Anthropocentrism versus biocentrism – Murray Bookchin discusses a false dichotomy

February 17, 2012

“We have no need for ‘biocentrism,’ ‘anthropocentrism,’ or for that matter any ‘centrism,’ nor for any ideology that diverts popular attention from the social sources of the ecological crisis.”

Introduction by Ian Angus

Some green writers, particularly those who support the viewpoint known as deep ecology, accuse socialist environmentalists of anthropocentrism, of giving absolute priority to human needs and ignoring or downplaying the needs of non-human nature. To that, they counterpose what is variously called biocentrism or ecocentrism – the view that all living things have the same or similar intrinsic value.

Many who call themselves biocentrists argue that their viewpoint is superior to, and incompatible with, socialism and Marxism. The late David Orton, for example, refused to sign the Belem Ecosocialist Declaration in 2008, because it was “people-centered, not Earth-centered.”

There’s a tendency among ecologically-conscious socialists to reply to such criticisms by simply denying that we are anthropocentric. That’s an understandable response: after all, who wants to be labeled as anti-nature?

In the following remarkable passage, the noted radical ecologist Murray Bookchin offers a very different response, one that in my opinion deserves careful consideration from all green lefts and left greens, whether or not they agree with his anarchist philosophy.

The following is from Murray Bookchin’s essay “Where I Stand Now,” in Defending the Earth (South End Press, 2001), a book in which he debated these and related issues with EarthFirst! founder and deep ecology exponent Dave Foreman. The book is now out of print, but it can be downloaded from The Anarchist Library. To aid readability on screen, I have added paragraph breaks, but otherwise the text is unchanged.


To those who dismiss me as “anthropocentric,” I must ask: Why must I be forced to choose between “biocentrism” and “anthropocentrism?” I never believed that the Earth was “made” for human exploitation. In fact, as a dyed-in-the-wool secularist, I never believed it was “made” at all. I also don’t believe that humans should “dominate” nature — the ultimate impossibility of this is a key idea in social ecology.

Given my longstanding fascination with the wonders of natural evolution and, yes, wilderness, what need do I have for a “biocentrism” that deflects me from the social roots of the ecological crisis? I believe that non-human and human nature are as inextricably bound to each other as the ventricles of the heart are bound to the auricles and that both human and non-human nature deserve moral consideration.

An “anthropocentrism” that is based on the religious principle that the Earth was “made” to be dominated by “Humanity” is as remote from my thinking as a “biocentrism” that turns human society into just another community of animals.

We need a much better perspective, I think. Whether there will be any wild areas or wildlife left in a century or so depends decisively upon the kind of society we will have — not on whether we lecture the human species over its failings, call it a “cancer” or worse on the planet, or extol the virtues of the Pleistocene or Neolithic. It will depend not only on our attitude toward non-human life but on the extent to which countless social oppressions are permitted to exist that compel peasants to cut down forests in order to survive, and that destroy their traditional lifeways in the bargain.

Even more fundamentally — and we had better get down to fundamentals if we wish to be “radical” in the real meaning of the word — whether there will be wild areas or wildlife left in a century or so depends upon whether we continue to preserve the “grow-or-die” economy (be it free-market corporate capitalism or bureaucratic state capitalism) in which an enterprise or a country that doesn’t grow economically is devoured by its rivals in the domestic market or in the international arena.

Indeed, until humanity can actualize its evolutionary potentialities as highly creative and ecologically-oriented beings, the antagonisms engendered by social oppression in all its forms will literally tear down the planet — both for human and for non-human life-forms alike.

To blame technology per se for this terrible distortion of second nature; to deal with human population growth as if it were not influenced profoundly by cultural factors; to reduce the basic social factors that have produced the present ecological crisis to largely, often purely biological ones — all this is to deflect attention away from the fact that our ecological dislocations have their primary source in social dislocations. The very notion of “dominating nature” has its roots in the domination of human by human — in hierarchies that brought the young into subjugation to gerontocracies, that brought women into subjugation to patriarchies, ordinary people into subjugation to military chiefdoms, working people into subjugation to capitalist or bureaucratic systems of exploitation, and so forth.

Granted, we need profound cultural changes and a new sensibility that will teach us to respect non-human life-forms; that will create new values in the production and consumption of goods; that will give rise to new life-fostering technologies rather than destructive ones; that will remove conflicts between human populations and the non-human world; and that will abet natural diversity and evolutionary development. I have written on these needs for scores of pages in books and articles. But does anyone seriously think these cultural changes can be achieved in a society that pits people against one another as buyers and sellers, as exploited and exploiters, as subjugated and subjugators at all levels of life?

To deflect our attention from these crucial social questions with a “biocentrism” that basically ignores them at best or that blames a vague “Humanity” for problems generated by a rotten social system at worst is to lead the ecology movement onto an ideological sidetrack. We have no need for “biocentrism,” “anthropocentrism,” or for that matter any “centrism,” nor for any ideology that diverts popular attention from the social sources of the ecological crisis.

At the risk of being repetitive, let me stress that deep ecology’s limited, and sometimes distorted, social understanding explains why no other “radical” ecology philosophy could be more congenial to the ruling elites of our time. Here is a perspective on the ecological crisis that blames our “values” without going to the social sources of these values. It denounces population growth without explaining why the poor and oppressed proliferate in such huge numbers or what social changes could humanely stabilize the human population. It blames technology without asking who develops it and for what purposes. It denounces consumers without dealing with the grow-or-die economy that uses its vast media apparatus to get them to consume as a monstrous substitute for a culturally and spiritually meaningful life.

To fail to explore these issues, give coherent explanations of them, or provide a clear sense of direction in dealing with them, is to completely bypass the core problems that confront ecologically-minded people today. It amounts to separating the ecology movement from the struggles of women for complete gender equality, people of color for racial equality, the poor for economic equality, subcultures like gays and lesbians for social equality, the oppressed of all kinds for human equality.

Characteristically, the literature produced by most deep ecologists takes little — if any — note of lead poisoning in ghettos. It rarely, if ever, deals with workplace pollution, and the special environmental hazards that face women, ethnic minorities, and city dwellers. Laudable as Earth First!’s reverence for wild areas and wildlife may be, the failure of deep ecology to provide a radical social orientation to its admirers often leaves them as mere acolytes of a wilderness cult.

Further, in its totally misplaced attack on “Humanity” deep ecology alienates many sympathetic activists who may respect wild areas and wildlife as much as deep ecologists do, but who are unwilling to flirt with misanthropy and self-hatred.

Limits of space do not permit me to cite all my reasons for regarding deep ecology as far from “deep.” What I must stress is that social ecology is neither “biocentric” nor “anthropocentric.” Rather, it is naturalistic.

Because of this naturalist orientation, social ecology is no less concerned with issues like the integrity of wild areas and wildlife than are “biocentrists.” As a hiker, an ecologist, and above all a naturalist who devoutly believes in freedom, I can talk as passionately as any deep ecologist about the trails I have followed, the vistas I have gazed at, or the soaring hawks I have watched for hours from cliffs and mountain peaks.

Yet social ecology is also naturalistic in the very important sense that it stresses humanity’s and society’s profound roots in natural evolution. Hence my use of the term “second nature” to emphasize the development of human social life out of the natural world.

This second aspect of social ecology’s naturalistic perspective not only challenges misanthropy; it challenges conventional social theory as well. The philosophy of social ecology denies that there can be a complete separation — let alone a desirable opposition — between human and non-human evolution. As naturalists, we respect the fact that human beings have evolved out of first or non-human nature as mammals and primates to form a new domain composed of mutable institutions, technologies, values, forms of communication.

Social ecology recognizes that we are both biological and social beings. Indeed, social ecologists go so far as to carefully analyze the important social history that has pitted humanity not only against itself but, very significantly, against non-human nature as well.

Over the centuries, as I have said many times before, social conflicts have fostered the development of hierarchies and classes based on domination and exploitation in which the great majority of human beings have been as ruthlessly exploited as the natural world itself. Social ecology carefully focuses on this social history and reveals that the very idea of dominating nature stems from the domination of human by human. This hierarchical mentality and system has been extended out from the social domination of people — particularly the young, women, people of color, and yes, males generally as workers and subjects — into the realm of non-human nature.

Thus, unlike most deep ecologists, social ecologists understand that until we undertake the project of liberating human beings from domination and hierarchy — not only economic exploitation and class rule, as orthodox socialists would have it — our chances of saving the wild areas of the planet and wildlife are remote at best.

This means that the radical ecology movement must have programs for removing the oppressions that people suffer even while some of us are primarily focused on the damage this society is inflicting on wild areas and wildlife.

We should never lose sight of the fact that the project of human liberation has now become an ecological project, just as, conversely, the project of defending the Earth has also become a social project.

Social ecology as a form of eco-anarchism weaves these two projects together, first by means of an organic way of thinking that I call dialectical naturalism; second, by means of a mutualistic social and ecological ethics that I call the ethics of complementarity; third, by means of a new technics that I call eco-technology; and last, by means of new forms of human association that I call eco-communities.

It is not accidental that I have written works on cities as well as ecology, on Utopias as well as pollution, on a new politics as well as new technologies; on a new ecological sensibility as well as a new economy. A coherent ecological philosophy must address all of these questions.

Ian Angus

Ian Angus is editor of the ecosocialist journal Climate & Capitalism. His recent books include Facing the Anthropocene and A Redder Shade of Green, both published by Monthly Review Press.

Tags: Culture & Behavior, Media & Communications