Humanism versus Environmentalism

In a recent post I mentioned a talk by Freeman Dyson, which so captivated me that I went looking for further talks and texts. They’re not hard to find. He has given a fascinating TED talk about the kind of life we might expect in the coldest reaches of our solar system. And I came across an address he had given a few years ago, which seems to be very like another, hour-long, lecture I watched with interest and enjoyment.

In both he made a distinction between two sorts of people, humanists and naturalists. By the latter he means environmentalists, and I prefer that word, since ‘naturalists’ comes with the baggage of people who enjoy nature, watch birds, love lakes, and so on. Here’s some of what he says about the two groups.

Don Aitkin writer and authorIt is not surprising that honest and well-informed experts can disagree about facts. But beyond the disagreement about facts, there is another deeper disagreement about values. The disagreement about values may be described in an over-simplified way as a disagreement between naturalists and humanists. Naturalists believe that nature knows best. For them the highest value is to respect the natural order of things. Any gross human disruption of the natural environment is evil. Excessive burning of fossil fuels is evil. Changing nature’s desert, either the Sahara desert or the ocean desert, into a managed ecosystem where giraffes or tunafish may flourish, is likewise evil. Nature knows best, and anything we do to improve upon Nature will only bring trouble.

The humanist ethic begins with the belief that humans are an essential part of nature. Through human minds the biosphere has acquired the capacity to steer its own evolution, and now we are in charge. Humans have the right and the duty to reconstruct nature so that humans and biosphere can both survive and prosper. For humanists, the highest value is harmonious coexistence between humans and nature. The greatest evils are poverty, underdevelopment, unemployment, disease and hunger, all the conditions that deprive people of opportunities and limit their freedoms. The humanist ethic accepts an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a small price to pay, if world-wide industrial development can alleviate the miseries of the poorer half of humanity. The humanist ethic accepts our responsibility to guide the evolution of the planet.

I like the distinction, but I think that pure types of either would be hard to find. I am a humanist with more than a tad of respect for nature, and a pervasive worry about the obvious examples of destructive impact that we human beings have had and are having on specific sites. Yes, we learn from our mistakes and we can clean up after us, but sometimes we don’t. Dyson goes on.

The sharpest conflict between naturalist and humanist ethics arises in the regulation of genetic engineering. The naturalist ethic condemns genetically modified food-crops and all other genetic engineering projects that might upset the natural ecology. The humanist ethic looks forward to a time not far distant, when genetically engineered food-crops and energy-crops will bring wealth to poor people in tropical countries, and incidentally give us tools to control the growth of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Here I must confess my own bias. Since I was born and brought up in England, I spent my formative years in a land with great beauty and a rich ecology which is almost entirely man-made. The natural ecology of England was uninterrupted and rather boring forest. Humans replaced the forest with an artificial landscape of grassland and moorland, fields and farms, with a much richer variety of plant and animal species. Quite recently, only about a thousand years ago, we introduced rabbits, a non-native species which had a profound effect on the ecology. Rabbits opened glades in the forest where flowering plants now flourish. There is no wilderness in England, and yet there is plenty of room for wild-flowers and birds and butterflies as well as a high density of humans. Perhaps that is why I am a humanist.

I greatly enjoyed his little parable of England as a man-made eco-system, and it brought to mind an incident a few years ago when Canberra environmentalists made a fuss about possible human impacts on the Jerrabombera Wetlands, a nature reserve quite close to Canberra airport. None of those protesting seemed to understand that the wetlands hardly existed before Lake Burley Griffin was filled in 1964. The present wetlands are almost completely man-made.

In similar fashion (and Dyson talks about this with respect to birds and flowers), the dogs we see in our somewhat doggy city, from poodles to Irish wolfhounds, are all descended from canis lupus, the wolf, and are the results of thousands of years of deliberate breeding by human beings — along with some indiscriminate mating on the part of dogs themselves. Human beings are responsible for all the kinds of domesticated animals we now have. Australian flock masters have grown the merino sheep into its present form over two hundred years. The grains we employ, the fruits we harvest, along with those animals, have all been ‘genetically modified’, and we take that process utterly for granted.

Genetic modification is not simply something that takes place in the laboratories of a multinational corporation. It occurs whenever a human being grafts a branch from one fruit tree onto another, or ensures that a mare is serviced only by a particular stallion. It is part of the way in which human beings serve as stewards of the natural environment. Like Dyson, I think that that stewardship is is an essential part of our existence. Yes, we have the capacity to cause destruction, but we also have the capacity to care for the environment which we ourselves have helped to make. The cries about destruction and the end of species, about which I have written before, seem to me unbalanced and hyperbolic. There are very few real examples of the end of particular species, and our mapping of where small creatures live is scanty.

So much of what we see, read and hear about the environment is infected with doom and gloom, whereas one could point easily to the growth in the number of national parks, ocean reservations, conservation farming, and even recycling as signs that in our country, and in many like it, there is much to look at with satisfaction and pride. As I have said before somewhere, environmentalism will never be short of impending so-called disasters, from the Great Barrier Reef to a particular frog. Yet the evidence points the other way.

It’s time that the environmental doomsters were called to account. Alas, who is to do it? The doom-and-gloom psyche infects our whole society, which is the real worry. I’ll have to something to say about that in my next post.

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Join the discussion 26 Comments

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    Some two years ago I started to analyse just for my own understanding, the various influences and viewpoints of those engaged in the AGW debate. I think now that I severely underestimated the emotional component and its wellsprings. The major theme of “back to nature” runs through much of warmist rhetoric, and acts as an almost impermeable barrier to objective consideration of the science concerning climate.

    So why has the “naturalist” viewpoint become so strong in the Western world? It is nowhere near as strong in the developing world, let alone that fourth world that seems so left behind. Why? Their people are still concentrating on survival – basic survival. Go trekking in Nepal, and see the local women and children foraging for firewood, struggling under huge loads secured by strong headbands across their foreheads. Terraced fields, the man-handled plough pulled by a couple of oxen – idyllic? Yes, in my camera lens, but not much further. Talk to them first about the joys of naturalism, then come and talk with me about how damaging to the world it will be if we place cheap accessible energy in their hands. No wonder they get their children to their little village schools, but goodness knows how they manage it, neat and clean uniforms for some schools I’ve seen.

    In the West, we can theorise and idealise in comfort. We have largely forgotten what it means to struggle to survive in the way those people struggle. So in our highly urbanised worlds, we pine to return to a simpler life. And in our confused thinking, that means turning our backs on our own civilisation.

    • David says:

      Peter ,
      This argument is a piece of revisionist waffle. The same people, who would deny the science behind AGW (i.e. the Coalition Government), have also cut Australia’s foreign aid to those Nepalese school children, with neatly pressed school uniforms, that you speak of.

      • dlb says:

        Peter did not mention a thing about the Coalition Government, so why bring it up? Perhaps it was a Freudian urge you couldn’t repress David.

    • dlb says:

      Good comment Peter, I also think in the modern Western world where God has disappeared, to be one with Nature has been the replacement.

  • PeterE says:

    Wise words from Freeman Dyson and altogether a most pleasing essay. I like Peter’s comment below also.

  • Doug Hurst says:

    Agree Peter E’s comments and declare myself very firmly in the humanist camp. I too am unhappy with the doom and gloom pervading so much of our world – which I consider the best world humans have ever enjoyed. And I have little time for those who superficially reject it, knowing full well they can return to civilization if health, hunger, cold etc demand it. Some excuse them as having their hearts in the right place, but mature people ensure their heads take precedence over their hearts.

  • Alan Gould says:

    Yes, Freeman is a most civilised conversationalist, and he is right to tread warily when making his distinction between Humanist and Naturalist/Environmentalist. This is because the distinction is a vexed one, as much about where values elide as about where they collide.
    The Enlightenment Naturalists like Gilbert White were one of the places where modern Science had its source – in meticulous observation and a love of observation because it revealed the integrity of God’s Creation. Ditto for Wordsworth a few years later for whom the revealed world was an expression of a larger integrity. Empirical science and the poetic inspiritedness of Nature are both revelatory substance in the human mind that are part of what we mean when we endow ourselves with humanity.
    The problem arises when these pure sources become corrupted by excess. If our humanity so directs us to manage the natural processes of the planet to provide for and make safe ourselves in a mindfulness of the greater scheme, fine, then everyone who needs one should have a car, a fridge, a vacuum cleaner etc. But if that need inflates to the needing of a new car every time a flash model pops out, and ditto for any consumable, and if the manufacturing process deliberately builds obsolescence into the product to spur the trade, such that the derelicts trash the planet, then it seems to me Excess has moiled that purer humanism, that humanism is seeded with greed in its essence, and the Green alert is precisely our humanity sounding the alarm bells.
    So I prefer to see the Environmentalist – and the several of my acquaintance do have a rather pronounced Gilbert White aspect to them, ramblers delighting in the observation of nature, taxonomising, propagating etc – as within the humanist value rather than opposed to it. I think this is a false dichotomy, and a distracting one. It is stupidity and negligence we wish to demonise, not a class of people or a category of thinking.

    • dlb says:

      I can relate to what you are saying, being fascinated by nature most of my life. I certainly appreciate the emotive power of nature, but I am also a practical person who realises environmental issues often need hard cold facts rather than emotive or wishful thinking. There is a distinction between environmental scientist and environmentalist, largely facts versus emotion. The trouble is much of environmental science has been muddied by environmentalism.

  • David says:

    While the Freeman Dyson’s of this world are contemplating what life might be like on the moons of Jupiter, meanwhile,…

    Extinctions continue to occur.

    • Peter Kemmis says:

      As they have always done, David. While new ones evolve. I’m not suggesting our acceleration of the process is positive, but I do say that the world we know now, and the world we knew in our childhood, was never static. Thinking that it was, underpins much of that naturalist dreaming.

      • David says:

        What new species of mammal has evolved in the last 10 years?

        • Peter Kemmis says:

          Is that your timescale, David?

        • Peter Kemmis says:

          Hi David

          This is a very late response to your question of two months ago, but I recalled our brief discussion as I read last night the article cited below. I think you may find this article on what has been happening with species extinction to be relevant and interesting; it is from Jim Steele, Director Emeritus Sierra Nevada Field Campus, San Francisco State University. I guess you may baulk at the title and site where I found it, but as ever, concentrate on substance.

          What I found interesting (and he provides an extensive analysis of the first 100 of the 140 extinct birds listed by Ceballos and Ehrlich 2015, a list drawn from the IUCN database), is that most extinctions since about 1600 AD have occurred within earlier centuries, and that we are now in the process of reversing much of that earlier damage.

          You may find it also useful to look over some of the comments. You’ll quickly and sensibly ignore the facile ones, but there are some quite informed ones – quite a few, actually.

    • dlb says:

      Well in the case of the Asian rhino we do have cause and effect, unlike the nebulous prophesies of climate science. Interestingly that article says the rhino needs secondary forest, what it didn’t say was that secondary forest is usually forest regenerating from logging. Perhaps they didn’t want to mention that logging may be a good thing for the rhino.

      • David says:

        “… logging may be a good thing for the rhino.”

        Now that is a nebulous prophesy.! Evidence? nil.

        In this case the issue is not habitat its poaching. Since the Asian economic boom a lot more people can afford herbal medicine made from Rhino horn. Demand has increased and rhino numbers have been drastically reduced in Asia (which were always low) but also Africa.

        The demand for Rhino horn comes from Vietnam and China. The supply is from Africa. Yet many of the “doomsayers” who are concerned about the possible extinction of rhinos live in the West.

        So what can be done from the sidelines?

        For what it is worth, I would like to explore the idea of developing a high quality fake Rhino horn products that could be sold as a genuine product. After all it is just keratin as are horses hoofs for example. Increase the supply and drive the down the price and remove the incentive to poach real rhino in Africa.

  • Alan Gould says:

    Sure, extinctions occur; someone once told me that the average life of a species is about 2 million years – some having immensely more longevity. But when a whale species goes extinct because it has been hunted out of existence in pursuit of some ingredient that makes a perfume, what is it tells us this was needless and imbecile? The dreaminess of naturalists?

  • margaret says:

    You may say I’m a dreamer – and I’m not the only one. The more rational one is the less imaginative. From that annoying woman currently in the back o’ Bourke. That’s a wake up call – get out here for a dose of reality and dreams. Today is what matters, tread carefully on the earth, leave a small footprint – maybe cliche, but true.

    • margaret says:

      The great humanitarian Fred Hollows chose to be buried here. It’s neither doom and gloom or alas and alack in the towns of New South Wales – they have found their market from their unique characters and the band of travelers that visit is constant and well looked after. The forces of nature rule on the Darling though and humankind works with them having both success and disasters.

  • Gordon Watson says:

    Don great article. It was interesting to read the part about Jerrabomberra Wetland protesters in Canberra. We have the same phenomena happening on the Gold Coast where a vocal minority group is protesting to keep the human made Spit free from development, stopping an integrated resort that would provide jobs and well being as well as new industry for the Gold Coast economy.

  • […] I was writing my last essay, on environmentalism and humanism, I kept thinking that I had written about the development of environmentalism some time before. […]

  • margaret says:

    I wonder where Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring fits into the picture. She alerted us to the toxicity of pesticides and the reckless abandon of their use.
    Humanism and environmentalism aren’t mutually exclusive.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Agree with your last sentence. I feel I am a mixture of both.

      Rachel Carson was a foe of DDT, and was instrumental in having it outlawed in developed countries (after a time). And because the USA told developing countries that they were not to use it, on pain of no foreign aid (I am truncating this story), it is arguable that millions died there for the want of it. Yes, it can have deleterious effects, but like so many doomsters, Rachel Carson prophesied a future that hasn’t happened, and wasn’t ever likely to happen, for all sorts of reasons. We know a lot more now than she did then.

      • DaveW says:

        Don – you should do a bit of research on DDT: its use has persisted in many developing countries to this day. India and China (stopped in 2007) produced and exported enough DDT for any developing country to use all it wanted for control of malaria-transmitting mozzies and leishmaniasis-transmitting sand flies. DDT is often recommended as a control (

        The Stockholm Convention sanctioned DDT-use in agricultural situations, not for disease control, and WHO currently allows DDT as an appropriate control measure where it may be effective ( Australia didn’t ban DDT until around 1988 (if my memory serves), once we had suppressed our endemic malaria and more than a decade after Nixon’s EPA banned it in the US. There has never been an attempt to deny DDT for the control of malaria vectors, only to remove it from general agricultural use – and that was probably a good thing.

        It is a myth that the ban on DDT has caused millions of preventable deaths from malaria. It is true, though, that crazed greenies have tried to have it banned: but they have usually failed. The lack of DDT pales in comparison to the destruction of public health systems in countries due to corruption and war: that is the primary factor in the malaria mortality/morbidity rates. A secondary problem has been the evolution of resistance to DDT in many important vectors – some Anopheles can even sense DDT from a distance and avoid houses that have been sprayed. This is a complicated (and scientifically interesting) problem, but it is not the simple ‘DDT was banned and people died’.

        I read ‘Silent Spring’ in high school and it did have an effect on me, but the message I took away was that pesticides could be good, but the mindless spraying everywhere was bad. I think that point is certainly true and rubbishing Ms Carlson is wrong-headed. She called attention to a real problem and it is not her fault that the green slime-bags have mis-used her writing. Go read ‘Silent Spring’ and see for yourself.

  • DaveW says:

    Thanks Don. Dyson’s dichotomy is interesting. I don’t completely buy it, I don’t think we humanists actually know (or could agree on) what would be the best path to follow, but the environmentalists are so mired in superstition and religious fervour that they haven’t a hope of seeing a way through. Clearly the naturalists/environmentalists see people as abstracted from ‘nature’. That seems to be a refutation of evolution: where did we come from then? UFOs? If we are part of Nature, then why should we not be able to contribute to its formation? Well, logic and religion have never been good companions.

  • […] have mentioned before, with great approval (here and here), the English-born mathematician, astronomer  and physicist Freeman Dyson, who is 94, and […]

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