Ego or Eco

When I was a young child, my family moved from a suburban house with a typical, small, fenced-in backyard to a more rural home that sat on two forested acres, across the street from a lake. My brother and I grew up in that forest, spending countless hours climbing vine maple trees and finding caves inside of fallen cedars, exploring among the sword ferns and alders, playing hide-and-seek in our dad’s huge garden, and coming face-to-face with deer. I am indescribably grateful to my parents for raising me in a place that allowed me to experience nature firsthand every single day, as I believe that is a large part of what influenced the environmental beliefs I have now.

My backyard just after sunrise.

In Communicating Nature, a 2006 textbook by Julia Corbett, she talks about the vital role that firsthand experience of nature plays in a child’s development. She states that “The two most common attributes among a diverse group of environmental activists were the many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered natural place in childhood or adolescence, and an adult who taught respect for nature” (Corbett 15). In my case, this is most definitely true. In addition to growing up with a forest as my backyard, I had an adult role model in my life who taught me to value and take care of the environment in myriad ways, from growing my own food, to saving water, oil, and energy whenever possible, to catching spiders and throwing them outside rather than smashing them, to taking me hiking before I was even old enough to walk. That person is my dad. In more recent years, I have individualized my environmental beliefs, doing my own research and self-reflection and making my own choices — such as going vegan and rejecting the dominant Christian-based anthropocentric view of nature — but for much of my childhood and adolescence, my dad was my primary source for environmental beliefs and opinions.

Besides firsthand or secondhand experience of nature and adult role models, religion — specifically Christianity — helps to shape our environmental beliefs and attitudes. Corbett mentions a paper called “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis” by Lynn White, Jr. I first read this paper a few semesters ago, while doing research for a paper I was writing about the role of Christianity in the environmental issues we face today. Both Corbett and White bring up several points, including how Christian attitudes toward nature are very anthropocentric, or in other words place much more value on humans than on any other sort of life. In my research for that paper, I found that this anthropocentric view of nature extends into all areas of life in the West. Christian axioms permeate Western society so deeply that even people who are not Christian, or even anti-Christian, tend to share Christian’s environmental views. For example, most people in the West view themselves as separate from nature, see animals as beneath humans, and see nature as an inanimate, unfeeling collection of resources created mainly for human use. These beliefs of human superiority and distance from the natural world influence, without a doubt, the amount of resource use and waste that occurs in our society. After all, if you grew up believing that the earth’s resources were made for you to use however you liked, or if you believed that God and God’s kingdom were separate from the earth, what would stop you from using up those resources however you liked, without a thought for how that might affect all the other inhabitants of this world?

Unfortunately, the history and culture of our society has caused our environmental beliefs to tend toward egocentrism, or the view of the self as separate and superior than all else, rather than ecocentrism, or the view of the self as part of an interdependent whole, neither superior nor inferior to any other part of that whole. In order to make a significant positive impact on the planet, we need less ego and more eco. (word count: 668)

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