ECOLONOMY — The anthropocentric world view seems to underpin the currently globally dominant political economy. Can a philosophy combining ecological and economic ideas and realities win?


It might be thought that anthropocentrism and the essential principles underpinning the ideas of economics are crucially interdependent on the one hand and biocentrism and the essential principles of environmental philosophy are crucially interdependent on the other. If this were so, since anthropocentrism and biocentrism are mutually exclusive ideas, reconciliation of economics and environmental philosophy would be impossible. This paper will consider whether or not there are such interdependencies and what the prospects are for an ecologically sustainable world inhabited by humans, of various world views, along with other species.

A Taxonomy of World Views

Human beings have held a range of views as to their place and the place of other living and non-living entities in the universe over time and amongst different cultures. For the purposes of this paper these kinds of views will be termed ‘world views’. An early world view was one that ascribed personality to and deified observed phenomena, such as the sun, moon, thunder, lighting etc, but also living things especially powerful animals. This kind of view commonly placed these gods at the centre of existence and humans as their more or less inconsequential playthings. ‘Theocentrism’ might be a useful label.

‘Biocentrism’ is a view with some similarities and perhaps ancient origins. Mautner (1996) defines it as “ the view that the existence of organic life, including human life, has a central place in the general scheme of things, as an ultimate value, an ultimate purpose or both”. It follows from this definition that all living things are seen as having value in and of themselves or intrinsic value.

An ‘ecocentric’ world view is one which comprehends all things natural, living and non-living, giving them all intrinsic value. A subtle interpretation of this view might be that humans devalue themselves when they act or live in general out of harmony with nature, their being able to do this by virtue of their capacity to choose. For the purposes of this paper bio- and ecocentrism will be grouped and the term ‘biocentrism’ used for both.

Of perhaps more recent origin is ‘anthropocentrism’. Mautner (1996) gives a two part definition for the term viz : “an outlook that places mankind at the centre of the universe; the tendency to ascribe a particular significance to human beings and to human concerns in the general scheme of things”. I will deal here with the first part and consider the second subsequently. The world view giving a central place to humanity developed most significantly with Judeo-Christian and Islamic religious thinking. In broad terms, the former eventually dominated Greco-Roman theocentrism (1) and the various bio- and ecocentric traditions of Europe and much later the Americas and Australasia, while Islamic thinking made great inroads into the theo-, bio- and ecocentric traditions of Africa and Asia. (2)

The modern world has seen the emergence of a further (perhaps final) world view, that which might be termed ‘acentrism’ — the view that nothing in the universe has any central significance.

Arguably none of these world views can be held without some leap of faith or compelling personal experience, or both, and so many people will find themselves agnostic.

Returning to the second part of Mautner’s definition of ‘anthropocentrism’, it suggests a view about human interests which may have no spiritual underpinning, but rather may be purely materialistically based. In other words a view which is not a “world view”, simply an attitude that allows for no reason why human beings should not utilise any and all of the resources of the world for their material benefit without heed for the benefit of.

other beings. Some philosophers prefer to use the term ‘specism’ for this attitude. Like ‘racism’, the term allows that members of any species might see themselves as having qualities superior to those of others without necessarily seeing themselves as having some central cosmic significance. For the purposes of this paper I shall distinguish between these two meanings of anthropocentrism using for the first the adjective ‘deep’ and the second ‘shallow’. (3)

(1) Jostein Gaarder (1995) illuminates the significance of the meeting of these traditions in Sophie’s World

(2) The Religions of Man, by Huston Smith, (1989) reveals the world view bases of the major religious traditions

(3) Fox (1990, pp 19–22) discusses usage of ‘anthropocentrism’ and makes a distinction between a ‘significant’ sense and a ‘trivial’ sense. He uses the latter to refer to the notion that human beings cannot be other than anthropocentric as they can only see the world as humans. I think my ‘deep’ anthropocentrism accords with his ‘significant’ and that my ‘shallow’ anthropocentrism might be a sense separate from both he identifies, being more cultural than philosophical.

The Relative Power of Ideas and Material Reward

“To be sure, our civilisation began when the human race started taking active control over nature” (Erich Fromm, 1979) and Descartes can be seen as the first to give humans the intellectual confidence that they might fully explain and thus develop the capacity to dominate it. A stark cultural clash occurred when Europeans, with their culture that developed from this thinking in the old world, met the human inhabitants of the new. Tatanga Mani (Walking Buffalo) of Alberta simply and powerfully expressed irreconcilability of the two peoples and their ideas thus: ‘The rock says, “Don’t, you are hurting me.” But everywhere the white people pay no attention. When the Indians use rocks, they take little round ones for their cooking ….How can the spirit of the earth like the White man? …. Everywhere the White man has touched it, it is sore.’ (reproduced in Cairns, 1982, p41)

While much of human culture has thus far not been transformed by either deep or shallow anthropocentrism, the political economy which has developed from the culture to which both forms have given rise (“western”), now dominates the global political and economic language. But, half way through the 20th century, it is clear that a challenge to the seemingly monolithic western culture began from within. “The birth of the environmental movement as a social and political phenomenon is typically dated to the virtual explosion of interest that attended the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.” (Fox, 1990, p4) (4) Ten years later the publication of The Limits to Growth (Meadows, et al 1972) was a key step in the expansion of attention to the global environmental impact of human civilisation. And, while no doubt appreciation of the real nature of the world and its cosmic place has been gained by more and more people since the time of Copernicus, actual human observation and pictures of the earth from space is widely recognised as finally allowing people to come to grips with it.

(4) Carson was by no means the first writer to alert humanity to the negative ecological consequences of its activities. In Anton Chekhov’s play “Uncle Vanya” there is a character who is a country doctor whom Chekhov gives much to say about the ecological effects of deforestation. The character is modelled on Chekhov who was himself a doctor. There was indeed a general interest amongst doctors in Russia in the late 19th century in a prophylactic approach to medicine which included an interest in environmental causes of disease.

Yet, at the same time, as Fox (1990, p10) observes, “Neil Armstrong’s moon walk …… epitomised both the literal acting out of this vision of ‘enlarging the bounds of Human Empire’ and the literal expression of its anthropocentric spirit”. Indeed, the anthropocentric world view, or at least shallow anthropocentricism, seems to have held up well even amongst environmentalists to at least the beginning of the 70’s. For example throughout a volume published in 1971 of contributions by leading Australian researchers and thinkers on environmental conservation there is not one suggestion that there might be any reason to be concerned about our natural resources other than for the future benefit of human inhabitants of this continent.(Costin and Frith, 1971)

It was not until the 70’s were well under way that ideas that would challenge both deep and shallow anthropocentrism in western intellectual life really emerged. Various authors date the emergence to the publication of Arne Naess’ paper “The Shallow and Deep Long Range Ecology Movement: A Summary” in 1973 (eg Fox , 1990, p 37 and Porrit & Winner, 1988, p235).

Nevertheless, “The Great Promise of Unlimited Progress….of material abundance….” still “sustained the hopes and faith” (Fromm, 1979) of the vast majority of at least the people of the western world. And economic development thinking, which might be characterised as the view that improvements in human well-being require, in the main, increased quantities of the things which are usually or can be gauged by the measuring rods of the discipline of economics, provided a widely acceptable intellectual underpinning.

However, E. J. Mishan had already written The Costs of Economic Growth in 1967 and in 1973 Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful was first published, so the idea that growth in production/consumption was central to the operation of the economic system was already under attack from within the ranks of economists.

Now, nearly half a century on, ecophilosophy seems to have a strong place in the discipline of philosophy and, arguably, ecological economics has more than a foothold in the economics discipline. And, the permeation of these ideas through western culture is evidenced by the successes in recent years of green politicians, but economic rationalism is still ascendant and the growth paradigm broadly accepted. And even if we are seeing in many countries (with exceptions such as Australia and the USA) preparedness to accept short term costs to deal with climate change, generally material reward remains triumphant over ecological values.

If ecological values are to ultimately prevail they will have to be convincing for a large majority of the human race. I will now look at how convincing they are.

Environmental Philosophy’s Prospects in the Battle of Ideas

According to Alasdair MacIntyre “Modern moral philosophy opened on a quietly apocalyptic note.” with the publication of Moore’s Principia Ethica in 1903 (MacIntyre, 1967). It seems that in the foregoing centuries the questions of ethics had been inadequately formulated! A new examination of how “good” might be discerned in the world commenced, centred on what Moore called the “naturalistic fallacy” : that is any attempt “to equate good with a specific property or characteristic”. (Fox, 1990. p188) It is beyond the scope of this paper to go into the intricacies of the ensuing arguments. Suffice it to say that consensus has been quite elusive.

Environmental philosophy broke with mainstream philosophy with the idea that a system of valuation could be established independent of human valuers. Giving this idea a logical base, though, was its central problem. An obvious question seems to be — is there value in a universe without beings capable of conceiving value? Perhaps it is sufficient that there is the potential for conception of value: that is that a universe with no consciousness’s has the capacity to bring them forth. But, is this a benefit of hindsight situation? Even in a universe with conscious beings, can we talk of the value of a beautiful rainforest no one has yet discovered? These are the kinds of questions Naess’ “deep ecology” grapples with. Sylvan (1985) finds deep ecology is founded on a kind of faith and thinks “an environmental ethic can be as tough, practical, rational and secular as prevailing as Western ethics.” (quoted in Fox, 1990, p225)

Perhaps we can say that it is self evident that value is the addition of something new without committing Moore’s naturalistic fallacy. It seems uncontentious to say that nothingness is of no value. Does it follow that a universe with one, indivisible, immobile particle of matter is more valuable, that one with a mobile particle is more valuable again and so on through the addition of life, a new life form, intelligence and consciousness? (As an aside, this may have some difficult implications. For example, is painting a picture adding value whereas taking a picture (a photograph) is not: the latter being simply making a record of some thing that was, already, albeit allowing appreciation, by other conscious beings, of that thing.)

Many thinkers on environmental philosophy appear unworried as to whether faith or rationality form the basis of a biocentric world view, but Fox (1990, ch 7) seems to have a promising answer to these problems. He says we have to return to questions of ontology, or the essence of things in this universe. At this level we ask questions about what we actually are and what is this phenomenon of consciousness. From this Fox develops the logic for a transpersonal (meaning transcendent of the person) ecological philosophy. And, a number of recent scientific thinkers (for example Penrose, 1995) have developed the idea that consciousness is not a simple property of certain arrangements of matter and is not only inexplicable in terms of the physical laws we have thus far discerned, but cannot be accommodated within the fundamental principles on which those laws are based. A philosophical and scientific door is thus opened to the “oneness with the universe” that hitherto had been the preserve of personal experience and religious thinking.

Now, even if one can be convinced that the biocentric world view can be based on rationality, or faith or perhaps even if one has come to it through personal experience, the view, alone, does not necessarily imply that human beings should not use, indeed dominate, other living things. Biocentrism per se only says that no life form should be seen as qualitatively superior to others. It does not say that living things should not compete for the resources of the planet as effectively as they are able. In the same way that the view that no human being is more valuable than another does not necessarily demand an attitude of altruism toward other human beings, biocentrism does not require altruism toward other species.

Further, there is the fact that even the smallest sustainable population of human beings faces the realities of ecological processes; that is, that survival necessitates dis-benefitting other species. Even living as herbivores, human beings must compete with other species for resources. We cannot survive at any level without making other sentient life at least somewhat worse off. Can there be an equitable distribution of resources amongst species?

I think the answer to this might lie in pointing out that human beings are capable of choosing to do good or bad and we can simply import ideas from human oriented ethical systems to make the required choices. For example, a version of Rawls’ ‘maxi-min’ system might be applied inter-specifically?

While the forgoing might allow us to sweep up many of the world’s deep and shallow anthropocentrists and acentrists into the biocentric mode of thinking many could remain committed to anthropocentric religious thinking. Birkeland et al (1996) observed two decades ago “There is also a growing movement to incorporate increased attention to the environment within mainstream world religions….”. With Pope Francis’ Laudato Si encyclical in mid 2015, which clearly recognised anthropogenic climate change, we can probably now say there should be little problem here.

If anthropocentrism can be so reconstructed the question of its interdependence with economic thinking becomes irrelevant. But, it is necessary to address the question ”If all human beings were biocentrists (or reconstructed anthropocentrists), would economic theory work as well as it does?

The fundamental idea of economics is that human beings behave mostly, or sufficiently commonly, as rational, or apparently rational, agents to maximise personal utility such that more often than not predictions can be made as to how they will respond in a particular set of circumstances. At its heart (perhaps a curious term for the dismal science) economics is no more and no les than this. To be as fair as possible to the discipline it says nothing about the significance of the objects of its study in the overall scheme of things.

This idea can cope with altruism by saying that where an individual’s intentional act or failure to act reduces that individual’s material welfare, but increases the welfare of others, it is an act, or non-act, which increases that individual’s utility in some psychological way. Even an answer to questions like “Why does a writer write, a painter paint, a composer compose ?” such as “Not to have more of something, but to be more.”, can be dealt with in an economics refined to accommodate broader notions of human well-being along the lines suggested by Steve Dodds. (1995) It seems quite possible that an economic system would operate just as well if there were a general shift in preferences from having more to being more. We do not need to change the principles of economic analysis, but we do need to change the way economic analysis has made us think about the nature of human beings and society and our relationship with the rest of existence.

We need to change, perhaps back to something like we might have been eons ago, so that our central purpose is not to acquire all that we can in this life, but to become all that we can . In Master Eckhart’s words “People should not consider so much what they are to do , as what they are” (quoted in Fromm, 1979)

Cultural Shaping at the End of the Twentieth Century and the Prospect of Global Cultural Change

J. K. Galbraith (1984) found power located in society’s big institutions and that it was based on the sophistication of organisation. Three decades on this seems even more accurate. These institutions are essentially mindless, functioning on decisions made not by “a whole man or woman, but by a man or woman acting vicariously for a specialist institution within the limits of its purposes.” (Coombs, 1979) To the extent that these institutions both reflect and shore up the dominant culture they must change, but how can this happen? The last few decades have seen development of policy and laws or counterpoised institutions which have had some effect on the behaviour of institutional man and woman toward the environment, but this so far is relatively marginal. It seems unlikely that institutions can undergo fundamental change by this process.

According to observers such as Ferguson (1980) and Porritt and Winner (1988) a more covert and promising process of change which reached into all our institutions was beginning. While it has not yet changed their orientation, it seems to have reached, in some cases, more deeply into corporate institutions than those of government. Perhaps this is because the former have fewer economists who can insulate themselves from the world around them. But there may well be limits to the effectiveness of the corporate social responsibility movement.

Nelson Mandela notes that “The policy (of apartheid) was supported by the Dutch Reformed Church, which furnished apartheid with its religious underpinnings suggesting that Afrikaners were God’s chosen people and that blacks were a subservient species.” (Mandela, 1994) While for him it was a long road, the magnitude of the world view kind of change in his country, suggests the kind of changes I have discussed in this essay are possible.


Environmental philosophy challenges deep anthropocentrism by providing a sound philosophical basis for other world views and it challenges shallow anthropocentrism by demonstrating the self interest of caring for the environment. People who remain deep anthropocentrists are challenged to reconstruct their view in harmony with environmental philosophy.

So it seems to be a more than a tenable idea that an entirely adequate philosophical footing can be provided for an ecologically sustainable global multi-culture with a number of world view bases. How long it might be, though, before these ideas make real inroads into the currently dominant culture remains an open question.


Birkeland, Janis , Steve Dodds and Clive Hamilton (1996) Values and Ethics. (unpublished)

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Costin, A and H. Frith, eds (1974) rev edition Conservation. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974

Dodds, Steve, (1995) Towards a Science of Sustainability, paper to Ecological Economics Conference, Coffs Harbour, 1995

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Penrose, Roger (1995) Shadows of the Mind. London : Vintage 1995

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Rifkin, Jeremy (1980) Entropy. New York : Viking, 1980

Schumacher E. F. (1974) Small is Beautiful. London : Abacus 1974

Smith, Huston (1989) The Religions of Man. New York : Harper Perennial, revised edition, 1989

Sylvan, Richard (1985) A Critique of Deep Ecology. Discussion Papers in Environmental Philosophy No 12 Canberra : ANU, 1985

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