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Humans don’t make the world go round

As long as we remain anthropocentric, we harm other animals.

I remember when I first encountered anthropocentrism. I was in primary school and, in preparation for our confirmation, the class was learning about the afterlife. Even after ten minutes, heaven was sounding pretty dull but in spite of the sheer tedium of an eternity spent floating about a vast, milky limbo adoring the deity, my seven-year-old mind did not entirely rebel until (in response to a question about dogs in the great beyond) the catechism teacher informed us that there were no animals in heaven, because animals did not have eternal souls and so could not be redeemed. Only humans could be redeemed and God had created the world for that very purpose: to give us the opportunity to achieve salvation.

I had heard such language before; but now, for the life of me, I could not understand why God, (whom I had previously rather admired) would take the trouble to create all the beauty I saw around me – pine woods, fallow deer, black-backed gulls –when all He cared about was us. Why had He expended such ingenuity on flamingos, when they were irrelevant to the overall narrative? What was the point of the armadillo? All of a sudden, black revolt began to simmer in my heart – and in those days I was one of the good children, a boy who had stood patiently, my hands folded neatly behind my back, while a gaggle of Catholic matrons gathered to wonder aloud whether I might have been blessed with “a vocation”.

The first glimmer of arrogance in any system (political, religious, moral) is the crack through which all authority gradually leaks away. Soon, I was appalled by everything in my Vincent de Paul world: Catholic matrons, the bizarre catechism that now seemed a veritable road map to a cold, bloodless existence and, most of all, the smug self-regard of God’s chosen species as it laid waste to whatever it chose to destroy, for the “benefit of humankind”. Being poor, I already knew that “the benefit of humankind” meant ‘the benefit of the rich”, (safely immured, as they were, in the biological equivalent of gated communities, among maple trees and herbaceous borders), so all the wide variety of injustices seemed not only linked but founded upon anthropocentrism.

Humans were higher and more deserving than animals and, by extension, rich humans were higher and more deserving than poor ones (this connection became painfully clear later on, when the American General Westmoreland remarked that “the Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient”).

This is not an arbitrary link: anthropocentrism underpins our most basic moral and political failures, because it sets aside the sanctity (or if that word bothers you, the role in the overall fabric of material existence) of every living thing, from the amoeba to the armadillo to the utilities company executive. As long as we forget that sanctity, as long as we are even the least bit anthropocentric, we do harm, not only to other creatures and their habitats but to the world we ourselves inhabit.

Ian McHarg, the landscape architect author of the pioneering Design with Nature puts it most succinctly: “Man,” he says, “is a blind, witless, low-brow, anthropocentric clod who inflicts lesions upon the earth.” It is a long time since confirmation class, but a Catholic education is nothing if not thorough and I still cling to a notion of redemption. That will seem naive; nevertheless, I would contend that if redemption is possible, the first sin we must repent is the most basic one: the arrogance of thinking that we, and we alone, are the crown of creation.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril