Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Environmentalism and humanism

A year ago I was given Yuval Noah Harari's books Sapiens and Homo Deus (2016*), which I've just finished reading.


It is customary to portray the history of modernity as a struggle between science and religion. In theory, both science and religion are interested above all in the truth, and because each upholds a different truth, they are doomed to clash. In fact, neither science nor religion cares that much about the truth, hence they can easily compromise, coexist and even cooperate.

Religion is interested above all in order. It aims to create and maintain the social structure. Science is interested above all in power. Through research it aims to acquire the power to cure diseases, fight wars and produce food. As individuals, scientists and priests may give immense importance to the truth; but as collective institutions, science and religion prefer order and power over truth. They therefore make good bedfellows. The uncompromising quest for truth is a spiritual journey, which can seldom remain within the confines of either religious or scientific establishments.

It would accordingly be far more accurate to view modern history as the process of formulating a deal between science and one particular religion -- namely, humanism. Modern society believes in humanist dogmas, and uses science not in order to question these dogmas, but rather in order to implement them. ....

(Homo Deus, p. 231)


For Harari, a religion is the supplier of society's core values, moral imperatives and shared myths; it is what allows human societies to cooperate on a large scale. (Science itself supplies no values.) These religions needn't involve temples or God. In Harari's 20th century the wars of religion were between competing humanisms: liberal humanism versus socialist humanism (communism) or evolutionary humanism (nazism). Liberal humanism won, but its fundamental beliefs are contradicted by modern science, and the emerging religions will be techno-humanism or data religions.

The important new religions (in Harari's sense) now develop in Silicon Valley, i.e. at the apex of technological development. Harari sees no particular significance in e.g. Islamic fundamentalism or far right nationalism -- they are just regressive movements, doomed to failure. He doesn't link them to the threat of ecocide that he recognizes in the endless economic growth authorized by humanism.


Reading all this, I'm pondering environmentalism -- Is it a distinct religion, is it progressive or regressive in terms of technology, and is it humanistic?

Of course the argument that we should care for the planet is often expressed in humanistic terms: for example, Clean air and water should be fundamental human rights . Or, Wrecking the environment is a sorry legacy to pass on to our children and grandchildren.

Those are good points, but I feel that environmentalism is also and fundamentally not humanist. Many people (including Harari) are horrified by the mass mistreatment of livestock entailed by industrial farming: yet it's difficult to justify that horror in purely humanist terms. Ever since the RSPCA was founded in the early nineteenth century (and indeed for a century before that) we've felt that we ought to treat animals better. As science has improved our understanding of ourselves and other species, it has become harder to maintain a metaphysical distinction between humans and other animals. Animals, most people feel, deserve some rights too.

But environmentalism goes a little further than that. Its values also, and crucially, concern ecosystems: that is, natural biological communities. Most animals can only live a worthwhile existence within such ecosystems. The old-style zoos where you could pass gorillas in cages are no longer very pleasing to most people who care about nature. Gorillas, we understand, should have gorilla country.

It's a sticking-point, from the perspective of technological progress. Many of us lament the loss of human cultural diversity, the loss of the world's languages and pristine stone-age lifestyles, but there's a reasonable argument that this is sentimental. Few people now live stone-age lifestyles, but their grandchildren have smartphones and much longer life expectancy, they mostly do not want to go back to the lifestyle of their ancestors, so from a humanistic point of view the loss of human diversity isn't necesssarily or simply a bad thing. But other species are not so adaptable as we are. If they too have rights, those rights amount to a severe restriction on technological interference: in their habitats, it means minimal change.

The rights of other species also present a challenge to one of the enshrined humanistic ideals, democracy. Animals can't vote. So how can their interests be defended? By well-intentioned humans, maybe. But so far well-intentioned humans seem to be unable to halt the ever-accelerating destruction of natural habitats across the globe. Of course many of the world's nations don't even pretend to be democracies, but would it improve the chances for nature if they were? Under heightened environmental pressure themselves, voters may be perfectly prepared to let natural habitats go under the plough. If constantly improved human education can't be sustained (and education is itself under huge pressures) -- then must democracy be saved from itself? In practice this already happens: decisions that require specialist expertise aren't usually exposed to a public vote. (That, for example, is how SSSIs are designated.) But fundamental aspects of our lifestyle have environmental impact too (our cars, our flights, economic growth itself); those are certainly things that come within the purview of public votes. So what if we keep voting for them, even when it puts ourselves and other humans (never mind the animals and the ecosystems) under still harsher environmental pressure? Something has to give; but when, and what -- or who -- will it be?

[The Hebrew version of Homo Deus was published in 2015, but the English version appears to be cognizant of events up to mid-2016.]



Post a Comment

<< Home

Powered by Blogger