Friday, June 12, 2009

2. Ecocenterism vs. Anthropocenterism: A Historical Sketch

By Kamran Nayeri, June 12, 2009

The rise of the first agrarian societies about 10,000 years ago resulted in sea change in world history.  Hunter-gatherers that existed for almost 200,000 years gave way to agrarian societies based on domestication of barley and wheat and then other plants and animals and produced a surplus of food that was stored.  This economic surplus made it possible for an expansion of the population, further division of labor, and then gradually to the development of private property, family, and the state. Class societies emerged.  Integral to this world-historic shift was a gradual change from an ecocenteric worldview to an anthropocentric one as was required by the domestication of plants and animals.  What is less understood is that with the domestication of nature came domestication of humans themselves.  The rise and consolidation of private property, patriarchy, slavery, the state, and culture, including organized religions, were part of the process of domestication of humans themselves.  To be sure there were progressive elements in this process, but it also was the process by which alienation and exploitation of labor became the basis of human “civilization” and it also set us on the path of environmental and ecological destruction.
The Marxian view of history focuses on the change in the social mode of production. It has the merit of showing how the human ability to develop tools influenced the socio-economic development and how the latter led to the Agricultural Revolution and the rise of class societies, hence alienated and exploiting relations.  Relying on Morgan’s anthropological studies, Engel’s argued that the agricultural surplus made possible the formation of private property, patriarchy, social classes and the state.  However, the Marxian discourse essentially ignores the world-historic shift from ecocenterism to anthropocentrism, perhaps because it is itself anthropocentric. This methodological error of "materialist conception of history", as the Marxian method is called, has had significant implications for the development of the Marxian theory and practice to which I hope to return in the future. 
It is a merit of Deep Ecology materialist ecosophies to focus attention on the world-historic shift from ecocenterism to anthropocentrism.  However, they largely ignore the simultaneous world-historic shift in socioeconomic relations that the Marxian theory focuses on.

In his “Ecocenterism and the Anthropocentric Detour” George Sessions offers an overview of this world-historical change and its implication for policy today, synthesizing over 30 years of research.

There is little controversy surrounding the view that primal cultures were ecocenteric and nature oriented.  Sessions quotes Stan Steiner who describes the American Indian notion of Circle of Life where “every being is no more, or no less, than any other.  We are all Sisters and Brothers.  Life is shared with the bird, bear, insects, plants, mountains, clouds, stars, sun.”

Ecocenterism of this type were replaced by agriculturalists that, as Paul Sheppard notes, “all shared the aim of completely humanizing the earth’s surface, replacing wild with domestic, and creating landscapes from habitat.”   

This radical change in the view of our place in the world was codified in the prevalent religious, philosophical and otherwise ideological texts. As Sessions notes, while some elements of the ancient shamanism were maintained in Taoism and other Eastern religions/philosophies, Western religions (Judaism and Christianity) distanced themselves more radically from wild nature in favor of anthropocentrism. 

A similar break took place in Greek philosophy.  Sessions writes:

“The intellectual Greek strand in the Western culture also exhibits a similar development from early ecocenteric animistic Nature religions, the Nature-oriented (but less animistic) cosmological speculations of the pre-Socratics, to the anthropocentrism of the classical Athenian philosophers.  Beginning with Socrates, philosophical speculation was characterized by ‘an undue emphasis upon man as compared with the universe,’ as Bertrand Russell and other historians of Western philosophy have observed…

“With the cumulation of the Athenian philosophy in Aristotle, an anthropocentric system of philosophy and science was set in place that was to play a major role in shaping Western thought until the seventeenth century. Aristotle rejected the Pre-Socratic ideas of an infinite universe, cosmological and biological evolution, and heliocentrism. He proposed instead an Earth-centered finite universe wherein humans, by virtue of their rationality, were differentiated from, and seen as superior to, animals and plants.  Aristotle promoted the hierarchical concept of the “Great Chain of Being,” in which Nature made plants for the use of animals, and animals were made for the sake of humans….

“In the Christian version of the great chain of being, the hierarchical ladder led from a transcendent God, angels, men, women, and children, down to animals, plants, and the inanimate realm.”

Sessions rightly notes that the Garden of Eden story provided the moral justification for the subjugation of nature by humans.  However, the evolution of ideas and ideologies also justified the class society and all its trappings. 

The return to a “good society” where humans will renew our natural essence will require riding ourselves from alienating and exploitive relations, a process Marx and Engels called the socialist revolution. However, central to this process is our return to nature: naturalism and socialism become one and the same thing. Marxian and Deep Ecology concerns originate from the rise of class society and their insights are necessary and complementary for the theory and practice of forging the new world and our place in it.

1. George Sessions (ed.), Deep Ecology for the 21st Century. Boston: Shambhala Press, 1995; pages 156-183.

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