Humanism and the Environment: A discussion starter

The central question facing secular humanism could possibly be viewed along the lines of:

“How should humanity’s inherent dignity and capacity for compassion guide our actions?”
or similarly,
“Can we frame a suitable set of moral values that inform us how best to behave, independent of a religious worldview?”

Such considerations can lead quite directly to concerns about care for the environment— not only because human flourishing and our general well-being can be severely compromised by resource depletion or a despoiled landscape, but also due to the possibility for our varied terrains and ecosystems having high intrinsic values of their own, depending on how we end up framing our ethical systems.

Often, the treatment of environmental matters within humanism will be inextricably linked with how we value something—either entities or ideas—and how we to relate those value judgements to our behaviour and the choices we make.

Many of the standard, dogmatic Faiths or Religions have typically had poor track records in the environmental arena—with the teachings of many such belief systems granting their adherents total dominion over the environment. That is, the earth and all its non-human creatures are assumed to be provided by a deity for human use, however the believers see fit—and the environment is seen as having little or no intrinsic value, apart from affording a resource for human consumption.

These belief systems offer few incentives for care of the environment—since not only are all the earth’s natural resources presumed to be supplied purely for human exploitation, but also there is often a tacit conviction that there will not necessarily be any adverse consequences from environmental destruction or mismanagement. That is, such teachings can promote believers thinking in the general manner of: “An almighty God provided these resources for us, so they cannot be delicate or limited; if we break or use up what is here surely more will be provided for us…”

Furthermore, even those faiths that adopt a more balanced stance of assigning humanity a caretaker or custodial role to the physical world, still tend to consign the environment to a fairly limited instrumental worth—perhaps fostering views along the lines of: “These bodily vessels of our immortal souls need the support of functioning ecosystems while on this earth, so the responsible course of action is to respect the environment and look after its condition…”

Yet even if a particular faith happened to stress that the physical world is part of “God’s grand creation” as well as the human race, and thus worthy of attention and care, it will still have a problematic relationship with long-term environmental concerns if it also incorporates belief in an ‘End of days’ or an eternal afterlife.  Again, there is not a lot of incentive to provide fully sustainable environmental management, if only an infinitesimal portion of our existence is set to reside on the physical earth.

Various strands of early humanism, particularly those prior to around the 1950s, were also not highly noted for their environmental concerns, with some environmentalists doubtless regarding such initial ‘humanist’ thinking/philosophies as rather too human-centred, and not sensitive enough to issues outside of human culture.

However, more thoughtful, more modern strands of humanism are quite capable of considering wider issues—that is, not just focusing on the inherent value of human beings, but also what values we should place on other complex, intricate or diverse systems, such as the multifaceted ecologies and physical networks that make up our natural environment—informed by our confidence in the value of human life.  That is, meaning and importance can be attached, by us, to all sorts of existence beyond the human condition; and ‘humanism’ does not have to mean just considering human affairs, but also how do we—as humans—value parts of the world around us.

Appropriate value, as well, being placed on future human lives also leads inescapably to environmental concerns; where sustainable practices when dealing with the natural world are key factors in allowing for future standards of adequate liveability for our descendants.

The humanist perspective will even innately emphasise the natural world; since we expect all of our interactions and encounters to be ‘natural’, and that it not be necessary to draw on anything ‘supernatural’ to explain the world and its workings. We should thus be able to appreciate physical limits to resources, and able to apply precautionary principles when dealing with possible damage to fragile natural systems.

Yet apparently many people who identify as ‘environmentalists’ still harbour doubts that humanism is a sound basis for genuine environmentalism!

So, can the principles of humanism really serve to protect environmental resources and the earth's delicate ecologies?

It has been stated that “humanism prioritises the ethical responsibilities we must share to best enhance life for all”.

Which sounds like a good start, but what do we mean by “life for all”? Probably quite different things to different people, even those with fairly similar worldviews. After all, who gets to be included amongst the ‘all’?  Do we value highly just the people around us? All people in the world? All people alive as well as those yet to be born? All intelligent species? Even all the world’s organisms? Perhaps even any structure with sufficient complexity or distinctiveness?
Where do we most sensibly draw the boundary line
for moral inclusion?

As mentioned, some people tend to confuse humanism with ‘human-centrism’, a facet of value systems that really only assign moral or ethical worth to human beings. Historically, many humanist campaigns, though otherwise commendable, have typically concentrated purely on human welfare—by promoting or helping advance the rights of sections of the community not previously afforded sufficient dignity or concern; especially those facing persecution, religious or otherwise. Yet, there are now many examples of humanist groups and societies also seeking improvements in animal welfare—especially with regards to more humane treatment of livestock—and promoting sound environmental conservation measures. 

A more evidence-based policy making process, something typically fostered by humanist principles—where greater stock is placed on scientific findings and less reliance on ‘traditional’ (sometimes faith-based) views—will also generally favour more comprehensive environmental protection. So, that boundary line is already being pushed outwards, and I feel we can strive for a humanism that seeks the safeguarding and enrichment of all life, not just that of humans alone.

As a rough guide to judging how the environmental movement possibly views contemporary humanism, let us consider three main strands of secular humanist philosophy that various authors regard as currently prominent (following a discussion by John Shook):

1. “Humanism means taking the ethical responsibility to create your own values to live your life, without religious or philosophical guidance… restrained only by political principles of equal rights and procedural justice.”

From an environmentalist’s perspective, this type of humanism is probably viewed as not offering whole-hearted support, especially towards their perception of the environment having high intrinsic worth.  At least such humanists would typically sponsor sound environmental management, since resource depletion and ecological damage would impinge upon their well-being.  But since this is more in the vein of only assigning the environment an instrumental value—that is, for meeting the needs of human life; somewhat akin to the custodian or guardianship role over the earth allotted by some religious beliefs—some environmentalists would probably regard this particular framing of the humanist stance as offering only limited assistance.

2. “Humanism means taking the ethical responsibility to conform your values to the community's pursuit of the good life, independent from dogmatic authority. Humanists are freethinkers who participate in society's search for enhancing life for all, applying reason rather than religion.”

This version of humanism is more inclusive, and more likely to find favour with a strict environmentalist stance. By stressing the importance around building of community, such humanists will naturally have a more widely oriented perspective when considering their values, and are more likely to focus on the need for long-term ecological security (especially with regards to acknowledging the linkages between the on-going health of their communities and the health of their environment). This second variety of humanists may not have fully overlapping ecological/biodiversity concerns with environmental activists, but will probably have reasonably similar conservation priorities; and tend to receive little criticism in this regard.

3. “Humanism means taking the ethical responsibility to centre your values on primary virtues like compassion and beneficence to all, regardless of heavenly reward. Humanists are progressivists who push society towards fulfilling high moral ideals, feeling accountable to the future of life itself.”

This third kind of humanism could be viewed as having a lot of correspondence with environmentalism. Such humanists should employ consistent value judgments, independent of dogma, and relate their human-derived values to the protection of everything applicable—that is, for the preservation of all things of value, not just human-centred ones. This type of humanism is both community-oriented and forward-looking, naturally lending itself to long-term planning and the recognition of all life as worthy of consideration.

Aside from debate over the exact meanings and usefulness of tags such as ’environmentalist’ or ‘humanist’, it would appear that there should not necessarily be any real conflict between the two viewpoints—with a person being able to readily align with both environmental and humanist activism or community engagement, as long as some careful thought has gone into what each perspective encompasses.

So, in closing, I posit that we as humanists should believe that human beings possess the potential of solving our own problems, through reliance upon a combination of innate compassion and reason (or scientific method), applied with resolution and imagination—overcoming, wherever possible, our conditioned or cultural limitations—and thus can hopefully resolve the many environmental management issues bedevilling the contemporary world.


Opinion piece and literature outline: by David Cosgrove for the Canberra Humanists Meetup, 20th October 2015