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World Environmental Politics: Biocentric and Anthropocentric Views on Environmental Issues

Environmental issues have been in the spotlight for decades but it is clear that people are still reluctant to pay the necessary attention to the matter. Nonetheless, it is time to start solving issues which have been accumulating for centuries. The debate on environmental concerns can be considered through analysis of major points discussed by Norton (1984) and Dryzek (2013) who hold quite opposing views on the issue. Some people claim that it is impossible to apply one of the paradigms to develop an efficient approach and only ethical dualism can be the most effective solution (Minteer 2008). Nevertheless, one of the discourses is more applicable and realistic in the contemporary world.

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First, it is necessary to look into the two approaches to understand whether each of them can be applied in the modern society. Dryzek (2013) advocates biocentric view on environmental issues and stresses that this approach is the only possible way out. Minteer (2008, p. 341) notes that the idea of biocentrism dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century when Liberty Hyde Bailey introduced his discourse and stated that the use of land was “fundamentally a moral, rather than economic, issue”.

It is noteworthy that this approach is closely connected with and even rooted in sentimentalist paradigm. According to sentimentalists, morality is based on sentiments and “it is human emotional responses that determine what is valuable” (McShane 2011, p. 8). This basic concept is the most vulnerable point in the approach as the concept of morality is quite relative. People tend to have different values and it is impossible to define moral actions as people’s opinions on that matter differ.

The central point in the biocentric approach lies within the terrain of morality and sentimentalism. Dryzek (2013), who is one of major advocates of this paradigm, emphasises that people should see themselves as a part of the system which includes diverse organisms and elements. The researcher argues that sustainability is the only possible approach and there is no place for ideas other than protecting the environment, which is the matter of people’s survival (Dryzek 2013). Importantly, proponents of biocentric approach fail to give specific tools to address environmental problems. Instead, they focus on morality of actions and appeal to people’s sentiments. Nevertheless, these appeals are unlikely to be heard by those who take a larger part in damaging the environment (politicians, business sharks and so on).

When it comes to anthropocentric approach, researchers are more precise and provide particular strategies to handle environmental issues. This precision can be explained by the basis of the approach. In the first place, it is necessary to note that in this paper Norton’s idea of anthropocentrism is employed. Norton (1984) developed the concept of two types of anthropocentrism, ‘strong’ and ‘weak’. ‘Strong’ anthropocentrism implies “reference to satisfactions of felt preferences of human individuals” (Norton 1984, p. 134). The mentioned ‘felt preferences’ are all possible desires as well as needs of people. Clearly, this type of anthropocentrism has reigned for centuries and it led to various environmental issues. It is likely to worsen the situation if used in the future.

At the same time, Norton (1984, p. 134) defines ‘weak’ anthropocentrism as “reference to satisfaction of some felt preference of a human individual” or “reference to its bearing upon the ideals which exist as elements in a world view essential to determinations of considered preferences”. Considered preferences are defined as “rationally adopted world view” which implies adherence to moral values and ideals (Norton 1984, p. 134). The ‘weak’ anthropocentrism employs the principle of morality and rationality. In other words, individuals may satisfy some of their needs but they are also conscious about their actions. People are not morally bound to do the right thing but they make a rational choice. Admittedly, this is a more plausible scenario that can be utilised in the contemporary world.

This approach enables people to develop a specific behavioural pattern which can be beneficial for humanity as well as the rest of the diverse biological world. Rolston III (2012) stresses that it is easy for a modern individual to adopt certain behavioural patterns aimed at preserving and caring about the environment. The researcher stresses that many people are able to understand that diversity of the world is important for the human being in a number of ways. It is central when it comes to survival and this diversity provides aesthetic satisfaction to people as “appreciating” flora and fauna is human’s “flourishing” (Rolston III 2009, p. 117). The public opinion is a good illustration of the way this “anthropocentric” concept works.

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On the one hand, people have acknowledged that irresponsible behaviour of their ancestors led to a significant damage to the environment, which, in its turn, has certain impact on people now. Apart from scarce resources, lack of land and a variety of diseases associated with the damage to the planet, people are now witnessing the change from a flourishing world to a desert. Hence, people become ‘green’ and try to live in houses that use little energy, eat food which is natural and so on. On the other hand, public opinion has shaped the way businesses act. Sustainable approach has become a trend that brings financial benefits as people buy from responsible producers. Callanan (2010) calls this trend ‘environmental pragmatism’ as all stakeholders involved make rational choices and benefit from them.

Nevertheless, this anthropocentric approach suggested by Norton is still criticized. For instance, Westra (1997) argues that anthropocentrism, even if it is weak, will still focus on individuals’ desires and gains. The researcher as well as other supporters of biocentric paradigm stresses that the environment will deteriorate as people’s needs will be put first. These researchers stress the need to focus on preservation of the environment.

Notably, Westra (1997) provides an example of fishery issues in Canada and indigenous people in the Americas. The researcher states that some practices have been seen as sustainable though people caused significant damage to the environment (Westra 1997). Even indigenous people who have always been perceived as those who live in harmony with the nature often harm the environment which cannot restore.

Hence, any humans’ practice is doomed to cause damage and people have to leave certain areas intact. These researchers claim that people have a moral responsibility to use minimum resources and enable the nature to restore. Again, it is difficult to make all people leave vast areas and use only some resources in the world where population is increasing annually. Morality and ethical responsibility are far from being enough to make individuals more responsible. Particular benefits (including profits and personal gains) can be a more effective motivational strategy.

It is also necessary to consider dualistic approach which implies the use of principles of both approaches. Minteer (2008) stresses that neither biocentric nor anthropocentric view can be viable in the contemporary world and the two approaches have to be blended. At the same time, such dualistic views often lack for precision. Supporters of this paradigm are quite inconsistent as, on the one hand, they claim people may try to benefit from the use of resources and, on the other hand, they stress that it is necessary to preserve the nature and let it restore. Hence, it is clear that dualism in this case is inapplicable and Norton’s discourse is becoming more viable and usable each day.

Clearly, people should learn how to be responsible and how to adopt ‘weak’ anthropocentric approach. New generations have to be brought up on these values. When a child asks about the environment, it is essential to provide a detailed and comprehensive answer to make him/her exploit values of ‘weak’ anthropocentrism.

The process starts with parents who have to explain different things to their children. The school is another level of education and all educational establishment have to form the corresponding worldview. Children or rather all people should be exposed to values of ‘weak’ anthropocentrism through media (TV, newspapers, the Internet with a focus on social media and so on).

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It is also important to remember that children need specific stories and imagery to understand such important things. They will not understand the real value of being responsible if they learn about the discourse of Norton or Dryzek. Even though they can understand some points and that it is good to act in that way, they will fail to see why exactly they should act in this or that way. Eventually, these children may grow up and adopt values of ‘strong’ anthropocentrism. Therefore, it is important to employ the right words. One of the stories told to the child can be as follows.

The world is very old and lots of creatures, plants and elements coexisted very well. This means that they managed to live in peace and help each other. All elements of the world relied on each other and there was balance. The balance means that if in one part of the world some elements vanish, this can lead to other elements’ destruction. When humanity was very young, they also lived in accordance with the laws of balance and co-existence.

However, several hundred years later, people found out how to make their life easier. They used a lot of elements and used their energy to build huge houses and make many cars. People forgot about the laws as they were very busy talking to each other on the phone, watching TV and using the Internet, eating too much and going to hospitals to cure all their illnesses which appeared because of people’s greediness. People did not notice that they destroyed a lot of elements and made the planet turn into deserts. Finally, they felt that the world does not have enough food and shelters for them any more as they used too much along their way. People became sad and miserable.

They wanted to return to the balanced world where all elements understood each other. However, they did not remember the road to turn back and they forgot the language to talk to other elements. People did not listen to the planet and the planet stopped listening to them. This was the time when people started feeling lonely and lost. They wanted to go back to the happy world. Some of them understood that they have to bring balance to the world.

People understood that they did not need all those things they learnt to create. Moreover, they saw that some of their machines could help the planet to revive. Of course, humans could not live without taking some food and energy from the world but they did not use more than they really needed. They also shared their knowledge to help elements to live in the world which is changing. This was the start of the new communication between people and the planet. Of course, not all people have started this communication. However, those who did have become really happy as they are again a part of the universe where all elements support each other. These people see their goals and know how to live to be happy.

This is one of possible ways to expose a child to ideals of the ‘weak’ anthropocentrism. In fact, these stories can be told on daily basis when walking in a park or going to the playground. Anything can become a stimulus to discuss such topics: seeing a butterfly, eating an ice-cream, picking up flowers and so on. In a nutshell, it is crucial to pay the child’s attention to the need to be responsible and strive for balance in the world.

Of course, it is crucial to be a model for the child. Parents have to follow the principles of ‘weak’ anthropocentrism to create the necessary atmosphere in the family. Children tend to follow their parents’ examples and copy their ways without even noticing it. Thus, didactic stories have to be only a part of the holistic approach to child upbringing.

It is also necessary to remember that some things should be avoided. For instance, it is inappropriate to employ Dryzek’s approach and focus on moral responsibility. When a parent keeps saying that the child should do something without explaining the reasons for such actions, the child will rebel and will develop certain dislike to the activity. At the same time, Westra (1997) rightfully mentions relativity of everything and even though something was seen as ethical and proper some time ago, it can become outdated and even dangerous in the course of time. Thus, ethical values have to be revisited all the time.

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In conclusion, it is possible to note that Norton’s ‘weak’ anthropocentrism is the most effective and applicable approach in the contemporary world. People have failed to follow ethical principles and, when it comes to environmental issues, they can be motivated in a conventional way (by gains and benefits).

Of course, next generations have to adopt this approach to ensure proper development of the human society as well as the entire planet. Hence, people have to start educating children to make them responsible. It is crucial to speak the language children will understand and become models for them. In this way, humanity will start being responsible in many ways. This will be the first step which will enable people to solve a variety of environmental issues in the future.

Reference List

Callanan, LP 2010, ‘Intrinsic value for the environmental pragmatist’, Res Cogitans, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 132-142.

Dryzek, JS 2013, The politics of the Earth: environmental discourses, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

McShane, K 2011, ‘Neosentimentalism and environmental ethics’, Environmental Ethics, vol. 33, no. 1, pp. 5-23.

Minteer, BA 2008, ‘Biocentric farming? Liberty Hyde Bailey and environmental ethics’, Environmental Ethics, vol. 30, no. 1, pp. 341-359.

Norton, BG 1984, ‘Environmental ethics and weak anthropocentrism’, Environmental Ethics, vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 131-148.

Rolston III, H 2009, ‘Converging versus reconstituting environmental ethics’, in BA Minteer (ed), Nature in common? Environmental ethics and the contested foundations of environmental policy, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, pp. 97-117.

Rolston III, H 2012, A new environmental ethics: the next millennium for life on Earth, Routledge, Oxon.

Westra, L 1997, ‘Why Norton’s approach is insufficient for environmental ethics’, Environmental Ethics, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 279-297.

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