Romantic poets at the turn of the nineteenth century determined post-Newtonian scientific thought to consist of hard truths that established nature to be “a lifeless Machine whirled about by the dust of its own grinding” (qtd. in Abrams 134). In his essay “‘This Green Earth’: The Vision of Nature in Romantic Poets,” literary critic M.H. Abrams elaborates on this theme, explaining that scientific development during the Enlightenment Period threatened a “philosophical separation from nature [that was] lethal” to the Romantics (Abrams 133). As a reaction against a perceived distinction between humans and nature, the Romantics used poetry among other forms of art to express humans as part of nature, bridging any divide between the two. Under the phrase “the one life,” which was adopted by poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, humans and nature were connected into a single, interdependent entity. A century later, as environmental awareness continued to expand, naturalist Aldo Leopold further sought to reconnect humans and nature through a philosophy he named the “land ethic.” In A Sand County Almanac (1949), Leopold proposed the “land ethic” in which humans function as merely one piece of a larger ecosystem where the community is expanded to “include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land” (Leopold 219). Thus, Leopold indicates that power shifts from humans to nature, whereby humans move from “conquerer[s] of the land-community to plain member[s] and citizen[s] of it” (Leopold 220). Leopold's reflections (and those of the Romantics upon which he drew) on the relationship between humans and nature laid the foundation for what is known today as environmental ethics.
As a reaction against a perceived distinction between humans and nature, the Romantics used poetry among other forms of art to express humans as part of nature, bridging any divide between the two.
Defined as “a search for moral values and ethical principles in human relations with the natural world,” environmental ethics rose to prominence in the 1970s as an academic discipline (Park). As philosopher John Benson asserts, environmental ethics “takes full account of the the fact that an individual organism […] is embedded in its environment, and gives full weight to this in deliberating about actions that are likely to affect the organism” (Benson 10). One perspective of environmental ethics is termed ecocentrism, which maintains that “the well-being of entire ecological communities, not just individual species […] should be the axial moral concern” (Taylor 598). Leopold’s sentiments certainly seem congruent with ecocentrism because the land ethic does not grant primacy to humans. Yet according to conservationist Bron Taylor, Leopold’s land ethic cannot be fully understood without examining the religious undertones of his writing. In Taylor’s entry for environmental ethics in The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, he cites Leopold’s biographer Curt Meine, who claims that “Leopold had a deep spiritual connection to the Earth’s living systems and a profound sense of their sacrality, this being the foundation of his land ethic” (qtd. in Taylor 598). This spiritual dimension in Leopold’s ethical reasoning is reminiscent of spirituality in the Romantic view of nature – what M. H. Abrams loosely refers to as “the Romantic ‘religion of nature’” (Abrams 131). While at first sight this spirituality might seem to reinforce ecocentric thought, on closer inspection, it serves to complicate the modern philosophical notion of ecocentrism. In understanding nature’s ecosystems as sacred, Leopold exhibits a reverence for nature, singling nature out as a divine entity. This religious orientation would seem to imply that, paradoxically, there is a distinction between nature (an object to be revered) and humans (the revering subjects). Thus, by imbuing nature with a spiritual dimension, it becomes difficult to examine nature through a unifying ecocentric lens. Not surprisingly, this tension in ecocentrism has implications in the current genre of popular environmental writing, in which authors mainly adopt ecocentric standpoints to help the public understand humans’ role in combating various threats facing the Earth.
Specifically, two influential environmental works, The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity (2006) by James Lovelock and Silent Spring (1962) by Rachel Carson, serve to highlight the spiritual tension in ecocentrism. Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia warns against the doom humans and all of nature will face if global warming continues at its current rapid rate. Lovelock utilizes science throughout his book to support his thinking, pointing to specific data that reinforces the significance of nature’s interconnected systems. Nonetheless, his thoughts also reflect an apparent spiritual connection with nature. While he strongly expresses the ecocentric view that humans are part of the fabric of nature and must act respectfully within this community, he also indicates a spiritual dimension that strains the equalizing lens of ecocentrism. Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, which personifies the Earth to explain the complex interactions within its ecosystems, highlights this point. In fact, Lovelock’s choice in naming his hypothesis after the Greek goddess of the Earth most obviously points to a religious dynamic in which humans are separate from the Earth that they revere. Rachel Carson’s ecocentric views in Silent Spring are also overlaid with spiritual tones. In her book, Carson presents an argument against the profuse spraying of pesticides in the United States in the mid-twentieth century. Carson’s plea for spray prevention is grounded in scientific observation and an ecocentric understanding of nature’s interconnectedness. But, upon closer reading, her views further reveal a spiritual dimension in her understanding of the relationship between humans and nature. In fact, Carson admits in her writing that her own “spirits lifted” as she observed an inherent dominance of nature over humans along sprayed roadsides (71). Thus, Carson both calls on her readers to act as critical pieces within nature and to realize its higher power. Both Carson and Lovelock demonstrate throughout their books that the ecocentric relationship of humans and nature is fostered by a spiritual connection between them. In unifying humans with their natural surroundings, Carson and Lovelock believe people must revere nature as a quasi-divine entity. But can this spirituality for nature truly coexist with ecocentrism, as these thinkers imply in their writing? I will argue that the reverence displayed for nature in Carson’s and Lovelock’s popular environmental writing does, in fact, weaken the unifying aspect of an ecocentric view. In regarding nature as divine, or quasi-divine, a distinction is established between humans and nature, which compromises the foundational aspect of ecocentrism, the merging of humans and nature into a single, interdependent entity.
In unifying humans with their natural surroundings, Carson and Lovelock believe people must revere nature as a quasi-divine entity. But can this spirituality for nature truly coexist with ecocentrism, as these thinkers imply in their writing?
Throughout The Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock highlights the authority of nature compared to that of humans, determining a distinction between the two. Yet Lovelock appears to simultaneously hold the ecocentric belief that humans are nature, implying the interconnectedness of one system. Lovelock expresses this view in his Gaia hypothesis, a proposal that personifies (or brings to life) the Earth. Lovelock claims that a “living Earth” explains the complex interactions and connected systems needed for the stabilization of nature (146). In not only creating the entity Gaia that is all-inclusive, but, even further, personifying this entity, Lovelock attempts to unify humans and nature and even embed nature in humans. It appears that Lovelock has thoroughly fused together humans and nature into one form, Gaia. Thus, Lovelock’s hypothesis illustrates his ostensible ecocentric view of nature, as it blurs the line between humans and the environment. However, Lovelock’s description of nature as a divine being calls into question this apparent ecocentrism. First, Lovelock chooses to name his hypothesis after the Greek goddess of the Earth, Gaia. Consequently, this supposedly unified system takes on the characteristics of a divine entity, one separate from humans and to be feared by humans. In interpreting the name of his theory, Lovelock uses a simile to equate Gaia with two mythic goddesses, observing, “we now see that the great Earth system, Gaia, behaves like the other mythic goddesses, Khali and Nemesis” (147). The likening of Gaia to Khali and Nemesis raises the power of the Earth to encompass the authority of these two other revered gods. Khali, a Hindu goddess, is worshipped as the preserver of nature or the mother of the universe. She is not only known for her creation of life from the original darkness of the Earth, but also for her merciless vengeance against evil forces. Nemesis is a Greek goddess who inflicts punishment on those who are arrogant to remind them of the importance of humility. Gaia acquires these characteristics, and accordingly “acts as a mother who is nurturing but ruthlessly cruel towards transgressors, even when they are her progeny” (147). Power is stripped from humans and placed in the hands of Gaia, and Gaia uses her power to punish her offspring, mainly humans who have transgressed in their exploitation of nature. This power struggle perhaps illustrates the necessity for nature to dominate humans, or else humans will attempt to dominate nature. However, Lovelock’s call for reverence of nature still creates a power imbalance and, therefore, a distinction between humans and nature. Lovelock furthers this contradiction in his discussion of human solutions that have been put forth to mend the damage already inflicted by humans. He comments, “we still talk of sustainable development and renewable energy as if these feeble offerings would be accepted by Gaia as an appropriate and affordable sacrifice,” but continues, no true change will take place “until we stop acting as if human welfare was all that mattered” (Lovelock, 148). The latter, highly ecocentric claim – one that equalizes humans and nature – is coupled with the idea that Gaia is, in fact, a divine and separate entity from humans, so must be sacrificed to. Yet humans’ current attempts at preventing further pollution of the environment through sustainable practices is not nearly a significant enough offering to please a higher being. Again, the contrast between unity and separation of humans and nature is at stake, threatening the true sense of an integrative, ecocentric view.
Yet humans’ current attempts at preventing further pollution of the environment through sustainable practices is not nearly a significant enough offering to please a higher being. Again, the contrast between unity and separation of humans and nature is at stake, threatening the true sense of an integrative, ecocentric view.
In addition, Lovelock nearly equates the Earth’s living system to God. He compares the two, claiming that “important concepts like God or Gaia are not comprehensive in the limited space of our conscious minds, but they do have meaning in that inner part of our minds that is the seat of intuition” (138). The use of the word “or” between the words God and Gaia suggest that God and Gaia are interchangeable. Therefore, in Lovelock’s eyes, Gaia is comparable to God. Lovelock’s direct comparison of God and Gaia elevates Gaia’s power to that of God’s, one that is incomprehensible to humans and purely a spiritual “intuition.” Like God, who is “immanent but unknowable,” Gaia is similarly a fundamental creator expressed by the word “ineffable” (138). Thus, while reverence for Gaia is clearly indicated in this comparison, Lovelock goes one step further to claim that humans can never truly understand the Earth. Given that humans are part of the Earth and Lovelock is asking people to realize their ethical obligation to it, it is curious that Lovelock should claim that only the faintest comprehension of the Earth, our unity, is buried deep within the individual, in a place beyond consciousness. The human ignorance of the Earth’s divine power creates an even greater divide between humans and nature, beyond just the apparent power imbalance between the two. In fact, Lovelock essentially claims a sharp distinction between the knowledge of humans and the knowledge of nature, as Gaia is mindful of her progeny, but humans are unaware of Gaia. People’s lack of knowledge, combined with a God-like reverence for nature, undermines any equality between humans and nature, and thus the unity needed for ecocentric equality.
While Lovelock is explicit in his reverence of Gaia, Carson identifies more nuances in the power both humans and nature hold. Throughout her book Carson certainly acknowledges the capacity for humans to destroy the delicate and complex ecosystems of nature. She argues that the spraying of pesticides, particularly the use of Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), has damaged ecosystems and communities across the United States. In the face of this destruction, Carson challenges her readers to understand their integral role in the interconnected systems of nature, which is ultimately a call for ecocentrism. Nonetheless, Carson, like Lovelock, reveres nature throughout her book like Lovelock, though with greater subtlety of expression. Ultimately, her belief in nature’s superiority to humans weakens the unifying foundation of ecocentrism because of the inherently created separation between an entity who reveres and the entity that is revered. In her writing, Carson tells the story of the sagebrush, a plant that evolved in the harsh habitats of the American West. This sturdy low-growing shrub was eradicated with toxic sprays so that it could be replaced with grass which is useful to cattle farming. The planted grass proved to break down the intricate system the sagebrush survived in, and also struggled to survive itself due to the harsh Western climate. Similar to Lovelock’s personification of the Earth in his use of the Gaia hypothesis, Carson anthropomorphizes the sagebrush in her storytelling. At first, the personification of the sagebrush in Carson’s writing seems to decrease any distinction between humans and nature. In fact, nature appears to become folded into the human world and even loses some of its power to human agency as the two are joined together. However, this apparent pulling together of humans and nature is overturned by Carson’s criticism of human interference in the life of the sagebrush. Carson writes, “few seem to have asked whether grasslands are a stable and desirable goal in this region. Certainly nature’s own answer was otherwise,” where nature is not only personified, but represented as somewhat godlike in status, showing displeasure at human failings (66). Carson condemns the human decision to plant grass, and simultaneously is able to contrast it with the deific authority of nature in the situation. In the personification of nature, Carson seemingly attempts to relate nature to humans, but the division between people’s thinking and nature’s answers overwhelms any desired unification. Carson believes that nature, separate from humans, has its own logic. And, in nature’s disagreement with humans, it holds the authority not to bend with humankind's imposed destruction, but to hold its own and refrain from handing humans their desired results — vast artificial grasslands. Thus, instead of equalizing humans and nature in an ecocentric manner, Carson sets up a dynamic that raises the power of nature above humans. Ultimately, this creates a disparity between humans’ power and logic and nature’s power and logic, which weakens the essence of the ecocentric, unifying view.
In the face of this destruction, Carson challenges her readers to understand their integral role in the interconnected systems of nature, which is ultimately a call for ecocentrism. Nonetheless, Carson, like Lovelock, reveres nature throughout her book like Lovelock, though with greater subtlety of expression. Ultimately, her belief in nature’s superiority to humans weakens the unifying foundation of ecocentrism because of the inherently created separation between an entity who reveres and the entity that is revered.
In discussing poisonous spraying along roadsides, Carson further allows her reverence of nature to shine through. In her book, Carson describes several instances in which humans used deadly chemicals to prevent plant overgrowth along the edges of highways. Carson condemns this unnecessary destruction of vegetation, which she claims transforms nature’s beauty into a “sterile and hideous world” (71). In one example, Carson outlines the unexpected effects of spraying a roadside that is not often traversed, observing that some of nature’s plants and flowers are persevered. She reports, “here and there [human] authority had somehow faltered and by an unaccountable oversight there were oases of beauty in the midst of austere and regimented control […] in such places my spirit lifted” (71). Although Carson does not pinpoint how there came to be such places of unaffected brush, the faltering of human authority suggests that there is a greater authority at work — the sacred authority of nature itself. While Carson does acknowledge the power of humans in their “austere and regimented control,” the higher power of nature, which creates “oases of beauty,” cannot be fully extinguished by people. Moreover, this passage highlights Carson’s own spiritual connection with nature, as her “spirits lifted” in finding the authority of nature at work. However, this reverence does not necessarily create a unity with the individual and nature in the traditional, ecocentric sense. Instead, a beauty and power unattainable by humans distinguishes itself as an entity that humans can observe but not entirely contribute to. In essence, nature is beyond the human, which creates a conundrum for how the individual can fit in as part of nature. Like the manner in which nature controls beauty, Carson also describes nature similarly to Lovelock whose illustration of Gaia being a mother who controls her progeny. By detailing the experience of a praying mantis as it hunts in the night, Carson claims, “we begin to feel something of that relentlessly pressing force by which nature controls her own” (249). Carson evokes the internal shift in the understanding of power that a person feels when watching prey hunted. Perhaps this sentence stands as a metaphor for the Earth as the predator, or the true controlling power, and people as the prey, among all those that are commanded by nature. Thus, nature is a power both to be feared and to be respected. Instead of an equating force for humans, the reverence of nature creates a power dynamic that is not necessarily unifying. Humans no longer act as a neighbor to nature, rather are separated by fear and awe for it. Again, this estrangement threatens the idea of ecocentrism, that humans are equals of their environment.
In both Carson’s Silent Spring and Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia, it becomes clear that a quasi-religious reverence for nature causes a separation between humans and nature, weakening the unity that defines ecocentrism. Leopold’s claim that spirituality is the foundation for the unification of humans as “plain member[s]” of nature is thus called into question. But perhaps because innate tendencies displayed by humans are those of greed and power, spirituality is potentially necessary to strip people of this hunger for authority over nature. A connection with something considered divine will urge humans to be humble in the face of it. Rachel Carson understands this complexity, claiming humans must display “humility before the vast forces” of the Earth in order to diminish their inherent arrogance and equate themselves with the surrounding ecosystem (297). Therefore, while spirituality is necessary to undercut the attempt at dominance by humans and equate people to their surroundings, it is not in the true sense of the word unifying. Reverence for nature may bring people as close to nature as possible given human weaknesses and constraints, but there is still ultimately tension in the inherent separation between the revered and those who revere. Perhaps, then, a new question arises: is there a way to be ecocentric in the true sense of the word? Is it possible to equate oneself with one’s surroundings without revering nature? The answer may lie in Lovelock’s own expression of the importance of immersing people in the natural world at a young age. When a youthful innocence is present, there stands the possibility of a pure ecocentric connection with nature. And, with hope, this may be exactly the change needed for the next generation to protect our Earth.
Is it possible to equate oneself with one’s surroundings without revering nature? The answer may lie in Lovelock’s own expression of the importance of immersing people in the natural world at a young age. When a youthful innocence is present, there stands the possibility of a pure ecocentric connection with nature. And, with hope, this may be exactly the change needed for the next generation to protect our Earth.
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Benson, John. Environmental Ethics: An Introduction with Readings. Routledge, 2013. Print.
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Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press, 1966. Print.
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