Since our very beginnings as a species, we human beings have always struggled to improve the painful conditions of our existence. But, as we discovered more technologies which helped us live safer lives, this strive for well-being and progress has also led us further and further away from our natural origins, until we have almost found ourselves at war with the Earth, our home planet.
It is only in recent years, that we have come to realize how much we have already denuded the earth of its natural resources. Since the first environmentalist movements in the 19th century, there has been an increasing number of systematic efforts to raise our awareness of environmental issues. Scientists like James Lovelock and David Suzuki have outlined the necessity to preserve our ecosystems if we want to survive as a species. And, of course, the popular media have also been used to convey the values of coexistence, sustainability, and respect for the environment.
One such book, which advocates the rights and interests of “Mother Nature” or, at least, encourages a public discussion about new ecological policies, is T.C. Boyle’s novel A Friend of the Earth. Judging from the title alone, one might suppose that this book represents a written plea for the application of environmentalist values in our everyday lives. However, the story also contains many incidents when the environmentalists are portrayed in a rather disgraceful light that seems to give substance to the many prevailing negative stigmas against them. Therefore, I analyze how ecocentrism and anthropocentrism are displayed in the book. My main focus will be on the different ways that Boyle treats the two ideologies, respectively, as well as the possibility of a compromise between their standards.
Thus, I hope to show that the novel promotes a right balance between anthropocentrism and ecocentrism that resembles the biblical maxim of “human stewardship for nature”.
The Dualism of Ecocentrism and Anthropocentrism in Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth
Ever since Edward Abbey’s famous novel The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), there have been serious debates about the use of sabotage to protest against environmentally damaging practices. On the one hand, the book inspired an entire generation of eco-activists who were ready to break the laws in order to preserve the earth’s ecosystems. But on the other hand, Abbey’s novel also raised concerns about the implementation of such extreme measures for nature’s sake.
It is exactly this debate regarding eco-activism, that T.C. Boyle picks up in his Post-Apocalyptic novel A Friend of the Earth. He describes the struggles between a Capitalist/ Anthropocentrist camp (headed by the American timber companies) and an environmentalist organization called “Earth Forever!”, which uses sabotage to raise awareness for environmental issues. But it is not only the topic that is similar to Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang: the book likewise illustrates the importance of fighting for our home planet.
However, the story also contains many incidents when the environmentalists are portrayed in a rather disgraceful light that seems to give substance to the many prevailing negative stigmas against them. For example, the quote “To be a friend of the earth, you’ve got to be an enemy of the people”—which is also printed at a prominent position on the book cover—already implies that the environmentalist’s actions are detrimental to human life. Albeit all of their claims that they only strive to save “the trees and shrubs and the native grasses” (Boyle 48), the E.F.!ers certainly are not always likeable characters and, at times, may even be seen as anti-heroes. Therefore, I claim that the text disregards both Anthropocentrism and Ecocentrism as ossified maxims which endanger the peace of our societies. It is my intention to analyze how Boyle’s treatment of the two principles actually promotes a compromise between them.
In order to reach this goal, I will first deal with the general features and characteristics of both ideologies before finally moving on to a closer analysis of A Friend of the Earth. The main points for examination during this process will be writing style, narrative, philosophy, and social criticism, since I regard them as the most fundamental aspects and principles that contribute to the literary representation of a certain movement. Thus, I hope to evince both the elements that render A Friend of the Earth congeneric with environmentalism, as well as the arguments for a compromise between Ecocentrism and Anthropocentrism.
Anthropocentrism , as the belief that human beings are the most important entity in the universe, is probably as old as mankind itself. Humans have always regarded the outside world in terms of their own values, seeking to tame nature for our benefit and only ascribing other organisms with worth according to their usefulness for human goals. In recent times, however, this belief has become contested by environmentalists who claim that most of the problems within our ecosphere are indeed caused by humans and their “shallow views” (Grey 473).
Robin Attfield, for example, defined anthropocentrism as “A stance that limits moral standing to human beings, confines the scope of morality and moral concern to human interests, and regards nothing but human well-being as valuable intrinsically” (Attfield 221). But, of course, humans cannot be understood in isolation from nature. Their actions have a direct effect on the biotic community. And if they only pursue their own limited values, interests, and preferences, they are very likely to harm nature and, thus, eventually also themselves.
Therefore, environmentalists are continually criticizing anthropocentrists for their self-regarding conceptions—not because they are concerned about the well-being of humans, but because their ideas of human flourishing tend to involve short-term goals, which will impact our home planet in a negative way (Grey 473). Thus, environmentalists often portray man as an “evil influence”, wreaking havoc on the earth and bringing pain to animals and plants alike.
Despite the fact that they themselves can never be truly free from the basic human drives, they have hence developed several theories and models that are supposed to help us change our perspective on nature—one of which is ecocentrism , a fundamental ideology that sees mankind as part of the natural cycles and demands a multilateral set of rules to protect our home planet.
As opposed to anthropocentrism and its core tenet of human supremacy, ecocentrism attaches great importance to the stability and integrity of our ecosystem, which it seeks to preserve as best as possible while still maintaining a certain standard of living for human beings.
In his highly influential essay “The Land Ethic”, Aldo Leopold—the indisputable founder and leading figure of ecocentrism—claims that it is our common task and duty to “preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community” (Leopold 262). In his opinion, our ethical concern should not only be directed towards the well-being of the human species, as has been the intended aim of anthropocentrism, because all our (human as well as nonhuman) co-inhabitants deserve our respect. Thus, he makes the demand that we should try and keep our moral obligations that we owe to all plants and animals because they, too, are members of the Earth’s community of Life.
In this manner, ecocentrism is indeed congeneric with biocentrism since it also shares a strong belief in the equality of all species. Just like the concept of biocentrism (which can probably best be described as an “attitude of respect for nature”), ecocentrism also claims that every single species found on this planet is integral to our worldwide system of interdependence. However, even though ecocentrism is largely based on the theory of eco-impartiality, there are also several deviations and adjustments that should not go unnoticed.
For one, ecocentrism focuses not only on the well-being of single organisms but rather on the preservation of whole biotic communities. Other, more limited forms of environmentalism are mainly devoted to the protection of plants and animals because they maintain a “normative stance that holds that all living creatures have a good of their own” (Attfield 222). But ecocentrists recognize the “value of ecosystemic places” and seek to contribute to the richness and diversity of life by supporting human and nonhuman organisms alike (Curry 15). According to them, humans have no right to interfere with other life-forms except in order to satisfy their own vital needs, because no single species can be regarded as more valuable than another. Their worth does not derive from any special form of usefulness but is indeed God-given—which is also why ecocentrists make it their aim to protect nature as the larger entity that secures the well-being of all organisms.
According to Paul W. Taylor’s “Respect for Nature”, there are four main ecocentric rules or principles that are supposed to guide human behaviour in the larger biotic community (87-88):
1. The Rule of Nonmaleficence: Our fundamental duty to refrain from all actions that might harm an entity in the natural element, be it a human or nonhuman organism.
2. The Rule of Noninterference: The moral obligation to maintain the freedom and integrity of other life-forms.
3. The Rule of Fidelity: Our direct responsibility to “hold the planetary biosphere as a trust” (Attfield 233) and, thus, to always keep the trust that an animal may have placed in us.
4. The Rule of Restitutive Justice: Humanity’s explicit liability should they ever break any of the rules above. Whenever an organism or even an entire species come to harm through human activities, it is our absolute duty to restore the balance in the biotic community, so that life may continue to re-create itself.
Originally, these rules were thought to be “additional to and independent of the obligations we owe to our fellow humans.” (Taylor, Ethics 198). However, the compliance with these rules would require such great changes in our economic, technological, and ideological policies, that ecocentrism has often been labelled as “anti-anthropocentric” or “anti-humanist”.
But what exactly are the fundamental disagreements between these moral attitudes? And why are ecocentrism and anthropocentrism usually regarded as two opposite extremes that cannot possibly be reconciled? As we have seen above, there is a great contrast between anthropocentrism and ecocentrism—a contrast that may almost appear to be untenable at times. Whereas anthropocentrists seek only for well-being and lend their lives to the ideal of progress, ecocentrism demands that we should strive to direct our efforts to the well-being of the entire biotic community. To that effect, they mostly devote their labours to the preservation of all forms of life, showing respect for all organisms alike and revealing the many ways and practices how other, less conscientious human beings are endangering the existence of animals and plants.
Thus, most ecocentric texts display a great hostility towards anthropocentrism and all those who risk the long-term integrity of nature for their current interests. E.B. White, for example, stated that he was “pessimistic about the human race because it is too ingenious for its own good” (quoted by Rachel Carson 1962: vii). But he is not the only one to express a serious distrust of mankind. Bruce Foltz also claims that it would probably be good if the human species became extinct, because “every last man, woman, and child could disappear from the face of the Earth without any significant detrimental consequence for the good of wild animals and plants” (207). And the notorious Edward Abbey even wrote that “civilization is a youth with a Molotov cocktail in his hand” (Desert Solitaire 308), which is also why he suggested that one needed to “stir society up every once in a while”, in order to prevent the “scum” from rising to the surface (Desert Solitaire 21).