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.