Why can’t Humanism supply the Ethics of Environmentalism?

September 29, 2009

We've mentioned this issue before , that many environmentalists don't want to be associated with humanism. The Editors at climate-resistance.org have posted a clear explanation for this worry about humanism. It points out that the environmentalist movement usually ignores one's religious or metaphysical views, so long as everyone agrees on the goals (saving the planet, etc). To join their eco-tribe, you don't have to believe in the right god, or in any god, and the pagan crowd has no creed either. How ironic then that humanists are not welcome anymore -- humanists established much of the ecological and environmental agenda a generation ago.

Climate-resistance.org then squarely confronts the tough question: If humans are part of the problem, can humanism really be part of the solution? Their posting is quite clear about the negative answer:

"...there is a fundamental idea operating within environmentalism which is incompatible with humanism. It proposes that our principle relationship is not with each other, but with the natural world. Accordingly, ‘duty to each other’ exists principally as a duty to the planet, and ’societal cohesiveness’ comes from  without humanity, being predicated on a sustainable relationship with the natural world. In other words, human relationships are -  and must be - mediated by the ‘environment’. These precepts operate  prior to the humanist ethic that Burnside attempts to claim for the green movement: humanism is delimited by environmentalism. A failure to recognise these environmental precepts is, according to environmentalists, equivalent to  wanting to destroy humanity in an environmental catastrophe."

The Editors conclude: "There is no such thing as eco-humanism, nor progressive environmentalism."

Given the working definition of humanism in their argument, in which human relations are most important, this tough conclusion seems justified. It is irrelevant whether humanists can motivate themselves to save much of the environment. Sure, people can use a business-as-usual approach to protecting the environment without hurting the economy too much. But, to environmentalists, humanism seems like just a slow death alternative to the fast death of unrestrained globalization. If human needs ultimately come first and last, the environment always loses in the long run.

If there is a different (better?) definition of humanism, it had better take center stage now. The tribe of environmentalists are moving on without waiting for humanists.


#1 Michael (Guest) on Tuesday September 29, 2009 at 8:07am

I’ve moved beyond the “human exuberance for all humans” that seems to be at the center of CFI-Humanism.

#2 J. (Guest) on Tuesday September 29, 2009 at 8:58am

I doubt that there are any substantial potential benefits from a debate between environmentalism and humanism. We accomplish more by stressing the utility of science in making decisions.

#3 Randy on Tuesday September 29, 2009 at 9:23am

I see (secular) humanism and environmentalism as inseparable, so I find it absurd when someone says there’s “no such thing as eco-humanism” or such.  I think it would be very difficult to even be a humanist without also being an environmentalist.  Ultimately the environmentalists need humanists to overrule the “God gave us dominion” people, so this petty fighting is anti-environmentalist.  They need to realize that.

#4 DagoRed on Saturday October 03, 2009 at 12:14pm

I actually agree with the climate-control.com on this one.  Humanism is simply *not* the most basic of things that define people in the humanist movement.  Some things are just more important than humanistic values, one of which is the environment.  Debbie Goddard’s recent post about homophobia and humanism/atheism is another example of something more important than humanism.  The responses showed that, overwhelmingly, people would rather expel humanist homophobes from the movement rather than accept their support. Add racism, sexism, etc. to the list of things people would rather support than see humanism accept within it’s ranks blindly.  There are simply a number of things most humanists will value over and above their humanism (many might argue these things are noe PART of humanism as well). I think you are looking at this quandary entirely backward.  It’s not a matter of whether the LGBT movement, or the woman’s movement, or the various ethnic group struggles for equal rights are going to embrace humanism.  It’s whether humanism will support these far more primary concerns by fighting for their causes as well.  I think environmentalism belongs along side these other concerns.  The real question is whether humanism will accept environmental concerns—along with LGBT, ethnic, and woman’s concerns—as a matter of the basic ethical principles on which humanism is founded.  That is where the real question and debate lies regarding this nexus between environmentalism and humanism.

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