Resources and anthropocentrism

Trash Heap

Humans use, abuse, destroy and then wonder what we're doing wrong. Photo: Samat Jain via Flickr.

We see finite substances and the living planet as materials to be exploited for our comfort. We treat resources as our entitlement.

Examples of intense anthropocentrism are so numerous in the English language it seems unfair to pick on this one word from among many. And, as with most other cases, we don’t even think about these examples, much less question them (cf. sustainability, civilization, economic growth).

My only justifications for singling out resources are the preponderance with which the word appears in contemporary media, the uncritical acceptance of resources as divine gifts for Homo sapiens, and my previous essays on a few of the other obvious examples.

I’ll start with definitions, straight from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Resource: 1

  • a: a source of supply or support: an available means — usually used in plural
  • b: a natural source of wealth or revenue — often used in plural
  • c: a natural feature or phenomenon that enhances the quality of human life
  • d: computable wealth — usually used in plural
  • e: a source of information or expertise.

All these definitions imply an anthropogenic basis for resources, and c is particularly transparent on this point.

Digging a little further, the etymology of resource brings us directly to lifelong bedfellows anthropocentrism and Christianity. Resource is derived from the Old French resourdre (literally, to rise again), which has its roots in the Latin resurgere (to rise from the dead; also see resurrection).

From this etymology, it’s a simple step back in time to Aristotle’s final cause (which followed his material cause, efficient cause, and formal cause).

Aristotle posited that, ultimately, events occurred to serve life, particularly the life of humans. This anthropocentric take on causality grew directly from the philosophy of Aristotle’s teacher Plato, who focused his philosophy on separating humans from nature while popularizing the feel-good notion that humans have immortal souls. The idea that humans have souls, which was subsequently discredited by the (western) science that grew from humble Grecian roots, became the basis for Christianity, one of three Abrahamic religions that developed in the Mediterranean a few centuries after Plato learned from Socrates and then taught Aristotle.

Feeding the industrial machine

Considering the history of western thought, it’s no surprise we view every element on Earth as feedstock for industrialization. The only question for industrial humans is when we exploit Earth’s bounty, not if. The logical progression, then, is to exploitation of humans to further feed the industrial machine.

Within the last few years, personnel departments at major institutions became departments of human resources. Thus, whereas these departments formerly dealt with persons, they now deal with resources. There’s a reason you feel like a cog in a grand imperial scheme:  Not only are you are viewed as a cog by the machine, and also by those who run the machine, but any non-cog-like behavior on your part leads to rejection of you and your actions. Seems youre either a tool of empire or you’re a saboteur (i.e., terrorist).

It’s time to invest in wooden shoes.

As if even a small proportion of people in the industrialized world are willing to poke a stick in the eye of the corporations that run and ruin our lives.

Why is that? Probably because we think we depend upon them, when in fact they depend upon us. And, to a certain extent — to the extent we allow — we do depend upon industrial culture for our lives. But only in the short term, and only as self-absorbed, comfortable individuals unwilling to make changes in our lives (even ones that are necessary to our own survival).

Taking the longer, broader view, it’s evident industrial culture is killing the living planet, and our own species. The cultural problem we face is not that we’re fish out of water. Rather, it’s that we’re fish in a river. We don’t even know there’s an ocean, much less a landbase.

Humans and humanity

Aye, there’s the rub. Evolution demands short-term thinking focused on individual survival. Most attempts to overcome our evolutionarily hardwired absorption with self are selected against. The Overman is dead, killed by a high-fat diet and unwillingness to exercise. Reflexively, we follow him into the grave.

Ultimately, we follow Nietzsche’s Overman because we’re tragically flawed organisms that, like other animals, lack free will.

Unlike Descartes, Nietzsche concluded that our flaws define us, and therefore can’t be overcome. We’re human animals, hence far too human to overcome the tragedy built in by evolution. Although we are thinking animals — what Nietzsche termed res cogitans — we are prey to muddled thoughts, that is, to ideas that lack clarity and distinctness. Nietzsche wasn’t so pessimistic or naive to believe all our thoughts are muddled, of course.

Ultimately, though, incompetence defines the human experience.

It’s a short, easy step from Nietzsche’s conclusion — we are flawed organisms — to industrial culture as a product of our incompetence. But the same step can be taken for every technology, with industrial culture as the potentially fatal blow. In other words, progress means only that we accelerate the rapidity with which bad things happen to societies, consistent with Jevons’ paradox and its latest manifestation, the Khazzoom-Brookes postulate.

American exceptionalism thus becomes one more victim of the imperial train wreck that began when we first made tools.

–Guy McPherson, Transition Voice

This essay is excerpted and modified from Walking Away from Empire: A Personal Journey.

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  1. Auntiegrav says

    It comes down to belief and actions. Humans believe in humans and invented God to make humans even more important than nature (supernatural motivations that we aren’t supposed to question).
    Evil: Any action taken based on unquestioned belief.
    Belief: A model of circumstances which exists within the human brain.

    The missing clue in this essay is the temporal one. Humans believe they have the right to use resources for their present wants because they are alive and moving right Now. Nature, however, works over long time periods and random selection and random catastrophe are factors in deciding if a species is using resources for its FUTURE needs, rather than dwelling in its past and present (which, in the sense of Zeno’s paradoxes, is really always becoming the past, and we cannot act in the now). When we go into debt, we are stealing something from our future self. When the government goes into debt, it is stealing from many future selves and the planet by promising that someone will consume enough resources to pay enough taxes to pay back that debt.
    A species survives over the long term only if its usefulness to its own future exceeds its consumption of resources by some margin (Net Future Usefulness). The margin is important because of random events.
    The other time factor is the mental deceptions of humanity. People do stuff. They have reasons for doing stuff–in that order. In other words, we are (mostly) at the mercy of our hormones and reflexes, and after we react to a stimuli, we change the logbook in our heads to say “I MEANT to do that.”
    Marketers know this. That’s why advertising works and government no longer does. Liberal proponents of government still actually believe we do stuff for reasons, while marketers and corporations and propagandists all know that “Reason’s got nuthin’ to do with it.”
    The survival of the human race is now going to depend on another type of human being evolving from what we have. The current model will do or not do as it desires and reacts to changing circumstances, but it is unable to install mechanisms large enough to trick the mechanisms it has already installed that are designed for growth and consumption. Moderation will have to come from failure, not planning (on the macro level, that is). At the local level, as all life is local, random acts of intelligence may help if they are timeless.

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