Hope amidst the cynicism

Recently in a seminar at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy, Dr. A. Karim Ahmed, Director of the National Council for Science and the Environment in Washington D.C., posed a provocative question about the state of contemporary environmentalism. In short, his question was this: Where can one find hope amidst the cynical pessimism of today’s environmentalism? If you are constantly confronted with talk of catastrophic climate change, imminent sea level rise, the unsustainability of modern agriculture, ocean acidification, environmental injustice, rampant deforestation, unprecedented biodiversity loss, and the major ecological damage associated with extractive industries, how to be hopeful is a daunting question. Nevertheless, what follows is a short attempt to provide such a glimmer.

We Westerners must start with a potentially difficult admission. We must admit to ourselves that the past two and a half millennia of anthropocentric philosophy, religion, and science are among the root causes of the modern ecological crisis. Ours is a rapacious way of life and we have a habit of regarding the Earth as a mere resource stock. This is especially obvious when one contrasts our paradigm with the more eco-centric worldviews stemming from Buddhist, Taoist, and Dharmic philosophies.

However, even though Western thought has traditionally distinguished we human beings from the greater natural cycles and other animals (Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon, Immanuel Kant, etc.), recent progress in chemistry, biology, physics, astronomy, microbiology, genetics, evolutionary biology, and ultimately ecology, has begun to emphasize the utter connectivity of everything from microbes, to human beings, the Earth, and the Universe (to recall Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s remarks about our universal origin in star dust). While Baird Callicott’s “new, new ecology” synthesizing Buddhist spirituality with the Western paradigm has not yet emerged, the progression of Western thought is unveiling empirical conclusions that the aforementioned Eastern existential and metaphysical worldviews also support.

Science is an undeniable source of human power and potentially stands as a reason to reinforce our sense of cosmic arrogance and beliefs about the righteousness of the human dominion over nature, but I believe scientific progress will ultimately serve to remind us of and humble us about our place in existence, and I am confident that that humility will disseminate through society as science education is more heavily emphasized. Hopefully the result will be a proliferation of love, awe, respect, appreciation, and feelings of connectedness to the ecosphere that we have so unfortunately lost touch with from being constantly surrounded by the concrete, plastic, and technology of modern life. What hope is there? I hope that progress in science will eventually humble we human-centered Westerns about our place in nature, and remind us that we are but one small part of a beautiful greater cycle. Once we remember our fundamental connection to nature, we may become less consumed with pursuing the anthropocentric and arbitrary purposes that have thus far been a major source of our ecological crisis. Perhaps we will begin to cultivate our sense of meaning in life from being part of the ecosphere, rather than from exploiting it.

JM Kincaid

One thought on “Hope amidst the cynicism

  1. A friend, whose name I will reveal upon his/her request, commented that the ultimate problem society faces is the population crisis and scarcity, rather than rampant anthropocentricism. This is an interesting point — one I feel is worth responding to in public fashion. Below is my response:

    Population is a serious, tangible, and arguably fundamental problem. Education, birth control, women’s rights, and other policies geared toward limiting population growth and resource consumption will therefore be necessary to move modern society toward sustainability. And as natural resources like fossil fuels and fresh water become increasingly scarce and thus more expensive, consumption will naturally decrease (re your point about market economics). The question is how we avoid disproportionately burdening the least advantaged segments of the world community as that scarcity unfolds, assuming we care about things like fairness and equity (keeping in mind that the most consumptive nations are also the most affluent and therefore the least likely to feel the pains of scarcity). But the arguments you’ve made — that population growth is a problem, and that unrestrained consumption, likewise, is a problem — are not the normal view. We beneficiaries of modernity often struggle to accept the contradictions and limitations of our ways of living; beliefs about the goodness of growth and consumption are deeply rooted in the our historically anthropocentric and human exceptionalist worldviews. In many cases, Westerners believe that human beings are wholly distinct from the natural cycles of the planet and that the Earth exists explicitly for the purpose of our economic development. But belief systems of this sort are proving themselves to lead to unsustainable lifestyles that will ultimately undermine their own existence if left unchecked. My post is, in essence, a call for a paradigm shift presented alongside my observations of scientific progress that validate ecocentric ways of thinking. Population is an explicit problem we face, yet it is but one challenge among the many manifestations of our anthropocentricism.

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