‘Although denying that we have a special position in the natural world might seem becomingly modest in the eye of eternity, it might also be used as an excuse for evading our responsibilities. The fact is that no species has ever had such wholesale control over everything on earth, living or dead, as we now have. That lays upon us, whether we like it or not, an awesome responsibility. In our hands now lies not only our own future, but that of all other living creatures with whom we share the earth.’
Below is an article by Marilyn Mason, coordinator of Humanists for a Better World, on a humanist attitude towards the environment.
Humanists believe that we have just one life, that we have evolved, along with the rest of the natural world, to live on planet Earth, and that we alone are responsible for looking after it. Evidence shows that we are dependent in countless ways on our environment and its ecosystems (for fresh water, breathable air, fertile soil, a tolerable climate). Additionally, many humanists cherish the natural world, its landscapes, wildernesses, flora and fauna, for the beauty, inspiration, and solace they provide. If there are other inhabitable planets, they are a long, and perhaps impossible, journey away, so we should do our best to look after this planet for ourselves, for other animals, and for future generations.
Why worry about the environment? Humanists base their beliefs about the world on evidence. 97% of scientific papers on global warming conclude that it is real, problematic, and exacerbated by human activity. Many humanists would accept that as a good basis for concern and a motivation to action. Environmentalists express concern about the loss of species, also caused by human activity, such as encroachment on habitats by cities, roads, and agriculture. Agriculturalists worry about degradation of the soil caused by intensive farming, grazing, and deforestation. We will all suffer if we over-exploit or damage valuable, often shared, resources such as forests, fresh water, fossil fuels, and oceans. One can foresee growing tensions – even wars – over resources if we do not come up with rational ways of conserving and sharing them.
Humanist ethics are based on reason, taking responsibility for our own actions and their consequences, and empathy for other people and other sentient beings. When our actions lead to climate chaos and environmental degradation, considerable responsibility is placed on us. The worsening environment’s biggest impacts are on the poorer parts of the world, many of which already suffer from stresses such as desertification and flooding. These stresses contribute to conflicts and mass migration, with the more secure and affluent populations of the developed world often unwilling to provide for refugees. So, alongside humanist ideals such as justice and fairness, and empathy for those whose homes and livelihoods are threatened, there is an element of enlightened self-interest in trying to prevent or mitigate the changes that lead to so much upheaval and suffering.
Future generations, too, are likely to suffer from environmental stresses, and parents and grandparents will have rational personal reasons for caring about the future of the planet. But even without direct descendants, intergenerational justice would demand that we safeguard the rights of future generations to life, food, and homes. We should not require sacrifices from them so that we can carry on living wastefully and extravagantly. It would take 5.4 Earths to sustain the world’s population if everyone lived like the average American (you can measure your own ‘ecological footprint’ with Earth Day Network). Most humanists would advocate more rational attitudes to wealth, consumption, and wellbeing as routes to conserving the environment, and, without religious reservations about contraception, would promote birth control as an essential step towards a sustainable world population.
It’s not all bad. The knowledge we need to limit and feed the world population and become carbon-neutral exists already, more useful technologies are emerging, and there are potentially millions of jobs in new green industries. Earth remains beautiful and diverse, and, thanks to the work of scientists and environmentalists, we are now aware of the problems and the solutions.