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ecocentrism versus technocentrism

I had been meaning to post something about this for a while, but the results of "belief poll #2" are a call for me to post something about it now.

This time the results were all about what I would have expected except for one question. The question about whether there is value in preserving the earth's ecosystem, beyond the utility derived from it by the animals inhabiting it. This seemed like a no-brainer to me. I figured anyone who had roughly the same worldview as me would pick 0, and most people would be in the 0-2 range, with a few people disagreeing and putting something middle or high. Boy was I wrong! Of course, that's the reason I do these quizzes, to find surprises and give me more insight into who believes what and why.

Not only did the few people who I figured would pick a high score pick one, but the overall distribution was much more towards the 10 side than the 0 side. It could be that people interpreted this question differently than I intended... for instance, maybe as inferno0069 suggests, other people have a narrower definition of utility than I. But even in that case I find it surprising that people would pick what they did.

I chose this question (and the one leading up to it replacing animals with just humans) to test for anyone partial to a philosophy I was reading about on the web recently, called Deep Ecology, or more generally Ecocentrism.


I started reading up on this soon after I finished reading up on the National Socialist movement, as a continuation of my attempt to understand bizarre foreign ideas that clashed with my own. Reading up on Deep Ecology was interesting but disturbing. The main feeling I had was "oh god, so the people I thought were just straw men that conservatives like Rush Limbaugh invented to discredit environmentalism actually DO exist!" It looked (and still looks) to me like there are essentially two kinds of environmentalist... the good kind, and the bad kind.

I've never cared much about the environment and always had an instinctual dislike for things like nature, the outdoors, and animals... possibly coming from bad experiences with all of them as a kid. Not only was I allergic to animals, grass, and just about everything you can find outdoors, but I would get annoyed at my parents when they would try to pull me away from my computer and make me "go outside and play". As I grew up, I became less polarized and I began to appreciate some things about the outdoors. I enjoy a good hike or a campfire, and find the redwoods around here beautiful. But learning and growing have always been the two things I've cared about most, and it has always seemed to me that there is just not much interesting to be learned from nature, whereas there is a whole lot to be learned from technology. I enjoy a good hike now and then to take my mind off of things, but if I had to spend all the time out in nature I would probably shoot myself. I think this tendency towards technocentrism and against ecocentrism was one of the many things that attracted me so strongly to Objectivism in college and gave me a deep feeling of kindredness with Ayn Rand. Skyscrapers have always been more impressive, magestic, and beautiful to me than mountains. One is a brilliant feat of engineering and a wonder to behold, while the other is just a random pile of dirt that happened to land there. I'm not saying I don't think mountains are beautiful, I just don't think they are anywhere near as beautiful or impressive as skyscrapers, airplanes, computers, smartphones, etc. I guess they are also different kinds of beauty... the kind of beauty that nature is is just not all that exciting or interesting, it's a kind of primitive banal visceral beauty whereas technology represents a more cultured sophisticated enlightened beauty.

Sadly, I think that my natural distaste for nature made me ignore the entire environmental movement for too long. Like my father, I suspected that things like global warming were just scare tactics for people who wanted an excuse to promote the expansion of the powers of government across the globe. Only recently have I come too terms with the fact that much of the environmental movement makes a lot more sense than I'd imagined growing up. A lot of it is based on good common sense and solid scientific facts. If we continue to put too much CO_2 in the air, or continue to extinct species at the rate we're doing, we may run into big problems in future generations and our grandkids may have to spend a lot of time, effort, and money fixing things that could have been avoided by us for less effort. But despite realizing this, it seems like there still is a faction of environmentalists that I just don't get.

I feel like one's response to a question like this really betrays a lot about one's values. This seems like an issue that is so deeply embedded in my basic understanding of what life is about that it's hard for me to see Deep Ecology as anything but a joke, or a group of people who give a bad name to environmentalism. To me, the whole *point* of the earth is that it's a resource for us to *do* something with. If we're not playing with, experimenting with, and creating something better out of our environment, if we're just taking it and accepting the way it came out of the box, then I think we as a species are failing on a really basic moral level. We're not growing, we're just stagnating. In some sense, I really think it is our duty to further the acceleration of technology, to transform our environment and ourselves from dust into magic, and to build a better reality for the future. Indeed, I think if you took that away from the human species, it would take away one of the most basic points of humanity there is... arguably, there would be nothing left for us to aim for in life at all.

The problem with ecocentrism is that it places life on too equal a footing, when life is highly diverse and highly unequal. It ignores the fact that humans are the furthest along of the animals. We are not the only ones to use technology, but we are the first to have mastered it enough to transform our environment so completely and profoundly into something better. And we will do everything in our power to continue that transformation, until we design a successor species who can transform not only its environment but also its own internal world, continuously self-modifying and self-improving. The long since exponential curve of accelerating change will become superexponential, as additional levels of positive feedback kick in. Our obscure origins on the 3rd rock from an obscure ball of fire about midway out on the spiral arms of the Milky way will cease to matter at all. If it is preserved, the only value could be historical, and even then there are billions of other near identical ones that would serve as an educational tool just as well. As would a virtual simulation.

I think I take issue with the whole idea of "preserving and sustaining". As an individual, I hope that I never stop trying for long enough that I begin to stagnate and become complacent with who I currently am, sustaining in a deflating hold pattern forever after. I hope that I am always reaching for something better. But why should I hold humanity to any less standards than I hold myself to? It seems that is what the ecocentrists would like me to do.

On top of these issues, a major problem I have with them is that the Deep Ecologists believe there is intrinsic value in the earth's ecosystem. While I don't like the idea of "intrinsic value" period, if you twist my arm I will agree that it's useful to think of other sentient beings as having intrinsic value, rather than just being tools that are part of the natural resources in my environment. But of the non-human animals, very few of them could qualify as sentient, and in the plant kingdom none of them are in the slightest. So these things cannot have intrinsic value like humans (or some higher level mammals) do. They only have extrinsic value. They are a means, never an end. The Deep Ecologists simply flat out deny this--at the most fundamental level, they are confused. Not only that, but they threaten the entire environmental movement by giving anti-environmentalists something to poke fun of. The good environmentalists seek to keep people from changing the environment in ways that could be potentially harmful to future generations of humans. The bad ones sometimes literally hug trees, because they are convinced they have intrinsic value... and possibly even are under the delusion that trees are conscious.

So while I tend to get overly dramatic when I write about this stuff... I'm curious if anyone has a defense as to why they didn't pick 0 for the question about preserving the earth. Was it just that you interpreted "utility" in a pretty narrow sense, or do you in some ways actually buy into this Deep Ecology stuff?


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(no subject) - spoonless - Aug. 6th, 2009 06:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Aug. 6th, 2009 02:48 pm (UTC)
Lots of gristle in here to cut through, but your comment offered a clearer window into your perspective. On the whole, your challenge looks to me to be one of development (or lack thereof).

To me, the whole *point* of the earth is that it's a resource for us to *do* something with.

I disagree with this egocentrism on the strongest of grounds, and find the suggestion repugnant. It's the same mistaken attitude that drives profit-mad capitalists to "develop" "undeveloped" land and "put it to good use"; i.e., "nature isn't meaningful until we modify and rape it."

But of the non-human animals, very few of them could qualify as sentient, and in the plant kingdom none of them are in the slightest. So these things cannot have intrinsic value like humans (or some higher level mammals) do. They only have extrinsic value. They are a means, never an end.

Again, I choke down my disgust.

I'm not going to bother defending Deep Ecology and I'm not willing to invest much effort in disagreeing, because your prejudices run deep. "I've never cared much about the environment and always had an instinctual dislike for things like nature, the outdoors, and animals..."

As I've intoned before, you've learned much, but you have not yet become wise.
Aug. 7th, 2009 09:08 am (UTC)
In this context, I think we need to take carefully consider the "prejudices". Can we define what makes his view prejudiced? I would begin with his having a negative experience with nature. Then, can it be a prejudice to have positive experiences with nature such that one fights to see it preserved? If yes, then we either don't debate, or try to work from some unbiased logical construct.
(no subject) - ankh_f_n_khonsu - Aug. 7th, 2009 03:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - geheimnisnacht - Aug. 8th, 2009 04:35 am (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 6th, 2009 03:34 pm (UTC)
Wow dude. You're a physicist - nature is where *all* the learning comes from. Technology is just a game (we make up the rules - it's *easy* compared to understanding nature).

Also: "why preserve nature other than the utility of the animals in it"? Why should the default position be "feel free to destroy if you don't find anything "useful"? Why isn't the default moral position: "Preserve *everything* unless you can justify its 'exploitation' for the manipulating of said resources".

I mean, if we found a distant planet covered with all sorts of plant life which we were somehow able to determine fairly conclusively had no conscious thought, why is the default position "we can go in and do what we will with it", as opposed to "we should *not* interact with it in any way which causes it damage unless we are able to justify doing so"? I'm not saying that it's not acceptable for us to go in and get some resources there, but I think it requires justification (think: drilling in the ANWR in Alaska - the total positive effect on our oil supplies is not terribly high, yet the possible permanent [on the timescales of our lifetime at least] damage to the tundra [primarily the fragile flora] makes it not worthwhile, in my view. Note: this fragile arctic flora could serve basically no utility other than the mere fact of *existing* for us to learn about for the sheer joy of understanding that ecosystem, and my view on this would not change).
Aug. 6th, 2009 05:56 pm (UTC)

You're a physicist - nature is where *all* the learning comes from.

In some ways, I think I've always disliked the use of the word "nature" to refer to things like physics. It makes it sound too dirty and organic. I do recognize the more general use of nature to mean "everything in the physical world" although in many ways that's just shorthand for "everything" so it becomes a fairly meaningless term. I was using nature in a more narrow sense here though, just to mean "outdoorsy stuff".

"why preserve nature other than the utility of the animals in it"? Why should the default position be "feel free to destroy if you don't find anything "useful"? Why isn't the default moral position: "Preserve *everything* unless you can justify its 'exploitation' for the manipulating of said resources".

Wow, I just have such a hard time even seeing this point of view. It seems obvious to me that "preserve everything unlless you can justify using it" is not a sensible opinion or starting place. It comes across to me a lot like the old Jewish laws about what you can or can't eat. The burden of proof, in my opinion, is for someone to convince me that eating some specific thing in some specific way is not kosher... not for me to convince them that it's ok for me to eat whatever I want. If you can show me some harmful effect of my actions, then I'll agree to restrict my freedom a bit and not do that. But if you can't point to some specific harmful effect then you're just talking about religious superstition.
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Aug. 7th, 2009 12:33 am (UTC)
You seem to draw a pretty crisp line around the set of sentient things. I'm not so confident; it seems like the closer you look the more continuity there is between us and the rest of the world.

Vernor Vinge had a notion I liked in his Singularity essay: a kind of meta-Golden Rule, treat your evolutionary predecessors as you would be treated by your successors. (And it's getting awfully late for us to adopt it, as he also pointed out.)
Aug. 7th, 2009 06:00 am (UTC)

You seem to draw a pretty crisp line around the set of sentient things.

Not at all. I'm very opposed to people who try to draw such lines. I think it's a perfectly smooth transition between the two that goes all the way from thermostats to Nobel Prize winners... there is no one place where you can draw the line.
(no subject) - geheimnisnacht - Aug. 7th, 2009 09:18 am (UTC) - Expand
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Aug. 7th, 2009 03:09 am (UTC)
For much of history, large human effects on the outdoors have usually been negative, so it's not surprising that people have adopted rules that amount to worshiping undisturbed aspects of nature. Non-consequentialist rationalizations for important rules seem wrong to me, but they don't seem any more surprising here than in other contexts.

Animals dying due to human action get more attention than animals dying for other reasons, so it's not surprising that availability bias causes people to overweight the harm currently being done by humans to animals. And it takes a fair amount of imagination to foresee technological changes that could reduce or abolish the suffering and death that routinely happens to wild animals.

I find your aesthetic reaction to nature strange. To me, the outdoors seems like the kind of environment I'm evolved to feel at home in. Most other environments seem to sacrifice some aesthetic value to achieve other goals (such as minimizing the effort needed to get food). Maybe if there had been computers in homes when I was growing up I'd have different aesthetic senses.
Aug. 7th, 2009 03:09 am (UTC)
My life experiences have taught me that our limited awareness limits what we're aware of what else is aware, and that we have a very narrow definition of "awareness" to begin with.

Even from human being to human being, I believe that the more "aware" folks are the ones that have more capability and therefore, fairly or not (it's not even a relevant concept) have the responsibility in a sense to care for what and who is less aware. It's not even responsibility... I don't know what the word is. I think in a broad sense, this also applies with great respect to the world that we are intrinsically one with and have evolved with and from. The delusion that we are apart from nature, from our environment, is a schism that I think is incredibly harmful. I think of Gandalf (amusingly enough), who stated "Did you not know? I too am a steward."

I'm not inherently a nature-loving person. I actually don't like being in the outdoors much, and wouldn't prefer to go camping if I could help it. That said...in a time I was grieving beyond what I thought I could handle, I found myself in a forest and discovered that nature was the one thing that could hold all my grief in a way that even other human beings couldn't. Other /people/ were uncomfortable with its rawness, with rare exceptions (usually people very comfortable with nature ironically enough) and inanimate, man-made objects lost meaning - but to sit beneath a tree and walk through woods... something in me clicked. I have no other words for it, except to have learned by experience the value of something I previously did not know or would not have guessed had value. And now I love the woods, and the sounds of birds in the trees, and I hope my children get to enjoy that.
Aug. 7th, 2009 05:58 am (UTC)
Thanks for sharing.

And I should add that I have grown in my appreciation for nature. I may have made it sound like I am more unappreciative of it than I am--a lot of my dislike for it I've grown out of. If anything I included this for fairness, so that people could know that possibly my statements are biased by this predisposition--I try to include those types of things regardless of which side I'm on so that people can take anything I say with the appropriate grain of salt.

Regarding the interconnection between individual and environment, I think there are many different things people can mean by statements like that, some of which are clearly true and some of which are not. I know that buddhism incorporates some version of this--I have always wondered what in particular is meant by it in that context, but never got far enough to figure out whether they were saying something that I would agree with or not--I guess I take the optimistic view that it's the true version buddhists believe in but I don't know.
(no subject) - xleste - Aug. 7th, 2009 07:19 am (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 7th, 2009 06:10 am (UTC)
A philosophy (aesthetic?) that I'm experimenting with is: Maximize scale-invariant variety over time and space.

In other words, create a fascinating future, but phrased a little more precisely and less human-centric. The only word that isn't well defined in there is "variety", which I'm still trying to figure out. The "scale-invariant" part is to avoid creating random noise which turns into nothing at all when you zoom in or out.

Nature and evolution are fantastic at creating variety... except only very slowly, so it doesn't work so well on the time axis. I do think there is value in this natural variety simply because it is fascinating (with high confidence according to my aesthetic).

It is true that human culture can create a lot of variety much more quickly than nature/evolution, which is awesome. On the other hand, covering the planet with parking lots and chain stores actually reduces the total variety in some ways.
Aug. 8th, 2009 11:51 pm (UTC)
Scale invariance is certainly one way to avoid just high information white noise - but I suspect that the "fractals and chaos" people tend to oversell this particular feature of the types of systems they're interested in. I'm sure there's plenty of very interesting behavior that is scale-variant, just that the scale-variance is different from the "smoothing out" behavior when you zoom on white noise.
(no subject) - shaktool - Aug. 9th, 2009 05:49 am (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 8th, 2009 02:38 am (UTC)
Long Term View

I mostly believe that ...

"To me, the whole *point* of the earth is that it's a resource for us to *do* something with."

... but I think that the "us" should refer to all the people alive now, or any time in the future, even 100 or 100,000 years into the future, or further. Indefinitely. That requires a sustainable system.

Now "sustainable" probably has a lot of loaded meaning in environmentalism, but what I mean, to use a simple financial analogy, is that if you get 2% interest on your $100 in the bank, you can have $2/year forever, or you can have $3/year for less time. And doing something cool with $2 is harder than doing it with $3 or $10. But you can keep doing cool stuff longer.

If I think the world as it is now is pretty awesome, and affords tremendous opportunities, and I want to preserve an opportunity for the folks of the future to choose what to do, it seems very reasonable that I'd want to keep the variety in the world. I'd want to increase the odds that a lot of great things that are around now might still be here in X years. Going further, it's hard to decide in advance what the people in the future will wish we'd left for them, so we should leave a bunch of stuff. We should leave forests and mountains and oceans and all the crazy critters in them.

I like the world. I love the mountains, boom-de-a-dah. I love grass and bunnies, I love fire and cars. I'd love for my great-great-great ... grandchildren to get to make that choice too. So I think we balance "let's do cool stuff today" with "let's leave the world mostly as it is, so we or our great grandkids can enjoy it later, and can also have some options later" And I get more weight than some specific unknown dude in the future, but I don't get 100% weight.

And I think that turns out to be a really similar attitude, in practice, to one stemming from the belief that people today should make decisions based partly what they want, and based partly on "what's good for nature"


You brought up the idea that saving for the benefit of our future selves or our inheritors is silly, since accelerating technology will solve everything ...

"The long since exponential curve of accelerating change ... Our obscure origins on the 3rd rock from an obscure ball of fire ... will cease to matter at all."

... but I think the "live fast die young" mentality is too risky. I'm loving our technological advances but I don't know for sure that there'll be a singularity, or even a substantially different lifestyle, within my lifetime or in 1000 years. There's just one earth here, and if you think it doesn't matter if we irreparably change it because we can just go into space or into a computer, then I think you should be patient, and wait to irreparably change it until we're already in space or in a computer.
Aug. 8th, 2009 06:03 am (UTC)
Re: Long Term View
Excellent points.

You brought up the idea that saving for the benefit of our future selves or our inheritors is silly, since accelerating technology will solve everything ...

I did not mean to imply that at all.

I am in favor of sustaining and preserving the earth (for the most part), I just think we should do it for the practical benefits to humans (such as our grandchildren) rather than for the supposed "benefit" of inanimate matter as the ecocentrists believe. I can see how some of the things I wrote in this post give the impression that I was more opposed to preservation in general. It's more that I don't think preservation should be the default attitude or be considered an intrinsic good... it should only be a goal if it can be shown to be likely to increase the happiness of future generations. And I think people have done a decent job of showing that. The sad thing is that the deep ecologists undermine the whole thing by adding so nuch religious superstition to it.
Aug. 8th, 2009 11:27 pm (UTC)
I'm coming to this late, so I didn't get a chance to read all the other comments first. But I have worries about the idea of "intrinsic value" here. It seems clear that sentient beings have intrinsic value of some sort. But there's more than that - it would be a great shame if the Mona Lisa were destroyed, and I think that's the case even if all the humans have already been destroyed. I'm not quite sure why I think that. There is some value in the glove that Michael Jackson was wearing when he first performed the Moonwalk live that would not be there in a duplicate glove made to the same specifications. Something about the actual history of particular items can give them value, and something about being an interesting, complex, living system is also of value, even if there is no sentience there. I really don't know how much such value though.

It's right that we ought to change the world to make it a better place - but we shouldn't just assume that because we intend to make the world a better place, the things we make are likely to be better than the things we find. Skyscrapers are much more of an amazing tribute to the ingenuity of humans than mountains are, but there is so much that we don't understand about mountains (all the ecosystems that exist there, the chemical processes that form particular erosion patterns, some aspects of the geological processes behind them, etc.) that it seems foolish to dismiss them at this point.

I actually suspect that technology tends to be much less a source of interesting things to learn than nature - the sorts of things we know how to build are generally only the simpler sorts of systems, and not the more complex things you find in the world, like ecosystems on earth, but also weather patterns on other planets, chemical cycles, galaxy formation, and so on. Of course, studying the simpler things that we're able to produce in labs is often a better way to understand the fundamentals of what's going on.

Anyway, I think there's plenty of intrinsic value in stuff that has nothing to do with humans (i.e., it's a shame when a galaxy is destroyed, even if humans would never have seen that galaxy) but it's very hard to quantify, and hard to compare against the sorts of values that motivate us directly.

"Deep Ecology" does sound a little crazy to me though.
Aug. 9th, 2009 01:18 am (UTC)

There is some value in the glove that Michael Jackson was wearing when he first performed the Moonwalk live that would not be there in a duplicate glove made to the same specifications.

I think this type of belief is likely a type of magical thinking; it's why people carry around lucky charms and why they store the ashes of their ancestors on mantlepieces. While I engage in this type of behavior to some extent (in fact, I've started occasionally carrying around crystals to see if it can affect my moods in positive ways) I think it comes from particular psychological quirks that humans have, not from intrinsic properties of the objects themselves.

So yes, I hold onto things for "sentimental value", but I would never say that the things that have sentimental value for me have objective value independent of me. They have value because they comfort me and make me feel a certain way. The fact that different things affect different people differently should be in itself proof that this type of value--like any value--is purely subjective.

I used to believe that the only kind of "objective value" is market value, an average of what each individual in a large group is willing to pay for something. The biggest thing that changed my mind on that was actually working in science and coming face to face with the cold hard facts: it can only get funded publically, by dipping a little bit into each taxpayer's pocket. If it were up to people to privately fund, it simply would never get funded. So that created a paradox for me, on the one hand believing that scientific research has some kind of objective value... and on the other hand facing the cold hard reality that it has very little market value. I imagine the market value for philosophy is even worse. Pseudoscience has a higher market value than science, and pop philosophy has a higher market value than real philosophy. How can this be true? I realized that it was because most people make decisions based on misinformation and a flawed understanding of reality. If you average over those most well-informed, you get a totally different answer for the "objective value" of these things than you do if you average over everyone including the misinformed.

So my conclusion these days is in some ways even more extreme towards the "there is only subjective value", which has always been my basic belief. If there is a such thing as objective value, I think it would have to be defined as some kind of average over the most well-informed rational members of society in the limit they become omniscient and have all information at their disposal. However, I don't actually believe any such limit exists or is well-defined.
(no subject) - spoonless - Aug. 9th, 2009 01:28 am (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - spoonless - Aug. 11th, 2009 05:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
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