Ecological Humanism

We Earth-bound humans are encountering a severe ecological crisis exemplified by climate change and have three choices for the future. The first option is to continue with industrial capitalism in pursuit of the dream of mastering nature. This global social force is underpinned by a radical separation between humans and other life forms.  It is associated with anthropocentrism, the idea that humans are superior to the rest of nature and thereby hold the right to pillage the planet. In 1961 humanity used 70 percent of Earth’s sustainable productivity; since the 1980s it has consistently exceeded it. The world’s ecological deficit is referred to as the global ecological overshoot. Since the 1970s, humans have been in ecological overshoot, with the annual demand on resources exceeding what Earth can regenerate each year. Today, the human population uses the equivalent of 1.7 Earths to provide its resources and to absorb its wastes. This means it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what is used in a year through overfishing the seas, overharvesting forests, and emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than forests can sequester through plant photosynthesis.  

Estimates put Earth’s carrying capacity at anywhere between 2 billion and 40 billion people. It varies with a wide range of factors, most of them fitting under the umbrella of ‘lifestyle’. For instance, if humans remained in the prehistoric hunter-gatherer mode, Earth would reach its capacity at about 100 million people. With humans producing food by intensive agriculture and living an urban life in high-rise buildings, that number increases significantly.  

To understand the flexibility of Earth’s carrying capacity is to look at the difference between the projected capacities of 2 billion and 40 billion people. Essentially, we’re working with the same level of planetary resources to produce both of those numbers. But people in different parts of the world are consuming different amounts. Basically, if everyone on Earth lived like a middle-class American, consuming roughly 3.3 times the subsistence level of food and about 250 times the subsistence level of clean water, Earth could only support about 2 billion people. On the other hand, if everyone on the planet consumed only what is needed, for a long-term state of contentedness, 40 billion people would be a feasible number.  In 2019 the human population on Earth living with global overshoot was 7.7 billion and increasing. As it is, the 25 percent of Earth’s population living in developed countries are consuming so much that the other 75 percent of humanity is left with barely what it needs to get by. Thus, the first choice, to maintain the ever-expanding capitalist order, is unsustainable. It is the very path which led to the current ecological crisis measureable by biodiversity in sharp decline.

Biodiversity is the basis of human existence; our life support system. Ecosystems regulate climatic processes, breakdown wastes and recycle nutrients, filter and purify water, buffer against flooding, maintain soil fertility, purify air, and provide natural resources such as wood, textiles, and of course food.  In the face of a decline in biodiversity an alternative future is the neo-Romantic idea of Earth as a managed wilderness, whose conservation on a planetary scale would be humanity’s primary ecological aim. That is to say, we have to reject anthropocentrism in favour of biocentrism, a principle inhibiting humans from interfering with the vital needs of other organisms. But this alternative  is untenable as well, since pursuing it would require a massive reduction in the human population, the subordination of human aims to perceived natural ones, and a regression to a low-tech agrarian existence.

Ecological humanism offers a third future, which takes the view that human beings are capable of transforming their societies so as to promote the flourishing of both humanity and nature.  Ecological humanism is, in essence, a communitarian view of human culture. Human beings, it argues, have always pursued the developmental ideal of becoming fully integrated persons within community contexts by answering the questions; Who am I? (searching for values, beliefs and empathy for others); What am I going to do (defining career paths); WilI I make it? (coping with the cultural impact of rapid social, technical and economic changes). This is a tradition that is particularly associated with three pioneer social ecologists – Lewis Mumford, René Dubos and Murray Bookchin.   Their work provides a vital interdisciplinary resource for those concerned with developing a coherent philosophy of how humanity and nature, from which we evolved, can and should work together to deal with the current ecological crisis. The crisis in cultural ecology is evident in the degradation of the natural environment under industrial capitalism; the pollution of the atmosphere, rivers and lakes; deforestation; the limitations of industrial agriculture and the adverse effects of toxic pesticides and soil erosion; the problems of chemical additives in food; the dangers of nuclear power; and the serious decline in the quality of urban life through overcrowding, pollution, poverty and traffic congestion.  Ecological humanism focuses on culture and affirms that human beings are capable of transforming their societies so as to enhance the flourishing of both humanity and nature.This perspective highlights an educational objective to promote a sophisticated, planned, co‐ordinated global economy that is ecologically benign, socially peaceable and equitable. A pedagogy is needed whose basic characteristic is to promote planetary well being, not humankind’s destructive animality. Learning to care comes through the application of reason, decency, tolerance, empathy and hope.

These are important human traits that we should aspire to, not because we seek a reward of eternal life or because we fear the punishment of a supernatural being, but because they define our humanity on Earth.  In 1997, Babu Goginieni, director of the Humanist and Ethical Union, referring to the need for humanism in education remarked that: “… Atheism is not important. I happen to be an atheist, but that’s not the point – what is important is freedom and human values, and a way of living with others and with nature.”  ‘Prosperity’ is ‘belonging with love’, not year on year financial gain.

Humanism is a worldview, not about one aspect of religion, knowledge, or politics.  Many humanists are also secularists, but religious believers may also take a secularist position on humanism which calls for freedom of belief, including the right to change belief and not to believe. Education founded on free humanistic intellectual enquiry envisages that all children should be free to grow up in a world where they are allowed to question, doubt, think freely and reach their own conclusions about what they believe.  Ecological humanism in the classroom is about where our convictions of human dignity, equality or liberty come from and how these principles are to be defended. It is about finding one’s identity to promote the management of the local and global consumption of finite planetary resources and the associated divisive issues of gender and livelihoods. As a communitarian project the questions to be answered are: Who are we? What are we going to do? Will we make it?  

Fig 1 Comparison of two pedagogies for promoting learning and good behaviour

Humanism is the outcome of a long tradition of free thought that has inspired many of the world’s great thinkers and creative artists since Greek and Roman times and gave rise to science itself.  In 1952, at the first World Humanist Congress, set out the fundamental principles of modern Humanism. The 50th anniversary World Humanist Congress in 2002, unanimously passed a resolution known as “The Amsterdam Declaration 2002”. Following the Congress, this updated declaration became the official defining statement of World Humanism.  The declaration promotes the application of human thought and action to solve the world’s problems of human welfare. Therefore humanism imposes no creed upon those committed to its principles and who share humanism’s quest for a more humane, just, and compassionate society. Humanism now takes on sustainable development initiatives looking far into the future as well as other pressing policy pursuits, with more immediate relevance. The latter are often also associated with sustainable development, such as the drive to promote health, secure basic education, reduce poverty, and create productive employment and livelihoods.

The fundamentals of modern Humanism are as follows:

1. Humanism is ethical. It affirms the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others. Humanists have a duty of care to all of humanity including future generations. Humanists believe that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others, needing no external sanction.

2. Humanism is rational. It seeks to use science creatively, not destructively. Humanists believe that the solutions to the world’s problems lie in human thought and action rather than divine intervention. Humanism advocates the application of the methods of science and free inquiry to the problems of human welfare. But Humanists also believe that the application of science and technology must be tempered by human values. Science gives us the means but human values must propose the ends.

3. Humanism supports democracy and human rights. Humanism aims at the fullest possible development of every human being. It holds that democracy and human development are matters of right. The principles of democracy and human rights can be applied to many human relationships and are not restricted to methods of government.

4. Humanism insists that personal liberty must be combined with social responsibility. Humanism ventures to build a world on the idea of the free person responsible to society, and recognises our dependence on and responsibility for the natural world. Humanism is undogmatic, imposing no creed upon its adherents. It is thus committed to education free from indoctrination.

5. Humanism is a response to the widespread demand for an alternative to dogmatic religion. The world’s major religions claim to be based on revelations fixed for all time, and many seek to impose their world-views on all of humanity. Humanism recognises that reliable knowledge of the world and ourselves arises through a continuing process of observation, evaluation and revision.

6. Humanism values artistic creativity and imagination and recognises the transforming power of art. Humanism affirms the importance of literature, music, and the visual and performing arts for personal development and fulfilment.

7. Humanism is a lifestance aiming at the maximum possible fulfilment through the cultivation of ethical and creative living and offers an ethical and rational means of addressing the challenges of our times. Humanism can be a way of life for everyone everywhere.

A primary task of humanism in education is to make students aware in the simplest terms of what Humanism can mean to them and what it commits them to. By utilising free inquiry, the power of science and creative imagination for the furtherance of peace and in the service of compassion, we have confidence that we have the means to solve the problems that confront us all. We call upon all who share this conviction to associate themselves with us in this endeavour.

IHEU Congress 2002

Internet references

Comments are closed.