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Humanism, Anti-humanism, “Poly-speciesism” and “Pan-speciesism”: Who is central to a sustainable world? December 18, 2006

Posted by Michael Hoexter in Green Activism, Sustainable Thinking.

[This is another installment of my series on some basic issues in sustainability.]

Over the years, the environmental movement has collected distinct groups of people under its umbrella, who share different preferences and philosophies as well as goals for the future.  As sustainability becomes a concern for the broader society, the diversity of perspectives on what should be our future will only grow.   Before it all gets too complicated and disagreements become too profound, it might help to create a conceptual “map” of what have been some manifest and underlying tendencies around some of the basic issues. 

One of the subtle but profound issues in thinking around sustainability has to do with who is the “subject” of sustainability.  “Subject” in this discussion is a fancy use of the word from philosophy meaning “central character”, “bearer of consciousness”, “knower”, or “protagonist”.  Another way to put this is that every major strain within ecological thought has implicit ideas about who and what is at the center of a sustainable future.  It is rare that people discuss this explicitly, so perhaps this post will contribute to a positive discussion of this potentially controversial issue.


Humanism is a tradition that goes back to the Renaissance at least and has been a major philosophical and cultural movement that, in general, has opposed the rule of organized religion over society.  In the millennium before the Renaissance, in the West, most public discourse was dominated by religious thought and religious conflicts.  Humanism has allowed the growth of among other things, scientific thinking and championed rationality over irrationalism.

In the sense I am using humanism, it also means that human beings are made the center of the natural order.  Other aspects of nature are either ignored or are viewed primarily as instruments to the fulfillment of human desires.  Humanism is broad enough and flexible enough to allow for human concern for the fate of non-human nature but this becomes an “additional concern” among many competing issues.  If ecological issues are paramount or particularly pressing, a humanist view is not going to yield much in the way of new insight though it may “go along for the ride”.


Humanity’s disregard for the effects of human activity on the natural environment has prepared the ground for anti-humanist strains within parts of the environmental movement.  Most notable are strains of disdain and disgust for crass commericialism and wastefulness generalized to most human beings and notable preferences among some active environmentalists for landscapes relatively untouched by humanity.  Earth First and neo-primitivist strains within political and cultural movements related to ecology are the most explicit expression of anti-humanist strains.  The purity or righteousness of natural processes is contrasted with the ugliness and waste of human society.  Though not explicitly environmentalist in nature, some animal rights groups have a similar anti-humanist strain to them.  While proponents of these views might take issue with the “anti-humanist” label, it is my suggestion that there is a fundamental sympathy with the non-human world that leads to a focus on human destructiveness to the exclusion of other human traits.

More fundamental and ultimately more important are the potential for strains of anti-humanism within discussions of population control and growth.  While potentially quite divisive, the sustainability movement will ultimately have to have something intelligent to say about human population and control of fertility.  While this is not necessarily “anti-human”, to contradict the instinct to procreate goes against eons of evolution and the naked imperatives of biology.  Arguments for population control have often been couched in terms of human welfare but increasingly we will see that planetary and ecology welfare will be added as an additional factor. 

Ultimately the opposition between humanity and non-human nature is I believe an unproductive dichotomy, a sterile argument that denies the commonalities and continuities between humans and non-human nature.  Below I will suggest some new terms to describe who we are discussing whom we imagine will inhabit a future sustainable world.

Humanism and anti-humanism are also non-realistic, idealized ways of looking at the human relationship with nature.  We have to introduce other species into the mix, not just the opposition “human” versus “non-human” and then choose sides.


Realistically, human beings will only survive in coordination with other species…we cannot be an island unto ourselves.   We are ourselves animals and have numerous dependencies on a set of species with which we have co-evolved as well as the larger web of life.  It has taken the environmental movement and ecological thinking to re-introduce this concept into a modern Western conceptual system.  Various tribal systems of thought and belief included representation of some of the most important co-evolved species in their mythologies.  The mythic acknowledgement of the importance of specific non-human species was lost in those whose worldview was dominated either by one of the major monotheistic religions or by pre-ecological Western science.

Polyspeciesism is however a very broad tent as there are millions of species of living things in the world as well as a vast number of varieties of non-living parasites (viruses).  Here is a sampler of how to sub-classify Polyspeciesism:

  • Narrow polyspeciesism:  here human beings conceive of themselves and the world as being part of a narrow set of related animals.  Most popular and folk (i.e. traditional pre-scientific) conceptions of how the natural world works would fit into this category.  Here we have, for instance, people, cows, horses, pigs, wolves, bears, mice, flies, bees, ants, dogs and cats as making up one set of species about which people can relate to or care about.  In different areas of the world and environments, one would typically find different sets of species being recognized within the recognized group of species.  Narrow polyspeciesism is not necessarily ecological in the modern scientific sense nor in the traditional folk sense.  Generally, though, an accommodation of the needs of a wider set of species make narrow polyspeciesism an attitude more amenable to sustainability
  • Broad human-centered polyspeciesism:  The assumptions underlying much scientifically informed thinking about sustainability place humans at the center of nature as at least the most powerful manipulators of, if not necessarily the prime benefactors of natural processes.  What makes this polyspeciesism and not “panspeciesism” is the exclusion of certain human pathogens and disruptive species from the circle of species with full “rights”.  In other words, broad polyspeciesism assumes that humans can try to exterminate viruses and bacteria that threaten them or how they conceive of the welfare of ecosystems that could support human life.  Otherwise, in broad polyspeciesism, there is assumed to be an intricate web of life which can only carefully be altered for human benefit.  Human benefit is thought to depend on the health of a broad spectrum of species.  The concept of endangered species and ecosystems and their protection, is best supported by a broad polyspeciesism.


An absolutist view of ecological sustainability would suggest that ALL species are at the center of a sustainable world, that we humans are unable to select wisely among species of living things.  In practice, however, it is a stern mental discipline if not a practical impossibility for humans to appreciate their natural foes especially among diseases and parasites for humans and their domesticated plants and animals. True panspeciesists would be fatalistic with regard to human welfare and longevity as they see a valuable function for the microscopic foes that we spend an inordinate amount of resources in controlling and potentially eradicating.  Earth First might have been a panspeciesist organization and has had an accordingly small following.

It is difficult to find people who oppose placing ourselves in a privileged position with regard to non-human nature.  It is more likely that someone will be indifferent to OTHER people’s fates and declare that such and such a disease is a plague for perceived bad behavior.  The same people will most likely not be indifferent to the their own or the prospect of the suffering of those they hold to be virtuous or innocent. 

A Multi-species “Big Tent” 

Whatever the fundamental assumptions and views of a given political program or philosophy of sustainability (humanist, polyspeciesist, panspeciesist), ecological thought opens the possibility that the center or subject of a future sustainable world is a collection of species or an entire web of species that co-evolve.  The currently unfashionable term “co-evolution” is fundamental to all visions of sustainability.  The relative position of humans in this web or grouping of species is a matter of dispute between different views of ecology.   It is pretty safe to say given that we are human and that we are an extremely influential species, that our placement is pretty central to working in either a destructive or creative/conservative way with regard to natural processes and systems.  As stated earlier, a “both/and” dynamic with regard to human and other species interactions rather than an explicit or implicit “either/or” dynamic seems to be both the most realistic and productive way forward.



1. Home Improvement List - August 17, 2007

Thanks for sharing this information. Really is pack with new knowledge. Keep them coming.

2. KU - May 19, 2015

This will be helpful to find out meaning of any word.

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