only reason we care about it is its usefulness to us  is because we view it as important. Just like a one dollar bill would be meaningless to an extra-terrestrial, money’s value only exists because we believe it does and we use it to gain some end. Happiness however would be an example of something that would, arguably, be intrinsically valuable. We don’t use happiness to achieve something else – that is, it’s not a means to an end – nor do view it in terms of usefulness or utility. Rather, humans simply have a tendency to want to be happy because it is something that is, for the most, innately good.

The differentiation of intrinsic and extrinsic value has some important implications on our understanding of environmentalism and human growth. So going off the line of reasoning before as well as the semi-rhetorical questions I like to ask, “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound”? While this question is cliché, it will serve as the building block for our understanding of the worth of nature. To most people, the answer to the previous question is simple: without someone to hear the tree, how can it make a sound? That answer, while being smug and moderately annoying, brings to light two important issues the first of which being the belief that nature has extrinsic value. The answer of “if there aren’t humans there is no sound” assumes that in order for sound to be produced or the tree falling to have any “importance”, there must be a human there to observe it and without one, there is no importance (in this case, sound) to the tree falling. The second issue that the question brings to light is the issue of what’s called “anthropocentrism” – that is, the belief that humans are the most important creatures and are the center of everything[13]. There are, of course, many problems associated with anthropocentrism that I will get into later, but first a more thorough understanding of which type of value nature holds is needed.

Counter to the cries of the “without humans there’s no sound” crowd and those that believe that nature was “built” for them, a growing number of environmentalists and ecological philosophers argue that nature (and the definition of nature will be discussed in a moment) has intrinsic value and it doesn’t matter if humans are here to exploit it, we do not give it value.

There is, however, another important distinction that must be made and that is between subjective intrinsic value, and objective intrinsic value. The former posits that nature has intrinsic value but the degree to which it is valuable is determined by humans who look at it – that is, it has no value independent of humans. In contrast, objective intrinsic value is something that has intrinsic value of a fixed nature regardless of if anyone is there to quantify it. (An example would be, as per the human rights folks, humans have objective intrinsic value because we are all equal no matter who is looking[14]) As I hope you are able to guess by now, my view is that nature has objective intrinsic value and that is what I will be forwarding (Sandler).

Now I apologize, but before continuing it is important to understand what “nature” actually means. For most environmentalists, the nature that has intrinsic value would be the living organisms in ecosystems (whereas the ecosystems themselves have extrinsic value based on the organism’s use of them). For some ecological philosophers however (Keekok Lee for example), the nature that has intrinsic value is both the animate and inanimate objects that make up an ecosystem. I, based on a lack of definition of “life” as well as this being the only one that works with the argument made in part one, subscribe to the second view of nature – that is, nature’s intrinsic value is both in its animate and inanimate[15] objects. 

By this point, the astute reader will realize that I have not actually made any argument as to why nature has objective intrinsic value, rather I have just defined terms. The rest of this section however, will be devoted to proving that nature does have the objective intrinsic value I say it has and that human domination over nature, à la anthropocentrism, is bad.

So, how do we actually know that nature has some objective intrinsic value? Well, there are a few arguments for this, the first of which I call the “Platonic Essence” argument. In metaphysics, there is the concept of the essence – that is, the base standard traits that make up an object. (For example, a pencil is a writing utensil that uses lead to transfer hand motions to paper, an object that violates part of this definition is thus not a pencil) Objects in nature, be they rocks, leaves, sticks, etc. have a Platonic essence as well. They each have a set of traits that make them what they are. Absent these traits, the objects are no longer what we thought they were. Now keeping this in mind, these traits that come to make up the object have extrinsic value in that they make up an object, but once conferred upon the object, their value is transferred and the object has its own intrinsic value. Each object for which there are traits that make it up can be thought of using the Heideggerian term “being” in that they exist on a base level and this base level is valuable because it quite literally is what defines the object as existing in the real world.

Springboarding off of that is the so called “teleological argument” which relies heavily on the existence of things and their double. Richard Sylvan[16] and Val Plumwood[17] argue that objects with extrinsic value are created so they can be used and if they are not useful, they would not be created. “Shovels, in other words, would not have been invented except as instruments for digging…[a]nd since such things exist by artifice, not by nature, if they had not been invented they wouldn't exist”. This means that the very existence of useful objects proves that there is extrinsic value at least, so why not the reverse? Objects that aren’t inherently useful to humans (or to anything at all) still exist. They have no extrinsic value, yet they still exist and thus there must be some other reason or source of value. Their essence, much like the essence of a shovel necessitates that it has extrinsic value, necessitate that they have objective intrinsic value, for if they didn’t, they wouldn’t exist (Callicott). While not the greatest argument, it cuts to the core of Platonic essentialism and shows that the existence of an object necessitates some descriptor to go along with it. 

In addition to that however, would be the argument that extrinsic value is subjective and is thus a poor moral standard to use. The view of nature varies from culture to culture, century to century, and it would be naïve to assume that there is any static human view of nature. In fact, when we look around at the world, the views of nature have changed radically. Some cultures are very keen to protect the environment and worship it while others actively work to destroy it. Some cultures protect it because they feel an obligation because their religion may tell them that nature is valuable and thus they may not view nature with extrinsic value as a Westerner would. This crisis of subjectivity is an issue because it can lead to both sides of the environmental coin, the strong anti-environment side, and the strong environment side. Thus a new way of looking of nature is needed. When one recognizes that there is intrinsic value in nature absent human experience, then the crisis of subjectivity is moot because value is not determined by human interaction with nature and thus a more productive discussion of naturalism can occur (Hargrove).

There is another argument, one traditionally called the phenomenological argument (although I prefer “smart-ass” argument), that really gets one thinking about one’s place in the world. Allow me to tell a story leading up to the argument: retired biologist Edwin Pister had a passion for fish and hated the extinction of species. As such, he was doing research in states around his native California when he came across the endangered “Devils Hole pupfish”[18]. He saw the pupfish’s habitat being destroyed by agriculture and decided to sue to big agro-businesses to save the habitats. He ultimately ended up winning and the pupfish is no longer on the verge of extinction (Callicott).

However, after the trial he was often asked “why save the fish, it has no benefit?” and the question was very valid from an extrinsic anthropocentric view point – the pupfish was too small to be eaten and didn’t have any human value per se. So Pister thought long and hard about this question of “what good is it?” until he finally came up with the perfect retort: “what good are you?” (Callicott)

The beauty of this answer is that it forces the questioner to examine their utility through the lens they have set up. For the questioner in asking “what use is the fish?” has set up a framework of utility – that is, usefulness determines protectability – and thus their own life must be weighed within that specific frame. Now most people would like to think that their lives hold some sort of importance or relevance to others, but in reality most people’s lives are useless on the grand scheme of thing. However, despite their uselessness, people such as the questioner don’t go around saying “we should let useless people die” because they view human life as intrinsically worth something. The same is therefore true for the pupfish, among other species. Even if they serve to be no benefit to humans (ie. have no extrinsic value), their very existence necessitates them having at least some degree of intrinsic value. And if one takes the arguments from part one about the arbitrariness of life and complexity as true, then nature as a whole would have objective intrinsic value. To quote Callicott[19] on the issue, “The question How do we know that intrinsic value exists? is similar to the question How do we know that consciousness exists? We experience both consciousness and intrinsic value introspectively and irrefutably. Pister's question What good are you? simply serves to bring one's own intrinsic value to one's attention.” (Callicott)

While simply ignoring the objective intrinsic value of nature isn’t a great thing, it is the belief that humans are the source of value and that humans are the center of things that is the real problem. This problem, that of anthropocentrism, cuts to the core of the environmental movement and is an idea from a site of privilege that must be addressed. To assume the ontological superiority of humans is to deny the ontological trajectory of, what Keekok Lee[20] calls, “the natural” – that is, all that is non-human.

What’s more, when one operates from a position of anthropocentric privilege, all nature around humans is viewed as disposable because it simply has extrinsic value for human needs. This logic, the logic of extrinsic value from an anthropocentric mindset, is the same logic that allows for the destruction of rainforest to make way for farm land, the dumping of toxic waste to save money, and the overfishing of the world’s oceans to enjoy cheap tuna. This logic, which rests on the assumption that humans are somehow better than other beings[21] not only ignores the fact that nature has the capacity to be different from us in its ontological trajectory, but it is the same privileged logic that rests at the heart of ethnocentrism and racism (Lee) (Grey).

Additionally, if one accepts the premises laid out in part one of this paper, humans are no more special than any other forms of life and thus to assert our superiority is to deny that simple fact and thus to assert our privilege is absurd, to say the least.

One final point I must add in this section, it would be lovely if the view of human superiority could be squelched by regulations on carbon emissions or a change in consumption patterns, but unfortunately that is not the case. Since I agree both with Agent Smith in The Matrix when he states that humans are not actually mammals but viruses[22], and Dr. Warren Hern’s analysis that humans ought to be considered a cancer on the planet because of our propensity for destruction, that I think reform is no longer a viable solution. A new solution to the problem of Homo ecophagus must be imagined and realized.

[1] Researcher and professor at The Scripps Research Institute
[2] Professor of philosophy at Michigan State University
[3] Arguably the most famous chimp researcher.
[4] This is of course ignoring the Heterocephalus glaber, or “naked mole rat”.
[5] I prefer to use the term “climate change” over “global warming” because conservative pundits like Sean Hannity jump on the word “warming” and display their scientific ignorance when they make statements like “well it’s COLD out so how can there be warming?? Checkmate!”.
[6] AGW = Anthropogenic Global Warming
[7] Specifically, .7%
[8] If ever there were such a person
[9] Climate Communication Fellow for the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland
[10] I will put the equations down here to save space: CO2’s radiative forcing, dF, is found using “dF = 5.35 ln(C/C0)” where C is the current concentration of CO2 and C0 is a reference concentration (pre-industrial concentration of 280 ppm) (Myhre). The climate sensitivity (dT) equation is dT=λ*dF where λ is climate sensitivity in °C/W/m2 (SS). We then know that a doubling of CO2 can lead to increase in temperate of 2-4.5°C (IPCC). Using this, we can solve for λ: λ = dT/dF = dT/(5.35 * ln[2])= [2 to 4.5°C]/3.7 = 0.54 to 1.2°C/(W/m2) and from there, we can calculate temperature changes (SS). Specifically, using data from 2010 and the first equation, we get dF shown here: dT = λ * 5.35 * ln(390/280) = 1.8 * λ (SS). Using skeptics own numbers, that is their assertion that the climate sensitive value is around 0.27°C/(W/m2) we can calculate the change in temperature and we get the conclusion I wrote above: dT = 1.8 * λ = 1.8 * 0.27 = 0.5°C (SS).
[11] Professor of medicine at the University of California
[12] Google search terms: “define value”
[13] Now of course, there are distinctions within anthropocentrism and non-anthropocentrism. Although not explicitly stated above, my argument will be for the sub-category of biocentrism (mixed with the anti-life perspective of part one) – that is, all living things need to be considered when making judgments (Sandler).
[14] This is a topic for another paper
[15] If one can even use such terms after part one
[16] Philosopher and fellow at the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University in Canberra
[17] Eco-feminist and Research Council Fellow at the Australian National University
[18] Now considered to be the rarest fish in the world
[19] Environmental philosopher at North Texas
[20] Philosopher at the University of Lancaster
[21] Beings in both the Platonic essentialist sense and the biological sense
[22] Smith gives viruses too little credit, they are much more interesting than humans

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