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Skip to 0 minutes and 12 seconds Every year, a ballet of sorts plays out in the Southern Ocean. A Japanese whaling fleet scours the ocean, hunting whales under the guise of a scientific research programme. In opposition to this activity, the activist environmental organisation Sea Shepherd sends out a number of its own boats from ports in Australia, with the specific intent of protecting the whales by interrupting the Japanese operation. For this campaign, Sea Shepherd has widespread support in Australia and other parts of the world. Politics and ethics of this Southern Ocean clash over whales aside, this scenario provides some insights into values and perceptions of society and how they shape environmental outcomes. It is a clash between an anthropocentric Japanese programme and an ecocentric Sea Shepherd campaign.

Skip to 0 minutes and 54 seconds Anthropocentrism is a term that characterises a position which accepts human beings as being the most significant species on the planet. Implicitly, humans are considered to have a moral status or value higher than that of other animals due to their level of sentience, their presence of a human soul, and notions of human dignity. Such anthropocentric perspectives are deeply embedded in many modern human cultural and conscious acts, with human considerations being at the centre of environmental concerns. Nature, seen as an external environment, is generally viewed as having instrumental values. And thus, its preservation or conservation is premised on its value for human needs, such as its use as a resource or the ecosystem services that it provides.

Skip to 1 minute and 34 seconds In parts of Japanese society, hunted whales are seen to have an instrumental value in the form of a food delicacy and also, at least according to the whaling programme, for science. Whales are valued for their human use. Anthropocentrism is often contrasted with ecocentric perspectives, a term for a wide variety of beliefs that see humans as a part of, rather than as separate from, nature. In this conception, nature is understood as having an intrinsic value, value irrespective of its use to humans, and therefore human decisions must take this into account. Sea Shepherd views whales as having a right to live regardless of their instrumental value to humans. There are, of course, shades of grey between these perspectives.

Skip to 2 minutes and 12 seconds For example, a custodian approach, where humans are seen as having some obligation to protect nature for its intrinsic value, yet human concerns still remain central. A form of human exceptionalism still exists. Perspectives can also vary in terms of subjects of study and across time. Using the above example of whales, for instance, in Australia over 100 years ago, whales were predominantly seen in terms of their instrumental values. They were hunted for their blubber, which was used to make candles, soaps, and cosmetics. Shifts in values over the past century has meant that whales in Australia are now widely seen for their intrinsic values— their beauty, and their sentience. They are not valued for their direct use to humans.

Skip to 2 minutes and 50 seconds In the Environmental Humanities, we seek to unsettle strong antropocentric perspectives, challenging the assumption that humans and society are somehow being distinct and separate from nature. We explore new stories and understandings of the world and the ways in which we can start to imagine different social and environmental futures.

What is anthropocentrism?

As you have just seen, people with more anthropocentric viewpoints tend to value nature as a resource to be exploited for human benefit. As Paul describes in this video, one of the goals of the Environmental Humanities is to promote the intrinsic value of nature, and find ways of moving beyond anthropocentric narratives.

Traditional Western anthropocentric attitudes express a position that human beings are of central importance, and other species and things only matter if they are deemed useful to humans. Implicit in this viewpoint is the idea that humans have a higher moral status and level of sentience than other animals. In the Environmental Humanities, we endeavour to challenge research led by anthropocentric biases, destabilising binaries (such as nature/culture and human/non-human) that assume humans are somehow separate from nature.

Watch the video to gain an insight into different types of anthropocentric perspectives and the implications for different social and environmental futures. Central to Paul’s argument is a discussion of competing values.

What do you think?

Can you think of an example of anthropocentric values at work in the world today?

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Environmental Humanities: Remaking Nature

UNSW Sydney

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