Are humans the crown of creation, or just another animal?
It seems to me that there is an unresolved contradiction at the heart of environmentalism: are humans special, or not?
That may seem like a pretty basic question, but from it there flows a raft of challenges to environmentalist thinking. If humans aren’t special, then why should we be subjected to demands made of no other species? If we are special, then why shouldn’t we demand special privileges as a species?
For most of human history, the answer was taken as a given: of course humans were special. Creations myths around the world, Christian, Babylonian, Hindu or Maori, emphasise the unique creation of humans.
This human-centric world-view was rudely overthrown in the 19th century by the march of scientific discovery, especially the discovery of evolution. Nowadays, it is fashionable to say, as the BBC does, that “Humans are nowhere near as special as we like to think”. Others go further: mathematician Stephen Hawking derided humanity as mere “chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet”.
But, if it’s true that humans are just another animal, no better than pond-scum, then why does it matter how we affect our environment? After all, every living species affects their environment, from elephants to cyanobacteria. But no environmentalist rails at elephants for their destructiveness. No-one holds cyanobacteria personally accountable for blooming uncontrollably and poisoning waterways.
If humans are just another animal, we are just another part of nature. Nothing we do can possibly be “unnatural”.
Even driving other species to extinction.
After all, extinction is the natural destiny of nearly every species. What matter if humans push a species off their perch rather than, say, competition from another species? The Pedder Galaxias was a species of fish only found in Lake Pedder in Tasmania. Damming the lake and linking it to other waterways with more competitive species seems to have driven them to extinction.
Yet, Lake Pedder, formed by glacial geology, was only destined to exist in isolation for a geological eyeblink. The Pedder Galaxias was doomed, either in the mid-70s or a few centuries, at most millennia, hence. Humans are no more “responsible” for their extinction than a landslide or a flood.
But the reason other species are not held accountable for their environmental destruction seems plain: they don’t know any better. Rabbits are incapable of making a collective decision not to over-graze and thus ensure the continuation of other species. Cyanobacteria cannot choose to avoid choking waterways and suffocating, poisoning and starving out whole hosts of other species.
Humans alone are capable of making such decisions. Humans are the only species who choose to place the interests of their own species behind others’. Environmentalists would surely argue against that claim, but it’s self-evident every time humans practise environmentalist decision-making. When, for instance, the Tasmanian community forgoes the building of a dam, or dismantles its forestry industry – both tremendously costly decisions to the human inhabitants of the island – they are choosing to place the interests of other species, from the mountain ash and pencil pines to the Pedder Galaxias, ahead of humans’.
That may seem right and proper to environmentalists, but it is surely a form of speciesism – a moral failing equivalent in environmental thinking to racism or sexism. Speciesism is allowing the interests of one species to override those of other species. Richard Dawkins states that he doubts there can be a defensible rationale for speciesism. Other environmentalists compare human farming of other animals to the Holocaust.
But, it might be argued, humans are not placing their interests second at all. Refusing to dam a wild river serves human interests because its preservation simply pleases us. We value the natural environment of the river above that of a dam. The value of a pristine forest is greater than that of a thriving forestry industry.
Each of those may be true – but they bring us right back to the initial question: the uniqueness of humans.
Value is a human construct. More accurately, it is the construction of persons: which, so far as we currently know, means humans. Locke famously defined a person as “a thinking intelligent Being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places”. There are arguments by environmentalists to extend the concept of personhood to other animals, notably great apes and cetaceans. Which seem suspiciously to be merely the species which most environmentalists find especially winsome (although others try to extend personhood to all living things, some, even non-living things, like rocks).
But the problem here is that personhood is a forensic concept. That is, personhood does not merely convey rights, it demands responsibility for a person’s actions. Are environmentalists willing to have a chimpanzee which turns on its keeper held on trial and punished? In fact, the execution in the early 20th century of several circus elephants for killing humans are now widely regarded as grotesque travesties. Which would seem to indicate a tacit admission that the animals were not, in fact, persons.
Thus it seems that humans are indeed unique.
So, are we then entitled to demand a privileged place in the ecosystem? Is it indeed our right to “Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground”?