Was asked last year to write 750 words on humanists and environmentalism for Green World last year. I don’t know whether it didn’t fit in with the ‘multi faith’ issue they commissioned it for, or if they just forgot to send me the issue it was in, but I never saw it published. Anyway, have just found it clearing out my desktop:
Throughout recorded history there have been non-religious people who have believed that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side and that this life is the only life we have. They have trusted to the scientific method, evidence and reason to discover truths about the universe and placed human welfare and happiness at the centre of their ethical decision-making. Today, people who share these beliefs and values are called humanists and this combination of attitudes is called Humanism.
Witnessing our depletion of natural resources, including the limited supply of fossil fuels, our over-fishing, deforestation, and the harmful effects of climate change and pollution, no one who trusts to reason and science in seeking to discover what is true could doubt that humanity is set on an unsustainable course. Equally, anyone who places human welfare and happiness at the centre of their ethical decision-making has to recognise that all our decisions are now made within this fragile global context.
Many humanists will say that they care about the natural world because of their concern for the human beings it sustains, including the future generations of human beings that we want it to sustain. Others will point out that the focus of our ethical concern need not be so far-distant in time. The manmade effects of climate change bring devastation to human beings now. The fact that they are living mostly in poorer countries where individual lives are less insulated from the ravages of nature and suffering because of the unsustainable actions of other human beings in richer and more powerful countries is immoral to anyone who aims for the reduction of harm to people and the increase of their happiness. There is a clear moral imperative to address it.
For many humanists these ethical motives are augmented by love of the great beauty that we find in the natural world – the awe and wonder we feel when confronted with its dazzling diversity, the splendour of the rainforest, the contemplation of the deep ocean teeming with life. However, humanists are unlikely to subscribe to so-called ‘deep green’ beliefs about the intrinsic value, or even superiority, of non-human nature, or to be sentimental about sweet or fluffy animals: rain forests and plankton and dung beetles are more relevant than pandas and tigers and giraffes to the survival of life on this planet. Nonetheless, we would probably be less happy if pandas and tigers and giraffes no longer existed. ‘Because I want my grandchildren to be able to see elephants,’ said the humanist Professor Sir Hermann Bondi, when asked why he cared about conservation, and this is a plausible motive for care of the earth to many humanists.
Humanists have a scientific view of the world, and would not automatically blame science and technology for environmental problems. Indeed, it was and is scientists – biologists and ecologists – who notice and monitor environmental problems. Societies (and that means us) must take the responsibility for how we choose to use scientific and technological developments. Cleaning up our planet and finding new sources of energy will be tasks for scientists and engineers, and the rest of us (especially those of us in the wealthier nations) must be prepared to fund their work.
‘God created the world and God will take out the world when it suits him. That’s all you need to know about climate change,’ said Fred Upton, Chair of the US Commission on Energy and Commerce. In contrast to this fatal fatalism, humanists have no belief in a divine man with a plan who will solve our problems for us and we know that human beings must take sole responsibility for sorting them out. If you do not believe in any life to come where wrongs will be righted and eternal bliss guaranteed, you have to accept that responsibility for making a better world in the future lies in our own hands. We will decide whether humanity lives as long as possible or dies sooner than it must. This is a terrible responsibility but the humanist response is to accept it as the inevitable reality and try our best to deal with it in the here and now.
We are the only ones capable of finding the solutions that can lead to a sustainable existence.
Thankfully, unlike the doomed residents of Easter Island, we have the ability with the help of contemporary science to take the actions that may save us, if we have the will to do it. Acknowledgement of the human suffering being caused in the here and now, the future human suffering that will come from our unsustainable path, and the degradation of a great source of beauty and inspiration, unique in our solar system and without doubt the only home we will ever know, can help inspire us to have that will.