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Philosopher: How Humans See Ourselves is Literally Killing the Planet

Technology alone won’t save us from climate change. We have to fundamentally shift how we view our role on earth, says professor Brian Henning.

  • September 15, 2020
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  • Interview
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  • By Jeffrey Howard

While many of us focus our attention on developing the technologies and policies necessary to solve climate change, perhaps we don’t concentrate enough on the deeper problem—our relationship with nature. Each of us feels the sting of this pending global ecological collapse, but not enough of us allow that to transform how we relate to the environment. We ignore the signs or become fatalists.

Brian G. Henning, professor of philosophy and environmental studies at Gonzaga University, argues that the issue at hand is not whether we have technology sufficient to solve our greatest existential threat. It’s how we view our place in the world that’s the fundamental issue. We’ve internalized the wrong story about who we are. He believes that if we can become responsible members of the wider biotic community, and jettison the notion that we are its rulers, there’s a good chance we’ll have a thriving earth for many generations to come.

Admittedly, there are plenty of reasons to be grim, but Henning finds great hope in the way young people are shifting their relationship with nature. Compared to other generations, they have done less to contribute to climate change, and yet they are likely to be the ones who will experience its worsening effects. Many are taking hold of the plethora of opportunities available to act—on both the local and larger systemic levels. To really galvanize our neighbors and communities, he believes we need to recalibrate our philosophical foundations.

Whether we realize it or not, these first principles animate the degree to which each of us acknowledges the precariousness of our situation.

In an effort to challenge the narratives we’ve been telling ourselves for millennia, Henning travels Washington presenting a talk titled, “Heating Up: The Ethics of Climate Change,” which is based on his 2015 book Riders in the Storm: Ethics in an Age of Climate Change. He believes we have the ability to reverse course, but the key to actually achieving that will require a lot more humility and deeper reflection on the moral beliefs that anchor our worldviews.

This interview has been edited for brevity and style.

Jeffrey Howard: You focus on how shifting our relationship with nature is central to reversing climate change. The United States—as with many developed, Western, democratic countries—has a protracted history of people trying to control or tame the earth. For a long time, many of us have seen ourselves as masters of nature or least have aspired toward having dominion over it. What are some of the historical and philosophical roots of this mentality?

Brian Henning: The historical and philosophical roots of the ecological crisis run deep. The historian Lynn White Jr. famously argued in 1967 that the destructive attitude of humans toward nature can be traced back thousands of years to the book of Genesis in the Bible. He contends that Western Christianity misinterpreted “dominion” to entail domination instead of stewardship and that this created the intellectual conditions for the arrogant misuse of nature.

Others trace the philosophical roots of the ecological crisis back some four hundred years to the start of the modern era in Europe (circa 1600). According to early modern thinkers such as Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon, we humans are not a part or product of nature. Rather, they believed that humans are the sole thinking being in an otherwise clockwork universe. Nature, on such a view, is merely a vast machine and we are its masters and engineers who can bend it to our will without limit. What both of these accounts have in common is that, rather than seeing humans as an integral part of an interdependent and evolving planet, much of Western thought has depicted humans as fundamentally separate from nature and even contemptuous of it.

What are some philosophical or cultural traditions that you think exemplify the type of relationship with nature that more of us ought to strive for?

The cultural historian Thomas Berry contends that the old stories depicting what humans are and how they are related to nature are breaking down. Most people no longer see nature as a vacuous, valueless machine or believe that humans are the sole thinking, feeling being in the world. What is still lacking, Berry notes, is a robust alternative story or narrative depicting what humans are and how we ought to see our relationship to nature.

If we are not the lords, masters, or engineers of nature, then what are we?

The great American conservationist Aldo Leopold contends that the next stage in human ethical evolution is developing the ability to see that we are members of what he calls the “biotic community.” We should, Leopold suggests, stop seeing ourselves as conquerors and instead seek to become citizens of the wider biotic community. This next stage of human ethical evolution is “an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity.” This task is what Berry calls the “great work” of the current generation and the next: to transition the human-nature relationship from one of arrogance and blind devastation to one of mutual benefit. That is, the great work before us is to conceive and realize a form of genuine human flourishing within a flourishing world.

Rather than seeing humans as an integral part of an interdependent and evolving planet, much of Western thought has depicted humans as fundamentally separate from nature and even contemptuous of it.

How would you describe your relationship with the natural world? Do you align more with a transcendentalist view, akin to that of Ralph Waldo Emerson—the outdoors as a “natural cathedral”? Or, do you more closely resonate with that of a concerned scientist well aware that humanity— alongside many other species—will no longer exist if we fail to change course?

I tend to identify with both Leopold and Berry. The task is to become a responsible member of the wider biotic community of which we are a part and on which we depend. This is not a “back to nature” project that romanticizes or fetishizes nature. The question is: How do we live well in our places as an integral part of a larger whole?

Are there any other writers and thinkers that have significantly helped shape your view of nature? 

My work is heavily influenced by that of the British mathematician-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947). Whitehead developed what he called the “philosophy of organism.” One of its central insights is that, at its most basic level, reality is defined by interdependence. To exist is to be in interdependent relation. Nothing is truly unrelated or valueless. This organic view of reality heavily influences my work and thought.

Which type of messaging or storytelling about the global ecological crisis do you find to be the least effective at inspiring action? Which types of arguments do you think are counter-productive when it comes to convincing others of the urgency surrounding climate change?

Over the last two years, I’ve become involved with the Spokane Community Adaptation Project and Spokane City Council’s Sustainability Action Subcommittee. One of the primary goals of these two groups is to help citizens in our region better imagine some of the consequences of climate change in this century. We have enjoyed going out into the community to speak with our neighbors about the importance of making clear plans to mitigate our contributions to climate change and prepare our community to adapt to the increasingly hostile climate we are creating.

It can be quite powerful to shrink a global problem like climate change down to a size that connects local concerns such as how changes in snowpack might affect winter recreation and the health of our rivers or how extreme heat might affect large annual events important to our community, such as the Bloomsday marathon or Hoopfest competition.

What are some particular technologies, community organizations, or projects currently underway that give you a lot of reasons to be optimistic regarding humanity’s ability to address the ecological crisis?

Although we need rapidly to decarbonize our energy and transportation systems, the challenge of global climate change is not ultimately a technological problem, nor is it the sort of problem that can be solved solely through individual changes in habits. Ultimately, global climate change is not the problem; it is a symptom of a deeper one that concerns how humans see themselves and their relationship to the wider natural world.

Climate change is also what sociologists call a “collective action” problem. It has to be addressed at the systemic level. It is partly because of this realization that three years ago I helped to found a local branch of the international climate justice organization Through 350 Spokane I work with my neighbors to bring about a just transition to a more sustainable future that works for all, both human and non-human alike. I find this community organizing work to be a great source of meaning and optimism in an otherwise dark time.

It is also a great source of inspiration to work with young people at Gonzaga University where I teach. Although young people today have had little hand in creating the global ecological crisis, they face it with admirable courage and dedication.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeffrey Howard is the founder and editor of Erraticus, an online publication focused on human flourishing. He is also the host of the Damn the Absolute! podcast.


Brian G. Henning is presenting his free Speakers Bureau talk, “Heating Up: The Ethics of Climate Change,” as part of Humanities Washington’s Speakers Bureau. Find his next event on our calendar.


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