Given that ecocentrism appears strange, controversial, and indeed threatening to an anthropocentric world, it is unsurprising that it is/would be heavily resisted and rejected. Pioneering deep ecologist George Sessions observes how “pervasive metaphysical and ethical anthropocentrism . . . has dominated Western culture with classical Greek humanism and the Judeo-Christian tradition since its inception” (1987: 105). Radical ecocentrism challenges these dominant and domineering discourses-practices. Ronald E. Purser, Changkil Park and Alfonso Montuori - who are pioneering scholars in environmental leadership studies (and thus discussed in the next chapter) - rightly observe that “a questioning of [anthropocentric] values... is viewed as in and ofitself‘irrational’ or ‘unrealistic,’ because there is almost no way of addressing those values without seeming to challenge ‘reality’ itself” (1995: 1061).
So we shouldn’t be surprised when homocentric philosophers like William Grey appear to simply shrug off the very possibility of anti-anthropocentrism (be it biocentric or ecocentric): “I am not persuaded . . . that it is intelligible to abandon our anthropocentric perspective in favour of one which is more inclusive or expansive” (1993: 466). Grey’s opinion is rather representative of mainstream academic and public discourse. One of the aims of the present work (and specifically this chapter) is to demonstrate that Earth-centeredness is intelligible - indeed, wise — while human chauvinism is ultimately unintelligible and destructive. As part of this aim, the present section addresses five objections that are identified and discussed by Eckersley in Environmentalism and Political Theory (1992: 55-60), and a further criticism advanced by McLaughlin (1993: 17).
The first objection is the fundamental one rehearsed in our chapter on homocentrism: anthropocentrists would allege that we cannot escape our human perspective. But anthropocentrism conflates the human perspective(s) with the ability to critique this perspective. Eckersley nicely sums up the distinction; she clarifies how human-centeredness “conflates the trivial and tautological sense of the term anthropocentrism (i.e., that we can only ever perceive the world as human subjects - who can argue against this?) and the substantive and informative sense of the term (the unwarranted, differential treatment of other beings on the basis that they do not belong to our species)” (1992: 55).
The second common misconception is that ecocentrism is considered misanthropic. Fox calls this “the fallacy of misplaced misanthropy” (1990: 19; cf. Naess 1989: 141; McLaughlin 1993: 202). To begin with, we recall our refusal to “turn the tables” (i.e., simply replacing the human center with the nonhuman center): displacing the human from the center is not an act of replacing the human with the non-human but rather re-placing the non-human back into a genuine community of equals. Given that eco-egalitarianism is radically inclusive, it categorically includes the human and the non-human, but it insists on vastly greater consideration of non-humans, be they other creatures, natural and built environments, and manufactured products. As Eckersley explains, ecocentrism is “against the ideology of human chauvinism” - “not against humans per se or the celebration of humanity’s special forms of excellence” (1992: 56). Eckersley notes that ecocentrism is not misanthropic but nonanthropocentric -or we could go further: ecocentrism is misanthropocentric, i.e., it opposes and seeks to eradicate human-centeredness and its various devastating expressions/ consequences - which harm people just as much as they harm other entities and the Earth. Eco-centeredness opposes human-centeredness precisely because the former is proanthropic - indeed, philanthropic. Earth-centeredness is for the human, just as it is for everything else. It turns out that anthropocentrism is the misanthrope.
Related to the charge of misanthropy is the charge that humankind is subordinated to something else. For example, in their noteworthy 1995 article, sustainability scholars Thomas N. Gladwin, James 1. Kennelly, and Tara-Shelomith Krause rehash the naive claim that “Ecocentrism subordinates humans to the biosphere” (1995: 888). A misunderstanding like this might be fostered by superficially focusing on something like Leopold’s land ethic, which appears to privilege the biotic community over the individual (1989: 224-225). However, as noted earlier, there’s no hierarchical reversal with a thoroughgoing eco-centeredness: nothing is subordinated to nothing else. (Incidentally, Gladwin, Kennelly, and Krause advance “sustaincentrism,” which they consider superior/favorable to ecocentrism, but this is a false dichotomy: true Earth-centeredness involves an interplay or dialectic between elements of “sustaincentrism” and the genuinely ecocentric elements of their straw-man “ecocentrism.”)
The third objection that Eckersley identifies is that Earth-centeredness purportedly regards humans as no more valuable than “say, ants or the AIDS virus” (1992: 57) - and of course today’s microbiological counterpart is the COVID-19 virus; the question of how a thoroughgoing ecocentrism construes such things is broached as we proceed. We discern here something of the “demarcation problem” discussed earlier; if everything is considered, then doesn’t ecocentrism lead to a kind of “ethical indiscriminateness,” purportedly paralyzing our ability to choose between competing entities, given that they are basically inscribed with the same kind of value? “Paralyze” is precisely the term used by Gladwin, Kennelly, and Krause: “Ecocentrism may completely paralyze pragmatic action of any sort” (1995: 889). Grey likewise complains: “An austerely ecocentric or biospheric perspective delivers no determinate answer as to which of the abundant and wonderfully various unfolding planetary biotas should be preferred” (1993: 470). Even Agar - who defends the notion of intrinsic value - argues against what he calls “an everything ethic”: “We need to draw and defend the moral significance of a boundary between living and nonliving things to prevent our life ethic to degenerate into an everything ethic. If absolutely everything is special, then gone will be any moral incentive to look out for nature” (2001: 68).
Not only do anthropocentrists and biocentrists oppose ecocentrism’s everything ethic; even nominal ecocentrists err in this direction. Callicott states: “An ethic that embraces everything in effect embraces nothing” (1989: 10). Even physiocentrist Meyer-Abich opposes an everything ethic: “It seems like a tall order to recognize everything’s intrinsic value. ... If everything which exists must be respected and guarded as it is, do we not have to hold ourselves back from making any change in the world? How could we feed ourselves?” (1993: 83). He goes on: “In the end even a sculptor would not be able to transform a stone into sculpture, for then the stone would not remain what it was. And would that not deny its intrinsic value, or dignity?” Meyer-Abich’s solution? “The intrinsic dignity of things and beings within nature’s whole is revealed as what they can become” (1993: 84).
So how can we defend ecocentrism’s “everything ethic/ethos”? We recall from our critical appropriation of Mathews’ work how we humans are allowed to pursue the procurement of basic-higher ends, and this pursuit will inevitably involve interrupting the unfolding of non-human entities. So while these entities are indeed special (and special, at the most basic level, because they exist), they may be used or destroyed in order to meet our reasonable requirements.
However, precisely because these non-humans are special, they should not be used or destroyed to meet unreasonable wants. Ecocentric recognition of the specialness or value of something will not prevent us from appropriating it for our legitimate use, but it should prevent us from appropriating it for unjustifiable use. By living according to this ethos/ethic, humanity would be able to maximize the free unfolding of non-human things and minimize our interference with this unfolding.
This is the basic defense/clarification for our advancement of ecocentrism’s “everything ethic/ethos” but we can also address some of the specific charges related to this objection. First of all, Agar’s logic can be dislodged: if absolutely everything is special, then why would our “moral incentive” to care for “nature” be eradicated? Ethical concern is expanded to the artifactual; widening the circle of ethical deliberation does not mean caring less about nature - it just means caring or caring more about what has been even more ignored than nature (the built, the manufactured). With regard to Callicott’s remarks, first of all, we insist that ecocentrism’s everything ethic does indeed embrace everything, from humans to capuchin monkeys to fax machines and old roads. Next, even though Callicott rejects this everything ethic, the irony is that, a few pages after these comments are made, he criticizes the animal-rights/-liberationists for their selective ethics: “there is something jarring about such a graduated progression in the exfoliation of a more inclusive environmental ethic” (1989: 16). So Callicott is simultaneously against an everything ethic and a graduated one - but he can’t have it both ways: one’s ethic will either be selective (with its accompanying problems and contradictions) or “indiscriminate.” And what about Meyer-Abich’s argument? Setting aside the abyssal first question of who/what decides whether a sculptor’s work reveals a thing’s “becoming” and/ or imposes the artist’s own abstract thinking on the stone, there’s a relatively simple ecocentric solution: we straightaway point out that artistic expressionappreciation is a higher human need-want, so activities like sculpting are certainly acceptable; however, one would need to address additional concerns in order to determine whether the sculpting of a particular stone should be permitted, e.g., what are the ecological impacts of excavating the stone? Might the stone be put to some other basic-higher use? etc.
Hence, even the objections of a number of exemplary environmental thinkers are readily countered from an Earth-centered perspective. But how can we defend the position that everything — even the vilest things, the most destructive things - should receive greater consideration? How do we respond to the accusation that humans are no more valuable than “say, ants or the AIDS [or the COVID-19] virus”?
First of all, how does Eckersley herself respond to this objection? Interestingly, she does not respond very directly or specifically, instead offering general remarks. She explains that ecocentrism “seeks to cultivate a prima facie orientation of nonfavoritism” (1992: 57). “Nonfavoritism” is a superb word to describe Earth-centeredness. Eckersley adds that such an orientation does not exclude human activities like eating or self-defense. In sum: ecocentrism favors nonfavoritism and only practices favoritism under certain conditions. However, Eckersley’s nonfavoritism risks being undermined by her own biocentric favoring of criteria like sentience, self-consciousness, and “richness of experience” for negotiating ethical dilemmas. Such criteria would automatically exclude viruses and possibly entities like ants from our consideration.
A thoroughgoing ecocentrism, on the other hand, is inclusive of microbes and insects - and everything besides. But how? How can this inclusivity be construed as somehow “ethical”? First of all, having developed our eco-ethos according to the distinction between reasonable ends and unreasonable wants, we can readily accommodate such entities into our schema. This kind of schema is indicated (but not elaborated) by Eckersley when she states: “A nonanthro-pocentric perspective is one that ensures that the interests of nonhuman species and ecological communities . . . are not ignored in human decision making simply because they are not human or because they are not of instrumental value to humans” (1992: 57).
Let’s enumerate our position by turning to Eckersley’s specific examples of ants and viruses. First, the ants. According to eco-centeredness, they should be allowed to unfold as freely as possible. And they often do. However, there will be circumstances whereby we humans are allowed to intervene in their unfolding. There’s the classic example of ants over-running a picnic: given that we humans are allowed to eat and to eat hygienic food, we are certainly allowed to rid the picnic area of ants in order to meet these reasonable ends. So, ordinarily, ants are affirmed or valued in the sense that they should be allowed to freely unfold, but there will be circumstances when justified human and/or non-human needs override their free unfolding.
Of course, the question of viruses like AIDS and COVID-19 is more complex - and more emotive - so we need to proceed both sensitively and logically. However, basically, the same schema applies. “In principle,” viruses -like any other entities on Earth - should be allowed to unfold freely excepting those times that this unfolding threatens human/other lives. That’s why ecocentrism understands the human endeavor to annihilate particularly destructive viruses like AIDS and various coronaviruses. We are allowed - indeed, compelled - to fight these entities with all the astounding medical technologies and social strategies (such as frequent cleaning and physical distancing) we can muster. Letting-be is not radical impassivity: as I have continually insisted, it allows us humans to defend ourselves and non-human others under certain circumstances. But while ecocentrism doesn’t deny the destructiveness of viruses, neither does it demonize them. First of all, Earth-centeredness reminds us of the commonalities between viruses and us, like the shared feature of being, and the drive to survive and multiply. (We note that viruses exist, but it’s difficult to categorize them as “living” or “non-living” entities - they unsettle any clear-cut living/non-living distinction; refer to, e.g., Villarreal 2004; Koonin and Starokadomskyy 2016.) Next, we ecocentrists also value these still-mysterious things epistemically: by studying them, we learn more about them, ourselves, and the world; we discover that there are beneficial ecological dimensions to viruses (Falkowski 2015; Roossinck 2016; Dolgin 2019). We may also recall here Rolston’s provocative but bio-scientifically brilliant 1992 article “Disvalues in Nature,” which discusses challenging natural processes like predation and parasitism in a realistic-affirmative light. Finally, in an effort to provide a more objective perspective, ecocentrism even dares to ask the confronting question: which entity, the virus or the human, has been the more ecospherically destructive?
We may very briefly address here two further groups of things that we humans find vile and dangerous: waste and weaponry. How could such substances be ecocentrically “affirmed?” We first turn to human waste, both at the individual-biological and domestic-industrial levels. To begin with, Earth-centeredness recognizes that corporeal waste is a necessary, inevitable part of material existence, a by-product of bodily functioning; in a similar way, garbage created by human societies is also inevitable, a by-product of household and industrial processes. While ecocentrism admonishes the creation of unnecessary, wasteful domestic-industrial rubbish (Thompson 2015), it nevertheless acknowledges its reality. If we are to affirm creaturely life and artifactual activity, we must also affirm their by-products. Rather than ignoring or reviling rubbish, we should acknowledge it and accept it. Of course, there’s a repugnant dimension to it, but, as Mathews wonderfully puts it, “antiquity naturalises even the most jarring of trash” (1999a: 124). Thankfully, there is a mounting body of work rethinking and revaluing refuse (e.g., Bennett 2004, 2010; Yaeger 2008; Hawkins 2009; Morrison 2015, 2019; White 2019). For instance, prominent eco-political philosopher Jane Bennett recounts an experience of an encounter with some rubbish (a plastic work glove, tree pollen pods, a dead rat, a white plastic bottle cap, a stick of wood): while we ordinarily anthropocentrically ignore or revile such a pile, Bennett discovers how it “commands attention as vital and alive in its own right, as an existant in excess of its reference to human flaws or projects. . . . has thing-power . . . exudes a kind of dignity, provokes poetry, or inspires fear” (2004: 350).
The final problematic object briefly analyzed here is weaponry. How on Earth can Earth-centeredness affirm it? Where’s the ethics in such an affirmation? First of all, we note that weapons are made from “raw materials” (metals, chemicals, etc.). These “materials” are “natural,” having unfolded rather freely; they are then collected, modified, and combined to create weapons: they are therefore constituted by a combination of natural entities and abstract thinkingmanufacture; then there’s also the human use of weapons. So we have three basic aspects to weaponry: the “raw materials”; the design-construction process; and use. How are we to ethically examine these aspects? First of all, with regard to the materials used to build weapons, obviously, we cannot assess them as “unethical”: these things have been extracted, altered, and comingled by humans. So we already note that weapons cannot be automatically assessed in a completely negative way: there’s a dimension to them that should be affirmed. Of course, the design-manufacture-use dimensions of weapons are more ethically complicated - but still not simplistically unethical: while they are designed to harm/kill, their use requires contextualization; they may be utilized in more ethical situations (such as self-/other-defense) or more unethical situations (e.g., committing crimes). And so, even weapons - which are often construed in purely unethical terms - are at least partially affirmed by Earth-centeredness, especially in terms of the elements that are coerced into forming them (cf. Manolopoulos 2009: 122).
We now turn to the fourth charge identified by Eckersley: the objection that ecocentrism is “untranslatable,” i.e., inapplicable or impractical. In itself, the ethos of maximal allowing and minimal interference is clear and reasonable - and thus eminently practicable. However, its practice is obstructed because we live in an anthropocentric world as anthropocentric selves. In other words: it is not a question of some kind of “untranslatability” of the eco-ethos but rather the obstructions it faces from human supremacism and its multiple expressions.
The fifth objection against Earth-centeredness identified by Eckersley is that ecocentrists construe nature as “something that is essentially harmonious, kindly, and benign” (1992: 59; cf. Gladwin, Kennelly and Krause 1995: 888). The charge of idealization or romanticization has some traction when it comes to much environmental discourse. For example, the works of cabinphilosophers like Thoreau, Muir, and Leopold tend to foreground nature’s harmony and beauty at the expense of its discord and disfigurations. Notions such as “Mother Nature” and “Gaia” - while insightful in some ways - often contribute to environmentalism’s tendency to idealize the world. But radical Earth-centeredness does not subscribe to an idealistic-romanticized construal. Our discussion - and “affirmation” - of things like predation, viruses, and weapons certainly confirms ecocentrism’s profound realism. My favorite ecological work in this regard is Rolston’s “Disvalues in Nature” (cited earlier): as noted earlier, the essay not only foregrounds predation and parasitism but also randomness and turbulence - phenomena that destabilize the notion of a stable, harmonious biosphere (Rolston 1992; cf. Hettinger and Throop 1999). But ecocentric realism isn’t one-sided, focusing exclusively on the challenging/ dark dimension of the world: nature is also somewhat “harmonious, kindly, and benign” - demonstrated by the astonishing array of biodiversity, as well as the continued existence of humanity. And so, Earth-centeredness deeply perceives how the world is a composite of the harmonious and the chaotic, the kindly and the cruel, and the benign and the malignant. The trick, then, is to insist on both the lighter and darker dimensions of the world.
The sixth criticism discussed here is advanced by McLaughlin. He describes environmental thought as “typically involving discussions of ethical questions concerning the foundations of an environmental ethic or the presence or absence of intrinsic value in nonhuman nature” (1993: 17). One could say that the present study somewhat belongs to this tradition. Now, McLaughlin - who admirably focuses on the relations between economic systems and our treatment of the non-human - asks the following compelling questions: “What value do such abstract questions have when humanity faces a wide array of serious environmental threats? What is the importance, for example, of discerning that anthropocentrism, which assumes that humanity is the central or only value, is a nearly universal presumption underlying most discussions of environmental issues?” (1993: 17).
On the one hand, we understand and even partially accept McLaughlin’s concerns: much attention has been paid to questions of values and ethics, while relatively little attention has been paid to structures and forces such as economic and political systems. However, we critically respond in the following ways. First of all, note how the author downplays the issues of values and ethics by framing them as “abstract questions”: while there is an “abstract” - theoretical, conceptual, reflective, etc. - dimension to these topics, they are also extremely concrete: things like ethics and values shape our individual and collective attitudes, behaviors, actions, institutions, and systems. The abstract imposes itself on the actual - or better still: reality is constituted by both elements; attitudes and values form part of the very fabric of lived experience. One can’t completely separate the abstract from the “real” - indeed, isn’t the very division between the abstract and its other an abstraction itself? McLaughlin also makes light of anthropocentrism when he frames it as a “presumption”: we ordinarily think of presumptions as mere thoughts/prejudices, but they also inform our actions - indeed, can there even be intended actions without presumptions?
So questions like value, ethics, and human supremacist!! remain crucial and still require our attention. McLaughlin himself proves this point by devoting a whole chapter to the concept-practice of anthropocentrism (1993: 143-168), asserting that “What is now most urgently needed from ethical reflection is the dethroning of anthropocentrism” (1993: 153). By examining human-centeredness, McLaughlin appears to have accomplished the very thing that he had earlier criticized. Whatever the case may be, the present work contributes to this “dethroning of anthropocentrism,” replacing it with ecocentrism (which, by the way, seeks no crown or throne). Of course, McLaughlin’s argument isn’t without merit: ultimately, what’s required is a multipronged critique (and concomitant praxis), whereby environmental theorists re-analyze and re-think (and help to change some of) the most significant aspects of human existence, including our attitudes, values, ethics, faiths, educational systems, politics, and economics.
Heading Toward Earth-Centered Leadership
Having defined, described, refined, and defended a thoroughgoing Earth-centeredness, we’re at the threshold of outlining a theory of ecocentric leadership. Readers will note that the chapter on anthropocentrism includes the identification and discussion of five of its “expressions” - the main word I use to describe attitudes-actions that manifest human-centeredness (and therefore heavily constitute or color “situations,” i.e., scenarios or phenomena, from the common to the complex). The “corresponding’-antithetical ecocentric expressions are not discussed in this chapter but in the subsequent one for two basic reasons. First, the practical-formal reason: their inclusion would have significantly expanded this already-lengthy chapter. Then there’s the more important structural reason: by exploring the five eco-centered expressions in the next chapter, they can be contrasted with the homocentric ones, with the aim of identifying and discussing leaderly measures that would foster the transformation of anthropocentric situations into more ecocentric ones and maintain Earth-centered situations in the face of anthropocentric contestation.