The Great Danger of Anthropocentricity

Photo by Himanshu Nagar | CC BY 2.0

Evincing an almost unbelievable ignorance of environmental science, last week Scott Pruitt, President Donald Trump’s head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, told reporters “we know humans have most flourished during times of warming trends. So I think there are assumptions made that because the climate is warming that necessarily is a bad thing. Do we really know what the ideal surface temperature should be in the year 2100, in the year 2018? That’s fairly arrogant for us to think that we know exactly what it should be in 2100.”

This is the same Scott Pruitt who shocked the public, the scientific community and employees of the EPA when he announced shortly after stepping into his new job that humans were not yet determined to be the major contributing cause of global warming.

But of course humans are not the only inhabitants of the planet. And therein lies the great danger of framing environmental and ecosystem health strictly in terms of human existence. Chief Seattle is widely credited to have said in an 1854 speech: “This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

Here in Montana, it’s often said we still have all the native species that were here when the Lewis and Clark expedition passed through more than two centuries ago. Indeed, the grizzly bear still roams the wild Rockies, the lynx haunts thick forests in its search for snowshoe hare and the fluvial arctic grayling still can be found in a few cold headwater streams. But it would be a grave mistake to think these fellow travelers on the planet Earth abound as they once did. The truth is they are hanging on, many by the thinnest of threads, as the rapid pace of global warming destroys historic food sources and the ecosystems — the “web of life” — upon which native species rely.

Moreover, it’s a mystery where Pruitt pulled his contention that “humans have thrived” in warmer climatic conditions when the climate has been relatively stable for the past 11,700 years. We are left to wonder if Pruitt discovered some prehistoric tome detailing warmer climatic conditions or, as is vastly more likely, he simply made up some alternative facts to fit his narrative that increasing human impacts on the environment and subsequent global warming could be good for humans.

Perhaps Pruitt should take a look at the polar bears starving as sea ice disappears. Or the ominous changes occurring in ocean currents — the very currents our present human society relies upon for a livable climate. Or the droughts threatening large sectors of humanity and fueling planet-wide wildfires while the permafrost melts and releases vast quantities of methane into the atmosphere.

Pruitt, who described himself as a “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda,” can fool himself that humans will “thrive” while the rest of Earth’s ecosystems are destroyed. But the truth is that we all need clean air, clean water, healthy soils, vibrant oceans — and so do the multitude of animals and plants living on Earth. We are part and parcel of this planet and the great danger of anthropocentrism, as so vividly illustrated by Pruitt, is thinking we are somehow separate from the “web of life” that surrounds us — or can ignore Chief Seattle’s warning that whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.


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George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.

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